Monday, January 24, 2011

An Analogy about Reality 

A dialogue, between  John and David:

John:  Consider a fictional character, one who is well-developed by a master of his trade.  Someone like King Lear.  Is King Lear real?

David:  No, naturally not.  King Lear doesn't exist.  He was invented by William Shakespeare.

J:  OK, so tell me something about King Lear.

D:  He was a vain and foolish king, who succumbed to the flattery of his two evil daughters and was angered by the truth-telling of his one wise daughter, with disastrous results.

J:  Now, you have just predicated things about King Lear.  You have made statements about attributes which King Lear possesses.  How is that possible if he doesn't exist?  How can you say things about something that is nonexistent?

D:  Well, I meant that he doesn't exist in history, in reality.  He only exists in our minds.

J:  So if something only exists in our minds, then it doesn't exist?  Does Beethoven's 9th Symphony exist?  Would it exist even if every written copy and audio recording of it were destroyed, but people still remembered it?  Would it be real then?

D:  Sure, but you're talking about the work as a whole.  Beethoven's 9th exists just like the play "King Lear" exists.  That doesn't mean that the actual person, King Lear, really exists.  He's a fiction, invented.  He's not a real person.  You can't touch him.

J:  I can't touch my dead grandfather either.  Is he real?

D:  Yes, but in a different sense.  He existed once.  There was a point in time when he existed.  King Lear never existed.

J:  I can't touch the Holy Spirit either.  Is the Holy Spirit real?

D:  Of course, but again, in a different sense.  God exists spiritually.  King Lear does not exist spiritually.  There is not a soul or a spirit out there called "King Lear".

J:  But when I think "King Lear", if I am familiar with the play, a whole set of ideas pops into my mind.  I think of the choice he made to give his kingdom to the two older daughters who flattered him, and his rejection of his younger daughter who told him the truth.  We think of Lear having done that.  How can something that isn't real do anything?  How can a nonexistent thing call into my mind all of these ideas and associations?  King Lear is such a popular and classic play because it so beautifully illustrates the foolishness of vanity and the importance of listening to hard truths, and the destruction that flattery causes.  I am a wiser person for having known the character King Lear, and so are many others.  How can something unreal affect people like you and I?

D:  OK, so in a sense perhaps he exists.  King Lear exists in the sense that he is a real character in a fictional work, who has characteristics and does things within that fictional work.  But he is only real in that sense.  Normally when you ask if someone is real, you are asking whether the person is an actual historical figure or whether he is merely the product of fiction.  Like Odysseus, for example- was he an actual person about which Homer wrote exaggerated accounts, or was Odysseus entirely invented?  We don't really know the answer to the question yet, though we suspect that the first assertion may very well be true.  So you still can't really say that King Lear was real.  King Lear was created by a man, just invented out of nothing.

J:  I was created out of nothing as well, by God.  Am I real?

D:  Of course you're real.  You're sitting right there.  I know you.

J:  But as we've established, we know King Lear as well.  We know his characteristics and personality.  We know the choices he made and the results of those choices.

D:  As you said, God created us.  We are real, but we are not real in the same sense that God is real.  God exists of Himself.  We are created by Him for His purposes.  In that sense I guess you could draw an analogy between the relationship of our existence and God's existence on the one hand, and the relationship of King Lear's existence to William Shakespeare's existence as well.  Both are real, but not in the same sense.

J:  Yes, I think you're on to something there.  At the same time, we should be careful, since the analogy is inexact.  Everything that is bears that relationship to God.  Everything was created by God- William Shakespeare and the plays that Shakespeare wrote.  But man was created in the image and the likeness of God, so it should not disturb us to think that man can create real things in some sense out of nothing, bearing that image of God in his creation, though of course because he's not God, he could not do so in the same way that God creates out of nothing.  In a relative sense, though, cannot man create real things (like King Lear) simply out of his own mind, which yet do not rise to the level of his own existence, in the same way that God creates real things that nonetheless can never rise to God's own level of existence?

D:  So you're saying that our relationship to God is in some sense analogous to King Lear's relationship to Shakespeare?  Wouldn't that have troubling implications for the freedom of our choices?  King Lear is just a predetermined play.  Are our lives like that?

J:  Well, we judge the morality of characters in the play, don't we?  Earlier you referred to King Lear's two evil daughters and her one wise and good one.

D:  Yes, but that's just within the play.

J:  King Lear and his daughters only really exist within the play though.  So of course it is only within the play that they can be said to be good or evil.  And yet we judge them as such.  On what basis to we judge a character in a play to be good or evil if the character was simply doing what he or she was written to do?

D:  Well, that's the purpose of the play, or one of them.  In the play and in most works of fiction, there are heroes and villains.  Good guys and bad guys.  Sometimes their characters are complex- there are tragic heroes and anti-heroes and sympathetic villains.  But their actions and choices in the play shows whether they are good or bad or some mixture of the two.

J:  Choices?  How can they be said to have choices?  Their lives were written in a play, made up by a playwright.  Did King Lear have a choice whether to listen to his evil daughters or his good one?

