Thursday, October 04, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

And so the long winter evenings continued to fly by.



Surely you aren't saying that unless I've studied leprachology to the same advanced level as you obviously have I'm not allowed to talk about what I saw at the bottom of my own garden? Thank you also for pointing out all my jokes for the benefit of anyone who might have missed them.

I have in front of me the volume 1 of the SPCK "Documents of the Christian Church."

Document 282 is by one "Alexander of Alexandria". Nice to know the tradition of theologians having silly names goes back as far as the fourth century: I think Herman the German is nicer.

Alexander says that various heretics, including Arius, assert that:

"God was not always a father, but there was when he was not a father; the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing, for that the ever-existing god has made him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent. Wherefore "there was when he was not" inasmuch as according to their philosophy "the Son is a creature and a work; he is neither like the Father in essence, nor is by nature either the Father's true Word or his true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and his creatures, being by a misuse of language called Word and Wisdom since he came into being by God's own Word the Wisdom which is in God, wherefore God made all things an him also. Wherefore "He is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of chance, as all other rational things are: hence the Word is alien to, foreign to, and excluded from the essence of God: and the Father is invisible to the Son, for neither does the Son perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he perfectly behold him....Some one accordingly asked them whether the Word of God could be changed, as the devil has been, and the feared not to say "Yes: he certainly could, for being begotten and created, his nature his susceptible of change."

That was what I understood "Arianism" to mean. That is also roughly what I understand the Jehovah's Witnesses to believe. I think that they explicitly claim that there were two Words of God, one of whom, Lucifer, did in fact turn to the Dark Side. But on that point I may have them confused with the Worldwide Church of God, who are neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. I must admit that I don't know anything about Christedelphians, although one did once accuse me of being the Antichrist.

Text 283 in the same book is a letter from Arius to Eusebius (a Bishop). Arius seems to claim that his only point of disagreement with the rest of the church is that he denies that that the Son has always existed: they say "God has always been and the Son has always been; Father and Son exist together."; where he says that

God (i.e God the Father) has existence without beginning prior to his Son...he was not, before he was begotten, or created, or purposed or established...We are persecuted because we say "The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning...This is really the cause of our persecution; and, likewise, because we say that he is from nothing.

He seems to specifically deny that he thinks that this means that the Son is subject to change.

So: your point is that the name Arianism was incorrectly attached by Alexander to a theological position that Arius himself never held? That, contrary to what Alexander accused him of, he didn't mean to deny that Jesus was God, but merely to make a technical (though, on his view, significant) point about whether God has "always" been Father, Son and Holy Spirit or whether the Second and Third persons were brought into existence after the First? And that therefore the issue of consubstantiality is less substantial than I thought it was?

Would this mean that Arius was being blamed for other people's more extreme theological claims? Or simply that Alexander was presenting an unfair caricature of the group, and that in fact, no-one ever believed the kind of things which Alexander is talking about? Entertainingly, that would mean that the Jehovah's Witnesses had revived an ancient heresy that no-one believed in in the first place. Which is fair enough: people are reviving non-existent ancient orthodoxies all the time.

I can see that the distinction between "begotten in time" and "begotten from eternity" might be seen as quite a small theological point; and from the texts I have in front of me, I get the impression that Arius can't quite see what all the fuss is about. Eusebius (not the Bishop, but the historian -- damn these pesky leprechauns) and the poet Milton both believed that Christ was "begotten in time" – but they regarded themselves as Christian. And, so far as I can see, they regarded people who didn't believe that as Christians, and people who didn't believe that regarded them as Christians. Eusebius practically regarded Constantine as a second Christ, which is strange considering that we know from Dan Brown that it was Constantine who invented the idea of the Trinity to begin with. (That was one of those joke things I do from time to time.)

So: I may be incorrect in saying that the beliefs of Arius as opposed to those people, if any, who held the beliefs attributed to Arius by Alexander were of a radically different character to those of what became Christian orthodoxy. But I am still no closer to understanding what Dawkins had in mind when he said that Arius's claims about "consubstantiality" were a claims about "very little" and where he thought it fitted in to his overall argument.

A decent lepracologist might have written something like:

"The arguments about the nature of God became so complex that when Arius made a small, technical claim about whether or not God the Son had existed from the beginning of time; he was accused of denying his Divinity, and saying that he was subject to change and could theoretically have fallen, like Satan. Arius insisted that he had said no such thing, but this didn't stop him being kicked out of the church, although there is some evidence that he was readmitted towards the end of his life. This is the trouble with trying to tie down the nature of a hypothetical being whose existence you can't prove either way: you can't even agree about what you disagree about it, and an awful lot of time, energy and in some case, blood is wasted on all sides."

