Monday, September 15, 2014

Online Education and the Christian

In two recent posts about education and Christians, I’ve covered unaccredited degrees and paths toward joining the scholarly community. As always, take what I say with a grain of salt; I am just a guy on the internet, not a professional offering guarantees or some kind of expert. Even still, I’m pressing on, covering online degrees. Should you get one or not?

Well, it depends (cop out, I know!). In my opinion, if you want to advance academically to the highest levels (PhD), then the answer is “probably not.” Why? For one, it will be very difficult to get good recommendation letters. The professors don’t know you, and usually they are uncomfortable recommending someone they’ve never met personally. On the rare occasions they do, they will often be professors who are not recognized in their fields (but this is not always true!). It’s not impossible (especially if the PhD you desire to do is at the school in question), but it makes it significantly more difficult.

Also, another con of online education is that it’s not as academically demanding as the best “brick and mortar” schools are. Let me state my qualifications, as it were: I did my bachelor’s degree at an accredited brick-and-mortar; I did my master’s at a regionally accredited online program; I’m doing another master’s at a regionally accredited and ATS accredited brick-and-mortar. The method of most online programs is not to have much in the way of lectures; many classes at the online program I was at had us watch 10-minute videos (one per week), and the rest was largely teach yourself with books. While this can be very effective (I did indeed learn a lot during this time), the lack of much interaction with professors (it would sometimes take a week to get any response via e-mail, and this would be one paragraph at most), superficial conversations with most students, and a lack of full lectures and the questions that naturally arise prevented me from gaining all I could (after all, there were some things I didn’t even know about, so could hardly learn; that’s why we have teachers!). I can say my current master’s program far exceeds in level of difficulty and information gained the level of my first master’s.

So what, am I saying online degrees are inferior? Not at all. They can do something no brick-and-mortar program alone can do: they can help those who cannot relocate. If you cannot feasibly move your family, or get away from your job, or whatnot, then these are perfect degrees for you! They are academically rich, exposing you to many things you may not otherwise have considered. They are good for giving theological training to laymen who have never received any formal training. And finally, they are good for pastors or pastoral staff who would like some more specialized training (like in youth ministry or counseling). So should you get an online degree? It depends on your situation!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Christian Intellectuals and Education

In an earlier article, I cautioned against getting unaccredited degrees. In this article, I am going to try to answer the question of the “best” route to go in getting advanced degrees as a Christian intellectual. Please note, however, that this is mostly general advice, will often vary from field to field and person to person, and that I am hardly the definitive source for this information. I personally have a bachelor’s and master’s degree, I’m working on another master’s degree, and I hope to be in a PhD program within two years (Lord willing).

What should the Christian intellectual do with respect to higher education? Well, for starters, get an accredited degree. Second, if you have not already done so, I’d recommend taking the best undergraduate degree into which you can get for your major field. Please note, however, that if you want a PhD in Theology, you’ll likely need to get an MDiv. If this is the case, you may as well get your undergraduate degree in a workable trade, or related discipline (to theology), since you’ll get what you need for theology at the master’s level. Getting into the best undergraduate programs for your field helps with academic references for grad school. What if, for whatever reason, you can’t get into one of the recognized best programs?

Get into the best grad school program you can. This could entail a lot of searching, solid writing samples (depending on your field), and academic references. You also don’t want to “put all your eggs in one basket;” apply to several different schools. Often, grad programs are combined MA/PhD programs: you work toward a PhD, and about halfway through, you get an MA for your trouble. But even if you don’t get into such a program, doing a terminal MA can help you to get into a good PhD program.

The idea behind all of this is that you want to be able to teach or otherwise be a recognized scholar in your field (or something closely related to your field). You’re much more likely to get that done going the route of doing the “best” possible program for you. If you don't, while it's still possible to gain a teaching position, the competition is already fierce enough. Having a so-called "substandard" resume will eliminate you before you can even interview.

