Sunday, March 19, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 1)

Dear D,

I've been reading your book "Magnificent Obsession" and I'd like to make a few comments on it. I'm writing this "review" (OK, so really its a response) in the form of a letter, mostly because your book chapters are written in letter format, but also because I think its quite likely that (unlike most of the book reviews I do on this blog) you might actually read this and will probably respond. (Yes, your reputation does precede you!) 

You might not remember me, but I've been in your church in Dundee on a few occasions (not for quite a few years now) as I'm friends with some of your congregation, both current and former members. 

As you'll see if you browse the previous posts on this blog, I've been a practicing and committed Christian since my teens in the 1980s, but over the past decade or so I've wrestled with a lot of issues to do with faith, belief, God, Jesus, the bible, and how all of them fit into reality. I started with the agenda of simply wanting to know the truth, in the hope that the truth would, indeed, set me free. Over the past decade, however, I (along with the readers of this blog) have witnessed a progressive and ongoing erosion of my faith. This wasn't intentional from the outset, but is rather the honest re-evaluation of my beliefs in the light of my study of the bible, and various books, writings and discussions on both sides of the 'God debate'. 

Anyway, all this by means of introduction. Lets get to thinking about your book. 

You seem, at the outset, to imagine yourself to have a different agenda to other apologists, and perhaps a different audience too, but I have to say that, much like almost all apologetics, this book is most likely to be read by those who are already (Evangelical) Christians and will serve to reinforce their already established beliefs. Of course, I expect a small number of non-Christians and atheist/agnostic types might read it too, but mostly for the challenge of 'debunking' it; I'm not sure they'll be swayed too much. The book is also being read by folk like me, somewhere in the middle ground, who've heard you on the Unbelievable show a few times... 

In Chapter 1, "Man", you aim to show that Jesus is (not was) a real person. As real to you as your own wife is. I once expressed similar sentiments myself, but came to realise that the comparison is not good. I can (literally) see my wife, I can (literally) hear her speaking to me, I can (literally) touch her. Occasionally I trust my feelings regarding her and she has to point out that I've completely misread what she says or what she wants. My feelings can be wrong, and frequently are. But with Jesus, all we have is an (unchanging) book, our feelings and our interpretative framework. If our feelings or interpretation are wrong, we have no way of knowing this. If our feelings come entirely from chemical impulses in our physiology, we have no way of distinguishing this from the 'promptings' of the Holy Spirit, if such exist. This is not analogous to a relationship with a person. A person can correct you even when your feelings are wrong.

But considering that this is apparently the stated intent of Chapter 1, you move rather rapidly from the subjective experience of Jesus now to the (slightly) more solid ground of the historical Jesus. Your evidence and reasoning here are not new, or particularly compelling, and you do quite a lot of appealing to authority, but anyway, on to the evidence. 

You present three pieces of non-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus. You mention Serapion, without presenting what he said. Probably just as well, as the evidence is very weak. He (writing at an unknown time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the 3rd century) mentions the execution of a Jewish "wise king" and nothing else. No name, no location, and the text suggests this occurred immediately before the destruction of Jerusalem. This might have nothing to do with Jesus, yet you suggest this is evidence. You also quote the rather late evidence of Tacitus. All this really tells us is that, by the beginning of the 2nd century, there were "Christians" who believed in a Christ who had been crucified by Pilate. These beliefs were attested some three or four generations after the alleged event. Nobody doubts that there was Christian belief in the 2nd century. This isn't evidence for any actual events occurring some 90 years earlier than the document was written. Even supposing that Serapion was referring to Jesus, all these two sources really give us is evidence for two things:
  1. that there was a man, known as "Christ", who was executed, and
  2. that there was a Christian religion in the early 2nd century.
I have to say that neither of these facts is particularly controversial. Almost everyone who knows anything about Christianity, but is not a Christian, will happily endorse both these statements.

You also quote the disputed passage from Josephus. Most 'critical' scholars appear to think that this is at least partially a Christian forgery. Origen certainly knew nothing about this passage, so some suggest it was added after his time. Josephus, whose job more or less required him to consider Vespasion as "lord", would never have said that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah, so that line -at least- is a Christian insertion. Given that, this passage only really shows that later believers in Christ were willing to change documents they copied to fit their own agendas. It gives us no information about a historical person. And that's really all there is outside of the Bible...

I've read thorough and compelling analysis of these passages in the 'new-atheist' literature, and your brief mention of them here does not provide enough reasoning to make me reconsider these passages as having anything useful to say about the historical person of Jesus. So to find him we have to trust the New Testament.

