Oi, Ricky, No!

Oi, Ricky, No!

I recently had a brief chat with a chap about “religion” – which even though I am a church pastor, doesn’t happen very often!  Not like this anyway.

In the course of the conversation we talked about a theological book I was carrying, and he commented that the book will have “religious bias”, and that, by implication, could not really be trusted.

Of course my thought-reply was immediate:  “If by “bias” you mean an unthinking and pre-determined approach of coming to, and understanding, truth, then No.  But if you mean by “bias” that I am seeking truth and understanding through the lens of Christian Theology, a discipline that implodes if without internal and external integrity and disciplines, then Yes.”

Of course, the underlying assumption, as I saw it, was that Christian books of theology are naively enslaved to a bronze-age superstitious worldview, but still seek to peddle their wares to unsuspecting passersby, since everyone knows that science (more accurately, scientism, or “scientistic epistemology”) has put to death once and for all the myth of religion, or more specifically, the myth of Christianity.

Then my friendly interlocutor mentioned something Ricky Gervais had said in a US TV interview a few years ago.  I’ve listened to it and seen it on YouTube a couple of times, and each time I am staggered at how pleasant and wise popular atheist sloganeering sounds, every phrase met with the wide-eyed support and cheering and clapping of gladiatorial spectators witnessing the death of a prize-winning fighter.  Only this time, it is the wise Ricky putting to death the mythical monster that is Christianity.  It reminded me of the marvellous Mark Twain, who wrote in Volume 1 of his Autobiography, “These poor fellows furnish a “comic” performance which is so humble, and poor and pitiful, and childish, and asinine, and inadequate that it makes a person ashamed of the human race. Ah, their timorous dances – and their timorous antics – and their shamefaced attempts at funny grimacing – and their cockney songs and jokes – they touch you, they pain you, they fill you with pity, they make you cry…. London loves them; London has a warm big heart, and there is room and a welcome in it for all the misappreciated refuse of creation.”

Sadly, it is nothing but the poor and pitiful, the childish and asinine quality of the popular new-atheist movement in our day that is wildly unwild, one could say tame.      G. K. Chesterton did:  “It is not the wild ideals which wreck the practical world; it is the tame ideals.”  Is this shallow debate wrecking the world?  Yep.

So what did Ricky say?

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The Flying Spagetti Monster

Guest Post by Dr David Matcham

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown

One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

flying_spaghetti_monster_2

I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it.

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

destruction-of-atlantisSo, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known.

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing.

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.

Something about Heaven (a world of love)

Something about Heaven (a world of love)

“Heaven, fellowship with the Trinity is…the end for which all human beings were created” so says Jerry Walls in The Logic of Eternal Joy.

He’s right.

Today I attended the funeral of a couple who lost their beloved daughter to a premature birth.  I have rarely witnessed such Godly grief, such dignity in mourning.  In fact, I never have.  They were quite remarkable.  Why?  Because they know who they are in Christ.

All pettiness of daily living was exposed for the sham it is.  Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it well when he wrote that we were not to be preoccupied with  “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.”  Such is much of our lives.  We are so preoccupied, that when tragedy strikes, we’re surprised!  It is a perverse irony that doesn’t see the pathetic blasphemy of such a state!

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The Rise and Fall of God

Ascension Day: ‘The Rise and Fall of God’

Luke 24:36-53 (Acts 1:4-11)

Ascension Day! I know, I know, most of us are like: Say that again!

Most of us who have been Christians for some time now and heard of this strange thing called ‘The Ascension of Jesus,’ but, if truth be told, we treat it like we treat a Big Issue seller: We know it’s there, but we can’t wait to get passed it and onto other things.

And even when we do, for a brief moment, consider the ascension of Jesus, we will most likely have those embarrassing images from film and TV in our heads of that awkward moment when Jesus is blessing his disciples, hand raised (as we see in much post-Enlightenment art), as he is strangely lifted into the sky, and hid behind a fluffy cloud. If we’re not laughing at how silly it looks on the screen, we’re certainly left wondering if it really happened like that!

Bright scratches

And so the Ascension of Jesus has become like that embarrassing uncle everyone avoids at weddings. It becomes a footnote in history and to the gospel story we tell. By all means mention the teaching and the cross and the resurrection and the reign of Jesus, but….well, the ascension is more than a tad embarrassing.

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Mission and Bosch

Mission and Bosch

Below is a brief refelction I wrote a few years ago of David Bosch’s outstanding Transforming Mission – paradigm shifts in theology of mission.

transforming-mission-bosch-david-j-9780883447192Bosch’s work has been given the highest praise, with such eloquent descriptions as immense, great, comprehensive, magnum opus, summa missiologica and magisterial, among others, for his book Transforming Mission.  This is worthy praise for the work of a man held in such high regard for his loyalty and commitment to mission in the church and the mission of the church.  It is very important to understand that these nouns and adjectives of praise for his book do not in any way suggest that all is well with the world of mission, or that Bosch has in fact covered every angle and said all that needs to be said about mission, and especially about what he calls “Elements of an Emerging Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm.”  This sentiment was well expressed in an article by Bevans and Schroeder when they compared the theological genius of Aquinas with the outstanding missiological contribution of Bosch, suggesting that as theology ‘need always to be done after Aquinas,’ likewise, missiology need always ‘be done after Bosch’ (Bevans & Schroeder 2005:69-72).

