• The ‘Why I am a Christian’ series – Vincent Torley of Uncommon Descent (Part 4)

    After having looked at Randal Rauser’s reasons for being a Christian, and having had my reasons and his defences intensely debated on his blog, I have in a previous posts (linked below) offered Dr Vincent Torley’s account. Some readers may know Vincent from the Uncommon Descent website which attempts to refute evolution. I have argued with him at length when I used to write for John Loftus more often at Debunking Christianity. Here is his bio:

    Vincent Torley is originally from Geelong, Australia. After obtaining a B.Sc., a B.A. and a B.Ec. from the AustralianNationalUniversity (all at no cost to himself), he worked for several years as a computer programmer in Melbourne, during which time he obtained an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne. In 1999, he moved to Japan to take up a job as an English teacher, returning to Australia for a year in 2001 to complete a Dip. Ed. in high school teaching before going back to Japan, where he has resided ever since. He obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne in 2007, while studying in Japan. He currently teaches English in high schools, as well as teaching English conversation and business English. He is married and the father of a seven-year-old son. His personal Web page is at http://www.angelfore.com/linux/vjtorley/index.html

    I have split this up into multiple parts as it is very lengthy (He did have a lot of paragraphs paragraphs and he made them massive!). I have also taken it upon myself to split it into Points so that it makes it easier to reference. I hope both of these actions are OK with Vincent.

    Parts

    one

    two

    and three

    can be found in the links above.

    Please make every effort to have a civil and discursive back-and-forth. I hope some interesting discussion can be had. Thanks to Vincent, as it takes some guts to put your beliefs in the firing range, but it is what we should all do. Over to Vincent for the second part of his account:

    Point 12

    By now, we can discern, in broad outline, the answer to Gauguin’s three big questions: “Whence came we? What are we? Whither go we?” We come from God; we are children of God, with rational minds that are capable of inferring His existence; and finally, since we are capable of knowing God and thereby partaking of the Infinite, it is a fair bet to say that our ultimate destiny lies with God. Trifling questions about where Heaven is and how our consciousness will survive the death of our bodies need not concern us: this universe is God’s universe, and if He wants us to be with Him forever, then no doubt He has arranged the universe in ways that make it possible for that to happen. God is the master physicist of the cosmos: leave the fine details of immortality to Him. Our job is to live the kind of moral and spiritual life that can prepare us for eternity with our Maker.

    Point 13

    But at this point we realize that we fall badly short of what we should be. We cannot lift ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps: trying to be good won’t make us good. Instead, it tends to make us self-centred. This point was personally brought home to me after fifteen years of spiritual wandering, after having rejected Christianity at the age 28. I explored everything form pantheism to Buddhism to Quakerism to Bahaism, but I never did find a form of spirituality that satisfied my intellectual needs and that provided me with not only a way to resolve moral questions but also a way to become a good person myself. Curiously, though, over the 15 years that followed, I found that many of the arguments against Christianity which seemed utterly unanswerable to me when I was 28 seemed to lose their force over the years: they gradually melted away. In 2004, at the age of 43, I found myself an expectant father-to-be. The prospect of impending parenthood concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I realized that New Age self-help spirituality was not what I wanted to pass on to my child. It hadn’t made me a good person; it had only made me more self-centred. I adopted a radical solution: I needed to find a religion that took me “out of” myself and provided me with an exemplar of moral perfection. That exemplar was Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

    Point 14

    The Incarnation is the central mystery of Christianity: 2,000 years ago, God came down and lived among us as a man. Either the Incarnation grabs you at the level of the heart or it doesn’t. If it does, then you’ll always experience a sense of something missing in other faiths, and they will ever satisfy you. When I was 28, I thought the Incarnation was impossible; when I was 43, I finally realized that it was both true and beautiful. Reading the Gospels after a long interval, what struck me was that Jesus was a man without an ego or a human personality; what He had, I realized, was a human mind and will, which were wholly assumed by the Mind and Will of God. His freedom was of a different kind from ours. We each have our own little personality, and we are capable of defying God. But because Jesus is a Divine Person, that’s not a choice His human will can make: sin is out of the question for Him. What He does have is the freedom to do good in whatever way He chooses. “Why didn’t God make all of us like that?” I hear some of you ask. Short answer: if He did, then you wouldn’t be “you” anymore. You’d have to give up your human personality in order to be like that.

    By the way, I happen to adopt a Scotistic view of the Incarnation: I think God would still have become man, even if there hadn’t been a Fall, simply because He loves us.

    Point 15

    The Trinity is another doctrine that bugs many people. I like to keep it simple: God knows and loves Himself perfectly. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the Mind of God, God’s Understanding of Himself, and God’s Love of Himself. They are irreducibly distinct modes of God’s innermost being, which is why when we pray to God, we should have not a two-way but a six-way relationship with Him.