Is this the kind of argument that you think that Dawkins has in mind? Is he using "very little" to stand in for it, – just as, on my view, he uses "really" to stand in for a complicated argument about the meaning of the Ten Commandments and their relationship to the Talmud; and "abetted" to stand in for a complex example about the dating and composition of the Gospels? I think that's an unhelpful way of proceeding.

I am personally still inclined to think that Dawkins had no argument in mind. He was merely making the kind of "aren't Christians silly" noises that he thought would soften up an already sympathetic audience. There is nothing terribly wrong with this kind of rhetorical gesture. If I wanted to make out a case against feminism, or health and safety regulations, or Government health service reforms, I might very well read out some absurdly jargon laden document in a silly voice and encourage the audience to laugh at it. It would not be at all to the point for Germain Greer to come along afterwards and explain that, if only I'd read some Lacan, the passage in question was perfectly explicable and actually made some good points. I wasn't really saying "Feminist writing is obscure, therefore feminism is untrue". I was saying "Ha-ha, aren't we all good common sense bluff chaps here, and don't we all know what kind of thing happens when you let laidees try to do the thinking for themselves, bless their little hearts...."

If the entire speech consisted of nothing but knockabout of this kind, you I might think that the speaker didn't really have any substantive points to make.

There was a two page article in the Grauniad yesterday by someone who I assume I should have heard of. predicated on the premise that "It is shameful to listen to Bob Dylan records" and "It is absurd to think that Bob Dylan writes good songs." The article was quite funny; but there was not one single word to suggest what the writer though Dylan's weaknesses were: or, indeed, anything else.

I see the point about "contact with reality", but I don't know what kind of answer would satisfy you. The "reality" which is claimed to be behind religious doctrine is presumably, "mystical experience" and "divine revelation". Put another way "We think we know certain things about God because we think that certain people know how to get in touch with him." Or, on the third hand: "The doctrinal statements are agreed formulas which take into account what Jesus taught about himself; what his direct followers taught about him; and what holy people who have been in touch with him have taught subsequently."

Before anyone says so, this is clearly a circular process: doctrine was shaped by Scripture, but then what constituted Scripture, and who was regarded as "a holy person" was partly defined by doctrine. Would it help at all if I said "organic" and waved my hands around?

Presumably a doctrine might be rejected because it contradicts other doctrines: you might say "We are agreed that God came to the disciples at Pentecost; therefore, a doctrine which says that the Spirit is not God has to be rejected", but that, obviously, only creates a teaching which is more or less consistent: not necessarily true.

Could you accept that some doctrines make a difference at a "spiritual" level? I don't like using the word "spiritual" very much: I mean "at the level of the subjective and emotional life of the actual man in the actual pew?" I would certainly concede that some doctrines don't make any difference at that level: it doesn't really make any difference to anyone's inner life whether the Third Person of the Trinity proceeded from the First and Second Persons of the Trinity or from the First alone. Could you understand that the story of Jesus-crucified-and-risen-again has an emotional effect on me and that I believe that effect to be meaningful; and that the emotional effect of a story in which Jesus was not "god in human form" but just "some guy" (as the liberals say) or "just some supernatural guy, albeit a very important one" as the Arians, if not Arius, say would be quite different?

My understanding is that "ousia" means literally "being"; "homo-ousia" is therefore "same being"(cf "homo-sexual" same sex.) "Physis" means "nature". The Chalcedonian creed, which is I believe still officially church doctrine, says that the human Jesus didn't have the Son of God instead of a soul -- in which case he'd have been a sort of divine zombie. And he didn't have the Son of God as well as a soul -- a sort of schizophrenic Christ of the kind envisaged by my old friend the Rev. Steve Winter. It says that the Son of God was amalgamated with a human being (consisting of both a body and a soul) to such a degree that both "He is a man" and "He is a God" are true of him. The Nicene creed says that the Son of God is of one being with the Father; The Chalcedonian creed says that in the earthly Jesus two natures one human and one divine were combined. I don't know whether it would have made a difference to say that the Son of God had the same nature as God but that two beings were combined in Jesus. Nor, as a matter of fact, do I particularly care. But if you know a bit of background or take the time to pull some books down from the shelf, it isn't too hard to work out what was being talked about; and what was being talked about was not, I think, nothing. If you and I can do it I don't see why Dawkins shouldn't have to.