Some of Bosch’s most insightful critics are among his closest friends and colleagues, and it is within these critiques that we discover areas that Bosch may have overlooked or been completely blind to in the first place.  We will return to some of these voices in due course, but first a broad brush stroke is in order.  Bosch’s insights, written in the late eighties and published in 1991 reflect a profound and well thought out view that many Christian authors and missiologists especially in the West are still struggling to define, namely post-modernism.  For Bosch to elucidate this slippery concept at such an early stage in the way he does has really set the scene for much discourse on this subject.  We observe this because it is inevitable that with any description of a culture in flux, which is essentially what a paradigm shift is, and attempts to fully explicate at such an early stage, at least earlier than many other cultural analysts were writing, would surely be frustrated, even assertions that it could be fully comprehended would surely be naïve.  Bosch does not presume to have done this primarily because he knows he is referring to something that is happening now, it is in a sense live, and subject to unpredictable change.  Since this is still the case in our day, how much more in his day?

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What the prophet does and why the lambs bleat

What is your notion of a prophet?
I suspect the Western Protestant Church has made a right hash of this ministry.

Reducing it to mere predictions.

Either doom or glory, or vague hope & polite niceness.

Reducing it to clichéd slogans that mean anything and everything ….and nothing.
Reducing it the “wacky fringe of the church”:
The bigger the beard the greater the prophet!

Reducing it to spontaneous mini-messages of bespoke theological preference!
Reducing it to magic, on a par with ancient and modern gnosticism:
God’s weird little secrets made known to the special weird few!

No.

pie

False Prophesy is Pie in the Sky!

We need less (zero) ‘Personal Idiosyncratic Eschatology’ (or P.I.E. for short – I made that up all on my own); and more of what Eugene Peterson in his brilliant book Run with the Horses refers to as the true nature of the Prophet:

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1. A prophet lets people know who God is and what he is like, what he says and what he is doing.

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2. A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency so that we see the great and stunning drama that is our existence, and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.

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3. A prophet angers us by rejecting our euphemisms and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are!

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An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

An eternal tormentist, annihilationist and universalist walk into a pub…

What follows is part of a wider response to various questions that theologian Rob Knowles has responded to.  Here, after writing a thorough response and critique of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, to which the opening of the article below refers, Rob proceeds to outline the actual biblical view(s) of what is associated with biblical notions of judgment and hell.

This debate suffers from the worst kinds of crappy-Christian polemics, historical amnesia and hermeneutical foreclosure, and dare I say, the real possibility that many Christians are going to be really cheesed off if God does indeed save everyone! Similarly, if God does or will save everyone, would that constitute what my brother refers to as ‘a pleasant hostage situation’?

If someone of the scholarly stature of A. C. Thiselton can confidently and unashamedly assert that within the Bible there exists three contradictory traditions, the interpreting community that is the Church had best sit up and pay proper theological attention!  At the very least, this would make an interesting discussion actually worth listening too, if our three traditions named in my title ever got into that pub!

Anyway, enjoy.  Cheers….

gbbf-glass

How could hell be just?
I have already said a lot on this question in my earlier theodicy on “the problem of evil”. There I offered a highly modified version of C.S. Lewis’s theodicy in his book, The Problem of Pain (see above). The theodicy went into some detail on the question of hell, and broadly rejected C.S. Lewis’ thinking on the matter in favour of A.C. Thiselton’s view, which we might call the “deliberate ambiguity” approach to hell. Lewis’s theodicy, in my view, was at its strongest in describing how, given that God had decided to create “persons” with (at least some measure of free will), then this was impossible without (a) some kind of neutral background – creation or “nature”, and (b) the possibility of us deciding to do wrong. These two factors explained 80% of the suffering in the world: that is, when it comes to the question: “why is there so much suffering in the world?” our answer is – roughly speaking – about 80% in agreement with the atheists. They say: there is no God; there is suffering; so humankind must have caused the suffering. We 80% agree that humankind must have caused the suffering – with the qualification that demonic influence on humanity also has to be accounted for.


The main exception to this was (c) what Lewis referred to as remedial suffering – suffering associated with God’s disciplining intervention into our lives, and with our going “cold turkey” on sins once we had decided to follow God – a “cold turkey” experience that Lewis, rightly, likened to crucifixion, since Paul speaks of the crucifixion of the sinful nature in the Christian.


In my view, though, Lewis’s theodicy was at its weakest in its depiction of God as being less than able to fully resolve the problem of human sin – as though the Almighty God was threatened by sin, and could only partially guarantee a partial salvation that heavily depended on our co-operation and works. The effect was to leave the reader exhausted, thinking that his or her works could be the deciding factor in his or her salvation.
To my mind, this view, whilst rightly stressing human responsibility, fails to present the biblical picture of God’s sovereignty. Yes, God is the crucified God, who suffers with us in weakness. And, for God as a man in Jesus Christ, nobody can under-estimate the suffering of the cross, and the difficulty God faced at that point, given the parameters that he had placed upon himself.

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