A New Line of Questioning

Over the past century the main thrust of arguments against religion have been of the form “religion is delusion”. It has been suggested that those who believe in religion are misinformed, gullible, unscientific, and so on. And the strategy of opponents to religion has been that if only those who believe in religion could be informed of their errors, learn to less gullible and be more acquainted with science and rationality then they would quickly see their errors and abandon their beliefs. This was the thinking behind Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

But in recent conversations with unbelievers I’m seeing a new line of questioning. Their issue with religion is not its conflict with science or established teaching, it is not with belief in miracles, or lack of evidence for the historical claims. Instead the issue is one of power. There is a definite skepticism, not in the facts of religion, but in the motivation of those who hold religious power. As put by Rust Cohle in True Detective, “Oh yeah! Been that way since one monkey looked at the sun and told the other monkey, ‘He said for you to give me your f***ing share.’”

This is a sign that post-modernism is gaining influence in our culture. The idea that meta-narratives exist for the purpose of power and control is a common theme in post-modern writings. And so we as Christians need to respond to these charges. There is a lot of effort at the moment going into countering the charges that Christianity is unscientific, or unfactual. There is a lot less effort going into countering the charge that Christianity is a massive powerplay. This is important to realise because when one looks at abuses of power by church authorities, manipulative tactics to extort giving, massively wealthy churches and pastors, the willingness to use politics to entrench religious power, it certainly seems like religion is at least being used as a powerplay.

So how do we as Christians respond to these claims? It seems that there are two important things that we need to do. The first is that we need to demonstrate that religion is not a powerplay for us. This will involve giving up our rights and privileges. The second will involve highlighting the person of Jesus as an anti-powerplay. The person of Jesus is a powerful corrective to the idea that Christianity is a powerplay precisely because he was opposed to those who used religion as a powerplay.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking on the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death -

even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-11

Nov 22, 1963

For most people in the world, today is being remembered as the 50th anniversary of the JFK’s assassination. And given that it was one of the once in a generation “Where were you when …” moments, it is fitting that this event is being remembered.

What many people are not aware of however, are the other things that happened on Nov 22, 1963. Across the Atlantic, two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century died on this day. Aldous Huxley is perhaps best known for his amazingly prescient dystopian vision of the future of society he presented in A Brave New World. Whereas George Orwell in 1984 imagined a world described as “a boot stamping on a human face … forever”, Huxley instead imained a world where people instead of being forced to comply with a dictatorial regime, willingly complied because they were continually plied with pleasure. While Orwell’s vision has been realized to some extent in communist and totalitarian states, Huxley’s vision has more accurately predicted the reality for the “free world”.

The other thinker to die on this day in 1963 was C. S. Lewis, most famous for his Narnia series of children’s books, but also an extremely influential writer in apologetics and Christian thought. The Narnia books were some of my most-loved as a child growing up, and upon becoming a Christian I was pleasantly surprised to find the wealth of spiritual books that he had written.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft has written an imagined conversation of these three people with very different worldviews in his book Between Heaven and Hell
. It is an intriguing read and I thoroughly recommend it. The BBC also has a half-hour radio documentary focussing on Huxley and Lewis, as their deaths and consequently their achievements were overshadowed by Kennedy’s assassination. (BBC iPlayer is not accessible from all locations, but there are ways around this.)

Also, on November 23, 1963, Dr Who first aired, but went largely unnoticed thanks to the blanket TV coverage of Kennedy’s assassination. As the 50th anniversary special episode is about to come out, wouldn’t it be appropriate if somehow Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis appeared together in the Tardis? Kennedy, Huxley, Lewis and the Doctor … now that would be a conversation I wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on.

Can’t believe your eyes? Join the club

One remark I hear quite often from atheists or skeptics, is that they’d be quite prepared to believe if God did a miracle in front of their eyes. Or they might even go as far as saying they would be prepared to believe in a miracle if it was captured on video.

