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Oxford Theologian Giles Fraser Folds Intellectual Tent

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Giles Fraser, a lecturer at Wadham College, Oxford, has decided that theism is not a premise that can be defended intellectually. In an article on Ekklesia entitled God is Beyond Metaphysics, Fraser writes:

Last year, I stopped teaching undergraduates at Oxford. For years, I had struggled through the Philosophy of Religion course, where I did not much recognise the God being discussed by generations of students.

For example: to write that hoary old essay on how suffering is possible if God is omnipotent and good, without being able to write about the cross or the story of salvation — not “philosophical” enough — is like trying to fight with both hands tied behind one’s back. Throughout the course, the wonders of God’s loving purposes are exchanged for a metaphysical Meccano set. It was like attempting to understand the beauty of a butterfly by studying one pinned on a board rather than one fluttering in a meadow.

Aside from his pathetic butterfly analogy (his god can’t be seen either fluttering or pinned to a board) I find it astounding that someone could spend presumably decades in the world’s top educational institutions, and not see the contradiction. He’s essentially arguing that passionate or emotionally charged events of dubious historical nature (such as the crucifixion) can have a bearing on larger questions of philosophy.

Huh?

Jesus dying as the “propitiation” for the sins of others can be supported exactly how? Even if true, this explains away theodicy? I always understood “human suffering” and “sin” as two distinctly different problems:

One, the problem of human suffering: Natural disasters, poverty, disease, malnutrition, birth defects, and mortality. And two, the problem of evil: The fall of man, the serpent, pride, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, sexual temptation, etc. According to the doctrine, redemption from “sin” is only available through Jesus Christ. No one in any church I’ve ever heard claims the problems of human suffering can be solved–they seem to almost universally advocate an abject acceptance of the vagaries of “god’s plan.” They’d look pretty foolish otherwise since as Earth’s population explodes, despite all their efforts, the magnitude of human suffering increases almost daily. [What improvements there are on the human condition come almost exclusively from the halls of science: immunization, water filtration, condoms, communication, pharmaceuticals, etc.]

But this distinction seems to be lost on Giles, or he’s decided it doesn’t matter. According to what I would have no choice but to call “surrender theology,” Giles lumps them together and sweeps them all under the rug of his beliefs and personal subjective experiences–they can all be solved with a “relationship” with the divine.

Pascal wrote of the difference between the God of the philosophers, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the former being some lifeless intellectual formula, and the latter something living and active, with which people could have a relationship.

After years of reading philosophy, Martin Luther concluded: “I have worn myself out at this, and can see quite clearly that it is a vain and ruinous study. It is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies, and to learn Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

In other words, Giles is hanging his hat on 500-year-old statements of theological incoherence from Martin Luther. Martin Luther apparently couldn’t figure it out either, so he gave up and busied himself with a life of temporal power–the theo-political “Reformation.” Then as now, the most advanced theologians are forced to conclude that none of it can be supported. It’s beyond philosophy. So just forget about making sense of it, shut up, and pray. And donate. And sacrifice.

Giles blames the rise of atheism on an earlier Christian concession to philosophy and a decision to engage in apologetics. “We brought it on ourselves.” He says.

The argument is roughly this. As free-thinkers began to challenge the Christian world-view, the Church set its finest minds the task of defending Christianity. As the challenge was basically philosophical, the Church chose Christian philosophers to see off the challenge. The problem was that, in doing so, the Church effectively conceded that the core issues of faith are essentially philosophical.

It was a poor place to mount a defence of Christianity. The teachings of the carpenter from Galilee were replaced by the apparently more sophisticated arguments of the philosophers. The problem was that the arguments of the philosophers became increasingly unconvincing and desperate. Christianity had, in Fr Buckley’s words, “abandoned the justification intrinsic to its nature”. Thus the very forces that were designed to defend God eventually gave rise to atheism.

It’s refreshing to hear such honesty. It sounds to me like Christians can safely shut down their schools of theology, since even the luminaries concede their work has got little to do with knowledge or argument. It’s all about their desire for answers, and the adjustments they force themselves to make inside their own heads. And a retreat into a pre-intellectual and subjective stubbornness. And that can be taught in just two words: “Have faith.”

“Follow the leader” also helps.


