Every human being is born with such a narrow view of the world and we all have to learn to broaden our horizon. This is equally true for people when they become Christians. A Christian is a person-becoming-an-adult, a “child of God” with ‘L-Plates’ front and back. We are serially myopic in our vision of the world and we need help.
…..and it didn’t hurt. They were a trio of lovely people. One of whom I had met several times until, I suspect, she (a 70+ Italian living in England) was banned from visiting me; I can only assume that was the case, since her frequent visits stopped so suddenly. It may have been my poor tea making ability, but in all honesty, I do pride myself on making pretty dang good tea!
Anyhoo, the trio were loitering around the cliffs of Devon whence I came upon them. I have a love for these people “of faith” and tried to convey as much. As soon as it was revealed, like a dirty secret on EastEnders, that I was a “Christian”, and worse, a “Baptist minister”, well, all manner of gehenna and rotten-exegesis broke loose.
I wanted to go down the relational, friendly, understanding, “liberal”, loving route, but was thwarted by the doctinaire police from the school of eisegetical proof-texting sloganeering. I really wanted to love these beloved personages towards the love of God, but they seemed intent, bent…..hell-bent on bringing to the fore an apocalyptic Hebrew Scriptural Hermeneutic that astounded, but sadly, didn’t surprise me.
What do I mean, I hear you sigh? Well, for one, the strength of their apologetic was rooted in an Old Testament apocalyptic rhetoric of judgment and retribution. I know full well there are Pslams (other genre are available) that betray a particular aspect of sin and judgment and wotnot. But, for the love of God, the love of God was not so much a silent witness, as more a total absentee; more AWOL than anything else (“You weren’t there man!”)
When asked what the primary message of Jesus was, it turned out to be a revenge attack on the wicked and immoral. I asked, in all seriousness, with a straight face, “Did the coming of Jesus make any difference?” “Yes!” they replied, before quoting extensively from the imprecatory Psalms.
My heart sank, whilst my eyebrows rose and my toes curled. Jesus didn’t make a difference from a pre-Gospel; pre-incarnation; pre-logos-becoming-flesh text.
“Didn’t Jehovah say we will be his witnesses?” Indeed my ill-learned friend, he did (Isaiah 43:10). But why fixate on an Old Testament text when you could fixate on a New Testament text: “…and you will be my (Jesus’) witnesses in Judea, Samaria….everywhere…” (Acts 1:8). Jehovah’s Witnesses-Jesus wtnesses….oh my brain can’t cope with this theological explication!
What a great eye-brow was raised that day! Like I’d invented the verse. Anyway, that’s (not) a moot point. The point is this. Given the apocalypyical legerdemain, I thought I’d ask a simple question to my three friends, the Jehovah’s Witnesses:
“Where are the Jehovah’s Witness between AD 100 and when Charles Taze Russell decided to have a go in the 1870’s?”
2. Anyone who thinks you can ignore the Reformations has their head in the sand.
3. Music, art, and literature were transformed by the Reformations.
4. The Reformations also triggered the Peasants’ War: the greatest social upheaval in Europe before the French Revolution.
5. Genuine Reformations always spell trouble.
6. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of God.
7. God spells trouble.
8. From Luther to Teresa of Avila, faith begins with doubt, ecstasy begins with despair.
9. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of Christ.
10. ‘If you will not taste the bitter Christ, you will eat yourself sick of honey’. (Thomas Müntzer)
11. Reformations begin and end with our understanding of Holy Spirit.
12. ‘God’s Spirit is within you, read/Is woman shut out, there, indeed?’ (Argula von Grumbach)
13. In today’s churches heart and mind are out of kilter.
14. In our music and our liturgy we say we yearn for transformation.
15. In our thinking, however, we have given up on the future.
16. We Presbyterians feel we have lost our Church, nationally.
17. Many in the churches feel we have lost the way, politically.
18. There were many Reformations: humanist, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Radical, and communal.
19. None of them gave up on the future.
20. All of them found the way to that future, however, in a recapitulation of the origins.
21. To go forward we need to go back.
22. ‘Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead’. (Jaroslav Pelikan)
23. The Church likes to domesticate, to tame the Bible. The Reformations recognized it as dangerous memory, as liberation, as a wild animal.
