God is not a god.

John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).

19466522_10156358055819447_1543509159329029348_o

I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.

Continue reading

Brendan O’Neill on “smug atheism”

An interesting recent post in The Telegraph by columnist Brendan O’Neill, entitled: “How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet“.

A brief excerpt:

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?

The Maverick Philosopher on human wretchedness

Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.

.

—————–

.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)

“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.”  That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such.  The very notion of wretchedness is religious.  If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature.  If, and only if.

Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.”  That is not obvious.  But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.

How do we know that?  From thousands of years of collective experience.

Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

Continue reading

Questions to Nature

Scientific research can be thought of as a process of asking questions of Nature. Perhaps it’s worth exploring that concept in a little more detail.

It is true that many scientific advances have started with a question. And the process of research can be considered a way of asking Nature questions. But the kind of questions that we can ask Nature are very specific.

First, the obvious: Nature doesn’t have a voice. Interviews are out. So we need to look for evidence instead.

The language that I’m using resembles a criminal investigation, and that’s deliberate. Scientific research is in fact very much like forensic work. We look for evidence, we analyse things that we observe, we try to find patterns and unravel processes. Forensics is all about mechanisms: how the crime was perpetrated.  However, there’s usually an accompanying part of a criminal investigation, and that is the literal question-and-answer stuff. By interviewing a suspect, the investigator can try to unravel the question of motive. Forensics, for all its strengths, is powerless to address “why” questions. This, again, is like science.

. Continue reading

Science as ideology

A couple of good discussion pieces by Chris Mulherin that were published recently:

Christianity, science and rumours of divorce talks about the misunderstandings that lead to the perceived “conflict” between science and the Christian faith. In particular, he emphasises the distinction that Christianity is a worldview, whereas science is a methodology.

The second article, Science as ideology betrays its purpose, discusses the hazards which arise from conflating the methodology of science with the worldview of Naturalism.

Both articles can be downloaded from the ISCAST website.

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

Where God meets physics

.

.

Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

Electron micrograph of bacterium H. pylori, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

Electron micrograph of H. pylori bacterium, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

.

First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:

Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.

The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.

So what is it?

Continue reading

Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote

XKCD-debugger

Science requires faith.

I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.

Continue reading

Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.

On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:

“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”

You can find the whole article here:

“Wrong fight, wrong concepts, wrong everything” by Grainge Clarke

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Maths, science and abstractions

Where God meets physics

.

Children of God: the awkward teenage years

Just a quick update – I recently published an article on the journal Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology, entitled “Children of God: The awkward teenage years“. The abstract below will give you something of the flavour:

In this essay I explore some of the manifestations of ‘teenage rebellion’ in matters of faith and society: how disillusionment with God can manifest and impact our lives. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, an early childish optimism towards our idealised vision of life often gives way to dissatisfaction, cynicism and disillusionment in our teenage years. This is a natural by-product of a youthful idealism based on unrealistic notions, and hopefully as we continue to mature to adulthood we understand life more deeply and regain our satisfaction, enthusiasm and sense of wonder with all that this life and universe have to offer. In general, I believe that this disillusionment is rooted in our early failure of understanding. The core of the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A person who believes in God but does not have a relationship with him may find that this level of faith is insufficient to withstand the additional pressures, responsibilities and difficulties that adulthood requires. On a broader perspective, I also look briefly at disillusionment with science from the Enlightenment to the present day.

Get the whole article here:

http://www.iscast.org/Smith_M_2012-04_Children_of_God

Music for the soul

Music, and indeed any art form, involves striving to express that which is recognised but cannot be fully put into words, that which is unknowable and yet known more deeply than anything else. It is this striving for expression that produces great art, it is the acknowledgement – without complete understanding – of the intangible Other that drives creative work.

This is not unique to Christian cultures, it is a universal feature of art. We do not express artistically what we could simply describe succinctly and fully, in a sentence. The intangible natures of love, of the soul, of our deeply felt and yet deeply fractured relationship with God, these are the things which give flight to the mad impulses of the artist.

Continue reading

The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

. Continue reading

On the relative efficacy of cathedral demolition strategies

.

