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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Evolving Lies

As even disinterested observers admit, any theory that has to account for both Giganotosaurus and Genesis is going to require nuance. Unfortunately, the people involved in the evolution-creationism debate tend to lack the quality to a startling degree. As a result, the evolution-creation debate is extremely silly and wildly amusing. But, that having been said, one side has waged a dirty fight, and it is time that we who watch the struggle with popcorn in hand insisted on fairness all around.

Have you heard of The Selfish Gene? It is Exhibit A in the gallery. The problem lies precisely in the title of Richard Dawkins’ book, and I use the verb “lies” most deliberately. You see, Dawkins gets in an illegal kidney punch on the creationists before you even open the book.

He isn’t alone. When we read through the evolutionist arguments, we hear constantly of “the evolutionary imperative to preserve the individual” or “self preservation is the first law of nature." We hear about good genes, bad genes, junk genes, advanced species, less advanced species. There is only one thing they don’t mention. This whole line of conversation is a lie.

Every time a supporter of evolution speaks this way, he is explicitly denying the evolutionary theory he pretends to support. But how can this be? Dawkins seems quite the supporter of evolution.

He is. And that’s the problem.

You see, Dawkins, Gould, et. al., are quite willing to punch the daylights out of a creationist and knock him to the mat, but they don’t fight clean. They simply refuse to stay in their own corner of the English vocabulary while the referee is giving the count. Let me explain.

Take the word “good”. Something can only be good if it has a teleology, a purpose. That is, something is good only insofar as it is a necessary component towards achieving a good, as opposed to a bad, end. But here’s the kicker. In order to have a purpose, there must first be an intellect and a will. That is, you must be a person. Only a person can have a purpose. Tables don’t have a purpose. They don’t think, “I suppose I will support the dishes for breakfast today.” Tables just are. “Good” is a value judgement persons use when they consider the use of an object in reference to the purpose they have in mind. The words “good” and “bad” have no meaning apart from persons.

Now, there’s a debased word: “person.” What is a person? The word “person” is a strictly theological term, developed in the second century to describe the three Persons of the Trinity. There is one God, but three Divine Persons. The three Persons of the Trinity are distinguished only by their divine relations. Human persons are in the divine image and likeness. A human person is a created entity that is called into a relationship with the Divine Persons of the Trinity by the Trinity Himself. We humans are persons only because we are called to participate in communion with the Original Three Persons.

This is very important. From the creationist’s point of view, if God didn’t call us into relationship with Himself, we would be animals, not persons. Because God is Himself, because He calls us, we become ourselves, persons.

So Dawkins cheats when he uses the word “selfish.” "Self" can only be distinguished through personhood. In a room filled with inanimate objects, none of the objects think, so none of the objects have a "self-ness." It is only persons who make the distinction between "self" and "other." This is precisely because we, as human persons, are defined only by our relationship to the Three Divine Persons. Divinity is wholly “other” compared to my puny “self.” That’s how I know my self exists – I ain’t Him, so I must be me. The logic is impeccable.

The World According to Evolution

But, the whole point of evolutionary theory is to explicitly deny the need for persons at all, human or divine. Thus, evolution necessarily and specifically must deny the idea of "self." Evolutionary theory teaches one foundational truth: everything depends on the random interaction of chemicals, interactions completely unaffected by the presence or absence of personhood, self-ness or anything like it. Evolution insists on this foundation, in fact.

But, without persons, evolution has no teleology, no purpose. Thus, atheistic evolutionary theory specifically denies that evolution is either good or bad. According to the theory, evolution simply is. It isn’t headed for an endpoint. It doesn’t have a purpose. Evolution doesn't select good traits or bad traits. It is a mindless process. It can't select. It just is.

Even if it could select, there would be nothing to select. There are no good or bad traits. There are traits that survive and traits that do not survive. Just because a trait survives does not make it good - the trait may only be useful in a highly specialized niche which is swiftly disappearing, and the species with the trait will therefore disappear as the environment changes. The same is true for a trait that does not survive. Complexity only means the trait is probably newer, but newer is not better, nor is older worse. Everything is just a random swirl of chemicals, no meaning, no purpose, no end, no "higher forms" versus "lower forms" of life. Even life is not better or worse than being an inanimate object. Everything just is.

The Lab Test for Sin

So, when evolutionists use the word “imperative” in regards to evolution, they are lying. As Merriam Webster points out, the word “imperative” is drawn from the Latin imperare, "to command." It means: “of, relating to, or constituting the grammatical mood that expresses the will to influence the behavior of another; expressive of a command, entreaty, or exhortation; having power to restrain, control, and direct; not to be avoided or evaded : NECESSARY [an imperative duty].”

“Will,” “influence,” “entreaty,” “restrain”… all of these words require purpose, each requires an intellect and a will. A tree doesn’t command. A fungus does restrain. Bacteria are agents of influenza, not influence.

Evolutionists know all this, but they insist on using language that pretends otherwise.