The above video, which was done as a stunt for the upcoming Carrie movie, I think casts doubt on the sincerity of these skeptical hypotheticals. In today’s world we are so used to seeing things our eyes can’t believe. So many of the movies we watch are filled with special effects that we know are there but are undetectable, to such an extent that if we can detect the special effects, it is considered poor quality. And we are all so aware of illusionists and stunts like the one above that it would be very easy to come to the conclusion that any “miracle” or “supernatural” event we have seen is smokes and mirrors or a simple sleight of hand.

Before I became a Christian, the questions asked in Jesus Christ Superstar were very real to me, one of them was :

Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation

Israel in 4BC had no mass communication

Counter-intuitively, the fact that Jesus lived and died in a time when his miracles could not have been the result of trick camera angles actually strengthens the case for his miraculous life, death and resurrection. The resources to pull a stunt like that in the Carrie promo video were simply not available in the first century (and in any case, just like the video, any such stunt needs a team of people who were in on the joke).

Eye-Witness Memory

The Gospels were not written until several decades after the events included in them. This has been a major point of attack by opponents of Christianity against the truth of the gospel stories.

In the 19th century it was the general understanding that the gospels were written centuries afterwards, however, archaeological research by people such as Sir William Ramsay and discoveries of texts much closer to the time have made such a position untenable.

However, according to several atheists, the 30-70 or so years between the events of Jesus’ ministry and the writing of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is enough of a window for the stories to be seriously corrupted.

The argument comes down to two issues: oral tradition, and eye-witness memory.

Most people treat memory as basically accurate in recording the past. Dr David Papineau in a recent forum organised by the Centre for Inquiry and the British Humanist Association (check for quote at about 1:45:00), said in contra to such a position:

“Peter Williams said, ‘Well, don’t we have to take it for granted, prior to any empirical investigation, that in general memory is a good guide to facts about the past.’ I think that’s a terrible example. There’s lots of empirical investigation as to whether memory is a good guide to facts about the past and it turns out it’s not a very good guide, in fact it’s a shockingly bad guide, and it’s a terrible thing that people have relied on it so much. There are many people in jail now because courts tend to believe eye-witness testimony even though there’s lots of evidence that eye-witness testimony is wrong. I think – I mean, if I’d have known Peter was going to say this I would have brought the figures, but there’s something like 200 people being released from long-term prison sentences in the United States because of DNA evidence going back to the occasion of their crime many years ago and a significant number of those 200 were in jail because of false eye-witness testimony. So memory in general is not a good guide to the past.”

Dr Papineau is a respected professor of Philosophy, so I’m somewhat surprised that he did not see the irony in using his memory to quote a study to supposedly show the failings of memory. I don’t know which study he was talking about so I can’t judge as to the accuracy of his memory, but surely this shows that despite the rhetoric of memory being “a shockingly bad guide”, he’s quite prepared to rely on it himself. Moreover, he conflates memory with testimony, ignoring the fact that false eye-witness testimony may be due to factors other than the failure of memory (lying witnesses, for example).

Of course we have all experienced times when our memories have deceived us, either by failing to recall, or by recalling incorrectly, however, in the great majority of cases, our memory does recall accurately. Wittgenstein’s Poker is a fascinating story of conflicting accounts of an argument between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper where someone’s memory has obviously not recalled things accurately. Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses has a chapter on Eyewitness Memory and points out several markers of authentic memory

  • A memory of a unique of unusual event
  • A memory of a salient or consequential event
  • A memory of an event in which a person is emotionally involved
  • Authentic memories tend to have more vivid imagery
  • Authentic memories tend to include irrelevant details
  • Authentic memories are often not particular about exact dates and time.
  • Even if details are inaccurate, the gist is likely to be accurate
  • Frequently rehearsed memories are more accurately remembered

Bauckham then goes on to see how these factors relate to the gospel stories, and in fact show the gospel stories to be likely to be  recordings of accurate eyewitness memory.

The World’s End

It makes sense thematically to watch The World’s End so soon after visiting my home town. Although it must be pointed out that Tawa is hardly the place for a grand pub crawl. When I was at school Tawa was a dry borough, meaning it did not have pubs or sell liquor at all. Now it is no longer dry, but any pub crawl there would be very short – there are only two pubs.