I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

.

.

.

.

.

Cathedrals are too high for bulldozers. In the Soviet Union under Stalin and the German Democratic Republic under Ulbricht they used explosives instead.

        – Richard Schröder, Professor of Philosophy in Berlin

.

.

.

.

.

Revisiting the Law

Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).

Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.

In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.

. Continue reading

Doing a little mythbusting…

Hard to believe that in such an intellectually advanced age there are still some who cling tenaciously to the notion that “Jesus was not a real historical figure”, but apparently the light of education has still not penetrated all the deep corners.

Should be unfortunate enough to find yourself accosted by denialists, you may find this essay series by James Hannam useful. Hannam writes in his introduction:

.

“The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind…

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references,  2) the alleged similarities to paganism, and 3) the silence of St. Paul.”

.

Hannam deals with each of these contentions in a highly readable and well-researched series of essays. Read the rest of Is Jesus Christ a Myth? here:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

.

Hannam holds degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University, and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. (You can also read more from him at Quodlibeta).

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

A theoretical faith

.

There’s probably no Dawkins…

…now stop worrying and enjoy Oct 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.

So read the signs on buses in the Oxford area at the moment, lamenting the sudden failure of courage from New Atheism’s leading apologist.

It seems that while Richard Dawkins is happy to have the occasional televised cup of tea with an English archbishop who is too polite to respond to his bombast, he is not quite so bold when it comes to debating religion with any serious Christian apologists. After lengthy prevarication, Dawkins has retreated securely into his shell and refused to debate William Lane Craig at the Sheldonian.

As the proposed debate was in his hometown, I don’t think travel costs were the issue. It’s really hard to see this as anything other than cowardice on Dawkins’ part.

Read more on the story here in The Guardian.

.

Scaling the Mountain of Truth

One of the many areas of overlap between science and Christianity is that they are both seeking the Truth.

The attainment of truth is often likened to climbing a mountain, and any hiker or climber can immediately understand why. Not only is it hard to do, but once you’re at the top you can suddenly see everything. What was previously obscured is now laid out clearly; what you saw in part from the plains you see in full from the heights. It’s a powerful metaphor, so let’s extend it a bit.

.

Mount Everest aerial view by Kerem Barut

. Continue reading

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

Atheism as manifest in the West is an odd phenomenon – in many ways, it’s very much an off-shoot of Christianity. It’s essentially the result of taking Christ out of Christianity and trying to hang onto the rest if it. So we see widespread support for the “loving your neighbour as yourself” commandment, but a willful disregard for its other half (loving God with your all). There is plenty of acknowledgement of Jesus as a teacher, but not as Lord. “He said some good things, but he’s was just this guy, you know?”

The best description that I’ve heard for this condition is “cut-flower morality”. We think that we can remove the teachings and the wisdom from the divine root and still enjoy their beauty. We deny that humans are made by God, and still expect that humans have intrinsic value.

. Continue reading

Censorship and bad Apples

The media lines are all humming with outrage about an iPhone app. Not the one that lets you avoid police checkpoints if you’re driving drunk, nor the one that gives detailed instructions on abusing illegal drugs – those are still readily available on the App Store.

No, the biggest story at the moment is about a self-help app from Exodus International. It provides information to assist people who want to make a lifestyle change.

Continue reading

King of Kings and Lord of the Rings

Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn (all images copyright New Line Cinema).

.

I realise my posts have been sporadic of late, what with getting married and going on honeymoon and now slowly getting back into work. I’m gradually returning to writing – loads of ideas, but putting figurative pen to figurative paper has been pretty sporadic thus far. (Somehow ‘putting finger to keyboard’ just doesn’t have the same alliterative punch). In the meantime, I’ll give a shout out to a great piece of writing from Decent Films Guide, exploring the Christian philosophical backdrop of what I consider the greatest novel ever written, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.

Continue reading

It’s not the “what”, it’s the “why”

I’m currently reading “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon. The book is set in New York during the late 1930s and ’40s – the Golden Age of comic books – and the titular heroes of the novel are budding comic book creators.