When evolutionists start talking about "self," "selfishness," “good,” “bad,” or anything remotely touching on personhood, they have – by that fact - stopped using the language of evolution. Poorly-schooled students of evolutionary theory may think they are still discussing evolution, but evolutionary theory specifically denies that they are. The students have anthropomorphized the discussion, pretended a will and intellect are present when none are, they have brought in a factor that is completely extraneous, absolutely irrelevant, to the evolutionary discussion. They are, in short, discussing theology, not science.

But evolutionists don’t just pull this trick when discussing DNA. They do the same things when discussing animals. They claim, for instance, that animals make and use tools. But the words “make” and “tool” imply purpose. Only persons have purposes. Certainly we can observe that an animal acts in a specific way, but that does not prove the animal has intentionality. Vines grow toward the sun. Do they intend to grow towards the sun? No. Even if they did, there is no way to prove it scientifically.

Funhouse Mirrors

Science cannot test for intentionality. If science could test for intentionality, then it could test for that subset of intentionality known as disordered intentionality.

Put another way, if you can scientifically prove that apes act intentionally, then you can scientifically prove apes can sin. In fact, if you can prove intentionality, you can prove apes do sin. If you can prove it for apes, you can prove it for men.

I've heard science make a lot of claims, but I've never heard a scientist claim he could demonstrate through lab technique what is a sin and what is not. Yet this is precisely the claim that scientists make when they claim that apes, dolphins, orangutans, tangerines, pick your favorite animate or inanimate object, make and use tools. They are claiming that they can test for intentionality, for sin.

They see an ape take an action - it throws a stick. They anthropomorphize that action (which is not science), saying "Wow, we throw sticks too!" Then they claim that science has demonstrated something when, in fact, the scientist has really only observed and anthropomorphized. Just because a scientist does something doesn't make it science.

In fact, we could extend their reasoning to show the fallacy. I fall down. So do apes. So do unbalanced bricks. Thus, all three must be persons.

See how easy it is? I simply have to begin the observation with the assumption that the things I am comparing myself to possess an intellectual state like mine. By the very fact that anyone assumes this kind of similarity, this kind of connection between the actions of bricks, apes and man, those actions are anthropomorphized. Thus, the scientist assumes what he set out to prove: apes are persons.

"But wait," says the scientist, "I have further argument!"

"Oh?" I reply, "And what might that be?"

"Apes, bricks and persons are all made out of the same subatomic particles! See, this proves definitively that all three are persons!"

Well, no, it doesn't. But this is essentially the DNA argument. So we share much of the same DNA (and all of the same subatomic particles) with apes. So what? Personhood is a function of God's divine call to us to share intimate communion with Him. That call is completely independent of whether or not we have a particular somatic structure or particular material components. Personhood is a gift from God, it is not a consequence of the particular arrangement of components in material reality. Personhood is bestowed from above, it does not bubble up from below.

Why do they think apes are persons? Because they do bad things? So do virii and tsunamis. Oh, so apes have a brain? Very nice - so does an ant. Oh, so it's a rather complex brain? Yes, so is that of a human corpse. So it's a rather complex living brain? Yes, I suppose it is. And?

And... And... AND... So what?

Brains are tools for the intellect. The intellect is an aspect of the immortal spiritual soul. The brain is not itself the intellect, it is the mediating tool the intellect makes use of in human beings to express itself. Strictly speaking, the brain is not necessary for the possession or expression of a person’s intellect.

God is Three Persons. God is also anencephalic, but He seems to get on just fine without a brain or even a skull to house it in. So do the angels. So do we. If you don't think so, talk to the saints in heaven. God is Three Persons. He has no DNA. Angels are persons, they have intellect and will. They have no DNA. Human beings in heaven are persons, and they are totally separated from their DNA. Personhood, intellect, will, these things are from God. God gives us an intellect and a will so we can respond to His call to enter relationship with Him. Personhood, intellect, will, this is a theology discussion, not a science discussion.

The Language of Kudzu

So why do smart people keep making extraordinarily stupid mistakes of language? The first question is obvious: are these mistakes? Evolutionists are not stupid. They know perfectly well they are mis-using the language. In their own texts, they even go out of their way to point out that their own use of these theological terms is not correct. They put the theological words in quotes, they warn the reader that evolution really doesn’t have intentionality, nor does anything that is subject to evolution (including us?). They knowingly, routinely encroach on theological discourse; they knowingly, routinely violate the very science they claim to want to explain.

The scientist might argue that he is simply using the theological word in a new, narrowly scientific technical sense. Alright. It is certainly the case that words change in meaning over time. But, the fact is, due to cultural usages, words have meanings that are independent of what anyone might want them to mean.

Take, for instance, the way particle physics has taken over the use of the word "color" for quarks. “Color” in the macro universe refers to specific wavelengths of light. Quarks are not photons, so speaking of a quark’s “color” has no relevance or reference to color as a child with a box of crayons knows color. Intellectually, everyone who has ever read an article about quarks knows this.