Comments (8 comments)

Adam Hemphill / February 10th, 2008, 4:01 pm / #1

This matches very well with my own personal experience. As a palliative to my parents’ anxieties, I attended Oklahoma Christian University for a year. At one point, there was a debate and panel about “The Question of God.” Even with some of the more intellectually accomplished professors of this school in attendance, they were not able to get beyond admitting that the real answer was “Have faith.”

Even so, my father refuses to accept this stance. He still believes in scientific and historical arguments for Christianity, even though he has been thoroughly exposed to their weaknesses.

Really, I think it comes down to this: He doesn’t know how to live without a “God” to direct him. As a result, he has become intellectualy dishonest with himself.

Thank you for thinking.

Panhandle Faithless

Peter / February 12th, 2008, 11:03 pm / #2

He doesn’t know how to live without a “God” to direct him.

This is the pathetic excuse of many believers, to lazy or too afraid to think for themselves and find their morality outside of an institution that has proven very often that their morality is one of convenience – despite all their irate spouting to the contrary.

I never needed the church to find a way to live with my fellow wo/man. Philosophy, rationality can most successfully replace the rather corrupt teachings of a discreditet institution. Be this the catholic church, any of the evangelical churches or whatever other teachings trely on a supernatural being observing us to keep us in line.

Religion is a cop out – as is any secular religion i.e. comminism, nazism – to personal responsibility and accountability to oneself and his fellow human beings.
Religion can excuse a lot of bad deeds – I have no such luxury.

Marty / February 13th, 2008, 7:23 pm / #3

We need to be more careful here. Many mistakes are being made in this article that are couterproductive to the cause of Atheism. Most of them are precisely the kind of fallacies claimed against others, especially Christians.

For instance, the writer’s astoundedness is no basis for a logical argument. Others would say of science “how lond did it take science to figure out the world wasn’t flat?” To which a well-worn reply would be that argument is irrelevant.

Also, the Fraser quote did not describe the cross or the story of salvation as passionate or emotionally charged ideas, but the writer has inferred this. If our arguments are to be consistent we must not make the same errors we chide our opposers make.

Next, the writer sates his opinion that “sin” and “human suffering” as distinct. While this may seem to make sense, this does not necessarily make it so. Yet, the writer does nothing to support his “belief” and steamrolls on to make his point.

A later reference to Martin Luther, the writer concludes “he (Luther) apparently couldn’t figure it out.” Here the writer acknowledges he didn’t understand what Luther wrote, yet he (writer) uses his lack of understanding to presuppose Luther didn’t understand. Then, he uses Luther “lack of understanding” as his premise to argue that the whole of religion or at least Christianity is beyond philosophy.

To reiterate my point, let us not be hypocritical or foolish by making the very lame baseless arguments that we accuse other of making. To miss this would be like…the pot calling the kettle black?

BlackSun / February 13th, 2008, 9:56 pm / #4

Marty,

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a critique which missed the point further!

My surprise was not used to try to refute Fraser’s argument but that he made it at all without presenting evidence. When he claimed that God or the problem of evil could not be discussed without “being able to write about the cross or the story of salvation,” he made an incoherent claim. He presupposes that Christ died for our sins, and somehow still has an affect on humanity. I’m shocked that an Oxford theologian wouldn’t see the need to back this up.

Also, the Fraser quote did not describe the cross or the story of salvation as passionate or emotionally charged ideas, but the writer has inferred this.

Yes, I’m making that claim. The idea of Christian salvation is highly emotionally charged and is a belief without evidence. It has no bearing on the philosophical discussion about the problem of evil (which is by and large a sociological and anthropological discussion).

Next, the writer sates his opinion that “sin” and “human suffering” as distinct. While this may seem to make sense, this does not necessarily make it so. Yet, the writer does nothing to support his “belief” and steamrolls on to make his point.

Nonsense. I provided examples of why they are different. And they are treated differently by religious people. Sin is claimed to be a state in need of divine redemption. And human suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition, not subject to divine intervention, which they try to explain away with theodicy.

I’m trying to straddle keeping up with the theological arguments, while at the same time maintaining some intellectual rigor–not an easy task. But even in theological terms, the ideas of salvation and theodicy are oddly juxtaposed when addressing the various forms of “evil’ or “suffering.”

A later reference to Martin Luther, the writer concludes “he (Luther) apparently couldn’t figure it out.”

