Archive for September, 2012

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The Objectivity of Evil ?

September 26, 2012

**I’ve been invited by an old friend to be a part of an open grade 12 philosophy class that he teaches. The topics are very interesting. Below is my first post.**

Hi everyone,

This is Chris from the community. I’m actually an old classmate of your teacher. I’m learning TONS from reading your posts. The creativity exemplified is inspiring and puts me to shame. As the leader of a church community, I’m fascinated by questions of truth and good and evil and I’ve noticed these terms popping up in some of the posts. I’m loving the dialogue on these all issues. Thanks for allowing me to be involved!

I don’t know how much I’ll be posting or commenting in the future but I’m hoping that this post stimulates more conversation on these important matters.

The Objectivity of Evil (?)

I assume these types of issues will be addressed in the ethics portion of the class. But here are some thoughts anyways. What if objective evil does exist?

By objective evil I mean that some behaviors are wrong for all people in all places regardless of culture, upbringing, or historical moment. Actions such as torturing children, genocide or raping women are truly evil regardless of public opinion, evolutionary benefit, or personal belief. Granted, this may not be an understanding of evil that is promulgated frequently anymore but let’s think about it anyways.

After all, it may be that it is only by embracing this definition of evil that we can rationally condemn events like the Holocaust, or the genocide in Rwanda as wrong for all people in all places at all time periods. If evil is simply a social construct and lacks any ‘objectivity’ that would relativize morality.

Relativism is, of course, convenient provided you are not the victim of a harmful action.

But wouldn’t denying objective evil (or good) mire us in moral relativism? Are we willing to embrace the consequences of this ethical position – can we even do so consistently?

I have doubts.

Moral relativism (often linked with cultural relativism) advocates that morals are also relative to different cultures and time periods explicitly denying any objectivity to our moral experience by which we can call certain cultures to account for depraved acts.

This ethical viewpoint logically requires the belief that there are cultures where torturing babies for fun, forcibly circumcising women, blowing up children, or burning widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands, would be good acts IF that particular civilization decided to label it as such. Calling those types of actions evil would then be a form of cultural imperialism; imposing our cultural values on another society.

As has often been pointed out, moral relativism (or what could be called collective subjectivism) casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Nuremberg Trials and it’s attempt to assess moral culpability for various Nazi leaders who were implicated in the extermination of six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others. If individual societies determine moral values, what warrant did the western super powers who won the Second World War have to impose their perspectives on the German leaders? The Germans decided to kill Jews. The Americans (and others) decided that was wrong – but to each his own. And the relativist (or constructivist) has no grounds for arguing against the above statement regardless of how personally repellant and horrify she may find it

Maybe this is worth considering: If a person’s moral theory forces us to call something ‘right’ (even if we personally disagree with it) when it is so obviously wrong (regardless of how anyone feels about it) it is time to change our ethical system, or framework. If the premise ‘all morality is culturally relative’ requires a conclusion you know must not be true, like, ‘Napalming babies is culturally relative’, it is time to abandon the premise

In one of Liam’s well-thought out responses to a comment on his post he mentioned the issue of blasphemy no longer being consider evil, indicating moral progress. While I believe moral progress occurs, let me suggest that when it comes to issues like blasphemy the difference is a change of belief not a change in moral values. I assume people thought (and think) that blasphemy is evil because it puts people’s souls at peril. The reason some people don’t think blasphemy is evil nowadays is because they don’t believe that ideas have eternal consequences, that people have souls, or that God even exists – if they did they would think it is a great evil to blaspheme still, in the same way that people still think telling lies that destroy a person’s life is morally reprehensible. I would suggest this is a change in cultural beliefs about certain facts and not a change in moral values per se. The distinction being made here is subtle and bound to be misunderstood. But other examples could be given of this point but I’ll leave it there (think religious sacrifices vs. sacrificing men and women in war, and/or hunting witches vs. hunting spies and traitors. Maybe I will try and clarify this another time, if necessary, but the post is already too long).

Food for thought.

Chris

 
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Jesus: Legend or Lord?

September 18, 2012

An Excerpt from the ‘Questions’ rewrite.

How Do We Know The Stories Of Jesus Are Not Just Man-Made Legends Or Myths?

1. The New Testament Accounts Are Written Too Early To Be Legends

Legends take centuries to gather around historical people. Before that there are eyewitnesses who can contradict any made up stories, including hostile eyewitnesses who would be more than ready to do so. All of the New Testament documents were written within the life span of the eyewitnesses.

In grade 10, my class chartered a yacht to ferry us around the Burrard inlet. As we approached the dock, some of my classmates, in a moment of inspired and admired stupidity, launched themselves off the top of the boat into the freezing water and swam to shore. They received a stern slap on the wrist from the administration for their reckless actions.