But the word "color" is so culturally laden that any use of it, even in a context in which the original definition clearly has no application, causes the person encountering the word to react in a certain way. When we see the word “color” next to a quark, we inevitably picture the quark as a pinhead speck of a specific color - red or blue or green - even though we know intellectually that this is perfectly silly. Quarks don’t emit photons, they don’t have color in a macro-sense.

Now, in physics, this double meaning of “color” is not a problem because mentally visualizing a red quark doesn't interfere with the quark concept. None of the calculations involved, none of the discussions concerning the particle, touch on anything remotely close to the original meaning of the word "color." The habit of the mind to visualize the color is slightly annoying, but nothing more.

But with evolutionary theory, it is different. Evolutionary theory intentionally and repeatedly mis-uses theological terms, terms relating to the person. It specifically attempts to take over the use of the theological vocabulary critical to expressing the very ideas it attacks. It intends to destroy the ability to speak of divinity or personhood at all. Evolution supporters simply co-opt all the words we use to discuss theological concepts, and then they implicitly define those words in ways which divorce them completely from the original theological concepts they were meant to express. And they do this despite the fact that the discipline itself denies it needs those terms.

Like kudzu, the foreign vine in the Southern United States that covers over and destroys everything it touches, evolutionary theory has invaded the English language and stripped it of all theological meaning.

Now, I don’t mind hearing a good discussion of evolution. But I strenuously object to the intentional destruction of the English language. If you want to discuss evolution, go right ahead. But stop taking and using words that don't belong to the lexicon of evolution.

In evolution, things happen, neither good nor bad, just things. There is no self. There are just chemicals. That's it. Talk about evolution correctly or don’t talk about it. Those who don't stick to correct language, go crazy. Worse, they drag the rest of us with them. I, for one, don’t want to go.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Best of Modern Science

There are times when reality is just too belly-shaking hilarious. Take the recent case of Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten, a distinguished German anthropologist from the University of Frankfort who was noted for his Cuban cigars, large gold watches and prediliction for Porsches. Trained at UCLA, he emigrated back to his homeland thirty years ago and quickly became a leading light in European anthropological circles. Recognized as an expert in radio-carbon dating, he established the ages for hundreds of specimens from Europe and Africa during the course of his career.

There was only one problem. Over the course of thirty years, he lied about the age of every specimen he touched.

Yes, it seems the good professor was so incompetent he didn’t even know how to run his own carbon-dating machine. He plagiarized papers, he plagiarized fossils, he invented whatever dating he thought he could get away with, he sold artifacts to the highest bidder and – this is the interesting sidenote – he even lied about his lineage. It seems he wasn’t really descended from one of the old Prussian generals. Instead, his father was actually a Nazi, which, perhaps, explains why enormous amounts of documentary evidence concerning gruesome Nazi experiments in the death camps were apparently shredded under his thirty-year watch.

No doubt about it – it’s been a rough week for anthropology in Frankfurt.

"Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago," said Thomas Terberger, the archaeologist who discovered the hoax. "Prof Protsch's work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish."

Chris Stringer, a Stone Age specialist and head of human origins at London's Natural History Museum, said: "What was considered a major piece of evidence showing that the Neanderthals once lived in northern Europe has fallen by the wayside. We are having to rewrite prehistory."

The creationists are, of course, in paroxysms of ecstasy. The scientists are downcast, but have not lost hope. Even though the entire discipline now resembles a suicide bomber after the smoke has cleared, even though every anthropology textbook is now as accurate as a Superman comic, yes, even now, there are many who come to the defense of science in this, it’s darkest hour. They point out that while science can take wrong roads, the fact that scientists discovered the error proves that, in the final analysis, science is able to get the job done.

Thank God! We should remember it only took science three decades to whisper, “Hey… Johann… that von Zeiten guy… yeah, the guy who trained the last two generations of anthropologists… well… well, maybe he isn’t really an anthropologist! Maybe he’s really a secret Nazi who is infusing vaguely anti-Christian Aryan migration theories into scientific discourse. Maybe the scientists are so open to it that they accept it without question! Maybe… maybe…oh, say it ain’t so, Johann!”

Now, it must be admitted that archeologists are getting better at discovering fraud. When the illustrious theologian, scientist and swindler Teilhard de Chardin discovered Piltdown Man’s jaw, back in 1913, it took forty years for anyone to figure out that the archeologists had been hoaxed.

When today’s creationists pin them on that point, the illustrious Ph.D.’s (and they really are Post-hole Diggers, in this case) vigorously defend themselves by pointing out that they never had access to the Piltdown bones themselves, so they had no real way of verifying the claim until the 1950’s. The Piltdown bones were locked in the British Museum, you see, and no one was permitted to handle them. Archeologists were forced to work from plaster casts, with just a quick glance at the bones themselves to verify things.

So... Well... that clears things up, then. And when you think about it, that explanation is very comforting, really. Archeology is apparently such a well-developed science that when someone says “Pay no attention to the bones behind the curtain” they don’t… pay… any… attention… to the bones! It would be easier to accept that this was just a simple, honest mistake, the kind anyone could make day-in, day-out for… well, for longer than it took to wage all of the wars staged in Europe over the last two centuries combined. Yes, as I say, it would be easy to accept the Piltdown explanation… if Piltdown had been a one-time occurrence.