In an early scene they are discussing a potential hero for their own story: Should he fly? Should he be super-strong? Should he be invisible? (A little hard to draw that one, perhaps, but anyway…) Various combinations of superpowers are discussed, until Clay, the writer, has a sudden moment of revelation:

It’s not the what, it’s the why.

Continue reading

Non-moral nature

I’m visiting some colleagues in Hobart at the moment, so I have a new route that I walk to work each day. It’s a tranquil and tree-lined avenue with some lovely gardens, especially now when all the spring flowers are in bloom.

Running alongside the path is a stream, and this morning, in that stream, were some ducks. Mostly they were doing normal duckish things – paddling about, quacking and nibbling the odd bit of water vegetation. But it’s spring, so they were also pretty frisky. In particular, there were two drakes which both seemed very keen on a female duck, which in turn was doing her best to paddle away from them. But the drakes were not to be discouraged. They held her head under the water and had their way with her despite all her struggling and flapping.

Just another day on the river. A light breeze, the delicate scent of flowers in the air and avian gang-rape in the water.

. Continue reading

The power of narrative

I’ve been reading Richard Swinburne’s Revelation, and it is a remarkable book. The first couple of chapters deal in great depth with analysing what the “meaning” of a sentence actually is, how (and if) it can be falsifiable, and how to discern exactly when such devices as metaphor, analogy and so on are being employed. (And yes, this really does need multiple chapters. Fortunately, Swinburne is an eminently readable philosopher and communicates so well that even this dry subject matter becomes fascinating in his hands).

Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about different literary genres: not just the reality of their existence, but rather the reasons that an author might choose to employ them.

. Continue reading

Elephants and blind men

The well-known story of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant is often portrayed as an allegory of religious diversity: the descriptions of the elephant are different for each person, based on the particular aspect with which he came into contact:

The first touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree, another touches its side and says that an elephant is like a rough wall. Another feels its tail and says that an elephant is like a piece of rope. Each comes into contact with a different part of the elephant and is convinced that their own explanation is correct and that the others are wrong. None of them realises that they are all experiencing just one part of the same elephant and that none of their explanations are complete.

The suggestion is that diverse religions are likewise each only seeing part of the fuller and more complete truth. The problem with this explanation is that it takes the perspective of a sighted person who can actually see the whole elephant: without this perspective the story makes no sense. To make the claim that “all religions are just seeing a different part of the same truth” is to claim knowledge of that truth, and to claim to stand in a similar relation to the truth as the sighted observer in the elephant story.

Over at bethinking.org, Chris Knight offers an alternative version of the story which provides significantly more illumination on the question of religious diversity. Read it here:

The Blind Men and the Elephant at the Zoo

.

There’s no “I” in atheism

I recently posted Creed, a poem by Steve Turner which outlines the relativist worldview. Although satirical, the poem does present many commonly-held beliefs amongst atheists. But it also does something which goes beyond the typical atheist approach: it actually sets out those beliefs clearly.

Yes, I’m aware that atheism isn’t a uniform worldview. But neither is Christianity. The central core of Christianity is uniform – that’s how we recognise it. But there are plenty of differences in opinion and a great deal of (often heated) discussion about everything beyond what is covered in the ecumenical creeds. There are many denominations in Christianity, but within each denomination there is a clear articulation of their beliefs. In short, you know exactly what you’re dealing with if you want to debate what Catholics or Baptists believe.

.

Speaking of clear articulations, let’s have a couple of definitions so that we all know what we’re talking about:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010):

Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005):

On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.

.

Within atheism there are also many different views on issues of secondary importance. The primary issue is denial of God (and usually the supernatural), but beyond that it’s an open field. And that’s great: discussions about why we hold different beliefs can be an excellent way of learning about alternative points of view, and also help us to understand our own beliefs better.

But we have to actually hold a coherent set of beliefs before we can have a useful discussion.

.

.

I recently had a lengthy exchange with an atheist about the origins of morality. In over 2500 words of discussion, my correspondent never offered a concrete statement of personal beliefs. All sorts of theories were suggested, mention was made of “fascinating new research about morality” in various quarters, books titles and authors were offered as solemn incantations.