D:  Well, not in an absolute sense of course.  Shakespeare made those choices.  But within the context of the play, which is the only context in which the characters actually exist, they have choices.  Within the play, Lear had a choice, and his bad choice reveals his tragic flaw and leads to his doom.  If he had no choice, then the play reveals nothing about right or wrong at all.  If he was forced or tricked to do what he did, then the play would reveal nothing about his character, and really have no purpose at all.

J:  So you're telling me he had a real choice, but one which only had reality within the limited context of his own limited existence, and that his real choice (within that context) revealed his character, for which he is rightly judged.  And all of this is true, within that context, even though looking at it from another perspective, from the higher and more truly real perspective of his creator, William Shakespeare, every aspect of Lear's existence was entirely predetermined according to Shakespeare's own purposes and designs for creating him. 

D:  Yes, I guess that's right.

J:  Interesting.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The most Calvinistic verse in the Bible? 

Acts 17:33 So Paul departed from among them.

This passage comes at the end of Paul's address to the Athenians at the Areopagus.  After his sermon to them, specifically preaching of the resurrection of the dead, a concept foreign and ridiculous to Greek philosophy and religion, we read that some mocked Paul and some said, "We will hear you again on this matter."  What was Paul's reaction?  He left.

Why didn't he continue debating or arguing?  Why didn't he "take every thought captive"?  Why didn't he "give a defense"?

There are several examples of Paul doing just that, after all.  Acts 18:4 tells us that Paul reasoned daily in the synagogue, persuading Jews to accept Christ.  There are several similar passages in Acts.  Jesus reasoned with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Several of Paul's letters are essentially disputes regarding proper theology.

But all of those passages relate interactions with people within the covenant community regarding proper doctrine.  When dealing with unbelievers, as in Acts 17, we see an entirely different approach.  He simply announces the gospel and leaves, dealing only with those who accept the message.  He doesn't try to convince anyone of anything.

The Biblical teaching on salvation is that it is the Holy Spirit that prepares the heart of the hearer.  And in fact, this is the approach we see Paul taking here.  He simply pronounces the gospel, and those who have been prepared by the Spirit believe.  Some mock him; some wish to debate further.  But he shows no interest in either one of these groups.  The only group that interests him are those that accept the word of God.

Consider also the Philippian jailer.  What is it that convinces him?  Not debates or discussions with Paul and Silas.  No, it is the witness of their own lives.  They sing hymns in the jail, rejoicing in God even while they are in stocks after being beaten.  The earthquake comes and breaks their bonds.  The jailer is sure that the prisoners have escaped, and prepares to kill himself.  But Paul tells him not to hurt himself because they are all still there.  Recognizing clearly that these men have something he doesn't, he asks them, "What must I do to be saved?"  Paul's answer?  Believe.  The Holy Spirit has prepared this man, and provided all the evidence needed- the miracle, the sanctified lives of other Christians, and the internal, mysterious preparation.  All that is needed for Paul is to wait for the opportunity and present the gospel, and the man is converted.

This corresponds to my own experience as well.  I have studied many different arguments and evidences for the truth of Christianity.  I have examined the presuppositional approach as well as the classical and evidential approach.  But none of these have ever played much of a role in the conversions that I have seen and been involved with.  In each case, a person was prepared by the Holy Spirit in different ways to hear the truth, and then the Holy Spirit created an opportunity for them to hear that truth.  There were often questions that needed to be resolved, but essentially a person heard the truth and believed it.  No debate, no proof, no evidence was really necessary.  The Holy Spirit provided all the evidence needed, not me.

These arguments and evidences are not without value.  They strengthen the faith of those already believing.  They shore us up against the attacks of the world.  But even here there is a risk.  If the strength of my faith is built on evidences or rational arguments, there are always better arguments.  There are always other facts calling into question the evidences.  Our own faith is going to be strengthened ultimately the same way we got that faith- by the witness of the Holy Spirit.

So Paul, completely consistent with his teaching on the preeminence of the Spirit of God in salvation, and the need for a man to be regenerated before he will ever understand or accept the truth of the gospel, simply announces the truth of the gospel to a pagan world.  Most don't believe, and true to their philosopher roots wish to ridicule his belief (skeptical philosophy) or engage in debate to ascertain its truth (Platonic, Stoic or Epicurean).  But some believe.  These are the ones Paul cares about.  With them he will argue, persuade, convince.  With them, he will go to great pains to strive for true doctrine, true understanding.  For the rest of them, he just leaves.

What a comfort!  This shows us we don't need to master all the perfect arguments for Christianity, be up on all the latest scientific or archaeological discoveries, engage in all the latest philosophical developments.  These things aren't entirely without value.  But they don't bring the sinner to Christ.  The witness of the Spirit brings sinners to Christ- the witness of the Spirit in the Scriptures, in the lives of believers, in the heart of the lost sheep.  The Spirit provides all the apologetic needed.  We just witness, just proclaim the truth.  The Lord brings the harvest.

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