24. ‘Almaist in everie private house the buike of Gods law is red and understand in oure vulgaire language’. (1579; Geneva Bible).
25. God is gift.
– Peter Matheson, 31 October, 2011
Atheists should drop their easily dismissed scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity, and instead quiz believers about Old Testament violence and hell, writes John Dickson.
As an intellectual movement, Christianity has a head start on atheism. So it’s only natural that believers would find some of the current arguments against God less than satisfying.
In the interests of a more robust debate this Easter, I (Dr John Dickson) want to offer my tips for atheists wanting to make a dent in the Faith. I’ve got some advice on arguments that should be dropped and some admissions about where Christians are vulnerable.
Tip #1. Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition
This is the 1,984th Easter since 7 April AD 30, the widely accepted date among historians for the crucifixion of Jesus (the 1,981st if you find the arguments for 3 April AD 33 persuasive). Christians have been pondering this stuff for a long time. They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.
My first tip, then, is to gain some awareness of the church’s vast intellectual tradition. It is not enough to quip that ‘intellectual’ and ‘church’ are oxymoronic. Origen, Augustine, Philoponus, Aquinas, and the rest are giants of Western thought. Without some familiarity with these figures, or their modern equivalents – Pannenberg, Ward, MacIntrye, McGrath, Plantinga, Hart, Volf – popular atheists can sound like the kid in English class, “Miss, Shakespeare is stupid!”
Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word ‘faith’
One of the things that becomes apparent in serious Christian literature is that no one uses ‘faith’ in the sense of believing things without reasons. That might be Richard Dawkins’ preferred definition – except when he was publicly asked by Oxford’s Professor John Lennox whether he had ‘faith’ in his lovely wife – but it is important to know that in theology ‘faith’ always means personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds. I think God is real for philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons. Only on the basis of my reasoned conviction can I then trust God – have faith in him – in the sense meant in theology.
Tip #3. Appreciate the status of 6-Day Creationism
Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus have done a disservice to atheism by talking as though 6-Day Creationism is the default Christian conviction. But mainstream Christianities for decades have dismissed 6-Day Creationism as a misguided (if well-intentioned) project. Major conservative institutions like Sydney’s Moore Theological College, which produces more full time ministers than any college in the country, have taught for years that Genesis 1 was never intended to be read concretely, let alone scientifically. This isn’t Christians retreating before the troubling advances of science. From the earliest centuries many of the greats of Judaism (e.g., Philo and Maimonides) and Christianity (e.g., Clement, Ambrose, and Augustine) taught that the ‘six days’ of Genesis are a literary device, not a marker of time.
Tip #4. Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps
One slightly annoying feature of New Atheism is the constant claim that believers invoke God as an explanation of the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of the universe: as we fill in the gaps with more science, God disappears. Even as thoughtful a man as Lawrence Kraus, a noted physicist, did this just last month on national radio following new evidence of the earliest moments of the Big Bang.
But the god-of-the-gaps is an invention of atheists. Serious theists have always welcomed explanations of the mechanics of the universe as further indications of the rational order of reality and therefore of the presence of a Mind behind reality. Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer.
Tip #5. “Atheists just go one god more” is a joke, not an argument
I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.
Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social ‘poison’ backfire
Moving from science and philosophy to sociology, I regard New Atheism’s “religion poisons everything” argument as perhaps its greatest faux pas. Not just because it is obviously untrue but because anyone who has entertained the idea and then bumped into an actual Christian community will quickly wonder what other fabrications Hitchens and Dawkins have spun.