    Since God is our Father, He must love us like parents love their own children, only immeasurably more so. If God has created us for eternity with Him, then it would be absurd to imagine that He would let us separate ourselves from Him forever, without exhausting all possible options to bring us back. The notion of a God Who delights in punishing people in Hell, or in making the road to Heaven as difficult as possible, is absurd. I have family members who are not Christians; indeed, some are agnostics and atheists. I do not agonize about whether they will be saved; I simply assume that somehow, God will take care of that, since I know that they have a lot of goodness and love in their hearts.

     

    On Point 12

    We need not concern ourselves with the problems that a concept such as heaven give to the overall notion of God? etc These are the real problems which a Christian needs to deal with in order to robustly believe their worldview. As for partaking int he infinite God, does he mean to claim that God is a real and actual infinite as denied by proponents of the Kalam Cosmological Argument?

    On Point 13

    So, Vincent found it easier to find and maintain a morality within a religious framework? I suppose one strength of Christianity is that there is a central focal point person and book  in order to deliver (at times downright ambiguous and even wrong) moral messages. This makes being a Christian morally easier! It can be tough rationally defining ones morality as opposed to having it handed to you on a rather dubiously prescribed plate. But hopefully, with some deep thought, it can be more robustly and rationally defended. That Christian morality comforted Vincent enough to sign up is a subjective thing. I can’t argue with that other than to say that is utterly not my experience.

    On Point 14

    So, Jesus.

    Either the Incarnation grabs you at the level of the heart or it doesn’t.

    Well, if it doesn’t, then that is hardly fair of an all-loving God that one person is emotionally affected, but another isn’t. Taking into account the fundamental issues with doxastic voluntarism, this claim is problematic. The rest of the paragraph is vague deference to historically unsure texts. WE get to circularity and reliance on the historically dubious.

    By the way, I happen to adopt a Scotistic view of the Incarnation: I think God would still have become man, even if there hadn’t been a Fall, simply because He loves us.

    Again, this is fairly meaningless to me. Punting to an unknown about a fictitious entity revolving around an utterly incoherent event (Fall) doesn’t cut the mustard. All relying on the notion that an abstract entity, constrained by its own characteristics, and with no ability to have a discernible personhood, could actually love (whilst simultaneously designing and creating creatures in the full knowledge he will commit them eternally to hell). Wow.

    On Point 15

    The Trinity bugs people? Er, for sure! It makes no logical sense whatsoever. For things to be clearly definable as separate entities, they must have discernibly different properties. But for the Trinity to have different properties and to somehow remain part of the same whilst being in some way equivalent defies logic. The Father cannot have all of the same properties of Jesus or the HS and remain distinguishable. They must contain different properties which leaves them being distinct. But in being distinct they cannot be the same. If they have access to each property, then they take those properties on by extension. It is a muddled post facto rationalisation mess. The old Thai phrase “same same but different” springs to mind!

    By using the term “distinct modes” perhaps Vincent is trying to get out of admitting that these three persons make God polytheistic. If God is omnipresent, then these three aspects are just one indistinguishable mass of abstracta.

    And using the ontological argument, is this the greatest conceivable construction of God? I would have thought ONE is more supreme and elegant. But if we are going numbers, then perhaps 4 is better than 3 and so on.

    And unless Jesus exhibits the full properties of God then he is not fully God and fully man. In fact, as I mentioned in my Nativity book, Jesus cannot be fully human if he had his genome divinely selected! There are so many problems associated with Jesus=God=man thesis that it beggars belief that people actually believe it.

    I do not agonize about whether they will be saved; I simply assume that somehow, God will take care of that, since I know that they have a lot of goodness and love in their hearts.

    That’s all good and well, but it sounds like an argument from desire. Since many other Christians disagree, it is not a case of faith in God, but faith in your particular interpretation of God.

    That should do it for now. The FINAL piece will be the next one. Thanks to Vincent for this and happy critiquing!

    Category: ApologeticsGod's CharacteristicsTheology

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    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • Andy_Schueler

      But at this point we realize that we fall badly short of what we should be. We cannot lift ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps: trying to be good won’t make us good. Instead, it tends to make us self-centred[1]. This point was personally brought home to me after fifteen years of spiritual wandering, after having rejected Christianity at the age 28. I explored everything form pantheism to Buddhism to Quakerism to Bahaism, but I never did find a form of spirituality that satisfied my intellectual needs and that provided me with not only a way to resolve moral questions but also a way to become a good person myself[2].

      1. That sounds like an extrapolation from personal experience to all mankind.
      2. So what good deeds did you do after becoming a Christian that you didn´t do before?

      Either the Incarnation grabs you at the level of the heart or it doesn’t. If it does, then you’ll always experience a sense of something missing in other faiths, and they will ever satisfy you. When I was 28, I thought the Incarnation was impossible; when I was 43, I finally realized that it was both true and beautiful.