  1. Of course I'm not saying that unless you've studied advanced leprachology you aren't allowed to talk about what you've seen at the bottom of your garden; and in fact I'm pretty sure you know more leprachology than I do.

    I pointed out exactly one joke, because I thought it was particularly funny. I'm sorry if my doing so caused offence; I shall refrain from doing so this time around whatever the provocation. I'm suitably grateful that you've spared me some of that provocation by pointing out one of your own jokes.

    You surely didn't actually think that Arius said that the Son wasn't "*like* the Father in essence"? (Mumble homoiousion burble.) Incidentally, I think the letter to Eusebius that you quote is the same one I also quoted. (Not very surprising; IIRC there's really not a lot of Arius's own writing around any more.)

    I really don't know how extreme Arius's theological claims were. It wouldn't be very surprising if he played them down a bit when writing to a senior member of the other faction to plead for tolerance. But it seems far from clear that you're right to say that an Arian religion would have to be something entirely unlike Christianity as we know it. Which I think weakens your case against Dawkins on this point.

    I am indeed suggesting that Dawkins might have had something a bit like your decent leprachologist's argument in mind. I share some of your skepticism on that point; may I suggest that perhaps what Dawkins had in his mind was some verbal formulae (along the lines of "whenever anyone says anything comprehensible about the Trinity, the Church declares it a heresy") and some fuzzy and doubtfully coherent mental models, along with a vague feeling that something's terribly wrong with Christian theology at this point?

    Perhaps using terms like "very little" and "really" and "abetted" to stand in for things that could be said more fairly and precisely at much greater length is "unhelpful". On the other hand, perhaps doing all those things as fairly and precisely as possible would have doubled the length of Dawkins's book and halved its readership, and probably resulted in its not calling forth such great tranches of Rilstonian wit. Swashbuckling imprecision has its place. It's neither altogether fair nor very precise to suggest that Christians might argue "Dawkins is a tosser. Therefore God exists", after all.

    Yes, if someone engages in nothing but swashbuckling imprecision then it's reasonable to suspect that they have no good points to make. It doesn't seem to me that Dawkins is guilty of that.

    I agree (of course) that a doctrine can make a difference subjectively and emotionally, and (unless I'm fooling myself) I think I have a pretty good idea of what subjective and emotional difference you find between "God was on the cross" and "Some other being associated with God somehow was on the cross". I suspect, but can't prove, that it's easy to overestimate these differences. After all, even for an orthodox Christian, there's a distinction of sorts between "Jesus" and "God", and saying "God was on the cross" is a bit of a simplification, but clearly that doesn't stop it (please pardon my crudity of expression) "working" for you; I suspect that at least some Arians, even ones a bit more extreme than Arius himself, might feel similarly somehow. They could, e.g., say things like "In some mysterious way beyond human comprehension, God *identified* himself with Jesus in his suffering and death" or "I'm special because God has loved me, for he gave the best thing that he had to save me". (Er, excuse me, the latter is in fact from a nauseating children's song written by a supposedly orthodox Christian. Which perhaps makes my point for me.)

    I think you're right about the shades of distinction between ousia and physis. Whether there's much more than word-pushing going on there, I'm not sure. I know that I don't have much in the way of a clear idea of what it means for the Son of God to be amalgamated with a human being (consisting of both body and soul) to such a degree that "He is a man" and "He is God" are both true of him.

  2. Incidentally, and slightly off topic, I've only just noticed that someone called Neil asked me a question about a week ago in the comments to an earlier post about Dawkins. Neil, if you're reading this: (1) sorry that I didn't notice earlier, (2) no, that wasn't my argument at all, and (3) I have two guesses for who you might be, and hi in either case.

  3. I think what Dawkins is getting at is simply this. These distinctions about the detailed interior workings of the Trinity, are both complex, and without any visible foundation whatsoever. There is no way to chose between them, except by revelation/faith, or cultural guidance, both of which amount to being told what to think either by 'inward conviction' or by ones peers, who over time, widely disagree. The distinctions are meaningless because there are no consequences in terms of God acting differently that we could possibly see that would verify any of them.

    Simon Bucher-Jones

  4. I don't know whether it's what Dawkins is trying to say, but it's certainly one of the things I've been trying to say.

    Andrew, against this, has argued (I think) that actually it does make a difference; that, for instance, a god who cares enough about his people to die *himself* for them is an entirely different matter from one who sends a senior customer services representative.

