Tuesday, May 05, 2009

‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’ ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’ - Two Cheers for Consumer Religion

Consumer religion is that type of religious allegiance that follows the pattern of, and perhaps is an expression of, the consumption of everyday goods and services. If the household needs a power-washer, then we set about buying one; save, take out credit, or buy one for cash. And similarly with a bottle of good red wine, or a trip to Jordan, or a CD of J.S. Bach’s Organ Concertos.

Currently religious observance and allegiance is like that, at least in the fortunate West. (This piece is not meant to refer to the actual conditions of what it means to be a Christian in Pakistan, or Turkey, or China). Perhaps such observance is modelled on, or apes, consumerism, or simply occupies a similar kind of human space as does the consumption of any of the articles that are ‘necessary', even ‘vital’, to our well-being. This space is created by the coming together of a goodly supply of leisure, health, mobility, and disposable income.

For some, evidently, religion does not merely follow that pattern of such consumerism but is a case of consumerism, sharing many of its more obvious hedonistic desires and goals. For a Shopping Mall, read: a Megachurch Complex. For vitamins, a personal trainer and activity holidays, read: ‘the gospel of Health and Wealth’. Such consumer religion comes in various degrees of intensity. The point is obvious, and so not one that needs to be laboured.

Two cheers!

The existence of such debased religion, religion as conspicuous, hedonistic consumption is the reason that one cannot give consumer religion as such Three Hearty Cheers. But I do think that one can give it Two Hearty Cheers. This is why -

‘Consumer religion’ is another name for toleration, or one implication of toleration in its present-day expression in the West. In England the time was when religious toleration was expressed by the various religious denominations of putting up with each other, existing side by side. The existence and structure of such groups partly followed geography, partly class, partly history, and partly religious conviction. Individual or family choice rarely came into the picture. This was, we might say, stratified toleration. It was similar in other European countries except where Roman Catholicism exercised exclusive rights. But today these stratifications have largely gone, they have just about crumbled into the dust. New denominations have arisen or been imported, independent congregations have been formed or have seceded from the historic denominations; house churches have grown up, the historic denominations, included the established church, have become more doctrinally variegated and weaker. Above all, social mobility has increased. And the consequence is pick ‘n’ mix religion. Never has the religious consumer been better served than at present, even though the scene in the UK seems sepia-coloured by comparison with the glorious technicolour of California.

I say, this is a good thing. Who wants to go back to the day of Jingoistic religion: ‘my denomination right or wrong’ or to the time when a dissenter could be imprisoned, like John Bunyan or Jerome Bolsec? Later, Bolsec was banished from Calvin’s Geneva ‘to the sound of the trumpet’. (On 23rd December 1551: ‘Happy Christmas, Jerry!’) Isn’t it gain, pure gain, to be free to move from congregation to congregation? If ‘worship bands’ wish to play ‘Christian music’ until one's head aches, let them do it. But please may I be free not to attend? Please may I go to a congregation where there are decent hymns and psalms and good tunes? Yes, I may. If top-down, control-freakish ministerial antics scare me, do I have to put up with them? Certainly not. If people come to confuse the latest ideas of the ‘eco-theologians’ (yes, there are such) with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so put in jeopardy the freedom we have in Christ, isn’t it great to be at liberty to move from St. Ethelbert’s to Ebenezer, where they know the difference between a faddish panic and the real stuff? Yes it is.

For all their talk of Christian fellowship, are the people sniffy and aloof? If they are, do I have to stay? Most certainly not! Are there benefits to moving on? There may be. Are there benefits of staying? Perhaps there are. The matter must be weighed, of course. It may be difficult to balance one factor against another. But in all these cases, the choice is mine, not the state’s or the hierarchy’s. Nor need I be controlled by what is ‘the done thing’, or by what the Rectory or the Manor or the mill-owner dictate.

You’ll notice that the presence or the absence of sound doctrine has hardly been mentioned. Of course the presence of serious error is serious. May we not leave the congregation that is subjected to it? Of course! Isn’t such freedom a great blessing?

