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Friday, 21 September 2007

Perigo on Faith, Reason, and Tertullian

In a recent issue of Salient Lindsay Perigo laments the “power wishful thinking”. Predictably he cites Christianity as a paradigm of such thinking. However, like many in the media who take swipes at orthodox or conservative expressions Christianity his analysis is superficial. Perigo writes.

Two thousand years of Christianity have been based on a lie, in which countless millions have blithely and willingly believed, notwithstanding its absurdity—in fact, because of its absurdity, as Tertullian proclaimed:
“The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is inappropriate. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”
He might have added: “and because something perverse in us makes us want to believe nonsense.”

Perigo here asserts that Christianity is absurd. Of course merely asserting some thing is absurd hardly constitutes a compelling objection to it. Perigo however suggests that, not only is Christianity absurd, but its practioners actually recognise it’s absurdity and believe because of it. The idea is that they deliberately go against what reason tells them and choose a path recognised as irrational He cites the famous “Credo quia absurdum” popularly attributed to Tertullian to substantiate this claim.

There are a couple of problems here: First, even if it’s true that one Theologian (Tertullian) has suggested that Christianity is absurd and commended belief in it for this reason it does not follow that all Christians or even many follow suit. To establish this Perigo would need to show that Tertullian’s position was the dominant mainstream one for most of Christian history. He does not even attempt to do so. Moreover, the suggestion Tertullains views, as Perigo interprets them was the mainstream views is very dubious .

Second, Perigo’s picture of Tertullian is inaccurate. Its was once common for people to Tertullian as a proponent of extreme fideism a position defined by Alvin Plantinga as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason” and the “Credo quia absurdum” passage is the usual reason for this attribution of fideism to Tertullian.

The problems with the extreme fideist interpretation of Tertullian are nicely set out in an article by Robert Sider published in Classical World 73 (April-May 1980), pp.417-9. Sider notes two problems; first, the comment Credo quia absurdum is in fact a misquote and second, he notes that when understood in its context Tertullian was actually commending the Christian faith as rational and philosophically defensible. What Tertullian does in the passage Perigo cites is utilize a line of argument from Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle (who is something of a hero to Perigo) argues that if something is contrary to current expectations and highly improbable its unlikely that a rational intelligent person will believe it unless they actually witnessed it. Tertullian then is not saying we should believe what reason shows to be absurd because it is absurd. He is utilizing the best epistemological theories of his day to argue that belief in the Gospel is not absurd. Perigo relies on a popular but erroneous stereotype of Tertullian to make his point. A little reading on the issue would cleared have this up. In fact a Google search would have revealed it straight away.

After caricaturing Tertullian as an extreme fidest Perigo goes on to offer another caricature. He states

Taborites of Bohemia predicted that Christ would return to earth in February 1420. Believers in the prophecy braced themselves. ..As the date drew near, mass hysteria took hold, much as it is doing now over global warming. Expecting a huge flood, many people built boats or moved to higher ground. The flood never came. But all over the world, folk carried on believing whatever they wanted to believe.
The Puritans were especially enthused about an imminent apocalypse, notwithstanding Jesus’ singular failure to keep any of his previous appointments, and exported their enthusiasm to America, where it’s had a ready audience ever since.

Perigo cites the example of the Taborites a millennial sect who falsely predicted the imminent return of Christ. Perigo then suggest that Puritans held the same view and imported it to America and hence to contemporary American evangelicals. This is dubious In a study of Puritan Eschatology entitled The Puritan Hope Iain Murray notes that mainstream Puritan Eschatology was not millennial. Looking, at primary sources he argued that the Puritans developed the position that Christ’s return was not imminent the world had to be converted and the institutions of the world Christianised before Christ would return. Nor is it true that the Puritans view has had “wide audience ever since” in fact most American evangelicals today do not except Puritan eschatology ( some would say to their detriment).

Apart from caricature Perigo does provide the occasional argument for his claim that Christianity is absurd. He notes that “in her newly-released letters that Mother Teresa felt she was praying to no one all those years might give [Christians] some cause for pause” but why should it? Does the fact that a prominent apologist of Atheist Anthony Flew relatively recently decided that his advocacy of atheism for numerous years was mistaken and that a God exist give Perigo pause.

Perigo then notes that Kerry Packer after being dead for 15 minutes testified that “there’s nothing there” but again one wonders why this should bother Christians. Christianity teaches a resurrection of the dead at the parousia not popular the stories associated with “near death experiences” the movie ghost or the TV series Medium.

Perigo often says some thoughtful and interesting things. On theology and religion however he does not. Like most in the media he simply spouts stereotypes provides facile arguments and backs this up with ad hominem abuse.

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