Monthly Archives: November 2017

Prophecy and the Oracle of Delphi

Many ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the capital of the world. The story goes that a huge serpent – Python – was slain by the god Apollo. The serpent’s body fell into a fissure, and as it decomposed great fumes arose through the rocks. Upon inhaling these vapours, a person went into an ecstatic trance, a state in which it was believed that the person was possessed by Apollo and could speak the god’s words of guidance to seekers.

By the 7th century BC the temple was in full swing and it came to be the house of a single person – a woman – the Oracle of Delphi. Her task was to serve as a link between the gods and the world, and her utterances were greatly sought after. At certain times of the year, the Oracle would take questions from pilgrims. After a purification ritual – which included fasting, drinking holy water, and bathing in sacred waters – the Oracle would take up her place on a tripod seat, with laurel reeds in one hand and a dish of spring water in the other. She would be positioned directly above the vapours and as she breathed them in she entered the divine realm from which she uttered the words of Apollo to enquirers.

Visitors were screened by the priests – not everyone got through – and then the priests would instruct the seeker how to phrase their question. Of course, the seekers were also encouraged to make a financial contribution to the temple to support its noble work.

Accounts vary as to precisely how the seekers received their answers from the Oracle. In some cases it is reported that the Oracle gave answers directly, but in other accounts the Oracle uttered incomprehensible words – glossolalia – which were then translated or interpreted by the priests. The answers given by the Oracle were frequently rather cryptic, worded in such a way that no matter what happened the Oracle could be said to have correctly predicted it. For example, when Croesus, the King of Lydia, asked if he should attack Persia he received this answer: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” He interpreted this as a good omen and attacked the Persians. Sadly, the great empire that was destroyed was his own, but either way the Oracle would’ve been right.

The Oracle was viewed as infallible, and her fame and reputation grew and spread far and wide. Soon even foreign dignitaries would come, often paying huge amounts of money to skip the queues of Regular Jasons and gain a fast track to the Oracle. This enabled Delphi to grow bigger and bigger, and it was soon a powerful and wealthy city-state.

Despite the huge time gap separating them, there are many similarities between Delphi and modern prophetic practices. First of all, the reputation of the Oracle became firmly established in the minds of people. This is key to any prophetic ministry. The supernatural nature of Delphi was established not only by planting it within the wider Greek mythology, but through the telling of stories far and wide of the Oracle’s powers. Also, the use of a shine filled with vapours and the behaviour of the Oracle would provide visitors with clear evidence that Apollo was at work, much the same as we see from modern charismatic prophets who themselves go into trances, shake, and even roll around the floor under the “power of the Holy Spirit,” behaviour which anthropologists tell us serves to enhance the religious authority of the prophet. Whilst modern prophets don’t use vapours and springs of water, they do make frequent use of lighting and music to make sure the correct atmosphere is established in which they can produce mystical experiences in the minds of onlookers. Crucially, the use of vague (and thus infallible) prophecies is a very common practice, not only amongst modern prophets, but also astrologers and fortune tellers. Lastly, as always, there’s the small matter of financial contributions. The advice of the gods is rarely free, and the exchange of money – sometimes quite significant sums – adds to the impression that this ministry is a highly valuable thing.

Such features combine to create a very convincing show, as typically the true explanation for the phenomena is not obviously apparent to the casual observer or those caught up in the experience. My comments concerning modern prophecies and tongues-speech are easily found on this website. But what about Delphi? How did they operate? What’s the explanation for what went on there? Were the trances real? Where did the vapours come from? Surely not from the body of serpent?!

Archaeologists have investigated the site of Delphi on numerous occasions and discovered a few peculiar features. The area where the Oracle sat was several meters lower than the rest of the floor. Further, in the 1980’s a group of investigators discovered that the rocks under the temple were oily bituminous limestone and were fractured by two faults that cross underneath the temple. They theorised that methane, ethylene and ethane gas rose through the faults directly into this sunken area of the temple where the Oracle sat. Given the low room with its limited ventilation, the gases would be amplified and induce trances experienced by the Oracle. Significantly, ethylene gas has a sweet smell and Plutarch – who served as a priest – reported that a sweet smell would arise when the Oracle fell into her trance. This gas, in small doses, can indeed cause trance-like or frenzied states of consciousness, as well as changes in the voice of the subject.