Whenever I pick this series back up, I’m going to examine online education!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mailbag: On God's Necessary Existence

James writes, “Hi Randy,

Just a question about the idea of God having a necessary existence: obviously, if God exists, then he couldn't not have existed since (as I understand it) that would mean his existence isn't necessary but merely contingent, and since it's greater for a being to have necessary existence than a contingent one, God must be a necessary being as God, by definition, is a maximally-great being. Now, on thinking all this through, the question which popped into my head was "But why does a MGB have to exist? Why is there such a thing?" Of course, writers often talk about things like "possible worlds" and note that a being that exists in two PWs is greater than one which exists in one, etc., and that a MGB would be one that exists in all PWs and therefore he'd also have to exist in the real world. But then I come to back to why he had to exist? Of course the Ontological Argument hinges on whether the MGB concept is coherent or not and, if it is (and I personally see no problem with it) then a MGB has to exist. But why? Is it because the concept of a MGB is coherent and therefore that is why he has to exist? Or am I missing something?. Hope that makes sense?”

Randy responds, “Hi James,

First, we have to distinguish the type of necessity the MGB must have. It is the property of necessary existence in his very being or nature/essence itself. We would say of God, "God necessarily exists." This is called de re necessity. So, strictly speaking, the answer to the question "Why does God have to exist?" is "Because he has necessary existence." So then it can be asked why God has the property of necessary existence, but it seems you answered that question by correctly pointing out that a God who exists in only some possible worlds is not as metaphysically great as the God who exists in all of them. That is to say, necessary existence is what is called a great-making property, a property that it is better to have for a being than to lack. So then the answer finds a terminus in this logic.

I suspect, however, that you're not asking why God must exist, but why it follows from God's mere possibility that he exists in reality (and thus the "must" language: it is the necessity of the entire argument; it must be the case that if all of the premises are true then the conclusion is true). Let's demonstrate one version of the Modal Ontological Argument (MOA):

1. It is possible that a Maximally Great Being (MGB) exists.
2. If it is possible that MGB exists, then MGB exists in some possible world.
3. If MGB exists in some possible world, then he exists in all of them.
4. If MGB exists in all possible worlds, then he exists in the actual world.
5. Therefore, MGB exists in the actual world.
6. Therefore, MGB exists.

(1) relies on our modal intuitions. We think it is possible, at least initially, that an unsurpassably great being exists than which no greater can be conceived (Anselm's formulation). For MGB theorists, this is a being that possesses all compossible (meaning possible together) great-making properties exemplified to the intrinsic maximum, where such properties admit of degrees. (2) just points out that if it's possible, we can say MGB exists in a possible world. A possible world is a way of representing how reality could have been. However, we can see that, on reflection, a being who truly is the MGB will have the property of necessary existence. Why? Because, quite simply, it's metaphysically better for a being to have the property of necessary existence than to lack it (3). Think about a being identical to God in every other respect who nonetheless only exists in a few million possible worlds. He would not exist in many billions of possible worlds. Or even suppose there is a God who is just like MGB who exists in every possible world save one. MGB would exceed them all, because he would have all of their power and be present in every possible world. That brings us to (4). The actual world is a possible world because the actual world is a way reality could have been (if not, it wouldn't be actual!). So since the actual world is numbered up with the set of possible worlds, and if MGB exists in all possible worlds, then by the rules of logic the MGB exists in the actual world, which of course means he actually exists! Let's look at these if-then premises in a different order:

2. If it is possible that MGB exists, then MGB exists in some possible world.
3. If MGB exists in some possible world, then he exists in all of them.
4. If MGB exists in all possible worlds, then he exists in the actual world.
1. It is possible that a Maximally Great Being (MGB) exists.
7. Therefore, MGB exists in some possible world.
8. Therefore, MGB exists in every possible world.
5. Therefore, MGB exists in the actual world.
6. Therefore, MGB exists.

So, we can see that the rules of logic necessitate the conclusion that God exists. I hope this at least frames the issues for you in a helpful way!”

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

God and Time

When it comes to statements on God’s relationship to time, laymen in the church usually hold logically contradictory positions. Oh, when you ask them what position they take, it’s typically only one. But if you listen long enough, the church has typically an incoherent view of God and time. While I don’t suspect that everyone will agree with the approach that I take, I do try to take a logically cohesive view that the biblical record at least allows for.

First, let’s show what I mean by “laymen incoherence.”[1] Well, a typical statement will come in the form of a biblical quote: “A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8) From this, we are assured, “Time is meaningless to God; hence, God exists outside of time.” Yet in other conversations, virtually all of these same laymen will say things like “God knew from eternity past that you would do such-and-such,” or make some other reference to “eternity past.” Well, if God was in the past, that is a temporal relation, and so God exists inside temporal relations. But now we have a contradiction: God both exists inside and outside of time.