I can think of two possible reasons against such an attitude. The first (and lesser) of these is that such courses of action as leaving one congregation for another can be whimsical and unserious. There is no perfect church. (And if you find one, as Spurgeon once said, don’t dare join it. My father used to say that only he and I agreed on what constituted a true church, but that he wasn’t so sure of me.) Of course people can act whimsically, just as they can make bad purchases when shopping. Does the fact that some people buy garden gnomes and plastic flowers mean that I ought not surrender my opportunity to buy a pleasing terracotta pot and a clematis?

An alternative?

What’s the alternative? There isn't one. Trying to show this brings us to the second, and main, objection, to consumer religion, that it undermines church discipline. By church discipline is meant the practice of identifying public misdemeanours of a certain kind of seriousness, and offering various procedures to the offender with the aim of his or her restoration to ‘full fellowship’, with excommunication as a last resort. A number of points need to be made.

There are only two social circumstances in which such church discipline has a serious chance of being effective. One is where the church is a small sect-like community in a predominantly hostile environment. In such circumstances to be prepared to reject restorative discipline may literally be a matter of life and death. One might find oneself rejected both by the community and by the hostile environment. In such a situation the words of John make perfect sense: ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us’. (I Jn. 2.19) But the movements between congregations made possible by consumer religion are not equivalent to apostasy: to think that they are is to be guilty of a kind of category mistake.

The second set of circumstances is where the church is dominant in a society and is in a friendly alliance with the state. Then excommunication, the final, fateful step in restorative discipline, the point when attempts at restoration have ceased to be only a moral or spiritual matter, the point where the issue becomes public, is also the point where excommunication has multiple consequences. In such a situation excommunication is not merely a churchly act, but it carries with it social ostracism, perhaps loss of income or social status, of the sort made notorious by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

But these days in the West such excommunication is only of historical interest, like the stocks and the May-pole. Why? Because a person who is deprived of the privilege of Holy Communion for some real or supposed misdemeanour for which he remains impenitent – supposing things get that far - can cross the road or the city to another congregation and immediately be in good standing. Besides, what is it to be in good standing? In my experience, participating in the Supper, the most visible and most precious sign of Christian fellowship, is pretty well universally administered in a slap-happy way. Even when in theory there is some kind of ‘fencing’, attendance at the Supper is pretty-much the result of a process of self-selection. Participation is solely at the initiative of the would-be attender. That's how the Supper is presented: 'We'd love to have you join us if you'd like to'. Besides, who except the church secretary knows who the members of a local church are?

So the argument against consumer religion from the breakdown of the operation of church discipline is not strong. For church discipline has already broken down.

Ought we not to hope and pray that our brothers and sisters in Pakistan, Turkey or China soon have the privileges of such consumer religion?

So – I say – Two Hearty Cheers for consumer religion: ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’, ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’

Friday, May 01, 2009

Theological Compatibilism: A Case of Faith Seeking Understanding

In ‘Helm’s God and the Authorship of Sin’ (a Chapter in Reason, Faith and History: Essays for Paul Helm, ed. M.W.F Stone (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008)) Peter Byrne considers two arguments that I have used in defending God against the charge that he is the author of sin, and finds both of them seriously wanting. The arguments were advanced in Eternal God and The Providence of God respectively

first argument has to do with the defence of theistic compatibilism (as it might be called) against the charge of secular compatibilists such as Antony Flew, that given theistic compatibilism God must be the author of sin. I respond by arguing that if secular, atheistic compatibilism preserves human responsibility, (as Flew claims) then theistic compatibilism may also preserve human responsibility. The second argument has to do with my claim that, with respect to the moral character of God, compatibilist theism is in no better or worse case than free will theism of various stripes. This is because if, on the view of theistic compatibilism, God is the author of evil, then he is compromised in a parallel way by the supposition that evil is the consequence of the exercise of libertarian free choices with which our Creator has endowed us. As Byrne notes, each of these arguments is defensive, and one of them is an explicitly ad hominem argument. I shall consider the two arguments in order.

Theistic Compatibilism

But first, some remarks on the language of ‘theistic compatibilism’. These remarks are not a direct reply to Byrne’s two arguments, but attempt to counter possible misunderstandings that his language indicates.

