My Discussion with Michael Rawlings
Michael does not strike me as the typical apologist for Christianity. His tone is mature and he exhibits a refreshing willingness to examine ideas and take them seriously. He has also expressed admiration for Objectivism, which I find encouraging.
Still, Michael seems to have a persisting hesitancy to address direct questions responding to his statements. To his credit in this regard, he has expressed caution for taking things slowly and addressing issues in a sequential manner. However, the list of outstanding questions has been growing since the discussion first began. In his initial comment, dated 4 Nov., he announced, “Rand never properly understood Christian epistemology.” Just a few hours later, I posted my reply with the following questions:
1. Just what exactly *is* “Christian epistemology”? Where can it be found? What does it teach? What does it say knowledge is? What does it say about concepts? What is the process which “Christian epistemology” endorses, and how does it work?
2. Who “properly” understands what you call “Christian epistemology”? There are hundreds if not thousands of different (and often opposing) versions of Christianity as such. For a Christian to say that he understands “Christian epistemology” (as though there were such a thing) means that he is saying that other professing Christians do not understand it.
3. Where precisely does Rand speak on “Christian epistemology,” and how exactly does she get it wrong?
After some pressing on the question of what “Christian epistemology” is, Michael stated that “the epistemology of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy is a rational-empirical construct.” Unfortunately, this response simply raises more questions than it was originally intended to answer. Historically, strict empiricism involves a denial of the conceptual level of cognition, and rationalism involves a denial of the validity of the senses, their role in gathering knowledge, or at any rate an attempt to “deduce” all knowledge from some abstraction, without recourse to integrating facts discovered empirically in the world around us. Uniting these two forms of denial into a single “construct” would simply make knowledge even more elusive than either position would have it on its own. I doubt this is what Michael has in mind, but it is on his shoulders to explain what he has in mind.
And of course, there’s the matter of authenticating whatever view he presents as genuinely Christian. I have read the bible – some portions of it I’ve read many, many times – and I’ve never found any passage which makes this kind of affirmation about epistemology. If a position is not bible-authentic, what justifies calling it Christian-authentic? This is a question that I have raised numerous times in my discussion with Michael, but he has yet to address it.
Also in his initial comment where he charges Rand of never properly understanding Christian epistemology, Michael stated that “Christianity does not hold that finite consciousness has primacy over reality.”
In response to him, I asked:
Where does “Christianity” state this? Is it in the bible?
1. Existence is not created – it is eternal, absolute, and independent of consciousness – of any consciousness. It rejects as irrational the notion of creation by an act of consciousness, miracles, preordination of human history, etc. Objectivism affirms that consciousness is inherently biological, just as other biological functions are, such as digestion, respiration, circulation, reproduction, etc. There is everything natural about consciousness, and nothing supernatural about it. In contrast to Objectivism, Christianity explicitly affirms the primacy of consciousness metaphysics, whether it is with regard to a deity wishing the universe into existence, that same deity assigning identities to the constituents of the universe is wished into existence, its ability to revise the identities at any time by an act of will, the contingency of every fact in the universe on the will of this deity, its ability to intrude on human consciousness and direct its movements, etc. And for an individual human being interacting with the actual realm in which he lives, no amount of believing is going to enable him to walk on water. Mere “belief” has no ability to alter reality. But this is not what the biblical narrative illustrates.
2. Reason is man’s only means of discovering and validating knowledge, his only standard of judgment, and his only guide to action. It rejects as irrational the notions of “divine revelation,” “sensus divinitatis,” the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit,” faith in invisible magic beings, prayer, etc. The core of Objectivist epistemology is its theory of concepts, which Rand described in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. By contrast, the bible presents no theory of concepts, and Christian apologists routinely fail to present any distinctively Christian theory of concepts. A theory of concepts explains how the human mind forms concepts from perceptual input. But since Christianity’s most basic “truths” are seated squarely in supernaturalism, those “truths” do not denote things which any human being can perceive. Such “truths” do not constitute conceptual knowledge, for they are not formed ultimately on the basis of perceptual input, and in fact require the believer to ignore perceptual input in forming conceptions of what is possible and what “ultimately” exists. It is for these reasons that Christian apologists typically take delight in playing the skeptic card against non-believers; non-believers, they claim, cannot “account for” the knowledge they possess while remaining consistent with their rejection of theism. This is why the tired “How do you know?” line of interrogation is so commonplace among the more visible presuppositional apologists. The unintended irony of such apologetic strategies is that the very apologists who deploy them in their offenses against non-believers famously show that they themselves cannot answer this very question when it is turned on them.