This may not be the whole story behind Delphi. Some commentators reckon that in many cases the trances were simply faked by oracles and priests who understood too well the power and influence of their pronouncements and simply manipulated this power for their own ends. Power-crazy, money-grabbing, tongue-speaking priests and prophets misleading the faithful. Some things never change in prophetic ministry.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Argument that Terrifies Pro-Lifers…Scared, Are You!?

I don’t normally fall for anything that sounds remotely like click-bait, but I was just too curious about this argument that pro-lifers are supposed to be terrified of. What was it? It came in the shape of a thought-experiment: if you found yourself in a burning lab and had time to save a baby in one room or 10 embryos in the other, which would you choose? The question is rhetorical: the pro-lifer – surely – will choose the baby. However, in doing so he or she is denying the full humanity of the embryos – the very thing on which their entire pro-life case rests! If the pro-lifer really believed embryos are fully human then they would save the embryos and let the baby die, an action which flies in the face of our moral intuition that tells us it is obviously right to save the baby.

So, there we have it: the “Terrifying Argument.”

I confess myself………..disappointed.

Firstly, it is patently false to suggest that the act of choosing the baby over the embryos amounts to a tacit denial of the humanity of the embryos. Allow me to use another thought experiment. Suppose the baby in one room is my own son and in the other room are other babies rather than embryos. Under these conditions – rightly or wrongly – I would choose to save my own son first. Now, whatever you make of this action –  whether it’s right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable, understandable or not – the point is that in saving my son first am I thereby somehow denying the full humanity of the other babies? Hardly! It’s simply my parental instinct that causes me to prioritise the life of my own son. You are free to think my actions are immoral, but you cannot rightly claim that they are driven by a denial of the humanity of the other babies.

I actually agree that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but this does not mean that the baby is more fully human than the embryo. It doesn’t even mean the baby is objectively more valuable than the embryos. All it means is that humans have certain moral intuitions (which, of course, can be completely wrong) in which babies are viewed as being of more value. After all, we can see babies, interact with them, hear them cry in pain, giggle when they fart, and smile at our funny faces. It isn’t difficult to see why we instinctively react to favour the life of the baby.

But of course, we must still face the deeper question: is it objectively wrong to save the baby over the embryos?

If you happen to be a certain breed of pro-life utilitarian then you might say that it is indeed morally wrong to save one life when you had it in your power to save ten. But why must a pro-life advocate – or anyone else for that matter – be a utilitarian of any stripe? The problems with utilitarianism are well-documented so there’s no need to expound them here. What we would need is some argument for the conclusion that it is morally wrong to save one life when it’s possible to save more than one. I’ll leave it to my readers if anyone wants to have a go at suggesting plausible candidates for such an argument or moral theory. However, I’ll note in passing that all the candidates I’ve ever been presented with cannot be maintained and are never applied consistently by their advocates. Take, for instance, charitable giving. We can give £10 to a charity that might save the sight of 2 people. But most of us who can give £10 could easily give, say, £15 and save the sight of 3 people. Are we morally wrong if we don’t live in borderline poverty and give all our money away to charity? Maybe we are, but no-one I know of lives consistently with that sort of principle.

Anyhow, there is nothing inconsistent with holding (1) that a baby is of much greater value than an embryo – such that we rightly save a baby over a bunch of embryos in a burning lab situation – and (2) that it would be wrong to intentionally kill a developing embryo in an abortion. So, not only is it the case that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but there are plausible reasons a pro-life advocate can offer in support of prioritising a baby over some embryos in the burning lab scenario. The baby has fundamental interests in staying alive; the death of a baby in a fire would be far more horrendous than what an embryo would experience; the baby has begun certain deep interpersonal relations of bonding with other human beings whilst the embryo has not. These are just a few of the grounds on which pro-life advocates could claim that a baby is more valuable than an embryo in a petri-dish without thereby denying that an embryo is fully human and worthy of protection from dismemberment or chemical destruction in utero.

In any event, the issue of abortion is not like the issue of choosing whether to save a baby or ten embryos. In the case of the fire in the lab we are trying to save at least one human life – and thus our actions are to some degree at least morally good. But, except in cases where a mother’s life is a stake, abortion is simply a matter of killing a human life, not of choosing to save one life over another.

It seems to me, therefore, that the Terrifying Argument is a failure on numerous fronts:

(1)    It fails to demonstrate that the embryo is not a human being worthy of protection.