Of course, you do trust the NT accounts, without really giving your readers much justification for doing this. A serious historian can't take a book which claims a man walked on water or transmuted water into wine as being a reliable historical document. Our first approach must be one of scepticism, but you jump over this and assert that there is "no substantive reason to doubt" that these documents are eye-witness testimony. Well, to even the casual observer there are loads of reasons to doubt this, firstly the outrageous claims in the books, then the fact that they appear to have copied each other and changed bits of the things they copied to fit their own agendas, and also the fact that Jesus in the 4th gospel sounds almost nothing like the Jesus of the other three.

Now I'm not following the "nineteenth century paradigm of 'miracles don't happen'" here, I began all this firmly believing in the miracles and it was through a study of the unreliable reportage in the gospels that I ever came to doubt them.

Finally, in this first chapter, you (rather oddly) jump to the subject of the virgin birth. If this happened, as you say, it would define history. But two contradictory birth stories don't really make a very strong case. Yes, the authors of Matthew and Luke both appear to believe that Jesus was virgin born, but Mark, John, Paul and the other writers of the NT don't mention it, so it doesn't appear too foundational for them. You conclude with a couple of anecdotes of prodigals returning to faith. Yes, it happens. Hindus also become Muslims, Christians become Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. Anecdotes prove nothing.

So the odd thing in chapter 1 is that you don't support your main claim, that Jesus is real, with even a single anecdote from your own experience. We end this chapter having established that Jesus might have been a real person and that some people, some time after his lifetime believed outrageous things about him. What you haven't yet provided is any evidence that these outrageous claims are actually true.

In Chapter 2, you turn to the subject of "Miracles". You start off by poo-pooing the atheist caricature of blind faith. Fair enough. I know plenty of Christians who believe stuff because of the evidence of their experiences. You have a headache, somebody prays for you, the headache goes away, you have evidence that prayer for healing works. Of course the cause-effect chain might not be as clear cut as it appears to the believer, but to deny experience is pointless. But Christian faith is not, as you say, merely 'based on knowledge', it is based primarily on the bible and then, somewhat secondarily, on an interpretation of the evidence perceived through a biblical mindset. I've blogged before about the lack of a negative feedback loop in the Christian mindset. You pray, God answers, faith is boosted. You pray, no answer, faith is not diminished. Whichever way you slice it, if positive experiences boost faith and negative ones do nothing, then the net effect will always be to boost faith, even if the positives are only coincidence. Anyway, I seem to be straying away from what you said in your book.

The question at hand regards God. If there is a God (or there are gods) then miracles must be considered a possibility. Although, I must say even if there is a God, that doesn't necessarily imply that there must be miracles. So we can't simply assume that miracles can't or don't happen. Fine. I agree. Evidence for miracles amounts to evidence for God, not necessarily your God, but let's not go there just now.

Miracles might happen today. Miracles might have happened in the past. Either way, what constitutes evidence for a miracle? One thing that doesn't - in itself - provide any evidence for a miracle having occurred is somebody telling a story that a miracle occurred. By their very nature, miracles are rare events. Made up stories are rather common. So even if there are real miracles, the balance of probability is that any story claiming a miracle occurred is most likely fiction. The bible doesn't get special pleading here. The stories recorded here of miracles are probably fiction unless they can be verified somehow.

And there's the problem the apologist faces, we have no verification mechanism to prove miracles in the past. We could prove (some of) them if they occur now, but not the ones in the past. We have no evidence, only stories.

Did Jesus perform miracles? Well, the stories say so. His followers several generations later believed that he did. But that is no evidence. Throughout the 1980s and 90s there were hundreds if not thousands of people who believed that Elvis was still alive. Today there are thousands of folk who believe that the American government destroyed their own buildings on 9/11 2001. Widespread belief does not make a claim true. And holding a belief within a short period after the event does not make it any more likely to be true.

The historian only has probability to deal with. If something occurs today, there's a good chance it happened in the past. If miracles happen today, we can believe they happened in the past too. That is the 'principle of analogy'. We know that people are apparently healed by faith healers today, so we can assume that this happened in the past as well. We know there are exorcists who apparently cast out demons today, so we can assume this happened in the past as well. We know that people cannot walk on water, so we must assume that this cannot have been possible in the past. Jesus could well have been know as a healer and exorcist. He maybe even had a reputation as a miracle worker. But we have no access to what happened, so cannot conclude the truth of the stories.

I'm astonished that you take the words of Quadratus as true. He claims that there are 'some' (i.e. more than one) who had been raised from the dead by Jesus still alive some 90 years later. Unless they were infants at the time of their resurrections, it is almost inconceivable that this story is true, and even then it is highly doubtful. This first apologist is doing the same as many of his successors - exaggerating and embellishing his story to try and persuade his audience.

