Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The logic of Christian belief

I was cruising the spiritual Web tonight and found the following on a "Q & A" page about the Bible as the Word of God:

Question 4: Are Christians guilty of circular reasoning?

A: A charge that is frequently leveled against the Bible is that Christians argue in circles. The charge goes that Christians claim the Bible as the inspired Word of God and as proof, quote a passage from the Bible that says so. This type of argumentation is known as begging the question, or circular reasoning. It is based on assuming something to be true, using that assumption as fact to prove another assumption and using the "proved" assumption to prove your original assumption!

Some Christians (and many non-Christians) do argue in circles, but about the Bible they certainly don't need to.

Instead of assuming the Bible is the Word of God, we can begin by demonstrating that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy historical documents. This is confirmed by applying the ordinary test of historical criticism to the Scriptures. After establishing that the Bible is a valid historical record, the next point is realizing that Jesus Christ claims to be the unique Son of God and that He bases this claim on His forthcoming resurrection from the dead.

Next, we examine the evidence for the resurrection contained in this historic document and find that the arguments overwhelmingly support the contention that Christ has risen from the dead. If this is true, then He is the unique Son of God as He claimed to be. If He is indeed God, then He speaks with authority on all matters.

Since Jesus considered the Old Testament to be the Word of God (Matthew 15:1-4, 5:17, 18) and promised His disciples, who either wrote or had control over the writing of the New Testament books, that the Holy Spirit would bring all things back to their remembrance (John 14:26), therefore we can insist, with sound and accurate logic, that the Bible is God's Word. This is not circular reasoning. It is establishing certain facts and basing conclusions on the sound, logical outcome of these facts. The case for Christianity can be established by ordinary means of historical investigation.

(From Answers to Tough Questions About the Bible)

It's curious to me that a logical defense of Christian belief would be so illogical. The way I read it, the author above seems to argue that the Bible is a trustworthy source of information because it holds up to historical scrutiny. What kind of historical scrutiny? Well, all the author can say is, "Instead of assuming the Bible is the Word of God, we can begin by demonstrating that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy historical documents. This is confirmed by applying the ordinary test of historical criticism to the Scriptures. " Elsewhere on the same website, the author references "one liberal scholar" named John A. T. Robinson and we are told, "The evidence points out that the documents were not written long after the events, but within close proximity to them, and people wrote them during the period when many eyewitnesses or people acquainted with the facts were still living. The inescapable conclusion is that the New Testament picture of Christ can be trusted."

I am not sure how "inescapable" this conclusion really is. If one were talking about any other document—a New York Times news article or a biography of Thomas Jefferson—then it would be reasonable to assess the factual basis of that document by comparing it with other works on the same topic. For example, if the news article contained factual statements that were not present in or contradicted by other news articles on the same topic, one would question the veracity of those statements and seek to independently verify the statements with reference to other reports. However, the authors of the Q & A at www.needhim.org make no attempt to assess the veracity of the Biblical accounts by comparing them to contemporary sources (e.g. the writings of the first century writer Josephus, who wrote about the First Jewish War). Instead, the authors seem to look only to compare the factual statements in the New Testament with one another: "It is important to remember that two statements may differ from each other without being contradictory. Some fail to make a distinction between contradiction and difference."

I respect the fact that Christianity and belief in the message of Jesus have been very helpful and inspirational to many people. However, speaking only for myself, I have always struggled with any belief system—including the Jewish faith of my upbringing—that depends so much on premises which cannot be independently verified or subjected to rigorous analysis. Honestly, one of the things that caused me to turn to Buddhist practice as a way of expressing my spiritual self was the Buddha's famous instruction about belief:

“Believe nothing because a wise man said it.
Believe nothing because it is generally held.
Believe nothing because it is written.
Believe nothing because it is said to be divine.
Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
But believe only what you yourself judge to be true."

(Kalama Sutra, AN 3.65)

Teachers of Buddhist thought going all the way back to Gothama Siddartha himself encourage their students to think critically about ideas and to subject their assumptions to rigorous analysis. Attachment to one's closely-held beliefs without such questioning is discouraged in Buddhist practice, whereas I think many systems of belief (including most forms of Christianity) encourage practitioners to take a "leap of faith."

Perhaps I am overreacting and taking the whole www.needhim.org thing too seriously.

I don't know.

With metta,


Monday, February 26, 2007

Dust in the (Stellar) Wind

Sometimes I think we all get too carried away with ourselves. I know I do! Pema Chödrön calls this "ego-clinging." The concept is that, try as we may to think thoughts of metta and the well-being of others, most of us spend the majority of our waking moments acting as if "it's all about me."

