‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post

‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post.

Read this book review by Michael Dirda and consider where the argument about original sin and the history of Christian doctrine errs.

Your observations are welcome. Feel free to share using the comments box below.

Coincidences of Life – Ender’s Game and a UPS Truck

UPS Truck . . . without a driver

This afternoon I was waiting at a red light (northbound on Palm at Central in Brea, CA, if the coordinates matter) and listening to the audio-book for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Just as the light turned green, one character said to the other, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service.”

This struck me as odd, showing up in a work of science fiction. But stranger still, as I shifted my motorcycle into second, a UPS truck passed me in the intersection going south.

Was it a coincidence? Of course it was. It was quite literally the coinciding of an auditory reference from one source and a visual reference from another source to the same company, UPS. These sensory experiences occurred simultaneously. They each conveyed information, and the information conveyed referred to the same thing. I heard a guy say through my headset, “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” just as I waved to a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service. (Well, actually, I didn’t wave.)


Sort of.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines “uncanny” in this way: “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin,” or “being beyond what is normal or expected: suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers.”

The concurrence of two causally unrelated references to the same informational content attracts our attention. It is so incredibly unlikely that this would happen, it seems almost to have been planned. Was it planned? And if so, who arranged it? It might take superhuman or supernatural powers to make it happen just so. What other explanation could there be?

“Coincidence,” we say, with palpable matter-of-factness. But of course it’s a coincidence. Saying so merely reports an observation of fact. The real question is, what kind of coincidence is it? What is the explanation for this coincidence?

We do explain coincidences in various ways. Sometimes we say, “It was just a coincidence.” By this we mean that there’s nothing more to it than that, a mere coincidence, with no deep explanation. There is no intelligible cause, and no intelligent agent, involved. There is no meaningful answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”

But the question does present itself. It does to me, anyway. Trivial coincidences like this happen in my experience with remarkable frequency. I say “trivial” because I infer no special significance when they happen. And yet it is both remarkable each time it happens and remarkable that it happens as often as it does.

Why is it remarkable if the coincidence is trivial? It’s remarkable because the concurrence is so improbable. The degree of improbability varies depending on the specific character of the information presented. But the improbability of the concurrence does not, as such, warrant attribution of some special significance.

Why not?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. First, we can think of no special reason why the elements in our experience have occurred together. (Note: No one else in the intersection, I believe, actually heard or thought of the words “United Parcel Service” at that moment.) Second, we can identify no  causal mechanism that would ensure that they did occur together. In other words, there is no apparent point in their concurrence, and no obvious causal account of their concurrence. If we thought their concurrence served some purpose, we would naturally be curious about the cause. And if nothing else will serve, we might say that the cause was superhuman and personal. Given a general reluctance to attribute causes to occult entities, we require that a coincidence be specially significant. Also, if the concurrence was caused for our benefit, then we should find some benefit in their concurrence. That is, if we who experience the coincidence were meant to experience it, then there was some reason why it happened and why it happened in our experience. And this suggests that we should be capable of discerning that purpose.

What purpose could possibly have been served by the coincidence I experienced on my way home this afternoon? Nothing comes to mind. “It’s just a coincidence.”

But wait, now that I think that thought, I recall that there was a UPS package for me when I arrived home not two minutes later. Was the coincidence a warning, then? It certainly didn’t have that effect on me when it happened. In fact, when it happened, my thought was, This is something I could blog about. And in retrospect it doesn’t seem that a warning was required. The contents of the package were innocuous. Some clothing I had ordered. I don’t know if it matters, but the package wasn’t waiting on the front porch, as if it had just been delivered by the very same UPS truck. It had been carried in by another member of my household who wasn’t home. (I know she wasn’t home because no one was home. And I know it was a she because I’m the only he in the household. Aren’t you impressed with my awesome powers of deduction?)

I suppose now I might take care trying on the clothing that was delivered. But I can’t seriously entertain the notion that I’m in some kind of danger.

If there was a message, it was totally lost on me.

Could there be some other purpose, completely unrelated to my goals or interests, so that the purpose might be achieved quite apart from my cognizance of it?

(c) 2009 Katherine Gehl Donovan

Sure. A minor demon might have been taunting some innocent angel with her powers of manipulation, claiming to be able to cause me to hear “I drive a truck for the United Parcel Service” and, at the same precise moment, cause me to see a guy driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

In that event, would it really matter whether I recognized the concurrence of the appearance of a UPS truck just as I was hearing that bit of fictional dialogue? I can imagine a neophyte angel thinking, How did you do that? What if the line I’ve quoted from the story isn’t actually in the novel?

And what if there wasn’t really a UPS truck crossing the intersection in the opposite direction? Maybe the demon’s game was to present me with visual and auditory data that did not correspond with objects matching the data. Who knows what minor demons are capable of?

The point is, if there was a purpose in the coincidence, I have no idea what it was, and this makes it less likely that, if there was a purpose, realization of that purpose depended on my discerning that purpose.

Now, what do I actually believe? Do I believe there was a purpose in the coincidence? I do not. But this is imprecise. Not believing that there was a purpose is not the same as believing there was no purpose. I might simply be agnostic about whether the coincidence served some purpose.