You do the same. You speak of 'hundreds' at the funeral of Lazarus. Where is that in the bible? In John 11v31 it implies that all those present for the resurrection of Lazarus had previously been in the house of Mary and Martha. They must have had a very big house!

Citing the 5000 who were fed or the hundreds who witnessed Lazarus being raised as evidence is just silly. We have no access to these people, we have no names, we have no independent testimony. They are just part of the story. As Robert M. Price frequently points out, using the characters in the story as supporting evidence is much like arguing for the existence of the Emerald City using the evidence of the Yellow Brick Road; of course there must be an Emerald City, where else would the Yellow Brick Road go? Even the first readers of the gospels had no way of finding any of the alleged witnesses, they were too late and probably too far away (some say Mark was most likely written in Rome, some claim Matthew was written in Antioch, almost everyone agrees that John was written late, and so on). If they couldn't confirm the miracle claims, what hope have we got?

The problem we face is that miracles don't happen today. Sure, healings happen, but not resurrections, walks on water, miraculous multiplications of food, etc. I've never seen good evidence for them. You don't claim they do. So we have a problem. We simply cannot verify unique events in history.

You build a theology of why Jesus might do miracles, but all this is built on the presupposition of the Christian God and Christian theology. Given that this is is the question we are actually trying to answer, your reasoning seems a bit circular, much like the accusation you point at some atheists out there.

Blimey, this response is getting quite long, and we're only 20% of the way through the book. Sorry about that, but you can't really respond to an entire book in just a few words.

Moving on we get to Chapter 3, "Messenger". Handily enough, after playing the nazi card, you begin this chapter with a summary of the book so far. You admit you're building a cumulative case, and assume the reader has accepted that Jesus was a real historical person, the bible accounts are accurate history and that miracles are possible. As you can tell from what I've said above, I don't accept these foundations of your cumulative case. 

You assert that the message of Jesus is the same as the message of the Old Testament, without discussing any specific passages, which is a bit sloppy. If you're making a case for something, you actually need to make the case. Then you cite Richard Bauckham as if that settles the 'eyewitnesses' argument. It really doesn't. I've read Bauckham and remain unconvinced. 

But the question remains, where did the teaching come from if not from Jesus? True, this is a problem for the skeptic. Maybe it originates from one man. Maybe Jesus, maybe someone else. Maybe it's a collection of sayings from multiple sources. There is no compelling reason to assume it all must have come from one man. And your argument that it couldn't have been the disciples as they were 'unlettered men' is fallacious - none of the gospels claim to be written by anyone in particular and only church tradition links the names to the gospels. It is clear that some of the gospels were written by very educated men, perhaps men who could have fabricated an inspiring central character for their writings.

You assume (rather than demonstrate) that the teaching attributed to Jesus originated from him. You briefly discuss the 'problematic' passages and talk about interpreting the bible with the bible. Basically this means you can explain away the bits of the bible that you don't like or are plainly nonsense, using the bits of the bible that you like, or which seem more reasonable. If the bible is an edited collection of various sayings by diverse people it would make perfect sense that there would be some disagreements in the text and some contradictions in there. It is only your presupposition that won't let you view it this way. 

There is an exceptionally clear command from Jesus in the gospel - give everything you have to the poor. It is clear and unambiguous, so why do I not know any Christians who have done this (yes, I know of one or two, but these are the exception rather than the rule)? It is because most Christians find ways to get around this by reading stuff into the context (so it doesn't apply to me!). All Christians 'pick and choose' the verses they like and 'interpret' the verses they don't like accordingly. If your starting point is the gospel of Matthew, you end up in a very different place than if your starting point is the letter to the Romans. This is why there are so many different denominations - they each hold a different set of passages as 'primary' and let those interpret the 'secondary' passages, but the choice of primary versus secondary is rather arbitrary.

But what is the message? Well, you side-step this and ask the reader to read the bible. Then you stop being an apologist for a bit and turn into a preacher - rather than defending the gospel message, you simply present it. So there's not much more to say about this chapter. I'll move on to the next chapter, which is pretty meaty, in the next post.



Thursday, March 09, 2017

Lean not on your own understanding?

Proverbs 3v5-6 says:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
While these verses have been etched into my brain since before I could read, I was surprised to discover that the version I remember is a hybrid of the NIV and RSV versions. I remember the verse as above, but with 'acknowledge' (RSV) in it rather than 'submit' (NIV). But anyway...

This verse presupposes that there is only one Lord, you already trust this Lord and that this Lord is able to control what happens in your life.

