Christianity Builds Me

Guest post by Dr Rob Knowles:

How is belief related to desire?
“We may indeed want to believe in something, and therefore believe in it. Thus, for example, we want to think that we are good, righteous, not that bad, better than average, not as bad as so and so, morally more advanced than Daily Mail readers – and so on. And we tend to believe this, even as Christians, even though Jesus says ‘God alone is good’ and Paul says ‘all are sinful’.

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But when somebody says, “ah, but you would believe that, wouldn’t you, you‘re a Christian”, then you know that they have done almost no study. They are just repeating a speech-utterance that it has become fashionable to utter in tipsy conversations in pubs, restaurants, and at the kitchen-table soirees of middle-class pretenders.

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In the history of the world there have been very few genuine intellectual challenges to Christianity. Claims are forever being made, by a Dawkins or a Fry. And such characters tend to be brilliant orators and conversationalists too – they have mastered the mockery of their opponents; they have mastered how to win in sophistic exchanges; they can make those with double their IQ – but with the hesitancy of intellectual integrity – look like fools. But all that is in spoken exchanges. It is in their texts that they come across as mere popularists, as intellectual lightweights. Dawkins is no Wittgenstein; and Fry is no Heidegger. Wittgenstein and Heidegger both help us to understand Christianity. Dawkins and Fry merely obscure and caricature it.

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Atheists Take Note (this Easter)…

Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter

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This is a re-post of Dr John Dickson’s excellent challenge to Atheists to up their game in their critique of Christianity:

There is a dissonance between Christ’s “love your enemies” and Moses’ “slay the wicked”.

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.

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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.

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian, and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

 

Postscript:

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!

Bertrand Russell and the Image of God

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I have been an admirer of humanist/agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell for some years.  Well, I say admirer, more of a distant observer wishing he could get a bit more of the action, but nevertheless, Bertrand has always peaked my interest, and he lived a most interesting life.

This is a short post today, as I want to share something that he said has shaped or “governed” his life.  This is something that any person on the planet could say, it is a humanitarian sentiment to desire such things.  But I have something to add, here is what he said:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life:  the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

One thing among many about Bertrand is his utter honesty.  He was a critic of religion in general and Christianity in particular, but to be fair to him, religion in general often needs a slap across the face, and Christianity in particular more often than not needs a kick up the backside!  He was a critic and as a Christian I have to say, we deserved it, and we have to learn to live with it.

Russell never set out to defiantly oppose Christianity as does the rather farcical Dawkins (and his ilk) of today.  No, no, no!  Russell was more honest, for he declared himself agnostic, not a-theist (definitions here could get pedantic, the difference between atheism and agnosticism is potentially a matter of preference and personal interpretation, but that’s another post for another day – but don’t hold your breath)!

Can you even imagine that the super-religious, I mean, super scientific Dawkins would ascribe any of his scientific nous  to something so unscientific as “love”, no doubt wanting to break it all down into its component parts of chemicals exploding here and there!  I love you Dawkins, but don’t panic, it’s only a chemical reaction!

What Bertrand has admitted to, his life’s governing principles is evidence of the image of God stamped in human beings!  “Let us make man in our image…” is precisely what agnostic Russell is aspiring to be governed by!  It’s glorious, so much more glorious than the crass anti-Christian garbage mumbled by Dawkins.

I must apologise!  I never intended to even mention my compatriot Richard Dawkins.  I only wanted to show how the stamp of God, His image in us is so engrained, so rooted, so……… oh what’s the word…….so darned obvious, that only a genetically engineered seedless grape would miss it.  We haven’t even mentioned knowledge and suffering yet, but I will end with this:

God loves Richard Dawkins; God loves Bertrand Russell;  Heavens above he even loves me so I know for a fact He loves you too.  And I think that is pretty cool.  I think I’ll let it govern my life!

Civilization and Culture

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The distinction between culture and civilization is acute indeed, even I missed it and I was trying to pay attention!

I needed help to see and when I picked up Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution, by mistake I might add (I was trying to get to another book), I couldn’t put it down and four hours later I heard the distant echo of my wife’s voice getting louder and louder through the haze, “Oh darling (that’s how she always talks to me), you’ve got to go to church, you’re leading, preaching, dancing, c’mon!

But in those four hours, wow!  And I would like to share what I found.