In Eternal God an attempt was made to separate two claims:

1. That the divine ordination and sustaining of everything down to its last detail, including every human action, is a case of soft determinism, the doctrine that determinism is compatible with human moral responsibility.
2. That divine ordaining and sustaining is consistent with soft determinism.

(1) is obviously distinct from (2), in the following way: (1) is the view that the divine ordination of human actions is a n instance of a thesis (or set of theses) which is, considered historically, about the implications of the creaturely determinants of creaturely action. (2), by contrast, asserts merely the consistency of the divine ordination of everything with at least one version of soft determinism. The two differ on account of the fact that it is asserted that the connection between the divine ordination and creaturely compatibilistic systems is set up by a Creatorly determinant, not a creaturely determinant: the divine ordination is not a creaturely cause in the way that human beliefs and desires are creaturely causes . My argument in Eternal God was merely that if creaturely compatibilism is consistent with human responsibility then a fortiori such responsibility is consistent with Creatorly compatibilism. As I put it
It will be argued that if we suppose that theism is true, and that therefore God ordains and sustains everything by his creative power, then this fact does not provide an additional difficulty for theism. If non-theistic determinism is compatible with freedom then, it will be argued, theistic creation is as well. (EG146)

The point of comparison is between God’s ordaining and sustaining on the one hand, and philosophical determinism on the other, even if what God creates and sustains is an order best understood as a philosophically deterministic order. Later on in the book I referred to possible additional difficulties that allegedly attach to the idea of theistic creation and responsibility, (EG 147) and distinguished on the one hand between human freedom and determinism and human freedom and theistic creation (EG 149), and between the thesis of general determinism and that of God’s creating and sustaining activity. (EG 153) On one occasion the claim that creation is compatible with responsibility only if determinism is was explicitly denied (EG157), and arguments couched in terms of God ‘setting up’ deterministic processes were discussed. (EG 162) It was not argued that divine ordination is itself a straightforward instance of philosophical determinism, and for the purposes of my ad hominem argument against Flew which we will shortly discuss there was no need for me to develop or subscribe to some version of philosophical determinism. In arguing against Flew I needed only to employ whatever version of determinism that he subscribed to.

So in the language that was used, there was a consistent attempt to distinguish between what (in more theological terminology) might be called immanent cause-effect relations, such as those between human desires and beliefs and the actions they prompt, and transcendent cause-effect relations, where God is the ordainer of all human actions, including all their immanent causal antecedents. This distinction was signalled by using different words to refer to God’s causal activity (words such as ‘create’, and ‘ordain’) from those used to refer to immanent cause-effect relations, (words such as ‘cause’ and ‘determine’). In general the phrase ‘theistic determinism’ was avoided, except occasionally when it was used in an ad hominem context (e.g. EG 157), just as claims such as ‘God determines human actions’ or that he is the ‘all-determining cause’ were avoided. Otherwise it becomes difficult to keep the distinction between (1) and (2) in mind.

In the twenty or so years following the publication of Eternal God I have occasionally had the opportunity to develop this point of view, that Creatorly causation (or ordination) has a different sense from creaturely causation. For example,

God is the source of all creaturely power, but the powers of creatures, even when efficaciously empowered by God, are really theirs, and so are distinct from his. If God efficaciously empowers me to type this essay, still the typing of this paper is my action, not God’s. The wicked men who crucified Jesus were the cause of his death, even though he was crucified by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. (Acts.2.23)

One way of expressing this difference might be as follows. While it seems clear that intramundane causation is transitive, that if (where A, B and C are events) A causes B, and B causes C, then A causes C, there is no necessary transitivity in the case of any causal aspects of features of the divine willing permission, if there are any. It is not necessarily the case that God governs by willingly permitting some event B, and B causes C, then God causes C; rather, God may will by permitting that B causes C and so willingly permit C. God’s willing permission is thus not a straightforward case of causation, and those who seek to assimilate God’s willing permission of evil to the actions of someone manipulating a puppet, or to hypnotism, or to brainwashing or programming, have not recognized the true character of such permission.