Where this verse falls down is for the person who has doubts. Or for the person who is presented with multiple 'Lords' to choose between. Or for the person who is not sure if there are any 'Lords' who are trustworthy, or can control what happens in life.

You see, that person, needs to use their own understanding to weigh the evidence and decide whether or not there is a Lord and whether or not that Lord is worthy of trust in all things. They can't not lean on their own understanding!

Well, I guess they could, but then it would be a 'gut instinct' type decision, and they are rarely trustworthy...

This verse keeps committed Christians committed to Christianity, because it requires them to surrender their intellect to something they may never have considered in an intellectual manner anyway. This verse prevents the Christian from asking (legitimate?) questions, and actually seeking the truth. It assumes you already have the truth, so there is no need to go looking.

Somewhere along the way I started leaning on my own understanding. I'm not quite sure when that happened. Christians will say that's where I went wrong. Skeptics will say I did the right thing. I think that my own understanding is reasonably trustworthy, but Christians will tell me that its not, that its part of my fallen nature, and my human reason should not be trusted. Blindly trusting in the claims of an ancient book is much better, of course.

Curiously, Christian apologists appeal to the reason and understanding of their skeptical audience. Human understanding is a good thing when its used to bring you towards God, but an untrustworthy thing when it takes you away from Him. Or, in many cases, leads you to question whether there even is a Him. I'm not sure you can have that both ways.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

"If Christianity is true, then people don't really die..."

I heard the Unbelievable radio show featuring David Smalley and Frank Turek last month. It annoyed me as both contributors seemed to keep misunderstanding and misrepresenting the views of the other. Possibly deliberately. But for some reason I then went on to download the Dogma Debate episodes that were recorded after this, which again featured Smalley (he's the host of Dogma Debate) and Turek. That's episodes 298 and 299 of Dogma Debate. Once again they seemed to misunderstand each other, although I think that for the most part it was Smalley who did most of the misunderstanding. But anyway, I don't want to review either show, I just want to mention one thing that Turek said in part 2 of the Dogma Debate show. About 1 hr, 16 minutes into episode #299, Turek says:
"If Christianity is true, then people don't really die, they just change location."
Wow. That's a strong statement. And I know exactly where Turek is coming from here, I used to believe much the same thing myself. But when I heard it expressed this way, coming just a few minutes after the discussion of what Christ achieved by dying on the cross, I suddenly saw a problem. 

Using the logic of the above statement, if Christianity is true, then Jesus did not die on the cross, he merely changed location. It suddenly seems a lot less of a thing that Jesus changed location for your sins, how could changing location atone for anything?

Where was Jesus in the days following his death 'at the ninth hour' on Good Friday, and his resurrection at dawn on the first day of the week? The harrowing of hell isn't actually in the Bible (there's a compelling case that the 1 Peter 3 verse is a mistranslation, and refers to Enoch, not Jesus). If Jesus changed location, where did he go? Does it actually matter where he went? Surely what matters is whether he lived or died?

Was he actually dead? Did the Trinity become a Duality for 2 or 3 days? I don't know anyone who would actually claim that. Fundamentally, Christians believe that Jesus was somewhere and was (in at least some sense of the word) alive during that time. So, essentially, Jesus did not die on the cross. Sure, his earthly body died, but his Spirit remained alive somewhere, and then changed location back into his resurrection body a couple of days later. So what was the sacrifice? Jesus took on flesh when he incarnated, and that flesh died on the cross, but Jesus himself was eternal, did not die, and lives eternally, at least if we believe some of the claims of the NT.

Sounds to me that if the above claim of Christianity is true, then other claims of Christianity must be false...

Monday, January 30, 2017

The gospel before the gospel

I've recently read Richard Carrier's "On the Historicity of Jesus" (OHJ). Its a big book. More thoughts likely to follow in later posts. But for now, this issue strikes me as important:

In Zechariah chapters 3 and 6 there is a character Carrier describes as 'Jesus Rising'. That is, in an old testament book, there is a character called Jesus (=Joshua, it's the same name) who rises in some (poorly defined) way. In the new testament, of course, Jesus rises from the dead. 

Carrier suggests that the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead could, in part, derive from a pre-existing belief that someone called Jesus would rise / had risen. Here's a bit of chapter 6 from the NIV:
9 The word of the Lord came to me: 10 “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. 11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. 13 It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.’ 14 The crown will be given to Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah and Hen son of Zephaniah as a memorial in the temple of the Lord. 15 Those who are far away will come and help to build the temple of the Lord, and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God.”
Erm, nothing about 'rising' there at first glance. The word in question, in verse 12, is translated 'Branch' in the NIV. More literal translations render this as 'sprout' rather than branch. That is 'sprout' in the sense of 'sprout out of', like a budding branch, or a plant breaking out of the ground. Still not 'rising'. If you translate your Bible from the original Hebrew into English, then 'sprout' or 'branch', or possibly 'emanation' is the best that you can do.

