Original Sin and Christian Philosophy II: Presuppositions

January 30, 2006

As the title indicates, this post is part of a work in progress. Our project is to work toward a philosophically precise articulation of original sin, especially its nature and extent (and effects. The reader would do well to skim Original Sin & Christian Philosophy I). Thus far, I’ve turned up two well-written and informed articles relevant to the topic at hand. They are “Original Sin and Christian Philosophy” by Paul Copan, and “The Metaphysics of Original Sin” by Michael Rea (this post is heavily influenced by the latter). As always, please mention any others you recommend in the comments.
Obviously, I hold more than these four presuppositions; I’m only troubling myself with these four. Throughout this discussion I will assume the following:

(S1) All human beings (except, at most, four) suffer from a kind of corruption that makes it inevitable that they will fall into
sin, & this corruption is a consequence of the first sin of the first man.

And

(S2) All human beings (except, at most, four) are guilty from birth in the eyes of God, and this guilt is a consequence of the
first sin of the first man. (Rea, 1).

Now, the doctrine of original sin (DOS), I believe, includes both of these assumptions; if you lack either one, you aren’t, in my opinion, dealing with DOS. It is significant to note, however, that one may accept only (S2) as one’s DOS. What of these; are each acceptable?
Scripture supports the universality of human corruption as viewed by (S1) & (S2) above (see esp., Ps 14, 130:3, 143:2; Ecc 7:20; Is 53:6; Rom 3:9ff, 23, 5:12 ;Gal 3:22 ;Eph 2:3; 1 Jn 5:19). Even in the verses which do not explicitly do so, the universality of sin is assumed (Erickson, Christian Theology, 641). Consider also the reality of death as proof of this understanding of DOS: death is the explicit & direct result of sin, we all die (known from common experience), thus we are all affected. So, I accept the universality of DOS. Please note that while I am affirming that Scripture teaches we are connected to Adam’s sin, that is all I am presently doing; we have thus far said nothing of just how we are so connected. Also, as Copan notes: “We should distinguish between damage or consequences for one’s sin and the guilt of one’s sin. For example…the consequences of one man’s sin affects (the) well-being of the entire community” (p. 15, cf. Joshua 7 & 2 Sam 24:17).

Rea continues on to embrace

(MR) A person P is morally responsible for the obtaining of a state of affairs S only if S obtains (or obtained) and P could have
prevented S from obtaining (Rea, 3).

I am inclined to agree with him that this seems intuitively true; upon reflection I cannot disagree with it. But if we accept DOS, then it seems we have a problem with accepting (MR). Rea continues on to (successfully, I think) reconcile these two in his paper. His task frequently takes him out of the scope of ours, but along the way he is able to shed much light on our project. At any rate, if you are willing to flush (MR), then you will probably not enjoy the ensuing discussion. I might also recommend that you look a bit further into the issue, but in the end I suppose you are entitled to think whatever you like. Of course, many in the Reformed tradition do just this—they reject (MR).

I will also assume a libertarian account of human freedom. I realize there is much debate surrounding such a claim, but it is not my intention to entertain that debate in much detail here (but I look forward to doing so in future posts!). So, unless it absolutely infuriates you that I claim such a position, please refrain from promoting that debate for now.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate the importance of presuppositions (without launching a full-on Intro to Phil lecture). They’re important, trust me. I have not identified them all, in fact, I’m confident in my inability to identify every one of mine (a start would be the existence of God, an affirmation of certain of his qualities such as justness, and much more besides), but I think I’ve covered the essentially relevant ones. I know this is a short post that doesn’t really get into the meat of the issue, but I think it’s worthwhile for us consider these things first. More to come.


Original Sin and Christian Philosophy

January 27, 2006

The perennial debate over the nature and extent of original sin underlies nearly every aspect of Christianity. This is especially true of any attempt at distinctively Christian anthropology. While this seems to have been a traditionally theological problem, I am convinced that Christian philosophy (I have in mind here contemporary philosophy) has much to offer toward an acceptable version of this doctrine; a philosophically precise articulation of original sin is needed. Toward this end philosopher Paul Copan has written “Original Sin and Christian Philosophy” (in Philosophia Christi, Series 2, 5/2 (2003): 519-41). Now, before you all start thinking that I am about to end the debate, let me clarify two things: (1) I’m not qualified to offer to exhaustive, philosophically precise exposition of Christian anthropology, and (2) even if I were so qualified, a blog is not the place to do so. So, why this post? My goal is to spark a discussion that will encourage our community to shift its attention to this neglected (at least philosophically neglected) area.

Any thorough articulation of the doctrine of original sin entails treatment of the imago Dei, grace, our connection to Adam and much else. Most professed Christians agree that somehow original sin affects our nature. But exactly how? Unfortunately, it seems that theologians and philosophers merely talk past one another here. I realize this is a gross generalization, but while ‘nature’ for theologians is simply a word, it is for philosophers a term.

This doctrine also has serious apologetical implications. We know that humanity is depraved, though there is some debate concerning its extent and the result of prevenient/common grace (and other areas). “Why should I answer for Adam’s sin?” “I would have responded differently than Adam did.” Such questions must be answered from an apologetical standpoint.

What is the best approach to this issue? Do you have some great relevant articles or books to recommend to the rest of us? I think it’s time for theologians and philosophers to get on the same page and begin presenting, insofar as we are able, a unified front with answers to the world (1 Peter 3:15).