But now it isn’t. This time around, the brown-nosed diggers had access to everything, and it still took them thirty years to figure out that the skull von Zieten dated as being 27,000 years old actually dated to about 1750 and still smelt of decaying flesh. Hmmm… how to explain that…. Hmmm…. well, everyone knows the hayfever season in Europe just never seems to end… and there was that really bad cold going around the department… and...

So, it took forty years in the 1900s, thirty years today… at this rate, in only another couple of hundred years, we can expect our archeologist friends to be able to nail down swindles in less than a decade. Yes, things are definitely looking up for the sciences.

But now there are impertinent types at every door, asking questions like, “What kind of discipline has experts who take thirty years to figure out they are been lied to by a man who can barely turn on the major tool in their trade? Is this a normal thing in science – thirty years to detect a fraud? Is archeology really a science?”

And, we are all forced to leap to the defense of our poor Neanderthal-discovering colleagues and insist (I swear this is an actual quote), “"He was perfect at being evasive… He would switch from saying 'it isn't really clear' to giving diffuse statements.”

So, there you have it. In order to verify an archeological discovery, all you have to do is ask the guy who makes the discovery. If he double-dog swears that he isn’t making it up, and spits besides, well, who can question that? These ancient standards of archeological research must be respected.

Given such high scientific standards, how was von Zeiten found out? It’s simple, really. It’s not like anyone suspected anything. No, it was much more prosaic than that. Another Frankfurt professor just needed to pin down a date more precisely and decided to send one of von Zieten’s artifacts in for another test. When confronted with the University of Oxford’s radically newer date, von Zieten insisted Oxford was wrong: they had failed to remove shellac preservative from the specimens. To drive home his assertion, he made a striking point, "Unfortunately, archaeologists and most anthropologists do not study physics or chemistry and therefore they cannot make judgments on carbon dating… Wrong measurements are made in all laboratories."

That was in 2001, which just goes to prove that archeologists aren’t complete fools. It took them only another three years to figure out that maybe they had been duped.

This kind of audacity must be respected. Von Zieten understood his colleagues perfectly. He was so close to retirement he could even afford to tell them exactly how he had swindled them, secure in the knowledge that it would be several more years before they would move against him, assuming they ever did.

People will soon begin to claim von Zieten was not a real scientist, but this is absolutely false. In a world that believes embryonic stem cell research is superior to adult stem cell research, insists a woman in Florida who responds to visitors is essentially dead, or asserts that there is no child in the womb, von Zieten is the pre-eminent scientist. He proves what the embryo researcher, the judge, the abortionist already know: lie big enough, invoke science often enough, and no one dares to question what you say. No one but those damned Christians, and who believes them?

Monday, February 21, 2005


A woman in Florida and a man in Rome have more in common than one might imagine. With the Polish release of Pope John Paul II’s newest book, Memory and Identity, we see first-hand what the Pope felt minutes after the bullet pierced his flesh. He recalls the pain, the blood loss and the slow drift into unconsciousness, a coma so deep, with blood pressure so dangerously low, that his attending physician recommended last rites be prayed.

Today, we see the Pope decades later experiencing the ravages of Parkinson’s disease - the mask-like, expressionless face, the hand tremors, the slow, garbled speech and the difficulty walking. What if time had flowed differently? It is impossible not to consider how similar his life today is to that of Terry Schiavo, the ciminal Florida courts want to kill. Her crime? Being inconvenient.

Schiavo’s coma, which some have implied may have been the result of a violent assault, has been the source of a seven-year controversy in the United States. Her husband received millions of dollars in a medical malpractice settlement for her treatment and rehabilitation. He has spent all of those millions in executing lawsuits aimed at making sure she never receives the rehabilitation treatment necessary to allow her to communicate again. Instead, he has been attempting to have her executed through court-sanctioned starvation/dehydration. While roasting her in an oven would accelerate the dehydration process and would certainly be about as comfortable, that remedy has not yet been suggested by her husband or the courts, although the possibility is not to be ruled out.

The attempts on her life remind us of the attempts on the Pope's life. According to the press releases, one of the things the Holy Father remarks on in his book is the enormous puzzlement Mehmet Ali Agca, the professional Turkish assassin who made the attempt on the Pope’s life. When the Pope visited Agca in jail following his recovery from the wound, Agca still could not figure out what had gone wrong. He was a professional assassin, a skilled marksman who had planned the event down to the smallest detail. He emptied his gun at the Pope from a distance of less than a few dozen feet, but only managed to hit him twice. Worse, his quarry survived. Agca simply could not get over the fact that he had failed to take his victim’s life.

If the Parkinson's-ravaged Pope had been shot by Agca while in the Florida panhandle, he would undoubtedly be in greater danger of losing his life than he had been in Rome in 1981. In Florida, as the Pope slipped towards death, there would be no shortage of people calling for the removal of John Paul II’s feeding tube. Even during his recent bout with the flu, so famous a Catholic as William Buckley took the time to write a column expressing his desire that the Pope die.