But have a look at the Septuagint (LXX). In the LXX, the word ἀνατολή ("anatole") is used as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word צֶמַח ("tsemach"). Strong's definition of tsemach (H6780) is "sprout, growth, branch", whereas Strong defines anatole (G395) as "a rising (of the sun or stars)" or "the east (the direction of the sun's rising)". So a reader of the LXX would not understand the above passage to be referring to a 'branch' or even a 'sprout', but would only really have the image of the rising sun in mind. Something like:
11 Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Jesus son of Jozadak. 12 Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is Rising, and he will rise up from his place and build the temple of the Lord. 
So if a reader of the LXX took the words in verse 12 ('here is the man') to refer to the high priest in verse 11, he would indeed think he was reading about a priest called Jesus, whose name is Rising. That is "Jesus Rising". Maybe Richard Carrier is right?

But. Its a fairly convoluted path we've had to take to get to this point, isn't it?

It seems unlikely that many people would jump through all these hoops to end up with a belief that a priest called Jesus would in some (undefined) way rise up. Certainly, this is far from the mainstream interpretation of these verses. So is it too 'out there' to be worthy of consideration?

I don't think so. You see, nobody ever claimed that Christianity or Christian belief ever emerged from the mainstream Jewish consensus belief. They started as a fringe group, with some pretty 'out there' beliefs.

All it really would need is someone to interpret the LXX as speaking about a character called Jesus who would in some way rise up, and then speculate about what kind of even this 'rising' might be (we've all heard of believers like that), and teach others about that speculation (we've all heard of preachers like that), and it is entirely plausible that a minority belief could arise that there would be a high priest called Jesus who would rise (or had risen) (into the sky? from the dead?). If that rolling stone gathered a small amount of moss, its not implausible to see how this belief could have entered proto-Christian thinking before the early 1st Century. Zechariah wrote sometime BCE, possibly two or three hundred years before the emergence of Christianity. It is totally plausible that this belief could have become part of Jewish belief, on the fringes of orthodoxy, in that time.

So we could have had a proto-gospel, decades or centuries before the gospel message we know about.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

How could Paul know?

I've just been listening to a debate between Atheist Dan Barker and Catholic William Albrecht, which I found on a random podcast while searching for something to do with Dan Barker. The subject of the debate was "Did Jesus rise from the dead?"

Barker's basic case was that historical methods can never lead us to a conclusion that a miracle happened, as they only operate in the realms of probability and repeatability. In general, he gave a good, but hardly spectacular defence of this.

Albrecht, on the other hand set out to prove that not only was Jesus raised from the dead, but that he was raised in a physical body. The main body of the discussion in the debate ended up arguing about the meaning of the phrase 'spiritual body' as used by Paul in several places in his letters. 

Albrecht seemed to think that if he could show that Paul meant something physical by using the phrase "spiritual body" that this would somehow prove the resurrection, and prove it was physical. Barker seemed to think that if he could show that Paul meant that Jesus was raised as a spirit (i.e. non physical) then this would prove that Paul's experience of Jesus was purely in the form of visions, which would not entail any kind of resurrection, physical or otherwise.

I felt that this whole aspect of the debate was utterly irrelevant. Because why should it matter what Paul meant by what he said in the letters? 

How on earth could Paul possibly know anything about the nature of Christ's resurrection body? 

He never knew Jesus pre-crucifixion, and he never met Jesus post-resurrection, except in the form of an appearance or vision. He did not touch Jesus.

So on what basis could Paul say anything at all, with authority, about the physical nature of the post-resurrection Christ? All he knew was what he has seen (but not touched), what others may have told him, what he deduced from the OT scriptures, and what he received by revelation or inspiration.

In a historical investigation of the question, we can't appeal to inspiration, revelation, interpretation of scripture, so the only authority Paul could have on this issue (the physical nature of Christ's resurrected body) would have to have come from others. Perhaps Cephas or James, both of whom Paul mentions speaking to in Jerusalem. Paul never says where he got this information. 

It is debatable whether or not Paul actually meant a physical resurrection, but even if he did believe this, his authority is entirely second hand. Paul believed it because some unspecified person told him. That's not great authority.