Hick On Religious Pluralism

January 25, 2006

Traditionally, Christianity has supposed that its central claims are true and that where these claims conflict with those of other religions, the latter are to be seen as false. But in some parts of the globe nowadays, such a view is no longer seen as acceptable. Many would deride it as religious imperialism or arrogance (or worse). Others argue that it is somehow arbitrary or unjustified.
Some like John Hick opt for what is called religious pluralism. Religious pluralism argues (at least by its more sophisticated defenders) that no one religion can be considered as normative or superior to others, but that all the major religions are historico-culturally conditioned responses to the one ultimate reality. Hick is well known for his labors especially in philosophy of religion (for example his seminal work, An Interpretation of Religion was so pivotal in shaping the discussion on religions that he received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for the most significant new thinking in religion). But how does Hick arrive at religious pluralism?

All the major religions, according to Hick, are in ‘contact’ with the same divine reality. But how can this be so when there is so much diversity among the great religious traditions? The answer, Hick argues, is that historical and cultural factors affect the way in which a given religious tradition perceive this transcendent Reality—that is, the differing conceptions of ultimate reality are historically and culturally conditioned responses to this ultimate Reality. Thus, “…we always perceive the transcendent through the lens of a particular religious culture with its distinctive set of concepts, myths, historical exemplars and devotional or meditational techniques. And it is this inexpugnable human contribution to religious awareness that accounts for the fascinating variations of religious thought, experience and practice…” (An Interpretation of Religion, 8).

Taking Immanuel Kant’s epistemological distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon, Hick affirms a distinction between the religious Ultimate an sich and the religious Ultimate as it is experienced. The former Hick will refer to as “the Real.” Kant had argued that in all perceiving, we never perceive a thing “in itself” but rather our mind is actively involved in shaping what it is that we perceive. It is this that Hick applies to his theory of religion. For Hick, the Real is never the direct object of experience. Rather, the Real is the “divine noumenon” that is experienced within the various religious traditions as the range of ‘divine phenomena. That is, the Real in itself is never what is perceived. What is perceived is its cultural and historical manifestations. These manifestations can be personal, like Yahweh, Allah, Krishna etc.; or impersonal, like Brahman, Nirvana, etc. Because the real is ineffable, we cannot posit anything about it that is common to its manifestations. That is, we cannot say of the Real that it is personal (as in theism) or that it is impersonal (as in monism); we cannot say that it is loving or benevolent or holy anything of that sort. No human concepts can be applied to the Real—it is wholly ineffable.
Hick suggests then, that this might be the the answer to the problem of conflicting truth claims among the various religions. He does not claim that “all religions teach the same thing”, that would be patently false. Rather, they have the same ground (he might say). Their conflicting truth claims can be attributed to cultural and historical factors.

But why is Hick motivated to postulate the existence of the Real? He will respond that the common effect that the various religious traditions have on mankind ‘testify’ to its existence. And what is this “common effect?” It is the “transformation from self-centredness to Reality-centredness.” Hick takes this transformation as salvation/liberation and understood this way, all the major religions have equal validity and all provide paths to salvation.
But how do we know when this transformation/salvation has taken place? Hick argues that we know transformation has taken place by the “spiritual and moral fruits found in the lives of exemplary believers within the respective traditions.” Those who have been thus transformed will exhibit love, compassion for all life along with joy, inner peace, strength, etc. So Hick pulls from the various religious traditions people of upright moral standings as examples: From Tibetan Buddhism, the Dhali Lama; from Christianity, Jesus; from Vedantic Hinduism, Shankara, and so on.

This is why then, Hick finds the traditional Christian claim to the uniqueness of Christ and the superiority of Christianity to other religions so repulsive. Indeed, he just finds it , arrogant. Instead, Hick insists, the various religions must “modify” their central claims to accommodate one another and to give an account for the Real. Thus in The Myth of God Incarnate, he siezes that most central of Christian teaching, the doctrine of the incarnation, offering a staggeringly reductionistic interpretation of it as an example of the sort of “modification” he has in mind. But alas, as brave as his atttempt might be, Hick’s extremely made-over Jesus leaves a lot to be desired.


Religion and Naturalism: The Rea-Dennett Exchange

January 19, 2006

This 2003 exchange between Michael Rea and Daniel Dennett has drawn a lot of attention. For those of you out there really into these sorts of debates (you know who you are), check out this short but interesting dialogue.


“To Infinity And Beyond!”

January 14, 2006

What exactly does it mean to be ‘infinite?’ I know we often use the term for rhetorical flourish (usually in hyperbole or embellishment), but what precisely does it mean? The other night a friend at the Dallas Socratic Society discussion group, Brett, read a fantastic paper, Examining Infinite Set Possibilities. Brett’s aim was simply to sketch out some coherent ways we can speak about infinity and infinite sets. Aristotle long ago, Brett reminded us, gave us the traditional view of infinity:

…it is always possible to think of a larger number; for the number of times a magnitude can be bisected is infinite. Hence the infinite is potential,never actual; the number of parts that can be taken always surpasses any assigned number. Physics 207 b8

So if Aristotle is right, an actual infinite set is just impossible because one can always add another member to the set. But if this is true, then the set is always finite. William Craig uses the notion of the impossibility of an actual infinite to bolster the second premise in the Kalam argument. The Kalam argument, recall, makes the following move:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

Craig supports (2) by (among other things) arguing for the impossibility of an actual infinite series of events in time:

4. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member after another.
5. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.
6. Therefore, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

I should say that Carl Sagan may have been a smart cosmologist, but this argument makes his proclaimation about the universe being “all that ever was, is, or will be,” appear quite silly.

Now while I readily accept the notion that an actual infinite set consisting of concrete individuals is just impossible, the Platonist in me is quite willing to accept the notion of an actual infinite set of abstract objects. After voicing this in the discussion, another friend Sloan—who I should say is far smarter than I—roundly criticized me for embracing this view. But I can’t shake it. It seems to me that sets containing members like possible worlds, numbers and other abstracta, are actually infinite! What’s wrong with me? Am I just a Platonist gone wild!?