Monday, August 16, 2010

345: Philippians

Philippians 1-4
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far..." - Philippians 1:21-23

Yet another letter by Paul. Only about 5 more to go.

Paul starts by saying that he thanks God every day for the Philippians. That must mean they've been good. It also probably means this letter is going to be incredibly boring.

Next Paul talks about being in chains for Jesus. First he was a slave for Jesus, then he said we were set free through Jesus, now he's back to being in chains. He goes on to contrast himself with people who are not in chains, but still preach the message of Jesus to advance their own goals. Paul actually defends these people, saying that even if they are preaching the message for the wrong reason, they're still preaching Jesus (and getting filthy rich if they're running a mega church).

Paul then says that he wishes he were dead so that he could be with Jesus. I've actually heard this from various Christians. I'm really not sure why there aren't hoards of Christians jumping off bridges. If you truly believe that you're going to a "better place", why not expedite the process? At least so far, the bible has offered no penalty for suicide. Paul says that he doesn't die so that he can preach the gospel to more people.

Chapter 2 begins with Paul telling us to embrace humility like Jesus did. I'm not sure what Paul would know about humility. He says that Jesus had enough humility to submit to death on a cross. So Jesus is back to being hung on a cross? What happened to hung from a tree?

Chapter 3 begins with Paul telling us not to put any confidence in our flesh. By "flesh" it seems like he means the laws of the Old Testament. He says that, though he was perfectly righteous before his conversion (so much for humility), he considers all that righteousness a loss for the sake of Christ. I guess this is back to the idea that someone can't be saved by how good they are in this life.

Chapter 3 ends with more instructions for the Philippians. Paul tells them to keep pushing ahead toward the goal, the goal being Jesus I suppose. He says that once we reach this goal (the goal of death?) we will get new glorious bodies in the after life.

In the last chapter Paul tells the Philippians - like he does with everyone - to just get along. He then says that he is content no matter what his circumstances, and everyone else should be just like him. If everyone was content when things are bad, then nothing good would be accomplished. If the roof of your house is leaking, you get a repairman because you're not content with being wet.

I almost like Paul better when he's mad. At least then he's entertaining.

What would scientific evidence of God mean? One writer for the Huffington Post thinks it would mean the end of not only atheism, but Christianity. He starts first by trying to describe evidence for God:
If the physical constants fail as convincing evidence of God, then what might succeed? In his book Universes, philosopher John Leslie conjures up a rather fanciful scenario for potential God-evidence (I'm taking a few liberties here in order to make Leslie's example a bit more fun). Imagine obviously intentionally engineered artifacts descending harmlessly from the sky (God doesn't want to hurt anyone!) each with an engraved label saying "made by God." Scientists are able to perform definitive tests on these artifacts and conclude beyond all doubt that they have been fashioned by an omniscient, all-powerful agent.
While that may be earth shattering, my next question would be which God? How difficult would it be for God to just follow everyone around in some sort of ghostly body? Maybe he could even exert a positive, practical influence on the world while he's here. That would certainly be strong (repeatable) evidence of God's existence.

The writer then tells us to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the Judeo-Christian God does exist. He then tells us what he thinks this would mean:
Well nothing major -- only the end of both atheism and Christianity. If scientific atheists are true to their convictions, then it seems that they have no choice but to become theists. Their worldview is based on evidence and the evidence says there's a god.

But it's also the end of Christianity. For those who find Christianity to be a stubbornly abhorrent strain of the religion virus, this ought to be a moment of much rejoicing. How so? A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will. It is no stretch to say that Christianity without free will is simply not Christianity anymore. The Christian God grants humans free will and will not interfere with its exercise. Humans are free to believe or not believe, free to follow God's laws or free to sin and separate themselves from God. God condemns no one. People condemn themselves. This is all standard, mainline Christian theology and it all gets utterly demolished by convincing scientific evidence of God.
This is actually an argument I hear a lot. "God can't show himself, that would suspend our free will". How would this suspend free will? The writer tries to explain:
We really aren't free to believe or not believe in germs, gravity, evolution or other firmly established scientific facts. We can foolishly try to deny them, but their effects are with us and their laws hold regardless of our attitude. If I jump off a cliff, it matters not a whit whether I believe in gravity; I'm gonna fall. The laws of physics, Mendelian genetics, viral contagion, etc. -- my beliefs about these things are irrelevant. I follow their dictates. I suffer or enjoy their consequences.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. So in order to have free will there has to be a certain level of ambiguity? I know people that don't believe in evolution against all evidence. Scientific evidence doesn't mean anything to people that don't believe or understand it.

Gravity may always pull you down when you fall off a cliff. But I have the "free will" to believe that it's actually magic fairies pulling us inexorably toward the center of the earth. I don't, by definition, have to believe in Newtonian/Einsteinian gravitational theory. Like the evolution denier, I still have the free will to be belligerently stupid.
Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.
Incidentally, a God that values forced ignorance would also set it up this way. "Free will" is not forcing yourself to believe something with no evidential backing (some Christians would disagree with saying there is no evidence, but this writer would not). In fact, if you use this writer's logic, God is suspending our free will in the absence of evidence and forcing us to believe in him, with the threat of hell.

If God really could be proven to exist, I would kindly ask him to suspend my free will anyway. What's a few years of suspended free will in comparison with an eternity of torture? The idea that God would even give us the opportunity to eternally damn ourselves seems pretty selfish and unloving to me.


  1. With Philippians we're back to the epistles for which the consensus among scholars is that it was written by Paul, albeit as 2 or 3 separate letters and perhaps with a few odd interpolations, as usual. The situation is as follows: Epaphroditus was sent from the church at Philippi to deliver some money to Paul. Paul thanks them in chapter 4. Then Epaphroditus became ill, and the Philippians were worried, but Paul wrote them another letter (chapters 1-2, and some of 3 and 4) to reassure them that he had recovered. Most of chapters 3 and 4 comprise the third letter, seemingly unrelated to the other 2 and possibly not even sent to the Philippians (although Polycarp, in the 2nd c., mentions that Paul had written 3 letters to the Philippians).

    The most significant part of this book is the "pre-Pauline hymn" in chapter 2, which I'll discuss in a separate comment. The rest of my comments follow below.

  2. Phil 2:6-11. Paul seems to be quoting an early Christian hymn that predates his own gospel. It tells the story of some divine entity that humbled himself, took the form of a human (but is not said to actually become human), and allowed himself to be sacrificed, and in recognition of this sacrifice, God raised him up to the highest level of heaven, and bestowed the powerful name Jesus (Savior) on him.

    Phil 2:8: " even death on a cross." This phrase breaks the meter of the hymn and appears to be a later addition.

    Phil 2:9-10. This is the money quote: Jesus was actually given his name after he was resurrected! How could this be if Jesus was an actual historical person?! Note that the text does not just say that he was given the title Lord, as it is usually misread, but that he received his name. This is another, very big, nail in the coffin of the Gospel Jesus. (Although, as we'll see, Hebrews is probably the final nail.)



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