The World’s End is a story about five middle-aged men who, at the instigation of Gary, the one of them who hasn’t changed at all, and is still adolescent in his outlook and presentation, return to their sleepy home town to finish the pub crawl they started but never finished.

Although Gary still looks and talks the same as he did twenty years earlier, he is driven by a strong mixture of nostalgia and unfinished business. In his mind, that unfinished pub crawl was both a picture of life at its best, but also where things started to unravel. His life has become full of regrets (as have his friends, but they are just better at covering it up with the trappings of middle-aged life), and for him the fulcrum moment of regret is not finishing their grand pub crawl of the twelve pubs of Newton Haven.

Regrets are something that I am all too familiar with. When I look back at my school life, there are a lot of things I regret,  things I regret doing and things I regret not doing. Some of them I didn’t do because of my own stupid choice, and others I was simply unable to do. I wish I had the chance to represent my school in sports, I wish I had kept in touch with more friends from school, and there are many others. And to be honest sometimes these regrets haunt me as much as they do Gary, and I wonder if life would have been better had I made different choices, or had the roll of the dice gone differently and I had different opportunities. One of my greatest temptations in life is “what if …”, and I need to learn that I cannot relive these forks in my destiny, not by trying to repeat the process in middle age, not through vicariously living through my children, nor through any other means. But what is offered to me is the opportunity for all these forks in my destiny to be redeemed and made holy through being grafted to the Grand Story of how our Saviour is redeeming and remaking our world.

Where does maths come from?

“Many mathematicians feel that they don’t invent mathematical structures, they just discover them—that these mathematical structures exist independently of humans.” – Max Tegmark

Following on from my earlier post (Discovered Not Invented), here is a fascinating discussion between four mathematicians on the origins of mathematics.

It is very interesting that these discussions are happening at such a level, and apparently without any theological motive. Although mathematics existing independently of humans of course has huge theological implications.

Discovered not Invented

It’s always very interesting when you find someone making the same points as yourself and even using the same wording.

In several conversations with atheists I have pointed out that various things such as mathematics, music, logic, etc seem to be “discovered not invented” and that this is evidence that our universe is seemingly wired for intelligence and a strong hint that there is an intelligence that is behind both our existence and that of the universe.

So I was very interested to read this article in the Guardian making some very similar points.

The Image and the Word

This generation has seen an accelerated move away from the written word towards the image as communication. It is filmmakers who are the most influential poets of our age.

This raises questions for us as communicators of the gospel message as to how we do this. Is the gospel something that needs to be communicated via words? Or can we use images? Some will point to Jesus’ identity as the Word of God as an indication that words should take primacy over images, however this depends on the traditional English translation of logos as “word” when that may not carry John’s meaning as well as some other translations (eg logos is translated as tao (literally “way” in Chinese). It also ignores that Jesus is called the image of invisible God in Colossians, so image and word both seem to be valid ways of thinking about God and the gospel.

The Bible, and Jesus’ teaching in particular is full of image-rich metaphors and illustrations. And in times before literacy was widespread, teaching was image-based. The stained glass windows that are iconic in many old churches were originally used as teaching aids for an illiterate congregation.

This article from Alister McGrath talks about how a lot of CS Lewis’ effectiveness in communicating his ideas came from not only his use of imagery but from a framework of “seeing” as understanding God.

How about you? Do you see the gospel as more “seeing the light” as “hearing the word”.

The Wisdom of Introverts

In this TED talk Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking talks about the way that our society has marginalised much of what introverts have to offer in the past century.

As an introvert myself (and the only one in my household) i was encouraged by this message and thought about what I could do in my work to allow introverts to better flourish and express their creativity.

One point that struck me was how our habit of group decision making is often detrimental, as it panders to the most charismatic talker. She makes the observation of how many of the world’s sages went off to the wilderness in solitude to bring back wisdom for society.

In our ministry we tend to do a lot of decision-making in meetings, and I was struck that it may helpful to build something of this structure into our decision-making at meetings. To pitch a problem, to allow people to go off individually to consider the problem for a period of time, and then to come back to share our wisdom with the group at large, as opposed to having a free-for-all discussion.