Wrong again. Martin Luther said he couldn’t figure it out. He said “I have worn myself out at this, and can see quite clearly that it is a vain and ruinous study. It is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies, and to learn Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Can you read?

Then, he uses Luther “lack of understanding” as his premise to argue that the whole of religion or at least Christianity is beyond philosophy.

Actually, this is what Fraser is saying, which is why I titled the article “…folds his intellectual tent.”

I don’t know where you’re coming from, or what is your point, but basically, I’m agreeing with Fraser. Remember? I said “It’s refreshing to hear such honesty.”

So maybe you should improve your reading comprehension before you comment again. It might help you to avoid such confusion. OK?

Cristy / February 15th, 2008, 9:30 pm / #5

As a philosophy major, I have to say something here. I think that the reason that so many traditional Christians dislike philosophy is because any serious philosophical disscusion needs to be logical, and logically, Christianity is impossible. In order for even a theoretical god to be omnipotent, omnicient, etc, that god has to be either A. immaterial or B. all matter (as in pantheism). A philosophical defense of Christianity is impossible because it has to contradict itself internally before it is even exposed to reality (Jesus would have to be both immaterial and material as well as infinite and finite).

Oh, and a note on Pascal, who Fraiser mentions- There is an argument called Pascal’s Wager. This argument is considered so weak that my intro to philosophy teacher used it as an example on how to demolish someone else’s argument. A college freshman is expected to be able to see the obvious holes in his Pascal’s reasoning.

If you want some interesting philosophical reading on religion and materialism, I recommend Ludwig Feuerbach. He’s not very well known and not all of his works are available in English, but he’s brilliant. I would suggest that you be familiar with Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz first because Feuerbach does a lot of arguing against them. Feuerbach was an inspiration to people as diverse as Freud and Marx. Speaking of Marx, Peter, above you referred to communism as a “secular religion”. You should be careful when using that term, because communism as defined by Marx clearly excludes communism as defined by Vladimir Lennon. Marxist communism (often considered a branch of left hegelism) is about eliminating oppression, whereas Soviet Socialism is all about oppression. I think that before people go throwing around the term communist, they should read up on Marx-not by reading about Marx, but by reading his actual writings. Also, be careful because several Soviet leaders actually make up sayings and attribute them to Marx or attribute Engel’s statements to Marx. Despite Marx and Engel’s close friendship, they had serious differences in opinion and in how they wished to accomplish their goals. In fact, Marx thought that democracy was communist. Marx’s writing on the Polish democratic revolution makes this ecspecially clear, but even the communist manifesto (cowritten by Engel) encourages participation in democracy. The works of Marx and Engel are available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/index.htm so you can go see for yourself.

Strappado / February 20th, 2008, 1:18 pm / #6

In a sense I quite liked his post, because it was refreshing to see someone ditch the philosophical god that is always held up when one tries to argue against his existence. The philosophy-god is just an infalsifiable dot in space, much like the god of deism, while Jehovah (or whatever they prefer to call him) is more of a comic character who imho is falsified in the same way Mickey Mouse is.
Christians believe in Jehovah, address Heaven, not a dot in space. Most of them anyway. I’m glad someone is honest about it instead of switching between Jehovah(theology) to “god” (existence) as they see fit.

Cristy / March 14th, 2008, 9:44 pm / #7

Marty,

To people who ask the question how long did it take for science to figure out the world was not flat, say not very damned long. Mathmaticians had it by 600 BCE, Pythogoras (the man of the famous pythagorean theorem), was a great supporter of the theory. Plato and Aristotle both believed in a spherical Earth. Around 250 BCE, Erastothanes estimated the Earth’s circumferance with shocking accuracy. As for the east, Indian texts about a spherical Earth go back just as far. The notion that the spherical Earth theory origionates with Colombus in the 1400’s is completely wrong. In fact, during the time that Columbus lived, it was once again the accepted view of the educated that the Earth was speherical. If anything, it is Christianity, not science that is to blame for the suppression of the theory.

Ang / March 15th, 2008, 12:55 pm / #8

Strappado,
But this makes it worse, no? He’s essentially saying “i cannot prove it, but we should all still believe in it”. It represents a total abandonment of reason!
Curious: how did he think the church should have defended it’s world-view, if not philosophically?

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