    It seems to me that this is pretty doubtful, and if memory serves I mentioned why in my previous overlong comment. One thing I didn't say there is that if there is such a difference then, while it may add to the *appeal* of orthodox Christianity over (something that we might as well call) Arianism, it lessens its *plausibility*: the problem of pain / argument from evil is all about the fact that the world doesn't, in fact, look much as we'd expect it to if the management loved us enough to die for us. But that's a side issue; Dawkins isn't much interested in the argument from evil, because he thinks he has very strong evidence that there are no gods at all, not merely that there are no supremely good and loving ones.

  5. Er, except that I wouldn't go so far as to say "meaningless". I think something can have "meaning" in a not-entirely-useless sense even if it makes scarcely any contact with the observable world. For instance, at least some questions about fictional worlds seem to me to be meaningful even if they're completely unanswerable; and pure mathematics is, depending on how you look at it, either pure symbol-pushing or "true in every possible world", but I'd be reluctant to call it meaningless.

  6. But knowing that a God of type A (will die Himself) differs from a type B (will send a messenger to die symbolically), is no help in deciding whether A or B exists, or if either is predicated by the observable world. Both A and B have supporters, and proclaimers, but the distinction while it must presumably assist in the Faith of an A or B follower does not assist unbelief.

  7. Apologies I'm not laying claim to own this site, but 'site owner' appears because I have a website of my own.

    Simon Bucher-Jones

  8. Although you began with "But", I don't think I see any disagreement here. Yes, the distinction is very short on observable consequences. (And, as I say, such as there are don't seem to me to be in favour of Christian orthodoxy.)

  9. The Trinity

    God found out about the Trinity in 325 A.D.
    — Dr. Rocco Errico

    Christ, according to the faith, is the second person in the Trinity, the Father being the first and the Holy Ghost the third. Each of these three persons is God. Christ is his own father and his own son. The Holy Ghost is neither father nor son, but both. The son was begotten by the father, but existed before he was begotten - just the same before as after. Christ is just as old as his father, and the father is just as young as his son. The Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and Son, but was equal to the Father and Son before he proceeded, that is to say, before he existed, but he is of the same age of the other two.

    So, it is declared that the Father is God, and the Son God and the Holy Ghost God, and that these three Gods make one God.

    According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three times one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. The addi¬tion is equally peculiar, if we add two to one we have but one. Each one is equal to himself and the other two. Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity.

    Is it possible for a human being, who has been born but once, to comprehend, or to imagine the existence of three beings, each of whom is equal to the three?

    Think of one of these beings as the father of one, and think of that one as half human and all God, and think of the third as having proceeded from the other two, and then think of all three as one. Think that after the father begot the son, the father was still alone, and after the Holy Ghost proceeded from the father and the son, the father was still alone - because there never was and never will be but one God.

    At this point, absurdity having reached its limit, nothing more can be said except: "Let us pray."

    By Robert Green Ingersoll from his book, The Foundations of Faith, 1895, from the Dresden Edition of his works, vol. 4, pp. 266-8.

    Richard Misson

  10. Well I can think of 10 people who are 1. The Doctor.

    That the Doctor does not exist is not proven by 1 <> 10.

    Ingersoll has made a simple category mistake.

    Simon BJ

  11. I don't have the time or patience to respond to everything you have said about Dawkins and his book, so I am going to specifically respond to your "What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion" line from a previous post.

    Atheists hear this all the time. The claim is usually deployed as a smokescreen when the believer's religion or God has been exposed as silly, pernicious, or both. It is designed to give the believer license to dismiss the atheist's argument with one grand wave of the hand. It also intends to deflect attention from the fact that either (a) the believer's religion/God has, in fact, been fairly, if unflatteringly, represented; (b) the believer's religion/God is slightly different, but not a whole lot less silly and/or pernicious; or (c) the believer's religion/God is so vague as to have little or no concrete content.

    If you identify as a Christian, you are not free to define your own God. Your God has already been defined by the Bible, and this is the God to which Dawkins and other atheists refer. If you insist on redefining God, then at least be intellectually honest enough to stop calling yourself a Christian; stop attending church; and admit that no scripture, and probably very few people, support your position.

  12. I don't have the time or patience to respond to everything you have said about Dawkins and his book...

    "Nobody asked you to, Sir she said, Sir she said, Sir she said."

    so I am going to specifically respond to your "What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion" line from a previous post.

    Atheists hear this all the time.

    If they hear it all the time, then I see three possibilities

    1: They hear it all the time because it's true: they really are attacking theists without really understanding theism.