I don’t just mean that anyone who dips into Christian history will discover that the violence of Christendom is dwarfed by the bloodshed of non-religious and irreligious conflicts. I mean that those who find themselves, or their loved ones, in genuine need in this country are very, very likely to become the beneficiaries of direct and indirect Christian compassion. The faithful account for an inordinate amount of “volunteering hours” in Australia, they give blood at higher-than-normal rates, and 18 of the nation’s 25 largest charities are Christian organisations. This doesn’t make Christians better than atheists, but it puts the lie to the claim that they’re worse.
Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details
Nearly 10 years after Richard Dawkins says that “a serious historical case” can be made that Jesus “never lived” (even if he admits that his existence is probable). It is astonishing to me that some atheists haven’t caught up with the fact that this was always a nonsense statement. Even the man Dawkins cites at this point, GA Wells (a professor of German language, not a historian), published his own change of mind right about the time The God Delusion came out.
New Atheists should accept the academic reality that the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world consider it beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus lived, taught, gained a reputation as a healer, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and was soon heralded by his followers as the resurrected Messiah. Unless sceptics can begin their arguments from this academic baseline, they are the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise – unwilling to accept the scholarly mainstream over their metaphysical commitments.
Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors
Aristotle was the first to point out that persuasion occurs through three factors: intellectual (logos), psychological (pathos), and social or ethical (ethos). People rarely change their minds merely on account of objective evidence. They usually need to feel the personal relevance and impact of a claim, and they also must feel that the source of the claim – whether a scientist or a priest – is trustworthy.
Christians frequently admit that their convictions developed under the influence of all three elements. When sceptics, however, insist that their unbelief is based solely on ‘evidence’, they appear one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness. They would do better to figure out how to incorporate their evidence within the broader context of its personal relevance and credibility. I think this is why Alain de Botton is a far more persuasive atheist (for thoughtful folk) than Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus. It is also why churches attract more enquirers than the local sceptics club.
Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence
I promised to highlight vulnerabilities of the Christian Faith. Here are two.
Most thoughtful Christians find it difficult to reconcile the loving, self-sacrificial presentation of God in the New Testament with the seemingly harsh and violent portrayals of divinity in the Old Testament. I am not endorsing Richard Dawkins’ attempts in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. There he mistakenly includes stories that the Old Testament itself holds up as counter examples of true piety. But there is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.
I am not sure this line of argument has the power to undo Christian convictions entirely. I, for one, feel that the lines of evidence pointing to God’s self-disclosure in Christ are so robust that I am able to ponder the inconsistencies in the Old Testament without chucking in the Faith. Still, I reckon this is one line of scrutiny Christians haven’t yet fully answered.
Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment
Questions can also be raised about God’s fairness with the world. I don’t mean the problem of evil and suffering: philosophers seem to regard that argument as a ‘draw’. I am talking about how Christians can, on the one hand, affirm God’s costly love in Jesus Christ and, yet, on the other, maintain Christ’s equally clear message that those who refuse the Creator will face eternal judgment. If God is so eager for our friendship that he would enter our world, share our humanity, and bear our punishment on the cross, how could he feel it is appropriate to send anyone to endless judgment?
This is a peculiar problem of the Christian gospel. If God were principally holy and righteous, and only occasionally magnanimous in special circumstances, we wouldn’t be shocked by final judgment. But it is precisely because Jesus described God as a Father rushing to embrace and kiss the returning ‘prodigal’ that Christians wonder how to hold this in tension with warnings of hell and judgment.
Again, I’m not giving up on classical Christianity because of this internally generated dilemma, but I admit to feeling squeamish about it, and I secretly hope atheists in my audiences don’t think to ask me about it.
I doubt there are any strong scientific, philosophical or historical arguments against Christianity. Most of those in current circulation are nowhere near as persuasive as New Atheism imagines. Contemporary sceptics would do well to drop them. Paradoxically, I do think Christianity is vulnerable at precisely the points of its own emphases. Its insistence on love, humility, and non-violence is what makes the Old Testament seem inconsistent. Its claim that God “loves us to death” (literally) creates the dilemma of its teaching about final judgment. Pressing Christians on this inner logic of the cross of Christ will make for a very interesting debate, I am sure. Believers may have decent answers, but at least you’ll be touching a truly raw nerve of the Easter Faith.