And going further down this line of thought, how could many of the people who apparently saw (and may have touched) Jesus in the period between resurrection and ascension could definitely say that his flesh was "incorruptible"? Did anyone try to corrupt it? According to John, Thomas didn't even take Jesus up on the offer of touching him. Nobody could make this claim on experiential grounds. It can only be made on the basis of deduction, revelation, or inspiration.

So how did Paul know? He didn't. He asserted it because it fit with his theology, but Paul's opinion can tell us nothing about whether the resurrection was a historical event.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Belief and choice

Romans 10:9 says:
"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
Basically, I've been taught and always have believed that those are the two things you need to do to be a Christian. Just believing, without the declaration, is no good. Likewise, declaring without the belief just doesn't get you there, you need both. 

I've been reflecting recently on these words, and the implications of them. The two things detailed in that statement are not the same. Declaration is an action, it is something that we can choose to do, or not. Belief is not an action. You cannot choose to believe something or not. You need persuaded into belief by evidence or authority.

Belief is not a choice.

Don't believe me? Surely you can choose to believe me? If you're not prepared to do that, how about believing something that doesn't matter? Can you believe that, for example, the moon is made of cheese? If belief is a choice, you can choose to believe that, right?

No matter, how hard you want to choose to believe something, if there is contrary evidence, and you honestly consider the evidence, and believe the evidence, you simply can't believe something that goes against the evidence you have accepted.

That's where I am at with regard to being a Christian.

I was raised with a set of beliefs that I accepted on the basis of the authority of who told me the things in the first place. People I trusted, and who were demonstrably correct in some other things they said, taught me to believe in God, to believe in Jesus, to believe in the bible, and I did.

Part 2 of the Romans 10:9 criterion was built into me from an early age. From my childhood I was halfway to being a Christian.

Part 1 came later, when I decided to follow Jesus for myself. From the age of 17 I fulfilled both of the parts of Romans 10:9. I have never subsequently given up on that choice.

However, I have looked at the evidence, and I have been persuaded by much of it that my childhood belief in God, Jesus and the Bible was misplaced. There are not good grounds for believing that. Indeed, there are very good grounds for not believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. The evidence points against that belief.

I didn't want to, but eventually I had to be honest with myself and accept the fact that the evidence was compelling and that Jesus (if he ever lived at all, which is a separate question) if he died on a cross (which is far from historical fact), did not rise on the third day. Having considered as much evidence as I could get my hands on, I found that my belief in the resurrection melted away. I can't simply choose to believe in it. I don't believe in it any more, because of the evidence.

So by the Romans 10:9 criterion I have stopped being a Christian. Not because I chose to do anything. I didn't choose to stop being a Christian. If anything, I would still choose to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, if I could actually believe that he is. But I can't believe that.

C.S. Lewis once (famously) wrote of his conversion:
"In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England"
I seem to have done the opposite. Eventually, having considered the evidence, I admitted (to myself) that God was not God and Jesus was never raised, and slowly (over a transition of several years) I have now become a somewhat reluctant de-convert from Christianity. I don't claim to be dejected though. There is much relief and satisfaction in reaching a conclusion that is in agreement with reality.

The cognitive dissonance I have been wrestling with for a decade or more has now gone.

I guess that should be the end of this blog, but I'll probably keep posting away anyway.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The focus of worship

I've been being annoyed by the lyrics of worship songs in church on my most recent few visits there.

Increasingly, I've become aware of the rather large number of worship songs which say, in essence, "I thank you God for making me immortal". The emphasis is not, as many Christians probably think, on what God has done, but rather it seems to be increasingly on what God has done for me. And what he has done is dealt with my sin (so, nothing left for me to do), removed my guilt (so, nothing to worry about) and given me eternal life (so, death is not an issue). 

The supposed focus of Christian worship is on Jesus, but I'm noticing more and more that the real focus is rather more selfish. Its pretty distasteful actually.

Its nothing new either. Think of the words of Amazing Grace...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why "But who made God?" is not a stupid question...

Continuing my thoughts on recently read apologetics, I come to Rev David Robertson's dismissal of the "But who made God?" argument in the book "Why I am not an atheist". He basically (and patronisingly) writes off this argument as childish. Well, he says that it is 'the alleged killer problem' for 'many fourth-form school pupils', implying that any mature thinker will see that this is a red herring. Well, its a long time since I was in fourth-form, and I still think this question has value. I've not heard a good rebuttal to it yet, which I guess is why Robertson has to insult the questioner rather than take the question seriously.

He swiftly jumps to the 'Kalam cosmological argument', which he expresses as:

  1. everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence
  2. the universe has a beginning of its existence
  3. therefore the universe has a cause of its existence
"The logic is irrefutable" he says, "The evidence is overwhelming". Hmmm. Not so fast. There are problems with the argument as posed. 