The Pope has suffered from Parkinson’s for roughly the same length of time Terry has suffered from the presence of a husband who wants her dead. The main difference is this: many medical experts agree Terry can be rehabilitated and restored to greater physical mobility, greater ability to communicate with those around her. No one holds out that hope for the Pope. All of this provokes meditation on the dignity of the human person.

I once had a discussion with one of the most enormous contradictions possible today: the atheistic Jewish philosopher. In the first century, he would have been stoned by his brothers for apostasy. Today, as he proudly announces, rabbis consult him.

During the course of the conversation, the professor insisted there was no such thing as human nature, nor was there such a thing as the natural law. He insisted that law drew its source only from the consent of the people, who agreed on how best to run the world. Government was his God – he thought every malady could be solved simply through the application of the people’s agreed-upon will, as expressed in governmental policy.

Now, “natural law” is only this: it is the natural right order to which all things, including human beings, conform. In other words, “natural law” simply means “justice.” Human nature is nothing more than the fact that all men have both certain natural needs and the power of reason, that is, the power to recognize what is really good for man in terms of those needs.

My atheistic Jewish friend (I simply cannot type those words without feeling the weight of that oxymoron) opposed the idea because it tasted too much of Christian monotheism. Now, certainly the idea can be found in Christian thought, but it is not unique to that thought. It can also be found in Judaism, in the pagan discourses of Plato, in the philosophers of India and China. Still, the whole thought of a God who actually has authority was more than he could bear.

But, to be fair, his way of approaching the world has at least as long a lineage. The Sophists of ancient Greece founded the concepts he espouses. Plato merely reacted to the pre-existing “sophisticated” concept, as it were. It is, perhaps, no surprise to find that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the meaning of the words “sophisticate” this way: “to alter deceptively; especially : ADULTERATE, to deprive of genuineness, naturalness, or simplicity; especially : to deprive of naïveté and make worldly-wise.”

This Sophistic concept, the concept that law ultimately derives from man, the rejection of the idea that law is an image of a greater Being, has always been fought by men who know the law reflects something higher, deeper, broader than just man in himself. As the great philosopher Mortimer Adler points out, “If justice is relevant to man’s condition, then the natural law is likewise relevant.”

The great irony in our conversation revolved around the militant Judaism, bordering on bigotry towards Catholicism, my atheistic friend displayed while he simultaneously dismissed the natural law. Let me explain.

The Sophists argued that since fire burns equally well in Greece as in Persia, but the laws of Greece are not the same as the laws in Persia, this demonstrated that there was no human nature and no natural law. For them, these facts demonstrated that law is mere convention, whim, the fancy of the masses that holds today and may be the opposite tomorrow. Law is morality, and law is what the people say it is.

Meanwhile, the great natural law thinkers, men like Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Kant, point to those same human laws as examples of the problem. The natural law tells us what we need and what harms us, but it is left to human law to work out the details for each situation. Their understanding holds out a nuance that sophism does not contain: when the law of man is not in conformance with the natural law, then it is no law at all, and need not be obeyed.

For Sophists, justice and law are identical. For natural law thinkers, justice is not the same as law. But today’s Sophistic philosophers, the secular humanists who would place government where God is, and make it the arbiter of life and death, want to insist that morality, that “values,” is not the same as legality. That is, they recognize the distinction natural law makes while rejecting natural law itself. Why would they adulterate, why would they sophisticate, their philosophy this way?

Because it is too stiff a drink to take straight. You see, my atheistic Jewish friend is militantly anti-God and pro-Jewish, in the sense that he sees everything in terms of the Holocaust. For this man, who never experienced the camps or the enormous assistance the Catholic Church alone rendered to Jews who were attempting to escape Nazi depredations, the Holocaust is a defining experience.

But the question Mortimer Adler asks, the question Catholics ask, the question orthodox Jews ask, the questions secular atheistic humanists refuse to face is precisely this, “On what grounds could a decent German citizen in Nazi times justify his opposition to the laws of the land? On private sentiments or merely personal opinion? Even purely inner resistance to iniquity must be rooted in firmer ground.”

If there is no human nature, if there is no natural law, there is no basis to make a distinction between morality and legality. One may say many things about the eugenics movement which began with Malthus and Darwin, grew in the forced sterilization laws so popular to the America and American law schools of the 1920’s, and found its full flower in the Nazi death camps, but one must insist on this: the Germans, like the Americans, like the English, took great pains to keep everything legal. Before each turn of the screw, the law that permitted the screw to be turned was first carefully discussed and legislated into existence. Man made law on his own authority, without respect to the natural law divinely ordained or the human nature which is its divinely established basis.

This lies at the basis of the court animosity towards Terry Schiavo, the secular Jewish animosity towards the papal comparison between abortion and the Holocaust, and the philosophy professor’s animosity towards all things Catholic. The Holocaust has become the touchstone for my atheistic friend precisely because the minority of atheistic secular humanists among his people have gone to great pains to make it so. The secularists view the Holocaust as a particular sign that God does not exist, for if He did, He surely would have done something to stop it.