3. A morality that is proper to man is inherently selfish, since it is premised on the concept of values and is focused on an individual’s pursuit of his own life, his own values, his own happiness; it rejects self-sacrifice in any form and for any purpose. Objectivism does not advocate that an individual “deny himself” and take up an instrument of torturous execution and follow someone who “gave his life” for others. In fact, Objectivism rejects as reprehensible the idea that the ideal should be sacrificed on behalf of the non-ideal, that the virtuous should be sacrificed for the sake of the wretched. Indeed, only by accepting the premise of the primacy of consciousness can a worldview hold an individual guilty of adultery, for instance, merely for looking at another person and entertaining sexual fantasies about that person. The Objectivist view of evil is that it is never morally excusable, while the Christian view is that there can be and is such a thing as “a morally sufficient reason” for allowing, even “ordaining” evil (cf. Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 172).
4. Objectivism is well-known for its unflinching advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism, as defined and defended by Rand in her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Capitalism is the political theory premised on the idea that the individual has a right to live for his own sake, that he is not to set himself up as the collector of other people’s sacrifices, nor is he to sacrifice himself for others. Objectivism rejects any form sacrificial ethics, including the view that man has some “duty” or obligation to sacrifice himself to a deity which he can only imagine, or to his “fellow man.” Christianity was the dominating philosophical influence over Europe from the fall of Rome until the Age of Reason, and no state during this time was capitalistic. This was no accident. What is modeled in the New Testament is the strongest overt indication of what Christianity holds as the proper model for human society, and what the New Testament models (cf. the Acts of the Apostles) is clearly communistic. The treatment of the individual as merely a part of a larger collective is commonplace in Christian thought. The human population is divided into two opposing collectives, the “chosen” vs. the “damned,” and in every thoroughgoing Christian political system, this collectivist division of humanity is of paramount importance. Whether it is Rome’s colonial missionizing of primitive societies, its Inquisitions shoving its nose into individuals’ personal affairs, whether its Calvin’s Consistory condemning individuals for heretical beliefs or Christian “conservatives” actively seeking to limit mutually consensual sexuality to its preferred templates, the underlying premise of Christian political theory has historically been the view that the individual should not be allowed to live his life for his own sake, but must obey some central authority which has a “right” to know everything about the individual’s life and control it.
Of course, if I have misunderstood him or mischaracterized his position in any way, I am willing to be corrected. I believe these points accurately characterize the essence of our debate, but of course there may be many nuances which he would cite as important. And likewise for myself; it’s hard if not impossible for anyone to be thorough in the confines of a few paragraphs. This goes for me as much as it does for Michael.
While these few observations are hardly sufficient to do justice to the scope of the discussion which Michael and I have been enjoying up to this point, they do highlight the important points which present significant hurdles for Michael’s position. Moreover, Michael has introduced the terms “the transcendence” and “the transcendent,” which he apparently believes denote actually existing things, but which he has yet to define, let alone defend, this in spite of the fact that I have inquired on their meanings on more than one occasion in our discussion.
It is here where we take up the present situation in my discussion with Michael.
In one of his latest replies, Michael wrote:
I understand the processes of sound knowledge, the proper course of integration, beginning with concretes at the base of knowledge, with each new inference or abstraction directly linked to the previous. Judeo-Christianity insists on it.
a) specifies “processes of sound knowledge,” b) explains “the proper course of integration,” c) indicates that knowledge begins with concretes at the base of knowledge, and d) presents analyses of integration and abstraction as directly linked to more fundamental knowledge.
And as for the specifics which Michael has listed, I’ve never read anything about any of these things in the bible. I never heard anything about these things when I was a Christian. And after engaging probably several hundred Christian apologists over the past 15 years on the internet, nearly all strike me as fairly out to lunch when it comes to epistemology. They often make statements about epistemology, but typically these are constrained to talking points in their debate strategies and not in the interest of expanding anyone’s understanding of knowledge and how the human mind works. Moreover, when I eventually did learn about these things, it was only after I departed from Christianity and started learning about an atheistic worldview, namely Objectivism, where concern for these things is ever-present and unavoidable.
Indeed, the entire devotional program of Christianity is characterized by accepting belief claims on the basis of ignorance and fear. This is explicit in Christianity, and it is an undeniable part of the entire Christian faith agenda. Defenders of Christianity are constantly deploying apologetic schemes which are designed essentially to goad non-believers into throwing up their hands and saying “I donno, it must be God!” Typical examples include challenges like “How do you account for X” where X could be anything from the uniformity of nature to the “unchanging laws of logic,” from the very existence of life on earth to moral absolutes. The unwritten subtext to all of this is really nothing more than the believer himself didn’t know how to answer these questions rationally, and to whatever extent such questions are meaningful to him, he thinks the only available answer is supplied by pointing to a supernatural being which we can only imagine.