      When I first heard about the incarnation, it was completely unintelligible to me. That never changed.

      The Trinity is another doctrine that bugs many people. I like to keep it simple: God knows and loves Himself perfectly. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the Mind of God, God’s Understanding of Himself, and God’s Love of Himself. They are irreducibly distinct modes of God’s innermost being, which is why when we pray to God, we should have not a two-way but a six-way relationship with Him.

      Sounds simple, not… And shouldn´t this be “four-way” instead of “six-way”? Or do humans also have three “irreducibly distinct modes of our innermost being”? (but “six-way” also wouldn´t make much sense then – this would rather by “nine-way”).

    • Vincent Torley

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for putting up this post. A few quick comments:

      1. You ask, regarding my post, “does he mean to claim that God is a real and actual infinite as denied by proponents of the Kalam Cosmological Argument?” I am absolutely amazed that you would raise this objection. What the Kalam Cosmological Argument denies is that an infinite number of things (an infinite multitude) can exist. God’s infinity is neither an infinity of magnitude nor multitude. He doesn’t have quantitative attributes. God’s infinity is of a different kind: being without limitation, as St. Thomas Aquinas carefully explains in his article in the Summa Theologica (I, q. 7) on God’s infinity: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1007.htm .

      2. You assert that problems such as Heaven are “real problems which a Christian needs to deal with in order to robustly believe their worldview.” Thomas Paine certainly didn’t think so: “I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the Power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter, than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.” (The Age of Reason, end of the first part.) Think of it another way: consider Nick Bostrom’s proposal that the universe is a simulation. Bostrom isn’t religious, but he is on the record as proposing that the simulators may (for all we know) have arranged things so that we can enjoy an immortal existence. His general point is sound: since the Creator of the universe is on the higher level of reality than the universe,He creates, laws of Nature aren’t going to constitute a problem for Him. Hence there are no inherent physical obstacles to immortality, if we are creatures.

      3. Re the Trinity: the term “modes” is found in The Catholic Encyclopedia. See here for its article on the Trinity: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm . The author addresses a popular objection to the Trinity: three persons would mean three consciousnesses, which is tritheism. Not so, he answers: in God there is one consciousness (if we can use that anthropomorphic word of the Deity), in three distinct modes. I quote:

      Granted that in the infinite mind, in which the categories are transcended, there are three relations which are subsistent realities, distinguished one from another in virtue of their relative opposition then it will follow that the same mind will have a three-fold consciousness, knowing itself in three ways in accordance with its three modes of existence. It is impossible to establish that, in regard of the infinite mind, such a supposition involves a contradiction.

      One mind having three irreducibly distinct modes of consciousness might sound odd, but is hardly contradictory.

      4. Re your objections to doxastic voluntarism: all I will say here is that people can and do make fundamental choices regarding what kind of person they want to be. In making such choices they do not simply search for a way of maximizing the satisfaction of a pre-existing set of desires, for the question, “What sort of person do I want to be?” calls those very desires into question. Your model of choice is far too simplistic, Jonathan. It might work for some animals; it certainly doesn’t work for people.

      • ” I am absolutely amazed that you would raise this objection… God’s infinity is of a different kind: being without limitation, as St. Thomas Aquinas carefully explains in his article in the Summa Theologica (I, q. 7) on God’s infinity”

        But Christians have different views on God’s ontological properties such as his infinite-ness. Personally, irrespective of what Aquinas says, the use of infinite or infinity in such a quantitative way is incoherent or improper.

      • On 2, it is not physical obstacles to immortality I have a problem with, but philosophical ones, such as boredom being lethal, as Schopenhauer would say. That heaven and hell are utterly incoherent with the classical nature of God is hugely problematic. That judgement makes absolutely no sense to an omni God. That God’s foreknowledge would preclude him from the need to create at all and thus create suffering is utterly preposterous.

        It is these problems that make your God rather a bizarre and ad hoc concoction of rationalisations and appeals to unknowns or possibilities. Heaven, especially if you have free creatures with no suffering, just makes the reality of existence even more incoherent with regard to God.

      • Your points on trinity will always have to get over this:

        That God has three aspects or identities in some way, but that they remain both distinct and the same (or part of a whole) is internally incoherent. That Jesus can be differentiated from God the father means he must have properties that God the father must not have in order to be recognisable as such. That Jesus has properties that the Father does not and vice versa (which is necessary by virtue of differentiating existence properties), means that one part of God is lacking. Already it seems Jesus did not have omniscience. But there are aspects of Jesus that the Father did / does not have.

        That he is able to sacrifice himself to himself is just pure nonsense. It is meaningless, especially since God is omni. It is no sacrifice at all. That a God can supposedly give a part of himself back to himself when he is all powerful and knowing, knowing that there is no eventual deficit, is silly.

