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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What is the Uncaused Cause of the Universe?

Christianity has always been a faith that relies on reason and evidence for its beliefs. Paul models this in his challenge in 1 Corinthians 15, where he hangs all of Christianity on the fact of Jesus' resurrection from the dead "(if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile").1 After the apostles, we have the witness of early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, through thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas who all contributed to not simply the church's mental development, but to the growth of reason the world over.

 One of the more famous defenses by Thomas Aquinas is his Five Ways argument for God's existence, one of which argues that God is the Uncaused Cause2. This particular argument is sometimes misunderstood as arguing that all events are caused by preceding events, like a chain of dominoes. So, it you were to trace all events back in time, you'd eventually get to a first cause that starts the dominoes falling. That description is closer to another of Aquinas' Five Ways arguments, the Unmoved Mover. The Uncaused Cause isn't a time-dependent argument, but rather an explanation of contingency. Just as my life is contingent on me breathing air right now, not just in the past, so all effects can point to their current state of existence as contingent on something else.

Aquinas rightly notes that to try and explain an effect (say the existence of the universe) by pointing to itself is impossible. This also applied to multiverse scenarios, since we must ask what causes the multiverse "engine" to produce multiple universes. Aquinas rightly says that such claims are simply not explanations. We must ground all effects in an ultimate cause, otherwise we have explained nothing.

Peter S. Williams has a great little video clip clearly explaining Aquinas' Uncaused Cause argument.  Check it out below:


References

1. See: Esposito, Lenny. "Why is the Resurrection so important?" Come Reason Ministries. Web.
http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2013/03/why-is-resurrection-so-important.html 10 March 2013.
2. Aquinas, Thomas. "Whether God exists?" Summa Theologica. (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947). Web.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q2_A3.html 5 Aug 2014.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Would Rape Be Moral If God Commanded It?

Last week, I recounted a time speaking with an atheist woman on the campus at UC Berkeley who said that rape would be OK if the person doing so truly believed he was right. It showed the folly of those who held to moral relativism. The post spurred a comment by Mark, who asked, "If the man had been commanded by God to perform the rape, would it then be a moral act?"


While Mark's question seems to offer a twist on the concept of grounding morality in God, the objection itself is not a new one. In fact, we know it's been around for at least 2,300 years because the Greek philosopher Plato set it forth in one of his dialogues, where the protagonist Socrates asks Euthyphro basically "Is God good because he follows some intrinsic goodness independent of Him, or is good whatever God declares to be good?"

Euthyphro's dilemma is famous because both options have disastrous consequences. If there's some independent concept of goodness, then even God is obligated to be good. But what or how does one then discover that concept? What grounds it? And how can God be God if He must obey laws like the rest of us? Doesn't this make God a little less omnipotent? But if we take the other option, that good is simply whatever God says is good, it makes good and bad pretty arbitrary. God could conceivably do what Mark asks (command that rape is now a good thing) and sins become virtues while virtues turn to sins. What kind of morality is that?

Splitting the Horns of Euthyphro's Dilemma

Christians have not been unaware of Euthyphro's dilemma. God's relationship with morality has been written about extensively by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and others. However, the solution to this dilemma is not as hard as one may think. The answer lies in the fact that there are more than the two choices that Plato laid out in his original dialogue. Christian theology teaches that God has certain intrinsic properties within Himself, such as love. Love cannot exist without a person to express it and when the Bible says "God is love" it communicates that it is a fundamental part of God's nature to love. Similarly, goodness is something that flows from the nature of God Himself. When we talk about doing what is right or wrong, we are comparing our actions to those that God would naturally approve or disapprove of us performing.

For an example of actions flow from nature, we can look to ourselves. Human beings are naturally linguistic creatures; we think in terms of language. If I asked you to plan your evening in your mind right now, you would invariably use words as you thought about your options. We don't think in only pictures but we use words and sentences, even if we aren't communicating our thoughts to someone else. Language is part of human nature and it simply flows from us. To try and violate this nature is pretty much impossible, because there is no other way to think about abstract ideas like morality.

As language flows from human nature, so goodness flows from God's nature, and it would be impossible for Him to violate His nature. Because of this, we see the question Mark asked becomes nonsensical. To ask if rape would be a moral act if God commanded it makes as much sense as to ask whether God could make a rock so big that He couldn't lift it. God simply would never command rape to be moral. We can therefore split the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma and provide a third option.

By grounding moral attributes in God's nature, we achieve two things: 1) moral attributes are objective, they don't change because God' nature doesn't change and 2) God isn't somehow obligated to follow an independent law, but He follows the law within Himself. Thus, objective moral values make sense and we can know that the good is just that.

