June 2006

There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. ~ C S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Preface

I just watched "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" so that got me thinking about demons, and I remembered the quote above. The question is: Why do we often see so little evidence of demons nowadays? Is it because they don't exist and we have outgrown old superstitions? Or is it because demons have become so caricatured by modern culture that their reality and relevance has been lost?

Just for the sake of argument, let's say demons really do exist. Now, say we're trying to think like one of these demons, intent on deceiving humankind. What better way to achieve that goal than to convince people demons don't exist? I mean doing so subtly, gradually. It has been said that this is the greatest trick demons have ever played: convincing people that they don't exist. Consider, assuming again for the sake of argument that demons exist, that I were possessed by a demon today. What would my family likely do, were I do exhibit similar symptoms to Emily Rose in the movie? Likely I would be taken to the hospital, given drugs (which wouldn't work) and eventually be hauled off to the nuthouse. Regardless of the evidence, a medical problem would be the only one considered. The demon's tactics would have worked perfectly, and only due to our society's insistence on pure scientism.

Note: It's important to keep in mind that Christianity is not at all dualistic. God and the devil are not equals. They are not at equal ends of a scale: God is the scale. Christians believe that God "will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain" when, at the proper time, demons and the devil are defeated. (Rev 21:4, NLT)

Back to the movie, I thought that The Exorcism of Emily Rose was pretty good overall. Although I think I could've presented a better argument than the defense lawyer did in the movie 😀 … and when the priest was on the stand, I wanted to shout "No! Don't let the prosecution lawyer get away with that! Answer him back like this!"

BibleThe Bible is a big, thick book (a "tome", some might say) written 2000-6000 years ago. A superficial reading may initially lead to confusion; but careful further study and critical thinking will solve supposed contradictions. It seems like the Bible sometimes isn't read by skeptics with the same charity they read other books. What I mean is, if I was reading Shakespeare and found what I thought was a contradiction, I wouldn't think "Hmmm I guess I proved that this Shakespeare guy didn't know what he was doing." I'd probably assume that my naive interpretation was wrong; I'd need to do some more reading and thinking about the supposed problem, or consult an expert.

Here's a practical example. In Matthew 11:14 Jesus says John that Baptist "is the Elijah who was to come", but in John 1:21 when John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah, he replies "I am not.". So who is right? At first glance it looks like a contradiction. But let's not just stop there, and let's give the work the same charity we would give any other writing to see if there's a reasonable explanation. What if Jesus was speaking figuratively while John the Baptist was speaking literally? Possible, but we'd need some evidence to back up this idea. Turns out this idea is confirmed by Luke 1:17, where John the Baptist is said to come "in the spirit and power of Elijah". So that verse confirms that Jesus was referring to a more figurative idea, while John the Baptist was refuting the crowd's question as to whether he was literally Elijah brought back to life … an idea which of course would be foreign to Jewish thought anyways.

It's disappointing to me when people talk about how faith is "blind". The common conception is that it has absolutely no rational basis.

Christians do not value faith that is blind, faith that believes despite all rationality and evidence. Here are some of the verses that encourage critical thinking:

A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)
Test everything. Hold on to the good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)
Don't believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. (1 John 4:1, MSG)

Part of faith includes "evidence", as per Heb 11:1. Faith isn't proved in the same way a chemistry experiment is; but that doesn't make it less true or any less valid. Historical evidence alone cannot prove faith is true, but it can provide a firm foundation upon which faith can be built. (Thanks to the great short article Verses Skeptics Don't Know About on Rational Christianity for inspiring this post.)

ElephantThe parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant goes something like this: A group of blind men approach an elephant. They decide to feel it in order to understand what kind of animal it is. One feels the ear, and concludes "It is like a fan!" Another feels the leg, and claims "It is like a tree!", a third the tail: "It is like a rope!" And so on. The moral of the story is supposed to be that the elephant represents God (or possibly Truth), and that each of our religions represents a sincere but incomplete (and therefore incorrect) understanding of what God is like. The message of the parable is that religious pluralism is true, that the world religions all get a piece of the puzzle and are equally true. (A longer version of the parable is available here.)

There are a few fundamental problems with this parable. First, belief in religious pluralism means that all faiths in the world are wrong, not right … except for religious pluralism, of course. Follow me here: It's logically possible that all faiths are false, but not possible that all are true. Atheists claim that there is no God; religions claim there is. Either there is an elephant, or there isn't! Muslims believe Muhammad was a prophet and all other religions are wrong. Buddhists are also exclusivist. Buddhist teaching excludes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and all other "exclusive" religious faiths. So the idea of religious pluralism is just as "exclusive" as any other faith: It excludes everyone who's not a pluralist.

Second, the parable fails because it tells us they are looking at an elephant. We know it's not a tree or a fan or a rope. All four are wrong. It's an elephant. The parable assumes we are all blind and have no way of knowing what is really there. Moreover, it assumes that our inquery will be limited and superficial, when in fact it can be broad and indepth.

The emphasis on "seeing" here is appropriate. The blind can approach the elephant and touch it; but only the seeing man can know the elephant as it really is. It's appropriate that Jesus healed the blind to restore their sight: The first thing they saw would have been Jesus Himself looking back at them. As the famous hymn goes: "I once was lost but now am found; Was blind but now I see."

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