The first (and probably biggest) issue with this line of reasoning is in point number 1. It is missing a very important clause. I think it should be expressed more like this:
  1. everything in our universe of space and time that has a beginning has a cause of its existence in the same universe of space and time...
We might also add an extra clause to the end with the disclaimer: "except quantum events, of course" as those effects apparently occur without causes, even within our universe. Given my modification to point 1, however, point 2 becomes questionable. The universe is not to be found within the universe. Why should the rules that apply within the container also apply to the container itself?

Beyond that, I also have problems with the idea of the universe having a beginning. Certainly it has an origin, in the mathematical sense of the word 'origin', but that is not the same as a beginning. There is nothing before the 'big bang' (or whatever we want to call it) where the supposed initiator could be. There is no time there, there is no space there, there is literally nothing. There is no room for anything to exist, and certainly no non-existent thing could reasonably be said to be an initiating agent. We could redraw the mathematical axes and place the origin elsewhere. The 'origin' doesn't actually have to be at t=0.

I guess most folk imagine the big bang as a single point, a 'singularity' if you will, which then exploded out in three dimensions. Imagine for the moment that the whole three dimensional explosion only occurs in two dimensions. It starts as a point, and explodes in a circle with increasing diameter. Can you picture that? Assuming that the universe doesn't keep on expanding forever, at some point this circle reaches its maximum size, and then perhaps begins to shrink back down on itself, eventually condensing down to a single point again in the so called 'big crunch'. You get a sequence something like this:

Now stack up those circles (viewed almost side on) like this:

What you see (in a very idealised manner) is that the sequence of circles essentially describes the shape of a sphere. Of course, in reality the circles are not discrete, but continuous. So this three dimensional sphere essentially represents four dimensional space-time. 

For us, from our point of view, uncontrollably falling through 4 dimensional space-time on the time axis, there is a clear point of origin, that we imagine is time = 0. But if the observer were not fixed on the time axis like we are (and remember, the apologist is imagining an eternal and timeless agent here), then the selection of our t=0 as the origin is somewhat arbitrary. You could select any point on the surface as origin. Indeed, if the four dimensional existence of the universe is somewhat analogous to a sphere, then what we don't have is a point of origin, rather we have a boundary to the 4D universe. A surface. Not a point in space, but a surface in space-time.

Now stating that the universe has a beginning seems a bit myopic. The universe has a surface. But not everything with a surface has a cause. So the second statement becomes meaningless. And so the conclusion doesn't follow.

Everything that is, is inside the surface of the sphere. There is literally nothing outside of it. Nothing transcends it. It just is. Viewed in 4D, It doesn't change, but change is what happens within it. All cause and effect is inside it. The surface just is.

Now we can conceive an 'eternal' (whatever that means) 4D universe, that doesn't need a cause, because it just is. It is only because we perceive by the arrow of time that we think there is a beginning.

It is only if you are fixated on the time axis, that you need a prime mover. You can call that prime mover 'God' if you want, but he'd just be a blip on the surface.

By the way, this reasoning still holds, I think, if you don't agree with the big crunch idea. In that eventuality, the universe is not a sphere but a parabolic cone. But still a surface...

Monday, June 27, 2016

The bell curve of belief

Where do you fall on the bell curve of belief?

I've been reading apologetics again, and midway through reading yet another argument about the fine tuning of the universe, I suddenly realised that all apologists are to be found right at the end of the bell curve of belief. And for the most part, all anti-apologists are to be found at the other end of the bell curve of belief. People in the middle, or within a couple of standard deviations of the middle of the curve, don't write apologetics books (or anti-apologetics ones).

One end of the bell curve is absolute and total belief in God. The other end of the bell curve is absolute and total belief in naturalism, with no possibility of a spiritual aspect to the universe. Much apologetics (and anti-apologetics) seems to assume that every thinking person must fall into, or close to, one of those two camps. 

Most people don't have that kind of certainty about everything. I certainly don't. Indeed, there's not much certainty in that 'certainly don't'. But the apologists on both sides seem to want to persuade everyone into one of the absolutes. But the weird thing is that they don't seem to target the people in the middle, they each take their aim and fire their shots at the opposing end of the bell curve.