The insistence that Terry is worth saving because God says she is, the insistence that children in the womb are worth saving because God says they are, the insistence that God wants to save every one of us from our sins, these things are all vicious slanders from the Sophisticated point of view. The secular humanist view is, as Merriam-Webster points out, “worldly-wise.” Perhaps this is why the greatest Jewish philosopher of all warned, “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Studying the Quran

Talk to a Muslim about religion and one of the first arguments he will raise concerning the advantages of being Muslim is the Quran. According to Muslims, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles became corrupted and are untrustworthy. They will use, as their evidence, passages which seem to contradict one another, passages which seem to call into question Jesus’ divinity and the fact that we have literally dozens of different English Bible translations. Further, they will point out that the Quran has been kept pure from the moment it was delivered to Mohammed, this purity maintained by requiring thousands of children in each generation to memorize the entirety of the book.

This contention lies at the basis of Islamic belief (note that the word “lies” is really very appropriate). Let’s consider the facts.

The Original Revelation
Every prophet in the Old and New Testament received Holy Scripture directly from God Himself. According to Mohammed’s own testimony, however, he is the only prophet in history not to receive revelation directly from God. He was given the Quran by an angel while meditating in a cave in the desert. But that’s not all.

You see, Mohammed is the first person in recorded history to mistake a messenger from God for a demon from hell. According to his own testimony, he at first thought this angel was a demon, from whom he ran and hid in fear. But there’s more.

Mohammed only realized his error after his wife - who never saw or heard the supernatural messenger - convinced him otherwise. Now, the visions that Mohammed received included the understanding that the testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man, so it is unclear why Mohammed accepted her testimony, but he did. He would have written the vision down, but he couldn’t because he was illiterate. So others had to write the visions down as he dictated them.

Compiling the Quran
Unfortunately, the secretaries he used were not very particular about what they used for writing materials. Palm leaves, the shoulder bones of half-eaten camels, whatever came to hand was sufficient. These written surahs, or verses, were left lying around in no particular order during Mohammed’s life. Eventually, after his death, they were gathered up and thrown into a chest, but not before some were eaten by a farm animal.

After Mohammed died, his followers did begin memorizing the Holy Quran. Unfortunately, it does not appear they were all memorizing the same version. By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman, the differences between the various oral versions of the Quran were so great that various Islamic tribes were ready to start a war over the problem.

Caliph Uthman solved the problem by having all the versions of the Quran gathered together. Any verse to which two people could attest as having come from the prophets’ mouth was retained. Everything else was burned. This resulted in many people asking where some of their favorite verses had gone.

Now, it is important to remember that Mohammed was the last and greatest of the prophets. Caliph Uthman never claimed divine inspiration, nor does the office of Caliph carry with it the charism of infallibility or anything like it. So the obvious question arises: how do we know Uthman burned the right things? Is it possible he burned all or part of the real Quran while retaining a false Quran? After all, he was not guided by God, as Mohammed was.

There is strong evidence that he did burn valid versions of the Quran. Mohammed himself is reported to have said that the Quran might be read in any one of seven different dialects, each with a different meaning. Uthman burned six of them. But he got away with it. The version he didn’t burn was the one that stuck. This is the version that has been memorized by generation after generation of Muslims, so that no (further) error might creep in.

But let us ignore the fact that the Quran is a book dictated to scribes by a man who was only indirectly a prophet through visions from an angel of questionable character (questioned by Mohammed himself, in fact), vouched for by a woman who had never seen the angel, written by numerous secretaries on numerous odds and ends which eyewitnesses attest were not correctly gathered together, some portions eaten by animals, the rest compiled together after the only true eyewitness was already dead, thus resulting in numerous versions, almost all of which were burned by a man who was not guided by God in deciding which ones to burn, the same man who we know from eyewitnesses had already left verses out.

Let’s ignore all that and assume the Quran came from God and was protected by God in its compilation so that we have the one true Quran today.


Give me a minute…


It’s all gone. I’m ready. Now, let’s look at the Quran itself.

The Content of the Quran
The first thing we notice is, Allah seems to get things confused sometimes. For instance, Sura 5:116 says the Christian Trinity is composed of God, Jesus and Mary. Hmm… Even Catholics wouldn’t go along with that description. We could attribute the error to Mohammed, except that would be blasphemy, or we could attribute the error to the scribes, except they seem to be quite consistent in their errors, since the same mistake is made in Sura 5:77 and 4:169. Hmmm…. Well, at least we know why Moslems frequently ask Christians if they really think Mary is God.

But there’s more. In some cases, the Suras are contradictory. For example, Sura 2.219 absolutely forbids drinking wine, but Sura 16.67 says that drinking wine is healthy. Adam is said to have been created from clay (23.12); from sperm (77.22); and from primeval water (21.31; 25.56; 24.44). Perhaps all three simultaneously? We don’t know. Now, it is true that Sura 2:105 says "Whatever verses we [Allah] cancel or cause you to forget, we bring a better or its like." (though why Allah refers to himself in the plural if God is not Trinitarian is something of a mystery, but let us pass on). We can only wonder why Allah needs to revise His revelation so often?

