“To explain God so that God makes sense without God”

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Reading Paul Copan

I spent a summer in China back in the early 1980s. I was absolutely enthralled with the architecture, the commerce, and especially the language, which was the main thing I was there to study. I would have loved to go back and spend my life there, but it was not the path for me.

While I was there, though, I kept wondering, What would it be like for this to feel normal? What would it be like for dragons and curved red roofs and Chinese characters to fade from consciousness, so that I would notice it with as little sense of strangeness as I view the local shopping mall’s architecture? I don’t know if anyone ever becomes quite that multi-cultural; if they do, it takes years.

If that’s true for the surface features of another culture, how much more is it true for the deep ways in which people understand reality? How long does it take to truly appreciate another’s way of seeing everything?

The answer to that depends on the person and the context. This all came to mind as I was studying Paul Copan’s chapter on Genesis 22, the (interrupted) sacrifice of Isaac, in Is God a Moral Monster?. It’s a long chapter covering multiple topics of theology and history, tightly woven together to produce a picture quite unlike what many think is represented there. For someone new to these concepts, this chapter would require considerable time and patience.

Sophisticated Theologians®?

That’s exactly what some skeptics won’t even consider. Jerry Coyne writes off theistic thinkers as “Sophisticated Theologians®.” PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins take a slightly more formal approach with their “Courtier’s Reply.” Both approaches take it that if there’s anything complicated about a theistic explanation, that by itself means that it’s obfuscating its own emptiness. Of course they don’t apply the same standard to their own scientific disciplines.

After all, while it’s true that all else being equal, a simple explanation is better than a complex one, all things are never equal. A simple explanation often suffices for familiar concepts, rarely for unfamiliar ones. Theism is more familiar to some of us than to others. Those who know it less well should expect it to take some explaining before they get it. How could it be otherwise?

The same is true, obviously, of biological science. For me to fully understand sodium transport mechanisms would take an awful lot of study. For many skeptics to understand what’s going on in Genesis 22 might take less, but I’m not sure, because it requires them, provisionally at least, to think like theists: This is how it might make sense if theism were true. I’m sure many skeptics would find that just as difficult as it would for me to feel like Buddhist temples were normal features of the landscape.

Sweeping judgments, pronounced in near ignorance

Here’s the odd thing, though. Most of us who don’t understand sodium ion transport don’t deny that it happens. Most of us who don’t feel fully at home in foreign surroundings deny that there’s something of great value to be gained from taking a different person’s perspective for a while. Most skeptics, however, think they can take a quick look at this one short, seemingly self-contained story in Genesis, and pronounce a sweeping judgment against it.

This is odd, as I say, because most skeptics don’t think they know everything in other walks of life. In this one, though, they think they have it wired. It may be a 3,000 to 4,000 year-old story, from a far side of the planet, from a viewpoint utterly different from their own, but still they feel free to declare that it doesn’t make sense.

To explain God so that God makes sense without God

This is the story I see in all the charges of God’s supposed Old Testament moral monsterhood. Here’s another way of looking at it. The skeptics can’t find a way to make it make sense within the framework of their own view of reality. Thus they tell us it doesn’t make sense. They hardly ever invest the effort to discover whether it makes sense from within its own framework.

They want us to explain God so that God makes sense without God. When we cannot do it, they tell us God doesn’t make sense.

Does that make sense?

Obviously I haven’t tried to summarize Copan’s chapter on Genesis 22 here. I’m not sure I can. It’s a longish chapter for good reason: all of the multiple interweaving explanations I mentioned above do seem to be necessary. I’ll have to decide later on whether it’s worth trying to pull them down into some shorter form or not.

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Comments 1
  1. BillT

    I’ve heard it described like this. Skeptics critique Christianity because you can’t “get it” unless you “get it.” In other words, you can’t understand the claims and truths of the faith unless you accept the validity of the faith. And that’s true. However, it’s also true of other major understandings. You don’t “get” Freudian analysis unless you accept it’s true. You don’t “get” the full explanatory power of Kant’s Categorical Imperative unless you accept it. You don’t “get” Philosophical Naturalism without acquiescing to its cogency.

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