Thirteen years have passed since that epic day. If today I wrote that three students drowned on that trip and began to spread the rumor around different relational networks, the story wouldn’t get off the ground. There were too many eyewitnesses who are still around today, who could refute the false version of the events. It is the same with the Gospels (See 1st Corinthians 15:3–11). Information didn’t travel as quickly in the ancient world, but it still traveled and was documented.

When scholars first began to propose that the Gospels were mythical in the 19th century a contemporary scholar named Julius Muller challenged them to find any historical example from any time period, in any culture, where a great legend or myth developed around a historical figure and was generally believed within thirty years after the person’s death. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points us, ‘No one has ever answered him”.

2. The Disciples Claimed That They Were Not Writing Legends

Peter writes very directly his response to this myth question,

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).

John also says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Luke puts in his two cents on the accuracy of the New Testament accounts,

“Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3).

All these guys claim to be telling the truth concerning events that actually took place. Either the Gospels record real, historical events or Peter, John, Luke and the other Apostles were lying.

The problem for the latter hypothesis is that (like Jesus) the Apostles didn’t have the motivation to lie or moral character. The motivation for lying is to either escape punishment or to get a reward. The Apostles didn’t achieve either of these things by writing their accounts. All they got was persecution, mockery, hatred, and martyrdom. The only motivation the Apostles had for telling these stories about Jesus in a hostile climate was the satisfaction of making the truth known about Jesus.

Secondly, the disciple’s moral character was impeccable. They gave their lives on behalf of the poor, served their churches wholeheartedly, and clung to the truth of what they believed even when it got them beaten, imprisoned, and killed.

But weren’t the disciples biased?

Yes. So what?

The truth is we all have biases.# What follows from that admission? Does that mean we can never report anything accurately, or tell the truth about events? Of course not! In fact, sometimes the exact opposite is true. The most accurate accounts of the holocaust were written by Jewish people – not in spite of their bias but because of it.# One could imagine the disciples carefully preserving the stories about Jesus because they loved him so much. Here is another fact to keep in mind: not all of the disciples were originally biased in favour of Jesus. For example, James was a skeptic and the apostle Paul hated Jesus and Christians until he was converted. Both Paul and James were originally biased against belief in Christ.

3. The Gospels Are Too Counterproductive To Be Legends

Many critiques of the Gospel accounts go something like this: “The early Christian leaders made up stories and teachings of Jesus to ensure they kept their power in the early church.” This, however, doesn’t work when you actually read the Gospels because they paint the early Christian church leaders, like John, James, Peter, and Thomas as slow and sometimes dim-witted. This type of reportage would not have helped the disciples consolidate their power within the early Christian community.

In addition, there were many contentious issues that the early church was debating, such as circumcision and food sacrificed to idols. If the early Christian community felt free to invent sayings by Jesus to win debates and consolidate power, surely they would have created some stories to address these issues. There are none, however, because the early church didn’t feel free to just make up stories about Jesus.

4. The Gospels Don’t Read Like Myths Or Legends

The Gospels don’t have the literary characteristics of legends. To seriously contend that the Gospels are legends shows ignorance in regard to either the genre of legends or the Gospel narratives. To put it more bluntly, those who seriously suppose that the Gospels are legends either haven’t read the Gospels or haven’t read legends. Here is what literary historian C.S. Lewis says,

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this Gospel text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown ancient writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.”#

I have read Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, as well as the Egyptian myths of Isis and Osiris. They are so obviously different than the Gospels as a literary genre that you would have to be a fool (or perhaps a scholar) to miss it. Once again Lewis writes,

“As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear they are not the same type of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.”#

5. The Accounts Line Up With History

The Gospels are historically accurate. Legends are not. Ten different historical writers (some of whom were anti-Christianity) from around that time period mention Jesus. These historians make claims about him that match up with the Gospel accounts. There are actually more mentions of Jesus outside of the Gospels than the Roman Emperor in that day. Here is what the non-Christian Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about Jesus,

“About this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”#

Historians like Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, as well as the Jewish Talmud mention Jesus. If you put together all the writings on Jesus by non-Christian historians and extra biblical sources, you will find that Jesus had followers, his brother was James, he worked miracles, he was crucified, people claimed he was the Messiah and raised from the dead, he was worshipped as God, and a movement was started in his name. Other writers outside of the New Testament, therefore, confirm the basic storyline of the Gospels.

Another piece of evidence supporting the historical accuracy of the New Testament can be found in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Acts has been confirmed to be accurate in regard to everything it reports on. In fact, there are at least 84 historical facts that Luke got right; they have been verified through archaeology and modern day research. For example, he reports accurately the cultural practices of certain areas, the way the wind blows in certain places of the Mediterranean, and the depth of water in different harbors#.

If Luke is so precisely accurate in regard to such incidental details, it seems safe to conclude that he was precise when it came to more significant matters like the teachings and miracles of Jesus as well as the growth of the early church. Legends are not historically accurate. The Gospels are.

I hope these lines of reasoning are sufficient to refute the hypothesis that the Gospels are simply myth, legend, fable, or folklore. Whatever else the Gospels are, they are certainly not that.