    2: They hear it all the time, but it isn't true. Theists say that the God which untheists attack isn't their God, but in fact it is. Corollary: Theists are intellectually dishonest.

    3: A bit of both.

    I know that Dawkins doesn't think it is necessary to study Christianity in order to critique Christianity, but I think that probably you should study my essay before critiquing my essay. For one thing, it is much shorter. I said very specifically that I thought that Dawkins was WRONG to say that Christians thought that God was an invisible man in the sky, and WRONG to say that he was a creationist micromanager, but RIGHT to say that he was something like a child's "imaginary friend".

    When he says that I believe in an invisible man in the sky or a creationist micro-manager, I find myself hurling the book across the coffee shop and saying 'What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion. Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.' But when he gets to the description of the 'imaginary friend' I have to admit that I said 'Yes. Danged if it isn't a bit like that.'

    You are, of course, welcome to prove that in fact I am lying and I do believe in an invisible man in the sky, or in fact "a Christian who doesn't believe in an invisible man in the sky isn't really a Christian". But accusing me of deploying a smokescreen, giving myself a license to dismiss your arguments without thinking about them, having beliefs so vague as to be not worth talking about, killing puppies and being worse than a child molester is not really terribly helpful.

    I did spend upwards of 10,000 words in a fairly close and detailed critique of Dawkins book, which surely ammounts to something more substantial than "one grand wave of the hand". ("I read your essay but I don't have time to respond to it" sounds a lot more hand-wavey to me.)

    If you identify as a Christian, you are not free to define your own God. Your God has already been defined by the Bible, and this is the God to which Dawkins and other atheists refer.

    I honestly can't believe you said that.

    If you choose to set the terms of the debate such that, "God" means God as "defined" in the Bible then I am perfectly happy to say that I do not believe in God.

    The problem is that this definition would be accepted by only one, relatively small sub-section of Protestant Christianity, the so called "fundamentalists" who (granted) have disproportionate influence because they are concentrated in certain parts of their United States.

    The numerically largest Christian group don't believe that God is "defined" by the Bible: they believe in the authority of the Bible, and of Tradition, and of the Pope. (That is: they believe in what the Bible says, what our Church has always said that it says, what our wisest and most learned adherents say that it says, and what our current leader says that it says.)

    Quakers, a much smaller group, believe that the Bible is the first (and possibly therefore the most important) record of what God has been saying to everyone who will shut up and listen to him ever since. (They read the Bible, but they also listen to what they think God is saying to them RIGHT NOW.)

    Charismatic and Pentecostalist Christians, who make a very big deal out of the Bible, also believes that God continues to give supernatural oracles down to the present day. (If someone Speaks in Tongues, they check what he says against the Bible, but they also interpret the Bible in the light of what his prophecy says. I personally think that's a very dangerous game, but that's not the point for the moment.)

    Liberal Christians think that you have to interpret the Bible with your head switched on -- not saying "The Bible say God said this..." but "Such and such a Biblical writer, writing in such and such a context, told a story in which God said this to a certain person under a certain set of circumstances."

    Much of the New Testament is about a Christian re-interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures: there is really no point in saying that 'the Bible' says you should stone your neighbors adultery without also noting what St Paul and the Hebrews-author and, indeed, Jesus, said about the Jewish Law. (And, of course, Jews themselves interpret the Torah in the light of 2,000 years of commentary and tradition, not simply "What the Bible says.")

    If you want to understand the approach that I personally take to the Bible, I suggest you look up my long essay on Judas Iscariot.

    If you insist on redefining God, then at least be intellectually honest enough to stop calling yourself a Christian

    I am henceforth a Nicene Pauline Jesusist. Hope that helps.

    stop attending church

    Oh, don't be a twit.

    My views are probably rather conservative by the standards of most Anglican congregations. The difficulty would be finding a church in the UK which does believe in the invisible-man-in-the-sky theory, the "God designed everything directly and if you believe in God you don't believe in evolution" theory let alone the "obviously we believe in stoning unclean cattle because it's in the Bible" theory.

    I have on my shelf a copy of the "Book of Changes". If I sat down and attempted to read it right the way through, I would find it disconnected, contradictory, fragmentary, and conclude that these taoist johnnies were a confused bunch.

    But, of course, that's not the point of the book: the whole idea of the "I Ching" is to chose two sections at random (using a little ritual with coins or matchsticks) and read the two chapters in the context of each other, and in the context of the problem that you are trying to solve. There is no point in "just reading" the book. You have got to find out how the book is, in practice used.


Comments from "SK" are automatically deleted without being read, so please don't waste your time.