        That you can have three distinct entities operating apparently separately (such that they are identifiably one or the other) makes no sense.

        • Andy_Schueler

          That he is able to sacrifice himself to himself is just pure nonsense.
          It is meaningless, especially since God is omni. It is no sacrifice at
          all. That a God can supposedly give a part of himself back to himself
          when he is all powerful and knowing, knowing that there is no eventual
          deficit, is silly.

          +1. And this is one of the fundamental aspects of Christianity that are literally unintelligible to me. Even when theologians explicitly spell out what this is supposed to mean (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_in_Christianity ) I get the impression that they are speaking a different language, which has the same words but those words have completely different meanings. Nothing of this makes any sense to me if you use the dictionary definitions of “sacrifice”, “justice”, “forgiveness” etc.pp. – they apparently only make sense for the christian definitions of these words, which I don´t understand.

      • On 4, as we have discussed before, I simply don’t think you have a sound logical or empirical explanation of free will. That you can have some kind of acausal causality in origination is senseless, especially when you claim that this is impossible for reasons of the KCA.

      • Andy_Schueler

        4. Re your objections to doxastic voluntarism: all I will say here is
        that people can and do make fundamental choices regarding what kind of
        person they want to be. In making such choices they do not simply search
        for a way of maximizing the satisfaction of a pre-existing set of
        desires, for the question, “What sort of person do I want to be?” calls
        those very desires into question. Your model of choice is far too
        simplistic, Jonathan. It might work for some animals; it certainly
        doesn’t work for people.

        Your objection is beside the point. Try to come up with an scenario where you (or any hypothetical person) has voluntary control over what (s)he beliefs when it comes to the question “what sort of person do I want to be?”. You could easily come up with a scenario where such a belief changes, but the challenge is to come up with a scenario where such a change is caused by voluntary control over beliefs.

        It is not as simple as you think, the vast majority of philosophers agree that indirect doxastic voluntarism is true, but that direct doxastic voluntarism is false:
        http://www.iep.utm.edu/doxa-vol/

      • James Lindsay

        To point number one, Vincent, let me take a look at this.

        First of all, the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not actually deny that an infinite number of things can exist–it instead depends upon that notion. That’s important because the argument itself is just a fancy re-writing of Russell’s Paradox and is therefore broken besides (plus only points to a philosopher’s generic concept of “God,” not a judge of the living and the dead, a “God of this world” as it has been called). Incidentally, that’s interesting because Russell’s paradox was part of the collection of insights that showed us that naive set theory doesn’t work, which is something that followed from the mathematical development of the concept of infinity that was ongoing from roughly 1870-1940. The KCA itself is just a misrepresentation in that it naturally assumes that “the universe” is the same kind of thing as things, meaning things in the universe. We don’t have any reason to believe that, and it may be outright paradoxical to assume that the universe is a thing contained within itself.

        Then you want to talk about infinities being “qualitative” instead of “quantitative.” This, of course, is motivated reasoning because nearly no mathematician has accepted that idea since maybe 1920 or so, once it was generally agreed upon that the axiom of infinity is a reasonable thing to accept in order to do mathematics–something that answered a lot of long-standing important questions, particularly in the field known as “analysis.” Apologists seem motivated to roll back the clock on the thinking on infinity to a time before the axiom of infinity, and its consequences, were accepted, one of those consequences being that infinity is immediately quantitative as well as qualitative.

        There are many capacities of a limitless God that could be attempted to be quantified, and this is simple to imagine (which is all anyone ever does regarding God anyway). It’s impossible to escape the notion of quantity with infinity. That’s where infinity comes from. If God can move a mountain, we can immediately ask about a bigger mountain. If we can continue to calculate decimal digits of an irrational number like the square root of two, we immediately wonder if God knows them before we can calculate them. It’s asinine, if not dishonest, to try to pretend that quantities aren’t related to infinity.

        Have your purely qualitative infinite God if you want. No one needs to care about that God because it, like the notion of a “qualitative infinity,” it’s merely an abstract placeholder. Qualitatively infinite God? Okay, pure abstraction. Nice God you have there, eh? Go tell it on the mountain; your God isn’t real but is mental stuff! Wear kevlar.

        Incidentally, St. Thomas Aquinas is an interesting person to cite in this regard, seeing as he wrote the Summa Theologica about 600 years before we had the first clues about how to talk about infinity carefully. A pretty good resource, I guess, if your goal more nearly aligns with the kind of thinking Aquinas presented–600 years before the tools for getting it right had been devised–than getting things right. He’s also a good person to cite seeing as he, like you, had no actual credible evidence for the existence of God, but instead just tiresome, wandering philosophical guesses and bald assertions.

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