Friday, January 15, 2016

What's the difference between culpability and innocence?


The argument of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is that ordinary Germans during World War Two knew enough about the Holocaust to be held collectively responsible. They knew enough as they trains went past, were educated enough to read between the lines of the propaganda and many were in the right places to do something about it. You could extend the argument; were the Allied pilots, spies, generals and politicians who saw or knew about the ariel photographs of Auschwitz culpable for some of the deaths? But it's not just a historical question, we learn that our clothing is made by slave labour, we see environmental degradation in our countryside and know that abortion is wrong and takes place on a daily basis across the world. So for what are we culpable for and what are we innocent of?

Everyone prioritises, no one apart from Jesus has enough resources or motivation to solve every problem. The fact we prioritise is a bit of an open secret, but one we are often reluctant to talk about. The aid organisations we support, the new stories we follow and the topics we discuss with friends are ranked according to our view of the world. So underneath the question of the innocence and culpability, is the question of priority, and who gets to decide that ranking? The question of culpability and innocence is as old as Adam and Eve but the question of priority was prompted by the Industrial Revolution, which allowed large volumes of news to travel quickly. What's required with the question of priority, is honesty and integrity. What are the commitments of my worldview and how does that govern my responses?

Coming back to the bigger question of determining the difference between culpability and innocence. The solution is to find your place in God's bigger narrative. Your story, your place, and your behaviour in your part of the larger story, matters. People's knowledge and responsibility varies and so does the volume of information we receive in the modern world. So in a sense there's a competition of ideas, and it's morally OK to pick and choose based on who you are, what strikes your imagination, what you believe is important and the resources you've been blessed with. That subjectivity is governed in turn by your world view and how you work out your place in God's narrative. Moral objectivity is deductive, it's not determined by the ebb and flow of ideas around us or the power and influence of others, its imposed ultimately by the narrative of the story we belong to. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

God and Allah: A lack of logic

So it looks like Professor Hawkins of Wheaton College is going to be fired for making this statement:"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God". I want focus on the logical mistakes several Christian commentators have made about the alleged similarity between the God of Christianity and the God of Islam, in response to this recent controversy

A valid argument, needs both clear terms and true (corresponding to reality) premises. Often we summarise our arguments, assuming our terms are clearly understand and hoping our premises correspond to reality. In this recent controversy Christian commentators have displayed a lack of logic by jumping to theological arguments about whether or not the gods of Islam and Christianity are the same , without making their terms clear or the premises accurate. Here are some reasonable observations about this controversy.

  1. You can observe linguistic similarities: Arabic, like English has a word for god. "Allah"
  2. You can observe historical similarities: Islam is a seventh century derivative of Christianity
  3. You can observe sociological similarities: both religions have ethical standards, meeting places and religious leaders
  4. You can observe religious similarities: both religions have theological discussions about who God is and how he saves
So what shape would a valid argument take? You would start by making your terms clear, by comparing individual Islamic and Christian definitions of God. You would then need to show if those terms accurately represented wider Islamic and Christian theology. Finally, you'd then need to connect the dots and show how your argument was bigger than a mere sociological observation but proved a profound ideological similarity. I've yet to see this. 


Now, here are some examples where Christian commentators have blurred an unclear observation about Islam and Christianity with a half-baked theological argument, leading only to disappointing confusion.

John Stackhouse
"What she [Hawkins] could have meant, and what makes sense in the context of her long-time affiliation with Wheaton College, is that she believes that the same God is the object of much and normative Islamic piety as is the target of much and normative Christian piety."
Miroslav Volf
"Most Christians through the centuries, saints and teachers of undisputed orthodoxy, have believed that Muslims worship the same God as they do."
Tevin Wax
"Timothy George – Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? The answer is surely Yes and No." 
Mark Gali
"For example, theologically there is indeed a limited way in which we can say Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but in larger and more substantive ways, we don't. That issue needs careful parsing."
Note that a valid Christian argument would need to distinguish between Muslims learning true things about God in-spite of Islam, as opposed to Muslims learning true things about God because of Islam.