Granted, Michael does not come across as one of these types of Christian apologists. His approach seems more likely to affirm that rational philosophy is in fact true, albeit our understanding of certain components of it needs to be tweaked in order to reveal its basis in a god. This is why he apparently affirms a duplicitous metaphysical paradigm, one which affirms the primacy of existence in the case of man’s cognition, but which holds to the primacy of consciousness on the broader scheme of things. Unfortunately, this actually amounts to affirming a self-contradictory metaphysics, for the primacy of existence and the primacy of consciousness are not in any way compatible with one another. I’m supposing that there is more that Michael will need to learn about the issue of metaphysical primacy before he can fully appreciate these matters.
As for Christianity’s appeal to fear, there’s no denying this. It fills the bible’s pages, and Christian apologists often retreat to it as a last resort. The subtext here is essentially: “If you don’t believe, you’ll suffer in hell for eternity.” But threats are not a substitute for reason, and the mind certainly does not validate knowledge claims on the basis of fear. The “process of sound knowledge” does not involve a component in which raising a stick over a thinker’s head will somehow produce sound knowledge, or even supply premises sealing some true conclusion which would otherwise not be available.
Again, what Michael attributes to Christianity is not at all recognizable as Christian in nature. And his lack so far of connecting these specifics of epistemological import to Christian doctrine is not surprising.
If Michael cannot link these things to specific passages in the bible, then what justifies attributing these things to orthodox Christianity proper? Will he cite Augustine, a thinker heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism and Manicheaism? Such views don’t resemble Objectivism in the least. But all throughout this conversation, he’s been essentially maintaining that Judeo-Christianity affirms positions very similar to Objectivism in at least some of its metaphysics and in its epistemology.
It also needs to be noted, so that it is not forgotten or overlooked, that the view of oneself which Christianity insists the believer accept as part of the massage package of Christian belief, is one which denounces his spirit as a depraved misfit that can’t do anything right, either in knowledge or in deed. Rand showed that this is the exact opposite of the view of man which a pro-reason philosophy takes and must take. Reason requires an intact self-esteem, a sense that one is worthy of the knowledge he seeks to earn, indeed, that he can earn it in the first place, and that the fruits of knowledge are a benefit to oneself. Reason is selfish. A “selfless” epistemology would be one which expects its practitioners to sacrifice themselves, to deny the parts of their identity that make them human, to suppress their minds’ cognitive abilities in preference of some content whose claims to truth they could not verify, to ignore what their own mind might discover and validate in preference for commandments issued by an authoritarian source. A rational approach to knowledge does not tell man that he is essentially divided into two warring halves, each vying against the other, causing an unbridgeable rift between what he is expected to affirm as “right” and his desires, insisting that he forego judgment and rely on faith as his guide to action (as we find praised in Hebrews 11). We don’t find discourses put into biblical heroes’ mouths which have them affirming the virtues of rationality and independence, of adherence to reason as our only epistemological norm, of gathering facts from reality to confirm or refute claims one has fielded from others. The bible’s discourses have its heroes constantly referring back to “the book,” for “it is written” in their minds meant that it came from a divine source and is therefore not to be questioned or analyzed. For the bible’s heroes, importance is placed on obedience, not on understanding. The bible is emphatically not a pro-reason text. Far from it!
On the contrary, this “wisdom of the world” – i.e., reason – is condemned as being of the devil. Why else do we find Luther condemning reason over and over again in his writings? Luther thought the church had been contaminated by anti-Christian views. And he was right. We have Aquinas to thank for the incursions of non-Christian thought on Christianity. Luther and other Reformers sought to break from the Aristotelian influences which received the stamp of approval from Aquinas. The Christian who now posts comments on my blog under the name “Richard” (it seems to change from week to week) wrote earlier in the same thread: “Aristotle was wrong about much. It always amazes me that people take him seriously.” The Reformers wanted a revival of the sheer mysticism of the “original” Christianity, what they considered “orthodox” Christianity. Out with all the Aristotelian influences. Aristotle is unbiblical, and reason, “the Devil’s greatest whore,” said Luther, is “the greatest enemy that faith has.” Luther also announced that “reason should be destroyed in all Christians.” My point in citing Luther’s overt anti-rationality is not to broadbrush all Christians as similarly opposed to reason in such an overt manner, but to raise an important question given Michael’s attribution of certain elements to what he calls “Christian epistemology”: here was one of the leading Christian thinkers of his day, having earned a doctorate from the University of Wittenburg, vociferously denouncing reason as essentially satanic. If the things that Michael and I have discussed, from the primacy of existence to the importance of a “process of sound knowledge” in which higher levels of knowledge are abstracted from more fundamental, down to its roots in sense perception, are not merely compatible with Christianity, but “insisted on” by orthodox Christianity, how could someone with so much devotion to and study of Christianity and influence over later generations like Luther be so wrongheaded? Why didn’t Christians the world over simply denounce him as a heretic who strayed from Christianity’s (alleged) insistence on reason and show where he was wrong? To this day, there are millions of Christians who count themselves as Luther’s ecclesiastical ancestors. Anti-reason is the norm among Christianity’s flocks. I’ve already cited the explicit rationalism of folks like Gordon Clark. And let’s not forget the hundreds of Christian drive-bys who have “shared” their contempt for Objectivism right here on my blog and elsewhere.