In any case, I was doing a little web-surfing tonight and found some wonderful photographs of nebulae at space.com. Nebulae (plural of nebula), in case you don't know (I didn't!) are interstellar clouds of gas, dust and plasma.

"Nebulae are the birthplace of stars. They are formed when very diffuse molecular clouds begin to collapse under their own gravity, often due to the influence of a nearby supernova explosion. The cloud collapses and fragments, sometimes forming hundreds of new stars. The newly-formed stars ionize the surrounding gas to produce an emission nebula. The nebula's gravity pulls the cloud inward and it starts to spin in the middle eventually gaining enough friction to be hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur.

Other nebulae are formed by the death of stars; a star that undergoes the transition to a white dwarf blows off its outer layer to form a planetary nebula. Novae and supernovae can also create nebulae known as nova remnants and supernova remnants, respectively."

(From Wikipedia)

It reminded me of the line in that song by Kansas, "Dust in the Wind," that reminds us:

I close my eyes
Only for a moment and the moment's gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity...

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground
Though we refuse to see...

Now don't hang on
Nothin' lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won't another minute buy...

So, just remember...

All we are is dust in the (stellar) wind.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Circumcision and sīla

Above: A mother and daughter in an AIDS hospice in Malawi;
the mother transmitted the HIV virus to the daughter in utero

After seeing an article on AIDS and circumcision in the New York Times today, I want to comment on circumcision, which is often criticized, especially in Buddhist circles, as being an unnecessary and painful elective procedure with no medical value.

There is very convincing medical evidence that circumcision reduces the rate of transmission for sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

The Buddha taught us to do no harm, and to do what is helpful and beneficial to other beings. The Buddha further taught us that sometimes doing some harm may be necessary in order to prevent a greater harm.

To understand what kind of "greater harm" is at stake, consider the following:

There are more than 38,000,000 cases of HIV/AIDS worldwide, of which more than 24,000,000 (more than 60%) are in Subsaharan Africa. There were approximately 2,500,000 new HIV infections in Africa in 2005 alone, and millions more every year. Almost 30% of the global number of people living with HIV live in southern Africa (Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, the two small states of Lesotho and Swaziland and the island of Madagascar) where only 2% of the world's population reside.

HIV/AIDS is killing millions of people worldwide, and a recent, double-blind (i.e. scientifically valid) study among African men showed that the rate of HIV transmission was reduced by 65% by circumcision.

In the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra there is a story about the Buddha killing a being in order to save others. While on board a ship, the Buddha discovered that there was a robber who intended to kill all five hundred of his fellow passengers. The Buddha decided to kill the robber, not only for the sake of his fellow passengers but also to save the robber himself from the karmic consequences of his horrendous act. In doing so, the negative karma from killing the robber should have accrued to Shakyamuni but it did not.

Therefore there is a principle in Buddhism that in rare circumstances it may be appropriate to commit an act that harms one being in order to prevent the suffering of others.

I believe that circumcision is justifiable on the basis of this principle. It is true that circumcision is painful and a modification of the body's natural anatomy. But it is also true that, in the case of infant circumcision, the patient will almost certainly have no memory of the procedure (since the brain's long-term memory functions are not fully developed at that point), so the probability of psychological damage to the patient is very, very low. Taking into account the very real possibility that, for males in areas where HIV/AIDS is reaching epidemic proportions, the procedure may very well prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS to their partners, it is far better to cause temporary pain to infants by circumcising them than to condemn millions of others to death and resultant suffering.

Circumcision is therefore in my opinion defensible as a matter of sīla (ethics).

May all beings know peace and freedom from suffering.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Quan Yin's Blessing

I found this on the web - supposedly a blessing of Quan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, whose name means "She Who Hears the Cries of the World." That said, I am not sure of its ethnographic or sectarian origin.

To those who withhold refuge,
I cradle you in safety at the core of my Being.
To those that cause a child to cry out,
I grant you the freedom to express your own choked agony.
To those that inflict terror,
I remind you that you shine with the purity of a thousand suns.
To those who would confine, suppress, or deny,
I offer the limitless expanse of the sky.
To those who need to cut, slash, or burn,
I remind you of the invincibility of Spring.
To those who cling and grasp,
I promise more abundance than you could ever hold onto.
To those who vent their rage on small children,
I return to you your deepest innocence.
To those who must frighten into submission,
I hold you in the bosom of your original mother.
To those who cause agony to others,
I give the gift of free flowing tears.
To those that deny another's right to be,
I remind you that the angels sang in celebration of you on the day of your
To those who see only division and separateness,
I remind you that a part is born only by bisecting a whole.
For those who have forgotten the tender mercy of a mother's embrace,
I send a gentle breeze to caress your brow.
To those who still feel somehow incomplete,
I offer the perfect sanctity of this very moment.