Judging by the language that he uses in characterising my view, Byrne misses the distinction between (1) and (2). Thus he says that Helm ‘takes Flew to task for talking about an all-determining God as the manipulator of human beings, someone who reduces human beings to mere puppets and then blames them for what he forces them to do. Such language is dismissed as anthropomorphic and castigated for missing the main point that the divine causation of human acts goes through the normal patterns of desire, belief and intention that are the sources of non-compelled human agency’. (HG196, emphasis added.) But the actual remarks of mine referred to at this place have to do with the character of causal determinism, and not with the character of divine ordination. So it is claimed

General determinism does not claim that the antecedent causal factors manipulate. ‘Manipulate’ is a piece of anthropomorphism. The causal factors are usually non-intentional in character, without plans and aims, but causally sufficient for the bringing about of certain intentional, voluntary actions. The question of having or not having the agent’s consent, or of going or not going against his wishes, does not arise. (EG , 152-3)

My point here is not to argue that God does not manipulate his creatures, (though in fact I deny that he does) but that if he does (as Flew claims) then, on Flew’s own atheistic determinism, so do our genes manipulate our actions. It is an ad hominem argument, no more and no less. So Byrne has overestimated my willingness to assimilate standard causal determinism to God’s creative and sustaining (and providential) activity, to say that such activity is a case of such determinism. I deliberately allow for elements of disanalogy, and of apophatism, in our understanding of divine activity. After all, the book has to do with divine timelessness. The significance of this fact will be considered further, in the closing section.

Faith Seeking Understanding

At the outset of his remarks, and also subsequently, Peter Byrne observes that my writings in the philosophy of religion have characteristically been in the faith seeking understanding mode. (HG 193, 195) In this enterprise philosophy plays a subordinate role, subordinate that is, to the dogmatic theology of the faith. When it is at its best, this philosophical mode of enquiry does not attempt to spin a theology out of the resources of human reason alone, nor to force the contours of the theology to bend under the weight of such reason. Rather it seeks to use the resources of philosophical reasoning to elucidate and where possible to harmonise the complex claims of the dogmas. While demonstrating the consistency of sets of propositions would be a fine thing, in the case of Christian theology such harmonising aims may have to be content with showing that an alleged inconsistency within a dogma is not proven. One way to do this is to argue that unwelcome consequences of a dogma do not in fact follow. This is its typical stance, for example, in the case of the Christian dogmas of the Creation, of the Trinity, and of the Person of Christ.

So it is also, I believe, with issues to do with divine sovereignty, human responsibility and sin. This is because, in common with the other instances mentioned, these problems also possesses what might be called sui generis features. Each problem area is a case where, according to the dogma, either we are considering the divine spirit as he is in himself, or as he impinges on some creaturely entity or entities. As a result of this our ordinary analogies and thought experiments, drawn from creaturely relationships alone, cannot fully engage with such Creator-creature relations. This is as it should be. So there is ‘mystery’, a term that is not used as a warrant for mouthing gobbledegook, nor as a philosophical bolt-hole, but as referring to features of theological dogma where obliqueness and opaqueness are to be expected.
However, in furtherance of the Faith Seeking Understanding programme, one can also attempt to elucidate aspects of such a mystery. So it is important for my overall case regarding God and evil that divine ordination is not understood as a straightforward case of intramundane determinism, and that God’s attitude to good and evil is capable of being asymmetrical. In order to maintain these positions I have attempted to offer ways of explicating the first by denying the transitivity of divine causation (as we noted earlier), and of explicating the second by employing Augustine’s notion of willing permission. Neither of these gambits has been needed to be deployed to offer the further defence of the two ‘defensive strategies’ Byrne queries. Nevertheless they are a central part of the overall case for the philosophical cogency of an Augustinian approach to God and sin.

To be clear, such an approach does not amount to a case of theological special pleading. For there are non-theological ‘mysteries’ of a parallel kind, for example, the non-theological ‘mystery’ of the psycho-physical unity of the human being. Materialism has the virtue of simplicity but has difficulty with the content of consciousness and with intentionality. Body-mind dualism, in its various offerings, has difficulty with the relation between brain and mind. Interaction, psycho-physical parallelism, epiphenomenalism, emergence, supervenience – each of these seems to fall short of providing the needed level of understanding, and not unnaturally each is in turn hotly contested. Such theories fall short for pretty much the same sort of reason that human analogies for the divine mysteries are unsatisfactory. The human person is sui generis. In this case, the mystery arises not because of divine transcendence, but from our inability to transcend ourselves. For we ourselves are the cases for which understanding is sought.