All this is to say that, coupled with Michael’s lack of citation of evidence even casually suggesting that “Christianity insists on” these epistemological principles, there is overwhelming evidence blaring that quite the opposite is in fact the case. More and more Michael is beginning to resemble a renegade of sorts, a defector from orthodox Christianity who’s trying to revise it somehow.
Michael also wrote:
But you need to appreciate that according to Judeo-Christianity truth is from God and no other.
So, while Michael says that I “need to appreciate” this position, it remains beyond my understanding what exactly I’m being asked to appreciate. Maybe I’m just too dumb to understand it. And while I may not be the smartest guy around, I do understand some pretty complicated things. So I’m open to examining the premises of such a claim.
True knowledge is analogical. The believer's reasoning is analogical, the non-believer's, univocal.
On 11 Nov., Michael posted two comments entries summarizing points regarding the biblical view of creatio ex nihilo. While I did read these posts no less than two times, their relevance to our discussion was not entirely clear to me. I’m already aware of the fact that Christianity affirms the notion of creatio ex nihilo. What I did note in reading Michael’s statements on this matter, is that he is apparently an “old-earth creationist” to the extent that he affirms creationism as such. He states, for instance, that “the immanent realm” (i.e., the universe in which we exist) is “approximately 14 billion light-years old, and it’s thought to be more than 150 billion light-years in diameter and expanding at an accelerated rate.” This is not the typical YEC version of Christianity! Michael also seems to believe that the Jews of the OT times were flat-earthers. He writes: “back in the geocentric realm of the ancients, the world was flat, literally supported by pillars anchored in the foundations of the Earth below.” There are passages in the OT which do in fact suggest this. In fact, at a cursory glance at least, Michael seems to be confirming certain details in Robert Schadewald’s The Flat-Earth Bible. At least, it was Schadewald’s paper, which I had read many years ago, that Michael’s own comments brought to my mind. I am not trying to suggest that Michael affirms everything in Schadewald’s paper, but rather simply noting that the statements he included in his comments on my blog resemble certain elements propounded by Schadewald in his controversial thesis. Michael writes:
I have a very good reason for going into the sort of detail that I did with regard to the construct of creatio ex nihilo (anchored in scripture), the fact of the immanent realm’s existence, it's essence and extent, the detailed state of our current knowledge as compared to that of the ancients (the latter anchored in scripture). As we examine the transcendence, I will be drawing from these facts and their implications as I expound the Bible’s metaphysics and epistemology.
I’m gratified that Michael had “a very good reason for going into the sort of detail” that he provided on this matter. But I must admit that his reason(s) for doing so have successfully eluded me, at least to this point in the discussion. I am aware of what the bible teaches. What I’m interested in is how biblical teaching supports his claims that Objectivism and Christianity agree at certain fundamental points. Objectivism rejects the notion that the universe was created.
So it is unclear how Michaels recapitulation of biblical teaching regarding creatio ex nihilo supports his claim that Christianity agrees with Objectivism at any point. So these are the issues on the table before us. There’s a lot here, and I appreciate Michael’s time and willingness to examine these things. There are many issues, an entire mountain range to traverse. Where do we go from here? How do we begin our next steps? I would propose that the best course for continuing the conversation is to start fleshing out some of the Christian categories which Michael introduced earlier in the discussion so that it will be clear to me what exactly he is talking about. I would also hope to see some effort to support his attributions of certain positions to Christianity proper with citations from the bible, what Greg Bahnsen called “the sourcebook and standard of Christianity” (Always Ready, p. 195).
by Dawson Bethrick