They also target the people who are ever so slightly nearer the middle of the curve than they are. These are the folk who are not absolute believers in something, but aren't too far away. At the Christian end of things, these people are the Bible-believing Christians who have never really asked some of the big questions, but simply assume that the church's teaching is basically right. These are the people who accept the package deal of faith, without question. The goal of apologetics is to keep these people from considering to the 'wrong' sort of arguments and to keep them from shifting closer to the middle of the bell curve. At the atheist end of the curve are the non-believers who simply don't believe, but have never really considered the claims of Christianity in any significant way. A few random acts of kindness on the part of Christians could shift these people closer to the middle, so the anti-apologists seek to bolster the non-faith of these people and pull them outward.

I'm somewhere in between. Not in the middle, as I climbed off that uncomfortable fence some time ago, but certainly not near either end. Apologetics is happening all around me (mostly by my personal choice) but the arguments are just not working on me, because they're not really aiming at me.

How about you?

Monday, June 20, 2016

"No longer a friend of Narnia"

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” 

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” 

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.” 
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

From "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis
I'm going to assume you know the context of the passage quoted above. If you don't, you really should read all of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Yes, all of them. You'll find this baffling exchange in the final volume, but it won't make much sense unless you've read the others.

The question this passage poses to the reader is how Susan Pevensie, who lived for many years as Queen of Narnia ("Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia") in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and returned again to Narnia in Prince Caspian, who was there when Aslan was killed by the White Witch, and who was one of only two witnesses to his resurrection, who spoke to Aslan in private at the end of Prince Caspian, how she could come to believe all that was merely "funny games"?

In the context of the Narnia stories, this change of heart is utterly inconceivable. It should be impossible for someone who has been through all that to reject it as fantasy. And yet, Susan apparently does.

I've read that Lewis did not think that this passage from The Last Battle was the end of the story for Susan, but that her journey beyond this point was an adult one, and not one that he wanted to cover in a children's book. But he never told anyone the actual story he had in mind, or if he ever developed it.

Of course, the allegory in the Narnia stories is well documented, and its easy to jump to conclusions of the meaning of this passage. "No longer a friend of Narnia" is analogous for 'no longer a Christian', right? Hmmm. Would that it were so simple. I think Lewis is quite clear that Narnia is somewhat akin to the faith of a child, and at the end of The Last Battle, Aslan leads the characters in the story from Narnia into something bigger that transcends it, and characters from our world into something bigger that transcends it. Something more grown up. All the characters in the book go beyond an attachment to Narnia, not just Susan, its just that she takes a different path.

I suppose it is telling that Susan is never described as "no longer a friend of Aslan". That would be something different. Did Susan lose faith in Aslan? I guess if she thought that all the adventures in Narnia were simply "funny games" then maybe she did. Maybe she never did learn to find Aslan by the 'different name' that he has in our world.

But the question remains, how could someone who has experienced Narnia in all its wonder, come to view it all as a fiction? Or rather, if I can turn this into the real question that I am really addressing, how can someone who has experienced the reality of the Christian life, who has felt the power of the Holy Spirit, who has had a personal relationship with Jesus, how can such a person come to view all that as fiction?

The reality is that this happens all the time. People who were real Christians lose faith and turn away from the Church. I've listened to and read quite a lot of interviews with ex-Christians recently, it happens again and again. To understand the issue I think we have to consider the three basic possibilities:
  1. Option 1 is that Christianity is true and these people were once real Christians who believed in and experienced the real thing. 
  2. Option 2 is that Christianity is true, but these people never really experienced the real thing. They only ever had a fake faith, and never tasted the real thing.
  3. Option 3 is that Christianity is not true, and these people once believed it, but came to see that their beliefs didn't square with reality.
People who abandon their faith generally come to see the world as though Option 3 is the truth. Its certainly where I find myself these days.

Christians who see their friends and family leave the faith generally end up believing Option 2 - its so much easier to believe that than Option 1. For a Christian to believe Option 1, they have to invoke the devil and lots of deception going on. But believing Option 1 also entails lots of concern that the same could happen to the believer, so they must remain vigilant to the attacks of the evil one, and not ever consider any evidence that suggests that Option 3 might be true. For the believer, Option 2 is a place of security, because of course, every believer believes that their own faith is real, not fake.

In the context of the Narnia stories, Susan falls into category 1. Narnia was real to her, and somehow she has been deluded into thinking that it was all just nonsense. Even in the fictional world of Lewis's books, where animals can talk, I find that hard to believe.

But in the real world, where am I? I once believed in Christianity. From my point of view, it was a real faith, and just as real as Christianity is for everyone who still believes. I'm now of the opinion that Option 3 is the truth. Christianity is not, and never has been true. Either I'm right, or I'm deceived. Part of me still holds that as a small possibility, but on the whole I think I need to dismiss that, as it raises far more questions than ever it answers.

So am I no longer a friend of Narnia? I guess so. But I still do love the stories as the fiction they are.