And when was it His revelation? At the risk of receiving part of Salmon Rushdie’s fatwah, we must point out that absolutely reliable Muslim sources (al-Tabari, Waqidi and Ibn Sa'd) describe a problem regarding Sura 53, the infamous Satanic Verses. While Mohammed was conversing with Meccan leaders next to the Kaaba, he began to recite Sura 53 – the angel Gabriel’s (?) first visits to him. The original wording was: "What do you think of al-Lat and al-Uzza And Manat the third beside? These are exalted Females, Whose intercession verily is to be sought after."

Unfortunately, these favorable references to Meccan pantheistic goddesses, and their favorite goddesses no less, was in total opposition to Islamic monotheism. Gabriel apparently visited Mohammed later and yelled at him for getting the verse wrong. Gabriel then gave him the true verse, a verse that denigrated the goddesses. Islamic scholars say the false verse was put in his mouth by Satan.

But if we believe Islamic scholars, one of two things would seem to be true, or perhaps both together: either Mohammed deliberately lied to the Meccans in order to curry political favor or Satan influenced his revelation as easily as God did. In either case, it puts both the content of the Quran and Mohammed’s status as prophet into serious question. This would perhaps be something we could overlook as a one-time error, if it were not for the whole structure and tenor of the Quran itself.

No one who has studied the Quran can disagree with a simple fact: all the passages that preach tolerance are early (Meccan) Suras, and all the passages that recommend killing, decapitating and maiming are late (Medinan) Suras. How might we interpret that fact? Well, one way is to remember that in the early years Mohammed was politically weak and set upon by numerous foes. During this time, Allah had him preached tolerance of belief and being kind to the weak. When he gained the upper hand and began to militarily crush anyone who opposed him, Allah suddenly changed the tenor of revelation to emphasize the holiness of crushing anyone who opposed him. This is why Islamic scholars can range from the mildest of the mild all the way to Osama bin Laden. It all depends on what verses you want to emphasize.

The Quran Has Many Versions
And this leads us to perhaps the biggest problem with the Quran, one with which our Protestant brethren are all too familiar. There may be one literal version of the Quran, but how many de facto versions are there? Put another way, how does a good Muslim know which verses are more important? The closest thing Islam has ever had to a central authority is the Caliph.

The first Caliphs were both spiritual and temporal leaders of Islam, but as intrigue and assassination hewed through the ranks of believers and Islam shattered into warring factions each intent on putting their man into the Caliphate, it subsequently became a purely political office. By the 1600’s, it was just an empty figurehead office, by the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no one to fill it at all. The caliphate has been empty for over a century and it will remain so – it would be impossible for the various Islamic sects to agree on a successor.

So, there are now as many versions of the Quran as there are imams to interpret it. If one imam or group of imams says this Sura is more important than that one, and another group says something else, what are we to do? There is no one to adjudicate between the two groups, no one who can exert authority and say with authority that one group is wrong while the other is right. Thus, when modern commentators claim to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, it simply isn’t clear what they mean. Are the fundamentalists the ones who insist on the primacy of the Meccan verses or are they the ones who insist on the primacy of the Medinian verses?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Islam, Orthodoxy and Protestants

Roughly half of America dislike everything George Bush says, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t the President of the United States. This is a point too few people keep in mind. Take, for instance, the example of Stas, a very nice Orthodox man, who read my recent piece on concerning the Muslim reporter who implicitly threatened to kill me and nuke America. He thought the piece excellent except for my statement that the Pope was the head of Christianity: “As for the Pope, 1 billion various protestants and 300 million Orthodox don't follow his words and that's half of Christianity.” To keep things honest, a Mormon and a Protestant also voiced essentially this disagreement.

I could have pointed out, as I do here, that his statement proves nothing about either the Pope or the President, but I demurred. Instead, I merely pointed out that there are no major theological differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, apart from a minor theological point concerning the generation of the Holy Spirit and his aforementioned quibble concerning the Pope. He insisted I was wrong, and in attempting to demonstrate his case, he inadvertently made a connection between Orthodoxy and Islam that I had read about, but never really seen in action before.

He sent a lengthy quote from an Orthodox text that said in part, “The East developed a mystical approach to theology: God cannot be known intellectually but only experientially. This approach to theology, known as the negative way, affirms that God is above human language and reason. "The negative way of the knowledge of God is an ascendant undertaking of the mind that progressively eliminates all positive attributes of the object it wishes to attain, in order to culminate finally in a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance of Him who cannot be an object of knowledge."

In other words, God is a mystery. This means that He is beyond our intellectual comprehension. He is totally and "wholly other," not only invisible but inconceivable. Pseudo-Dionysius (c. late fifth, early sixth centuries), the father of the negative way, explains it by pointing to Moses' ascent on the mountain in order to meet God.