(2)    It fails to demonstrate the pro-life advocate must deny his foundational belief that the embryo is a human being worthy of protection.

(3)    It fails as an analogy to abortion.

Even if we grant the Terrifying Argument in its entirety it doesn’t demonstrate that the pro-choice position is correct.

Stephen J. Graham

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Christian Anthropology: Are We ‘Worthless Worms?’

 

“What is man that thou art mindful of him.”

 

I recently took someone to task for referring to themselves (and, by implication, all humanity) as a “worthless worm who deserves hell.” This is a very common sentiment amongst evangelicals, inspired perhaps by the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. However, it’s one that has no substantial biblical warrant and which faces insurmountable contrary biblical testimony. I’m not referring to the “deserves Hell” part, but rather the attitude of conceiving any human being as a “worthless worm.”

What possible biblical warrant could such a label claim? There are a few verses to which defenders of this view appeal:

(1) Job 25:4-6: “How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of a woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot – a human being who is only a worm.”

(2) Psalm 73:22: “I was senseless and ignorant, a brute beast before you.”

(3) Psalm 22:6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”

(4) Isaiah 40:17: “Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.”

Regarding (1), the general rule when it comes to the book of Job is “proof-text at your peril!” The words quoted are those of Bildad, one of Job’s “comforters,” whose theology takes one hell of a battering in the book. There is no indication that what Bildad says to Job is what the book is intending to teach. On the contrary, the words of Bildad are hardly a reliable guide, particularly given Job’s bitingly sarcastic response in the following verses. With respect to (2), there is nothing here concerning the Psalmist’s worthlessness. The contrast is between the Psalmist’s knowledge and understanding and that of God. The Psalmist – compared to God – is as stupid as a beast. (3) is clearly a case of hyperbole. The Psalmist is, in fact, a man – not a worm! The point is how lowly the Psalmist is in the eyes of other people. A similar term appears in Isaiah 41:14 in which the term refers to Israel’s weak and despised condition as a people in exile. What then of (4)? Again, there is no indication that human beings are themselves worthless. The power of nations is being contrasted with the power, glory, and splendour of God through a serious of poetic phrases, metaphors, and hyperbole.

None of these verses gives us any reason to think that the correct biblical view is that human beings are worthless. Moreover, there is substantial biblical testimony that human beings are, in fact, of immense value and dignity.

Firstly, human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the very image of God. Whilst there’s some debate as to precisely what that is, it seems to me to refer to the fact that human beings are rational, moral persons. Now, some will hold that the image of God was marred. I don’t wish to discuss that here, but I note simply that this does not mean the image of God has been utterly effaced. In fact, even the doctrine of total depravity doesn’t mean fallen humans are utterly depraved and lacking in any goodness or value. It means that there isn’t a single aspect of our lives that is untouched by sin, and thus that we cannot save ourselves. Secondly, it’s clear that God loves human beings. To love someone is to treat them as possessing immense value. Something that is worthless cannot be loved; to be worthless is to be unlovable. Thirdly, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The atonement itself shows us exactly the value that God ascribes to humanity. That the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, died, and rose again to save a fallen humanity suggests we are much more than “worthless worms.” Fourthly, we are capable of relating to God in prayer. The creator of the universe listens to us, engages with us, and draws us to Himself to share in His life. Fifthly, Christian faith holds that we are called to partner with God in world mission – the bring God’s love to other people whether or not they are Christians. That speaks very strongly against the doctrine of human worthlessness. On the contrary, God is actively pursuing people and commands us to share his love with them, such is the value of people in His eyes. Sixthly, human beings are endowed with eternal life and have the opportunity to share in the glory of God forever. All of this weighs heavily against the notion that humans are “worthless worms.”

I suggest we drop this kind of language. Word matter. They affect how we think, and how we think affects our attitude towards ourselves (and thus our self-esteem) and towards others. Sadly, Christian history is littered with examples of Christians treating other people as “worthless worms.” It’s not biblical language, and it’s not remotely psychologically healthy.

You are not a worthless worm. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

 

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. 

 

Stephen J. Graham

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Should Voting Age Be Lowered to 16?

This debate has recently been taking place in Britain, and in fact Scotland has already made voting a right to be enjoyed from the age of 16 in elections to the Scottish parliament. Wales looks set to follow the example of the Scots, and there are calls for the main UK Westminster parliament to get with the program.

