Friday, July 4, 2008

Gregory MacDonald really is Bad, pt 1 (a bleeding-heart, limousine liberal, idolator)


Steve Hays has, as you may know, accused me of idolatry. I replied briefly to his accusation and Steve has now responded to my defence (see link).
So here is my last ditch attempt (in 4 parts) to defend myself. After that I go silent. You must decide for yourselves. Steve writes:
True, you then spend chaps. 2-6 trying to make an exegetical
case for universalism. However, these come with a tacit disclaimer. Given what
you said in chap. 1
[GM - he is referring to two passages in which I
describe my struggles over Hell - see link to read them], you will only believe in the self-revelation of God in Scripture
on condition that Scripture teach universalism. Your faith in Biblical theism is
contingent on universalism. That’s the escape clause in your contract. So, you
subordinate the authority of Scripture to your extrascriptural preconception of
divine worthiness.
Do I subordinate divine revelation to my own pre-conceived ideas about what God ought to be like? Do I think that my human reason trumps divine revelation? That's Steve's legitimate worry. The answer is 'No' (unless I am far more self-deceived than I imagine).

I think that it is clear in the book that I present the philosophical arguments not to settle the issue of whether universalism is true or false but to show that traditional interpretations of biblical teaching on Hell are deeply problematic and that this should prompt us to ask ourselves whether we have misunderstood the Bible.

But there is nothing unusual about that way of thinking theologically. It is no different from claiming that empirical evidence that the earth is not stationary and is not the centre of the solar system should cause us to rethink biblical texts which seem to suggest otherwise. I imagine that Steve himself interprets the Bible in the light of some insights from Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody would suggest that by doing this he is subordinating revelation to reason.

Furthermore, I state unambiguously that, "Scripture must retain its place as the primary locus of authority in any hermeneutical spiral of understanding; so if such a review
of the Bible does not plausibly yield a universalist interpretation, then we must return to the philosophy and try to see how we can make sense of the everlasting damnation of the lost"
(p. 41).
So I hope that it should be clear that Steve has misunderstood my position. If I was convinced that universalism was unbiblical I would stop being a universalist. I have no interest whatsoever in making up theological ideas to make me feel better. I want to know the sober truth. I happen to be fairly convinced that universalism is the sober truth.
And, yes, that’s the very definition of idolatry. You begin,
not with revelation, but with your preconception of God. If the Bible happens to
agree with your preconception, then that’s a bonus point for Scripture—but if
the Bible teaches everlasting punishment, then you jettison Biblical theism. So
you most definitely assert the primacy of your extrascriptural preconception.
[GM - see above] For you, the Bible is expendable.
You were able to reinterpret Scripture consistent with your preconception. But
had you been unable to do so, then—by your own admission—you would no longer be
a Christian.
I said nothing of the sort, nor would I have because it is not true. (However, I am pleased that Steve thinks I did manage to show that the Bible can be read in a way that is consistent with universalism. :-) I am interested that at no point does he engage with any of my five chapters of biblical arguments. Even if, as Steve thinks, my motivation for reading the Bible in a new way was questionable that need not mean that my biblical arguments are no good. Those arguments still deserve to be taken seriously. I do not think that they are all equally strong but overall I think my case has merit.)
Actually, I wouldn’t dignify it with the label of “reason.”
It’s simply emotion. The bathos of the bleeding-heart, limousine liberal. It’s a
secularized Christian conscience. You’re very compassionate behind your tinted
A bleeding-heart, limousine liberal? Ouch! In brief, just two points:

1. My philosophical arguments are surely not so bad that they cannot even be dignified with the label "reason". I have had feedback from several professional Christian philosophers and all of them were positive about the philosophical case (even if they disagreed with my final conclusions). Steve does not agree with my arguments but his reaction here perhaps errs on the side of being an over-emotional as opposed to a rational one. :-)

2. Emotion has a very important place in theological and ethical rationality so I make no apology for caring about those in Hell. I am just sorry that Steve is able to consider the whole matter from a non-emotional perspective.


Richard said...

I've just read your responses on the website, very gracious.

Rachel said...

I find it interesting that his most bitter criticism of you (ad hominem, anyone?) arises because he feels that you are a universalist because you are a limousine liberal who has led a charmed life, when there are some voices today arguing for universalism from the perspective of the oppressed.

Marilyn McCord Adams writes:

Focus on horrors clinches my universalism, because horrors are levellers, inficting their prima
facie life-ruining power on both perpetrator and victim alike. My confidence
that all horror participants are redeemed from ruin rests on the conviction
that the worst evils are too bad even for the guilty; or better, that horrors
are no respecter of moral worth, indeed evacuate it of its usual significance.

Moltmann, who deals a lot with oppression and liberation, also has a universalistic eschatology with justice for victims and perpectrators alike.

Gregory MacDonald said...

Richard - that's kind of you. Thanks

Rachel - Hello again. I had not picked up on that. I guess that there is some truth in the claim that I have not been the victim of major injustices so it is all very well for me to say that God will redeem the one who inflicts the injustice. I can see why someone might feel that. However, a Christian ought to be able to get past that. The God of the Bible is the God who pardons and transforms and reconciles people who deserve none of those things.

You are absolutely right that Moltmann and Adams develop universalisms in ways that take horrors deeply seriously. Thanks for noting that.

As you know I find both Moltmann and Adams helpful although I do have some serious hesitations with both of them. My main problem with Adams is that she seems to collapse human finitude and human sin. I get the feeling that for her we are damaged (inevitably because our finitude) and need mending, rather than sinful and in need of forgiveness. We are both.
My problem with Moltmann is that on his view nobody seems to go to Hell at all. That would be nice if it were biblical.



Jason Pratt said...

{{I find it interesting that his most bitter criticism of you (ad hominem, anyone?) arises because he feels that you are a universalist because you are a limousine liberal who has led a charmed life}}

I saw that same crit of his (among other similar ones) go by during a five-or-six way debate between Calvs, Arms and Kaths (with Thomas Talbott and I on the Kath side), over at Victor Reppert's DangIdea journal several months ago. Steve retracted it when I pointed it out, for whatever that may be worth.

I don't know whether it's a case of Steve wanting vengeance on perpetrators who've hurt him and/or who've hurt people he loves, or whether it's a case of Steve projecting a hatred of 'liberal revisionists' onto anyone who disagrees with his theology (in complete disregard of how 'liberal' they actually are). Maybe some of both. God knows; I don't.

What I do know, is that I'm less concerned about any injustices inflicted on me (such as by, to take a small example, Steve Hays {wry g}), and far more concerned about injustices I am inclined to inflict on people (probably including, to take a small example, Steve Hays. {self-critical g}) I hope for God to act to save other people from their sin, precisely because I hope and trust God to act to save me from my injustice and sin (and to save others from my sinful injustice, too), leading me to reconcile with them in penitence.

Which, as I clearly recall, more than a few scriptures have something to say about, too! (If I am not willing to show mercy and forgiveness to those who trespass against me, then I am the one who will not be forgiven by God. A warning I take very seriously, as a penitent sinner.)


Gregory MacDonald said...

Thanks Jason - that's helpful.