Sunday, 31 July 2016

Philipse on Theism - Revealed or Natural Theology?

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today. As we saw in his preface, he plans to examine Richard Swinburne's arguments for God.

In Chapter 1, though, he wants to establish 'that for religious believers, natural theology has an epistemological priority over a revelation and revelation theology' (p.3). Natural theology is the approach that Swinburne takes.

Philipse draws the common distinction between natural theology and revealed theology. Natural theology can be examined through evidence available to everyone, non-believers included. As the SEP explains, it 'aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique'. Philipse defines revealed theology as 'the endeavour by believers to interpret and systematize the contents of texts that are considered divine revelations, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, or the Book of Mormon' (p.3).

Richard Swinburne himself points out that there is another notion that is now considered popular, particularly among Protestants:
Religion, they will tell us, is a matter not of affirming creeds, but of a personal relationship to God. The religious man may tell us that he knows that he at any rate has such a relationship, and that he knows what he means when he says that he has this relationship; on these points he ‘cannot be mistaken’. (The Coherence of Theism, p.6)
Philipse examines perhaps the most well-known defence of this sort of position, Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Objection, in Chapters 3 and 4.

Philipse notes that most believers come to their belief because they are brought up in a religious tradition; the truths of it are a given. But these days we are exposed to scientific knowledge that often contradicts such received opinions, and are also made aware of the full diversity of other received opinions. Consequently, it is necessary to appeal to the arguments of natural theology if one aims to be rational and reasonable.

Establishing the epistemological priority of natural theology is also important so that non-believers can engage on a level playing field with believers; that is, they should both be approaching the subject using the same tools to analyse and justify their beliefs. This is not to exclude the possibility that divine revelation occurs and people may know something about God apart from natural theology. But it is to suggest that when we justify our beliefs in public discourse, we do not need to appeal to that divine revelation, and, in fact, the knowledge derived from natural theology is better in some way than other methods. For example, someone may know that they haven't murdered someone, but if accused of murder they must defend them-self in court by appealing to methods that everyone can access; simply appealing to their inner knowledge that they are innocent will be insufficient.

Philipse gives 6 reasons for thinking that natural theology has epistemological priority over revelation, which I summarise as:

(A) There are contradictions within revealed texts.
(B) Many revelations are shown by science to be untrue.
(C) Many revelations are based on sources and cultures that are not considered divinely inspired, leading to...
(D) Revelations contain nothing that could not have been established without divine assistance.
(E) Revelations contain moral norms which many of us now find unacceptable.
(F) The revelations of other religions provide a potential defeater for a believer in divine revelation.

I would endorse this list, although in my experience (A) is pretty hard to categorically establish. With a narrative like the Bible the language is ambiguous enough to prevent the establishment of a formal contradiction. Just consider Philipse's first example; the supposed contradiction between Paul describing Jesus' resurrection as spiritual rather than corporeal, as maintained by subsequent Christian tradition:
Paul seems to deny that Jesus was resurrected with his earthly or physical body, arguing that he was raised with a new, spiritual and heavenly body (sooma pneumatikon), since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’. (p.5)
 Paul's words 'sooma pneumatikon' and 'flesh and blood' allows for multiple interpretations; see this discussion by William Lane Craig, which includes this quote from Robert Gundry:
The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with 'flesh' in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives and acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer.
And 'flesh and blood' is considered synonymous with 'frail human nature'! Craig concludes that 'we have seen that Paul's evidence serves to confirm the gospels' narratives of Jesus's bodily resurrection'. So clearly he sees no contradiction here, and one might expect similar analysis from apologists on other claimed contradictions.

Generally, though, I think the accumulation of Philipse's reasons gives us good reason to doubt revelation. To counter this general conclusion, I think I would point to the vital role that testimony plays in our knowledge creation, and that biblical revelation cannot be dismissed any more than can be the many non-biblical revelations that are handed down to us. For example, we have established a sophisticated education system which pre-supposes the validity of handing down common knowledge, mostly documented in textbooks; we don't expect anyone to literally support all these 'revealed' truths.

I think, however, that we should have to justify this knowledge if it turned out that around the world we were teaching different truths from radically different textbooks. The project of science has been to universalise knowledge, so that textbooks converge. If natural theology were any better than revealed theology, one might expect it to achieve a greater convergence too. I think that, in the sense that the conclusions of natural theology are more modest than those of revealed, perhaps it does. A discussion for another time, maybe.

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