Photo courtesy Emmanuel Huybrechts via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Thinking Less About Stuff and More About God (video)



Is pragmatism replacing piety in the church today? There are six megathemes—shifts in the way Christians think and act—that show how much the world's ideas are corrupting the church today. In the third of our six-part series, Lenny notes that growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life. But by avoiding wrestling with ethical and theological questions, we are doomed to hold a very superficial view of both Christianity AND life. That is not only sin, it is a travesty of living.


 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Top Five Come Reason Apologetics Blog Posts for July

Facing off against atheists, Mormons, and those who would hold Gandhi in the same regard as Jesus are among our top five resources for July. Also is a collection of resources dealing with the science and religion controversy.  Here are the top five apologetics blog posts for July:
  1. When an atheist says it's OK to rape her sister
  2. Are Mormons Christians, too?
  3. We Don't Know What We Believe
  4. Is Gandhi a better model for Christians?
  5. Science and Religion Resources

Friday, August 01, 2014

Christians in the Middle Ages Did Not Believe in a Flat Earth

Many times when I'm discussing issues of faith and science, I hear the accusation that one cannot hold the Bible to be true and accept modern scientific findings. Usually, the person with whom I'm conversing will assert how backwards the beliefs of Christian society was during the Middle Ages and that we would still believe in a flat earth had it not been for the scientific revolution brought on by the Renaissance.


The idea that the medieval Church held to a flat earth has been around for some time. In his popular historical text The Discoveres, Daniel Boorstin exemplifies the position, as he devotes a full chapter of the book, ominously entitled "A Flat Earth Returns," to the proposition.He writes:
While Christian geographers feared the close calculations of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus and Ptolemy, they cheerfully embellished their pious Jerusalem-centered maps with the wildest ventures of pagan imagination. Julius Solinus (fl. A.D. 220)… provided the standard source of geographic myth during all the years of the Great Interruption, from the fourth till the fourteenth centuries… Saint Augustine himself drew upon Solinus, as did all the other leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages."1
Boorstin elsewhere describes the Middle Ages as "a far more remarkable act of retreat."2 However, the idea that all the leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages feared an idea of a spherical earth is simply wrong. For example, at the very beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas' 13th century Summa Theologica, this leading Christian thinker writes about the spherical character of the earth. "For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself."3

The interesting thing about Aquinas' use of the roundness of the earth is that he was using the fact as an example of something well known. Thomas said that the theologian should explore theology to find its clear truths the way the astronomer or the physicist will use their disciplines to show the roundness of the earth. In other words, Aquinas is using the fact of a round earth the way the atheist would, as something no one would doubt.

By any measure, Aquinas must be considered one of the "leading Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages." Yet, here is Aquinas clearly believing in a round earth! This made me curious to investigate what some other church fathers believed. Since Boorstein brought up Augustine, I looked there next. In City of God, Book XVI, chapter 9, Augustine discusses possible races of men who may have escaped the Flood of Noah. He writes:
And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other:  hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited.  But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.4
Note that the focus here is whether there were human survivors of the Flood. Augustine is commenting on the possibility of antipodes—people taking a boat to the opposite end of the earth, not sailing off of an edge. Augustine states that even if science does show a round earth, it doesn't follow that it has people on it.

In preaching on Psalm 61, Augustine also makes his belief known, when he comments that Christ will "showeth himself to be throughout all nations in the whole round world, in great glory, but in great tribulation."5 It seems Augustine believed, then, in a round earth. Even the fifth century father Gregory of Nyssa taught that the earth was spherical, stating "As, when the sun shines above the earth, the shadow is spread over its lower part, because its spherical shape makes it impossible for it to be clasped all round at one and the same time by the rays."6

Gregory of Nyssa lived in the fourth century, Augustine lived in the fifth century, and Aquinas lived in the thirteenth. All are "leading Christian thinkers" and all believed in a spherical earth, so Boorstin's charge itself falls flat. It simply isn't true that the vast majority of people prior to the Renaissance held to a flat earth, and to accuse modern Christians of doing the same is boorishness.

References

1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers. (New York: Vintage Books, 1983). 110.
2. Boorstin. 102.
3. Aquinas, Saint Thomas (2012-05-17). Summa Theologica, Part I (Prima Pars) From the Complete American Edition (Kindle Locations 94-95).  . Kindle Edition.
4. Schaff, Philip. St. Augustine's City of God and Christian Doctrine. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 2.0 Web. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XVI.9.html
5. Schaff, Philip. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 8) Web. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.LXI.html
6. St. Gregory of Nyssa." On the Soul and the Resurrection." New Advent. Web. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2915.htm
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