But as to the beliefs held personally by the individual? Not a peep. My own personal beliefs were articulated and examined at length, but repeated requests for a clear statement of my correspondent’s beliefs were met only with deflection and evasion.

I mention this particular exchange as but one example of a much larger trend. I observe in conversations with atheists an almost pathological aversion to the personal pronoun.

“Look, all these people have been writing big books on the subject!”

Yes, and…? What do you personally believe?

“Research supports this particular belief!”

Great. Do you personally believe that?

“Recent advances in [genetics]/[cosmology]/[evolutionary biology] indicate that…”

Do you personally use those advances as the basis of your worldview, or are your beliefs based on something else? And if so, what?

.

Socrates famously declared that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. But an unexaminable life is no life at all. If personal beliefs cannot be articulated, they cannot be understood the individual, let alone by others.

The Nicene Creed is a towering pillar of the Christian faith. It is a clear and succinct articulation of the core beliefs of Christianity, a concise expression of primary doctrine. To affirm the creed is to draw a clear line in the sand and say, “these are my beliefs.” That is the starting point for a useful discussion.

The Creed does not start off with: “Christians in general maintain that…”, or “It has long been the opinion of great theologians…”, or “The official Church position is that…”

It starts much more simply:

“I believe …”

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Having the wrong conversation

The relativist creed

.

Religion, sex and truth claims

Truth claims are everywhere.

Sometimes the connections are complicated: our systems of justice are predicated on the assumption of free will, because without the choice to act or not in a particular situation, there can be no question of responsibility for actions. This in turn makes the truth claim that rigid materialism is false (because otherwise our actions are merely the results of random unguided processes – indeed, we are just collections of random unguided processes).

The ones I’m interested in today are a little more straightforward, but still quite subtle. For example:

“Religion should evolve with society.”

Buried in this statement is the claim that religious beliefs do not contain ultimate truth, and that religions are really just support clubs. If the core teaching of a religion should evolve, then it contains no absolute truth, for such truth would transcend social fashions.

Continue reading

Sex and science: Discuss

Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.

Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.

But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.

.

Choose your perversion

.

Continue reading

The relativist creed

An atheist worldview encourages relativism, with its insistence on removal of moral absolutes and rejection of truth claims. One of the finest expressions of self-defeating nature of relativism is the poem Creed, written in 1993 by English poet and music journalist Steve Turner. (The postscript, called Chance, was added later).

Personally, I prefer the Nicene.

.

Creed by Steve Turner

We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don’t hurt anyone
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.
.
We believe in sex before, during, and
after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy’s OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.
.
Continue reading

Faith is a part of life

In my last post, I wrote about what “faith” means in a Christian context. It’s a complex and multi-faceted term, but it is important to appreciate that faith is not just an aspect of Christianity. It is a part of life.

Theologian Tyron Inbody wrote the following:

“…faith is a dimension of the human existence as such. There can be no human life without the presence of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt but nihilism – the loss of order, meaning and purpose in life… The scientist cannot operate apart from faith – faith in the dependability of nature, the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe, the unity of nature and the harmony of its laws. Social life is impossible apart from faith. We cannot exist without elemental trust in each other. If you doubt this, consider what one terrorist attack can do to undermine our confidence in the social order. And we act as if this social order is to some degree moral. We assume and affirm that there are things we ought to do and things we ought not to do. Although we may not agree on which things are which, we act with moral demands that are binding. These beliefs point to the fact that we cannot exist as humans apart from faith. They are justified not because they are demonstrable but because we cannot live without them. They constitute a primordial faith.” (The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology)

.

More specifically, science depends on faith.

Continue reading

A theoretical faith

The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:

.

Theory

In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.

The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:

“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”

So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.

.

Faith

Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:

  • Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
  • Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
  • Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”

Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:

“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”

The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.

.

A theoretical faith

Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?

Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.

A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience?  The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.

Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.

Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.

From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.

.

I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.

Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:

“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”

For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

.

—————————————

Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

.