As is typically the case with public debates, the arguments for and against are rarely very good. In fact, they’re frustratingly poor. For instance, on the “anti” side we are told that voting should remain at 18 because 16 year olds lack the necessary life experience (whatever precisely that is). I’m not terribly sure that an 18 year old has vastly more “life experience” than a 16 year old. Moreover, my own 11 year old son has more experience (and educational achievement) than many of the people who are currently eligible to vote.

Not that the “pro” side has been doing much better. According to one popular argument, 16 year olds should be able to vote because they are affected by political decisions. In response I’ll simply trot out my 11 year old again: should he and his friends be entitled to vote because they too are affected by political decisions? And why then stop at 11 year olds? Or, again, apparently 16 year olds should get to vote because they can marry, pay taxes and even join the army! The vast majority of 16 year olds do none of these things, but even if they all did there’s no connection between being able to do these things and getting the right to vote. There are certain things 16 year olds are forbidden to do too. Moreover, perhaps this argument gives reasons for raising the age limit on these things rather than lowering the voting age.

To pop back over to the folks on the “anti” side we see claims that 16 year olds are not mature enough to hold such civic responsibility. The fact of the matter is that some are, and some aren’t – just like those who are 18 and older.

The problem isn’t really with the “pro” and “anti” sides. The problem is that we are using age as a criterion for voting rights, and no matter what age we choose there will be an element of arbitrariness to it. Why choose 16? Why not 17? or 18? or 19? or 20? or 21? There are people in all of those age groups who would be “good” voters and those who are ignorant, stupid, lazy, immature, and so on. Some 16 year olds contribute to society via taxation whilst many over 18 do not (and never have). Some 16 year olds are much smarter than many over 18, and yet some are mind-numbingly stupid. Some 16 year olds have the mental and emotional development of a pre-teen, whilst others have a wise head on young shoulders.

So, what are we to do? If we lower the voting age we’ll have lots of mature and intelligent contributors fully included in civic life, but enfranchise many others who are indeed immature, selfish, undeveloped, short-sighted, and stupid. We could rethink the right to vote entirely and base it on some ground other than age. Perhaps upon reaching some level of educational achievement we might be granted the right to vote. Alternatively, we might link voting rights to one’s contribution to society – in the form of taxation, or perhaps meaningful and sustained charitable work. Both suggestions have problems of their own – neither seems to utterly remove the element of arbitrariness that afflicts the age criterion – and I doubt either will win much support any time soon. I think, therefore, that we are stuck with the age criterion for the long haul. So, which age do we pick? Is there a less arbitrary one?

I would tentatively suggest that the voting age should stay at 18. There are many factors that go into making up a “good voter.” Ideally the person should contribute in some positive way to society. They should be of a certain level of education. They should be a responsible person, well aware of the importance of political life. They should have reached a certain level of emotional and psychological maturity. Now, no matter what age we pick we will inevitably exclude some who meet such criteria and include some who do not. The question is, can we draw a line somewhere that seems to produce the best overall balance. I think that line is 18. At 18 our main education is behind us, we have finished growing up, and are deemed to be responsible adults. From this point on we increasingly have a stake in politics – we get jobs, buy houses and cars, raise children. Of course this will exclude some excellently politically astute 16 and 17 year olds, but we are simply asking them to wait a year or two, and of course they are still free to be politically engaged in many other (often more effective) ways besides casting a ballot every few years. Voting rights will be bestowed upon the reaching of adulthood, just as certain other rights are.

I think 18 years perhaps gets the balance right, so unless there are overriding reasons for reducing the voting age to 16 – and I’ve seen little to suggest that there are – then leaving things as they are is perhaps the most prudent and least arbitrary course.

Stephen J. Graham

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Why Skeptical Theists are Skeptical

Most modern arguments from evil are of the broadly “evidential” kind. Take the argument of William Rowe as a classic paradigm of such an argument type:

(1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(2) An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

(3) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Theists have several retorts open to them. Some propose theodicies to account for the kinds of evil Rowe discusses. Others argue that the evidence in favour of the existence of God outweighs the argument from evil. Whatever strategy they employ, Rowe reckons – quite rightly – that most theists will grant premise 2, directing their fire against premise 1.