So, let’s see if we can solve the problem by appealing to the biblical text. “After all,” the concerned layman can reply, “If 2 Peter teaches that God is outside of time, I’ll just have to be more careful about speaking of ‘eternity past,’ is all. Problem solved.” But maybe not. Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” [emphasis mine]. If God lasts from an everlasting duration to an everlasting duration, then God is in time.

The atemporalist[2] can just insist that Psalms uses poetic language, however, and use 2 Peter 3:8 as a “control text” by which we can interpret other texts that seem to suggest God is in time. However, it isn’t clear this can be done so easily. Consider texts like “In the beginning…” from Genesis 1 and John 1 that seem to indicate divine temporal activity. Why does 2 Peter 3:8 get to be the control text and not Genesis 1:1?

Further, the biblical text itself does not intend to teach much, if anything, about the nature of time or God’s relationship to it. Consider, for an example, 1 Corinthians 2:7, which states in part that God “ordained before the world unto our glory” (KJV). Besides seemingly teaching that God is involved in temporal relations, the Greek word behind “world” is the word aiwvnwn. This is why other translations will render that last phrase as “before time began.” That, taken literally, is an incoherent concept. It’s like saying something is on Earth that is north of the North Pole. But we shouldn’t want to ascribe incoherence to the biblical record. Therefore, it’s most plausibly not trying to teach us about the nature of time or God’s relationship to it. In fact, at bottom, it’s not too difficult to see that the Bible isn’t trying to teach us about God’s relationship to time in 2 Peter 3:8. Context shows that Peter is teaching about judgment of those who mock and scoff at God’s Word. Peter makes an allusion to Noah’s Flood, which was a judgment, and contrasts that with a future judgment, a “Day of the Lord” (vs. 7, 10). Verse 7 talks about “the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” Even though judgment has been reserved for the future, and even though it has been a long time without God’s coming (v. 4), nonetheless, God’s judgment is coming. This is the parallelism of verse 8. Oh, it seems like a long time with no judgment, but when it comes, it really comes! Further, Peter is explaining the reason for the delay of judgment: according to verse 9, God is not willing that any should perish. Peter’s just using figurative language to explain the context of what’s going on.

So, if the biblical text cannot settle the matter one way or the other, since it doesn’t seem to intend to teach on God and time, then have we any hope? I think we do, although we should hold such things tentatively. I want to explain my position and then present two brief arguments for it. My position is identical to William Lane Craig’s: I believe that time had a beginning, and thus God is atemporal without the creation, and temporal (in time) subsequent to creation. Here’s the argument for time’s beginning:

1.     If time had no beginning, then an actually infinite number of moments has elapsed.
2.     It is not the case that an actually infinite number of moments has elapsed.
3.     Therefore, time had a beginning.

I won’t go into detail defending (1) and (2) here, but most people on every side of the debate (inside of Christianity, and even science) agree that time had a beginning.

4.     If there are tensed truths, then God knows them.
5.     If God knows tensed truths, then he is in time.
6.     There are tensed truths.
7.     Therefore, God is in time.

These premises need brief defenses. (4) just is a consequence of omniscience. Since God is omniscient, he knows all true propositions and does not believe any false ones. We’ll get into what “tensed truths” are in a moment. So that should be set for orthodox Christians. But why should we think (5) is true? Take the tensed truth, “The plane will depart.” If God knows the tensed truth, “The plane will depart,” then it must be the case the plane will depart in the future. Why? If it were not to be the case that the plane will depart in the future, then God would have a false belief, which contradicts our conception of omniscience. But then this means the event of the plane’s leaving is in the future relative to God. But then it follows, by definition, that God stands in temporal relations (i.e., is in time). What about (6)? A tensed truth is a truth that intends the tense found in language to be a real feature of reality: It’s really true that I will go to sleep, and then I will no longer be asleep (at least, hopefully), so that I was asleep. Tensed-talk is so ingrained in not only our language but our very thought structure that it seems nearly crazy to claim that all of these descriptions are literally false. But if so, it would take a very powerful argument to make us think tensed truths are not real. So (6) seems to stay. But if that is the case, then God is in time.

I’m not going to pretend there are no responses to my position and arguments. But I do think that my position is a reasonable one to take, and one for which the Bible allows.

[1] Please do not view any of this as pejorative or as a superiority issue. We’re all brothers and sisters, and we’re all here, in part, to help sharpen each other’s thinking.

[2] “Atemporalist” is the term we use for those who say God exists outside of time.