Eagleton is attacking the myths and inherent contradictions in the Western world regarding multiculturalism, democracy, ect.   Which was fascinating in its own right.  But rather than leave the global status on the well known but misunderstood peg known as ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, he dissects this further:

Civilization means universality, autonomy, prosperity, plurality, individuality, rational speculation, and ironic self-doubt.   Culture on the other hand, signifies all those reflective loyalties and allegiances, as apparently built into us as our liver is, in the name of which, people are prepared to kill.  Culture means custom, passion, spontaneity,  unreflective, unironic and a-rational.

Thus the West (by-and-large) has civilization, the non-west (by-and-large) has culture, and as if to hammer home the point in brutal irony, he adds, that colonizing nations are civilizations, while most (former) colonies are cultures!

Whilst these contrasts are not absolute, we can see how transnational corporations, in the business of profit and market domination, whilst being cultureless and unlocalized in themselves must pay tedious attention to how business is traditionally conducted in an alien culture (I’ve seen banks advertising on the TV this very thing showing their profound cultural insights with a very happy family at the centre, but always in the soft glow of a rising/setting sun, and without the rank poverty and economic injustice that will always be just out of screen shot)!

The in-built irony of the West is simple:  Western civilization is by definition a plurality of cultures.  Civilization needs culture of course but the multi-cultural experiment of the West since the end of WWII is a fragile thing indeed.  Thus civilization is precious, but fragile; culture is raw but potent.  Civilizations kill to protect their material interests; cultures kill to defend their identity.  The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle.

When culture is thus repressed, it returns with a bite because it is more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the aesthetics of a poetic kind of politics.  If ever the Enlightenment spawned anything, it was the starchy rationalist and his infuriatingly unpredictable younger brother, the romanticist.

Religion falls into both these camps, which is one reason for its incredibly enduring strength.  As civilization, it is doctrine, institution, authority, metaphysical speculation, transcendent truth, choirs, and cathedrals.  As culture, it is myth, ritual, savage irrationalism, spontaneous feeling, and the dark gods.  Thus Christianity started as a culture but became a matter of civilization.

Within the framework of the Dawkins-Hitchins debate (the two figure-heads of New Atheism which Eagleton tears plenty of strips off, are humourously referred to in his book as Ditchkins), the continual reference to culture as a way to close down arguments and prevent rational debate/dialogue is is part of the problem.  This appeal to culture becomes a way of absolving oneself from moral responsibility and rational argument.  And this is why Ditchkins is not a culturalist but argues against religion as if every religious person is, nothing but a silly caricature that Dawkins particularly is becoming known for – and that is his undoing because it shows his sloppy approach to history, worldview, religion in general and Christianity in particular.  I don’t like the man very much, but I know God well enough to know he is deeply loved!

The British are going through the cultural mill at the moment.  British culture!  What is it exactly?  British values?  What?  You mean secular capitalist values driven purely by market forces in a faceless multi-national world.  Ooh, yes please!  Culture, in the West now functions (or is trying to) as an alternative to failing (or more accurately, declining) religious faith.

Like religion, culture is a matter of values, intuitive certainties, hallowed traditions, assured identities, shared beliefs, symbolic action and a sense of transcendence.  Thus it is culture, not religion, which is now for many people the heart of a heartless world.  Karl Marx would be thrilled to discover that for some, culture serves as an opium substitute as well!  Culture trumps everything and you can’t even poke fun at it or ask hard questions, such as ‘Why?’  Islamic radicalism is as guilty of this as any other pocket of assumed cultural superiority.

When the English football fans chant “I’m English ’til I die, I’m English ’til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m English ’til I die.”  I really do agree with them, but it does sound like they’re trying to convince themselves of this qwerk of birth, or at least, remind others in case they’ve forgotten.  What are the opposing fans supposed to chant in reply?  “We know you are, we know you are!”

But culture trumps everything in a weirdly paradoxical caricature of itself.  If postmodernity is suspicious of foundations in any and everything, it needs to be careful, for in removing the old foundations of our civilization in the West, it is replacing them with its own cultural versions.  In this way, postmoderns are not really hostile to foundations, they’re just hostile to traditional forms of foundation, for they’ve just replaced traditional ones for make-it-up-as-you-go-along cultural ones, and by the way, don’t ask questions, or you’ll get the stare that really says, “Stop being irrational like those religious nutters!”

End of conversation.