So am I agnostic? No. I believe that no purpose was served.

I should have a reason for believing this, shouldn’t I?

My chief reason for believing that no purpose was served by the event is that attributing a reason does not comport with my worldview. Or rather, my worldview provides no basis for attributing a reason for the coincidence.

What we make of coincidences often is a matter of worldview commitments. Some coincidences do, for me, invite an inference to the agency of some superhuman or supernatural agent. Apparent answers to prayer, for example.

Here’s a question for fellow theists who believe that God exists and is a personal being who created the universe and sustains it in existence, others like me who affirm a doctrine of meticulous divine providence:

How do you decided whether this or that ‘coincidence’ is the occurrence of an event serving some special purpose intended by a superhuman or supernatural being?

Bonus Question: Is the angel/demon image posted here too provocative? Is it poor judgment to use it here?

On This Date in 431: The Council of Ephesus

Today is an apt day for reflecting on the Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Read more of this post

Do Miracles Happen Today?

In the comments section of a post I made some months ago, I was recently asked if I believe that a severely damaged eye could be restored immediately following a Christian prayer meeting.

Here’s my reply, made more accessible with a separate and exclusive post. Read more of this post

Best Books in Systematic Theology

Everyone should read some Christian theology. And the first thing to read is a systematic theology, that is, a work that treats all the major doctrines of Christian theology in systematic fashion. (This used to be called “Dogmatic Theology.”)

Recently I’ve been reading E. A. Litton’s 19th-century volume Introduction to Dogmatic Theology. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Litton to any serious reader who has time or shelf space for only one volume of systematic theology.

Here are my recommendations for different categories. Read more of this post

Am I a Calvinist? Not Exactly

Recently I received this note from a friend on Facebook:

Dr. Geivett,

What is your view on Calvinism, election, and free will? Do you have any good resources you could recommend?

Since I am occasionally asked this question, I thought it might be helpful to others to post my reply here, together with Amazon links for the reading I recommend:

Hi . . . ,

I’m not a Calvinist. I’m a libertarian regarding human freedom, and I reconcile human freedom and divine sovereignty on the basis of the doctrine of divine middle knowledge. I can recommend several books on this:

(1) Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge

This is an early primary source for the doctrine of divine middle knowledge. Luis de Molina was the first to develop the doctrine systematically. This is Alfred J. Freddoso’s translation from the Latin text. Freddoso’s lengthy introduction to the volume is an excellent sympathetic introduction to the doctrine. This is the ideal place to begin your study of middle knowledge if you’re prepared to read a fairly sophisticated treatment of the topic.

(2) William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God

William Lane Craig is an evangelical Christian apologist and a leading proponent of the doctrine of divine middle knowledge. This book explains the doctrine, contrasts it with alternative views of the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom (e.g., Calvinist views), and includes careful examination of the relevant texts of Scripture. If you read only one book on this topic, this is the book to study. The topic is complex, so any exposition of the doctrine and related issues will generally be written above the popular level. This is the most accessible detailed treatment of the topic (at a very reasonable price).

(3) Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account

This is an exceptional treatment of the doctrine of divine middle knowledge by a prominent Catholic philosopher of religion. Exposition and defense of the doctrine is more developed here than in William Lane Craig’s book, so it’s a good place to go next if you plan further study of the topic.

(4) Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, eds., View Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World

For an application of the doctrine of divine middle knowledge to the question of the fate of the unevangelized, see the contributions in this book that I co-authored with Gary Phillips. Another source for this material is my chapter in the book Jesus Under Fire (see below).

(5) Michael J. Wilkins and JP Moreland, Jesus Under Fire

My concluding chapter to this volume presents the same material contained in my contribution to the book Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, on the fate of the unevangelized (see above).

The Religious Lives—and Questions—of Children

I know from experience that children think deep thoughts and come up with the most difficult questions. Throughout their childhood, my daughters plied me with questions about the nature of the universe, the existence of God, whether we have souls—that sort of thing. I have always been amazed by two things as a parent and a university professor. First, grad students in philosophy ask questions they probably had when they were three to five years old. They had’t forgotten the answers; they had forgotten the questions. Second, the quirky solutions young kids reach in answer to deep intellectual challenges are seldom more quirky than the ideas of philosophers and theologians about the same things. Come to think of it, their answers often bear a remarkable resemblance!

I’m not the first to marvel at this. My friend Jim Spiegel also teaches philosophy. He has twice as many children as I do, and they’re about half the ages of my kids. And his kids don’t let him relax from doing philosophy when he comes home from work. Fortunately for us, he’s written a spanking new book about his experiences in this arena.

It’s called Gum, Geckos and God: A Family’s Adventure in Space, Time, and Faith. My copy just arrived and already I’ve read the first forty pages. Jim is a talented writer and an insightful parent. He can tell a good story, and this book is loaded with them. He’s funny, too, and self-effacing. If you have children or grandchildren, or know someone who does, and you haven’t given up asking questions about faith, I think you might enjoy and grow wiser reading this book.

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