In a separate “incident” within this whole debate, David Bentley Hart recently produced a scintilating reply to Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker that kind of makes the point of this post – the debate, if you can call it that, between materialists/atheists and those of faith. Hart writes,
“Simply said, we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible. . . . Precisely how does materialism (which is just a metaphysical postulate, of extremely dubious logical coherence) entail exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge?”
And as a final foray on my part into Hart’s reply, he lays out as plain as he can, why we have this horrendous if not infantile situaltion today,
“The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter.”
I encourage you to read Gopnik’s post and Hart’s response – it is breathtaking and brutal!! You can feel Hart’s irritation even if he doesn’t really get out of theological first gear!
Church history is fascinating and studying it is essential.
Some people will have stopped reading already, well boo to them because Church History guards us today against making mistakes that, wait for it, have already been made!
The person who doesn’t read history, will likely dismiss history as irrelevant or romanticize it to the degree that whatever goes on today, is just not good enough, holy enough, whatever enough, as it was in the glorious past. Both views are lazy.
The reason I love dabbling in Church History is because time and again I find people much like me, and much like the people in my church: real, hurting, sinful, broken, loving God, needing forgiveness, and so on.
Whilst there are peculiar aspects to todays culture (I’m sure St Jerome never had gadgets beeping every five minutes demanding his precious time on things that are, how shall we say….. not precious at all.
So what is a saint? Let’s look at St Jerome (347-420), born in Stridon, somewhere in the Balkans, possibly Croatia or Slovenia.
This saint was a reluctant convert to Christianity, but once converted, became a publishing powerhouse on most things theological. He seems to have been particularly sensitive to various descriptions and feelings about hell, especially as he observed the vast scale of immorality in Roman society and Empire, something he felt deeply shameful about, because he was certainly involved himself!
After conversion he became obsessively pious. Umm. Interesting! Why? Maybe because he, as that other saint, Augustine, in his pre-conversion to Christ states, was a sex addict! When he lived as a hermit in the Syrian desert (no doubt to try and master his feelings and urges), he would write, “Although my only companions were scorpions, I was mingling with the dances of girls, my mind throbbing with desires.”
Even when he served as the secretary to the Bishop of Rome, Damascus I, there was sexual scandal. Damascus himself was accused of adultery and Jerome was accused of having an affair with a very wealthy widowed mother named Paula, a lady who helped him translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Jerome and Paula were exonerated!
In the late 4th century, Jerome, wrestling with his mind and feelings, wrote tracts warning of the dangers of the powers of sex and lust. It was as if he smelled sex everywhere he went. Of lust he wrote that it, “tickles the senses and the soft fire of sensual pleasure sheds its pleasing glow.” (To the reader: are your eyebrows raised as you read this)?
Once when in Jerusalem, he found the “holy” city to be a melting pot of trade, cultures and sex, not to mention extreme piety and devotion to all traditions of the Jews and Christians.
Jerome was horrified by the sheer volume of sexual opportunities offered in this theme park of religious passion and sensory excitement, “all temptation is collected here…. prostitutes, actors and clowns.”
The point? That this man’s struggles are common to all, and our culture perfectly mirrors what Jerome described. There is nothing new under the sun. Jerome is typical of me and you, and Roman culture is typical of ours!
So what is a saint?
Not someone who’s perfect. Not someone who doesn’t feel or desire. Not someone who walks on a cloud two feet off the floor. A saint is a person who recognises their failings and weaknesses, who interprets themselves and their culture correctly, and who then comes under the sovereign care of a God who saves, heals and forgives.
It is God Himself who declares sinners saints! The moment a person confesses Christ, he or she receives His righteousness and is de facto declared a saint. Being sinless doesn’t make one a saint, being “in Christ” does!
And Church History helps because knowing this biblical truth and historical detail, is an encouragement for us to persevere, to press on towards the finish line, to apprehend Christ Jesus, the one who fulfills our desire and makes us what we were always meant to be: Children of God and fully human.