In so doing, theists – myself included – will adhere to some version of what is commonly referred to as “skeptical theism:” the view that we simply cannot know that a premise like (1) is true or more probable than not.

Different theistic philosophers will focus of different reasons why we should be skeptical. In his version of skeptical theism, Wykstra emphasises how our intellectual capacities are greatly inferior to God’s, much greater than the gap that exists between a small child and his parents. In the latter case a small child is often unable to understand parental anger, discipline and punishment, or why they might make the child do things they find distasteful or arduous. By contrast, Ahern argues that our knowledge of good and evil and the interconnections between events is severely limited. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, argues that our grasp of the divine nature is tenuous at best, such that judgments about what an omnipotent or wholly good being would or would not do are virtually worthless. Whilst agreeing with all this, (as do I, particularly with Ahern), Alston focuses on the extreme difficulties faced by the atheist in their attempt to provide adequate support for what Alston describes as “a certain very ambitious negative existential claim,” namely, in Rowe’s case, there is no morally sufficient reason for God to permit certain evils we see.

Here are just a few of the factors discussed by Alston which demonstrate that we aren’t in a position to deny that God has some morally significant reason or other for the suffering we find in the world:

1. Lack of data – including the secrets of the human heart, the constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including an afterlife, if any. For example, Christian theism allows for the notion of suffering for character formation, discipline, or even punishment for sin. Since we do not know the secrets of the human heart it seems that any attempt to rule out such explanations for evil is impossible. How can we tell in the case of some person – Bob – that the suffering he is facing might well be caused for such a reason? Bob might seem like a decent bloke, but no-one can really tell what’s going on in his mind, or what types of experiences might work (or will be most likely to work, given Bob’s freedom) to bring him to a better way of life.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle. Here we face the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact – different possible worlds or different systems of natural laws – together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation. Take our world – W – and compare it to some other world – W* – which differs from W in some way. How could we even begin to compare these two worlds in such a way as to justifiably conclude that W* would be a better world than W and that therefore God should have made it instead of the world we find ourselves with? We have little idea how particular evils affect later events in the world and even less of a notion as to what God might be up to in the world such that certain evils are permitted. Given our limited spatio-temporal position there is little reason to think we could come close to an accurate comparison.

3. Difficulty in determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Bruce Reichenbach appeals to the benefits of law-like natural order, and considers suffering as an inevitable by-product of any such order. Critics often ask: could God not have created a very different natural order, perhaps one that would not involve human and animal suffering either at all or to a much lesser extent? There are various responses to this, but here I wish to point out a significant problem: it is not at all clear what possibilities are actually open to God. We are concerned here with metaphysical possibilities rather than merely conceptual or logical possibilities. The critic points out that we can consistently and intelligibly conceive or imagine a world in which there are no diseases or natural disasters, while all or the vast majority of the goods we currently enjoy remain present. His mistake is in taking his ability to imagine such a world as demonstrating that it is possible for God to create such a world. However, conceivability is not sufficient for metaphysical possibility – what is possible given the metaphysical structure of reality. It is far more difficult to determine what is metaphysically possible or necessary than to determine what is conceptually possible or necessary. The latter requires nothing more than reflection on our concepts. When it comes to what is metaphysically possible, frankly we haven’t the foggiest idea as to what essential natures are within God’s creative repertoire, much less as to which combinations of these into total lawful systems are actualisable. Since we don’t even have the beginnings of a canvass of the possibilities here, we are in no position to make a sufficiently informed judgment as to what God could or not could not create by way of a natural order that contains the goods of this one without its disadvantages. Furthermore, we have no way to know what consequences would ensue by changing some aspect of the natural order. It is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natural of things, the exact character of which is often unknown to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are seeking to establish a negative conclusion. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reason for permitting evil.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned above, in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by its relation to one of those unknown goods. Moreover, just how valuable or worthwhile is something like free will or the ability/chance to show compassion? To what extent do such values justify evil or how much evil do they justify? It seems impossible for us to give an answer to such questions.

Alston therefore chastises such atheists insofar as they claim “that there isn’t something in a certain territory, while having a very sketchy idea of what is in that territory, and having no sufficient basis for an estimate of how much of the territory falls outside his knowledge.” I find myself in full agree with Alston, and thus it seems to me that the likelihood of a semi-decent atheistic argument from evil is, at best, bleak.

Stephen J. Graham

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