Shunning Middle Knowledge

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.2)

I’ve heard it said that many Calvinist writers currently favour some form of the doctrine of middle knowledge. I’ve also heard that among the roll call are the names of John Frame, and John Feinberg, but I have not checked this. I hope not. Terrance Tiessen and Bruce Ware have openly avowed their commitment to Calvinist middle knowledge. Terry and I have been involved in a conversation on the matter, arising from his article 'Why Calvinists Should Believe in Divine Middle Knowledge Although They Reject Molinism' (Westminster Jnl., 2007), which is to be published in due course in that journal . So this leaves Bruce, whose presentation differs somewhat from Terry Tiessen’s. I devote this short Analysis to his views as they are to be found in his God’s Greater Glory, (Crossway, 2004)

Two preliminary points

Bruce Ware offers his thoughts about middle knowledge as a contribution to establishing and further understanding God’s asymmetrical attitude to good and evil. Although God works all things after the counsel of his own will, the way in which he works his will regarding evil is different from the way in which he works good, since being immaculately holy, he cannot be the author of sin, that is, he is incapable of having evil imaginations and wicked desires that immediately bring forth evil.

There is a long tradition in Reformed Theology of addressing this question, if only because the Reformed among all theological outlooks are the most frequently taxed with the objection that their views entail that God is the author of sin. Various responses have been offered; for example, that evil is a privation or loss and therefore that as a matter of metaphysical necessity God, who has fullness of being, cannot author evil; that God is a distinct type of causal agency, he is the primary cause, not to be confused with secondary, creaturely causes; and finally that God brings about evil by willingly permitting it. Each of these positions is repeated ad nauseam in the literature; they are not exclusive of each other, but can be combined to make a cumulative case against the charge of God’s authorship of evil. There remains, of course, an element of mystery, of how it is that the divine ordination meshes with human sin and evil. Augustine and Calvin, for example, routinely refer to the matter as ‘ineffable’. Bruce Ware, and others, offer 'Compatibilist Middle Knowledge' as one way in which such ineffability can be mitigated.

Middle Knowledge

What is middle knowledge? This is the doctrine that between God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities, and his free knowledge, what he has freely planned to bring to pass, there is a middle knowledge, his knowledge of what his free creatures would do in a vast variety of different circumstances. This third type of knowledge is an invention of Fonseca and Molina (two Jesuit theologians) tailored specifically to harmonise God’s sovereignty and libertarian free choice and divine grace and evil. Jacobus Arminius borrowed or adopted this device in his Protestant account of divine foreknowledge and human free choice. (The details can be found in Alfred Freddoso’s Introduction to his translation of Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge, (Cornell University Press, 1988) and in Richard Muller’s book on Arminius, respectively.)

To begin with, it should be noted that the very notion of middle knowledge collapses if its underlying rationale and necessity are changed. That rationale and necessity rest upon the Jesuit and Arminian commitment to the freedom of indifference. As it is impossible to have a soufflé without eggs, so it is impossible to have middle knowledge without the freedom of indifference. Indeed, I think it is true that it was Molinism and the debate that it raised, and Arminianism and the debate that it raised, that made it clear to the Reformed, clearer than it had been before, that they would be better, much better, to be committed to a compatibilist account of human freedom than to some form of incompatibilism.

Enter Bruce Ware

Enter Bruce Ware. Ware has an explicit commitment to compatibilist human freedom; he thinks that it is revealed truth, and besides that, he argues (like Jonathan Edwards) that forms of incompatibilism are logically defective. (GGG 78) So what can possibly be the attraction of middle knowledge?

