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 truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church

The following article is a guest post by Rev’d Dr Helen Paynter, a Research Fellow and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College, as well as part-time minister at Victoria Park Baptist Church in Bristol, and it is published here with my thanks to her friendship and ministry.

The paper was originally published in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in January 2017.  Dr Paynter has also published a book called ‘Reduced Laughter – Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kingsreviewed on this blog, and –ahem- reputable offerings elsewhere, drawing on the work of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

It is of no small significance that the great Anthony Thiselton, writing the preface to his 20th Anniversary Edition of New Horizons in Hermeneutics writes, “The two thinkers to whom I would now give serious space if I were writing the book today are probably Hans Robert Jauss and Mikhail Bakhtin” (p.xxi) – emphasis totally mine!

 

To the truth…..

The truth: the holy truth, and nothing like the truth – post-truth society and the church.

Helen Paynter

Bristol Baptist College May 2017

 

 

The post-truth phenomenon and why it matters

Truth is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us – Hannah Arendt

The art of political ‘spin’ is millennia-old. But in recent years, the will to deceive for political purposes has intensified to a new level – or so it seems. In the light of the now-notorious ‘£350m/week for the NHS’ claim, and the election of US President Trump, we in the UK and liberal West are now, apparently, in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics.

The phrase ‘post-truth’ was designated ‘Word of the Year 2016’ by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. In bald terms, it means that the factuality (I hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ here, for reasons which will become clear later) of claimed facts is becoming an irrelevant commodity in public, or at least political, discourse. As The Economist put it recently, ‘Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance’.

An important – and disturbing – cultural phenomenon is arising, and the church needs to understand and address it. This paper will briefly consider some of the causes of our current predicament, and suggest some ways that the church might respond. First, I suggest five reasons why it matters.

  1. As shown by a Mori poll published in December 2016, lack of public confidence in the political process is at an all-time low. Ironically, this begets a vicious cycle: ‘When lies make the political system dysfunctional, its poor results can feed the alienation and lack of trust in institutions that make the post-truth play possible in the first place.’[1]
  2. History has repeatedly shown that lies are the tools of political oppression. As Hannah Arendt put it, ‘[Truth] is hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot control.’[2]
  3. Psychological studies have proven that false memories persist, even when they are publically retracted.[3] In light of the commandment not to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), this should disturb all who take biblical ethics seriously.
  4. A recent Demos report showed that on-line disinformation, a major source of untruth, is disproportionately seen and believed by children and young people.[4]
  5. Contrary to the logic of ‘post-truth’, facts matter – in politics as elsewhere. How I ‘feel’ about Europe or the NHS may or may not be important; whether one of these institutions is receiving £350 million a week certainly is.

How have we arrived at the stage where untruth is regarded as acceptable – or at least, unsurprising – within the common consciousness?

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How To Be A Good Atheist

How To Be A Good Atheist

A few years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a  review of a book called: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, co-edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. On Amazon the book is described thus:

“50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists.”

Hart’s original article can be found at the First Things website, but here’s a snippet of his sigh-ings against what he delicately calls the “sheer banality of the New Atheists”:

 

“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.”

Pt 6: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 6:  Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.

Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.

Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.

I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.

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Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.

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Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.

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