Orthodox theology distinguishes three aspects of God's being: (1) the indescribable and inaccessible divine essence (ousia); (2) the three divine Persons (hypostases); and (3) the uncreated energies (energeiai) inseparable from God's essence (as are the rays of the sun from the sun itself) in which He manifests, communicates, and gives Himself.”

Now, the “negative way” is a perfectly valid approach to God that has long been used in both Western and Eastern mystical theology. However, as the quote indicates, Eastern theology relies on the concept to an enormously greater extent than does Western theology. One might ask how the East knows to distinguish ousia, hypostates, and energeiai if God is “inconceivable,” but this is a picayune debating point and not the real point of this essay. What we should pay attention to today is the close connection this has to a very important aspect of Muslim theology.

Muslims insist that God is completely other. He is not knowable, He is not a family or communion of Persons. His fatherhood is not like our fatherhood, His love is not like our love, His transcendence places Him beyond anything we can understand. In this heavy emphasis on God’s otherness, Islamic theology bears a marked resemblance to Orthodoxy.

Why does this matter? Because it is perhaps the single most serious impediment to evangelizing a Muslim. Since the Orthodox accept the Trinity, their over-emphasis on transcendence is not a serious problem. But when Christians talk about Christianity between themselves or with the members of other faith traditions, the appeal to a shared experience of love is compelling. “You know how well (or badly) your father treated you? If your father treated you well, then he showed a small example of God the Father’s love for you. If he treated you badly, you know that his mistreatment of you was an injustice precisely because you already have some experience of the justice and mercy of God the Father’s love for you – the comparison between your human father and your divine Father is built into your heart and soul.”

That kind of discussion always takes place fairly early in the evangelization process, and most people of other traditions, whether Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan or something else, understand the analogy. With Moslems, this approach doesn’t work because their theology explicitly denies it from the beginning.

“God’s love is not like my father’s love. God is not a family of persons. Human families have nothing in common with God. The relationship between God and man is the relationship between master and slave. He loves us as a master loves his slave, cares for us as a master cares for his slave, we owe him obedience as a slave owes his master, not as a son owes his father.” This is the reply of the Muslim to that particular Christian evangelistic approach.

This is, perhaps, why the Muslim world is so hard to evangelize. When faced with this reply, the Orthodox Christian is rather stumped for an answer. He can’t very well disagree with the emphasis on transcendence – he has the same emphasis himself. But he also knows there is something absolutely wrong with the argument, and since the Orthodox emphasize experiential knowledge over intellectual investigation, he can’t put his finger on what that might be nor can he explain it to his Moslem opposite.

Since Orthodoxy has been the flavor of Christianity closest to Islam for most of its existence, the Muslims have, in a certain sense, been inoculated against Christianity. When we receive a vaccine, we get enough of the virus to promote a systemic physical defense against it, but not enough to make us sick. Similarly, the Orthodox provide Islam with just enough Christian doctrine to know how to refute Joe Christian, but not enough to be converted by that doctrine. Indeed, strong historical arguments have been made to suggest Mohammed got most of his theology from a really bad mix of Jewish, Orthodox and heretical Christian theology.

So, how do we evangelize Muslims? That’s an open question. Very few Christians have really done it successfully. I suspect, however, that success relies strongly on studying Islam and trying to find points of correspondence between Islamic and Christian theology.

For instance, I was recently asked by a Muslim why Catholics pray to saints – they aren’t divine. Why not approach God directly? Does God need an intermediary?

I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the question, if only because this is precisely the kind of thing Protestants constantly ask. I pointed out to him that Mohammed received his vision from an angel. Why didn’t he receive communication for the composition of the Quran directly from God? Abraham dealt directly with God. Moses dealt directly with God. Mohammed didn’t. Why not?

So, why does God allow intermediaries? Because once God creates us, we need to praise and glorify Him. God didn’t need to create us, but once we are created, we only reach our fulfillment in glory by properly acknowledging Him. We do this by acting as intermediaries, bringing others closer to Him, asking Him for things because by these requests we acknowledge Him as the source of all things. Asking other people to intercede for us is a way of acknowledging that they, too, were made by Him, it assists them in fulfilling their need to glorify God. God doesn't need intermediaries, but we need to be intermediaries and have intermediaries in order to properly glorify His creation of us, so God - in His infinite mercy - permits it.

When we realize that Islam sees Mohammed as the prophet of whom Moses spoke, when we understand that part of Islam’s apologetic against Christianity is built on showing how dissimilar Jesus is to Moses while showing how similar Mohammed is to Moses, we realize a weakness in their theology. Any discordance that exists between Mohammed and Moses is a demonstration that Islam is false because it demonstrates the prophet - the intermediary - may be false. Muslims know this. Any concordance that can be shown between Christianity and Islam is proof that Christianity is true, at least to the extent the concordance exists. Muslims know this too. So, by breaking apart the ties between Moses and Mohammed, by emphasizing the ties between Christianity and Islam, it is possible that converts can be made.