Let us try to answer this first by seeing what according to Bruce Ware is left of middle knowledge. He notes that libertarian freedom is problematic. (GGG 112) But once we abandon libertarian freedom, according to Ware, and recognise that there is a necessary connection (that is, a causally necessary connection), ‘between knowledge of a given state of affairs and knowledge of what the agent would choose in that particular setting…’ then all is plain sailing; more light is immediately thrown on the meshing of sovereignty and responsibiity. For given this connectedness, ‘God could know what the agent would choose by knowing fully the circumstances in which the agent would make his choice’. (GGG 113-4) As Ware explains, ‘The set of factors in which the agent makes his choice constitutes a set of individually necessary and jointly necessary sufficient conditions for forming within the agent a strongest inclination or highest desire by which he then makes the one choice that is in accordance with that highest desire’. (GGG 114)

But if God knows what Jones, if placed in circumstances C, would do, then this is surely part of God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities. Among these possibilities are segments like those described by Ware. Middle knowledge ‘works’ for the compatibilist, Ware says (GGG 115), but it only works because it is not genuine middle knowledge, a distinct type of divine knowledge, but part of God’s natural knowledge. It works precisely because it is not middle knowledge. The examples that he cites from Scripture (GGG115-9) are of God’s knowledge of unactualised possibilities, possibilities therefore that are counterfactual, but they are not counterfactuals of human (libertarian) freedom, and so are not middle knowledge at all. Ware can only be saying what he does because of an imperfect grasp of what the medieval theologians, and following them the Reformed and the Reformed Orthodox, have meant by God’s necessary knowledge. I fear that what results is not so much middle knowledge as muddle knowledge.

Of course what particularly interests Ware is the use that this alleged middle knowledge can be put to in elucidating God’s relationship to evil. (GGG 119f.) Here we must note that he is keen to elucidate that relationship, to show more about how it can be that God ordains evil but is not its author. (This is a recurring theme, GGG, 112, 113, 122, 130.) His idea is that middle knowledge explains more of how it can be that such a relation is indirect and permissive, in that God’s decree respecting some possible acts of evil is routed through his knowledge of certain counterfactuals.

Ware represents God as deliberating as he passes from his natural knowledge to his free knowledge via his middle knowledge, his knowledge of counterfactuals. In a footnote (GGG, 120 fn. 12) he warns the reader that such language is a mere façon de parler, since all God’s deliberations are in ‘eternity past’, atemporal. But I doubt whether Ware can have it both ways. I doubt whether he has a hope of preserving a special kind of knowledge, compatibilisit middle knowledge, which is timelessly eternal. For Molina, the contents of God’s middle knowledge were timelessly eternal but they were distinct because they had a distinct content, they were (one and all) possible instances of the liberty of indifference, which immediately gave such knowledge a status distinct from God’s natural knowledge. If Warian middle knowledge is distinct from natural knowledge, what makes it distinct? The only possible candidate for an answer to that question is that it is the knowledge of what God will permissively decree that he ‘comes to’, that he deliberates over such knowledge in deciding which evils he will permissively decree. Ware’s account is, I believe, infected with temporalism. The classic grammar of God , bequeathed to us from Augustine, creaks: temporalism, mutability, ignorance - each began to show their heads

That apart, even as Ware describes this deliberation, whether it is a temporal process or not, it is not at all clear that such middle knowledge helps us with evil. This is what Ware says ‘By controlling the complex of factors prompting the natures of moral agents to develop a strongest inclination within a given situation, God could effectively redirect the choice and action that the agent could carry our’.’ (GGG 121). This cannot be God ‘occasioning’ a choice, as Ware suggests (GGG123) ). But nor can it be a description of God changing the complex of factors, as Ware supposes (GGG 121) but of him simply choosing one set of possibilities over another. God does not change possible people, like a marionette may be changed by being painted red instead of its present green before the show begins. Rather God simply selects a possible person placed in one set of circumstances (one set of possibilities) or that person placed in another set (another possibility).

The only kind of middle knowledge is that devised by Molina and his frères. There are no other kinds, and Ware’s attempt to show that there is another kind, compatibilist middle knowledge, and that it will help us deflecting from God the charge of being the author of evil, is consequently futile. There is divine counterfactual knowledge, knowledge of what might be and of what might have been, but that is part of God’s natural knowledge. And there remain the standard ways of parrying the charge of God and evil: evil as privation, primary and secondary causation, and the Augustinian idea of ‘willing permission’. But the mystery remains as well. Which is how we might expect things to be.