Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.

Is it Possible to Rebel Against Extinction?

First, let me ask you another question. What is the most important question facing us in life right now?

Is it:

  • The climate. How do we look after the planet for our kids and grandkids?
  • Should I go to University, and if so then which one?
  • Who I should spend my life with?
  • Should we have kids?
  • What school should my kids go to?
  • Which scientific area of study should I focus on expanding?

 

These are all important questions – very important. You can think of others that might qualify as important questions. But, I don’t think they are the MOST important question.

 

What is the most important question then? It’s this:

“Does God exist? Is there a God who created the Universe and who loves us?”

 

At which point – I may lose the “eye-rolling” atheists in the room. Well – hang on for one second. Before you check out – let me suggest something. If there is no God, then all our lives are absurd, with no meaning. You might reply, “You have no idea just how absurd my life is, mate.”

Ha – I know what you mean. But by absurd, I don’t just mean crazy or out of control right now. (Brexit, anyone?)  By absurd I mean objectively and absolutely meaningless, having no objective point at all. Each and every day of life – absolutely pointless and futile.

So – why bother protesting about Brexit, the climate…or anything. Extinction rebellion? Don’t kid yourself. Extinction is INEVITABLE. Life – is pointless and futile, “a chasing after the wind,”[1] the Bible says. You cannot rebel against extinction on atheism.

 

“How insulting,” you might object. I’m sorry – I’m not trying to be rude here. I’m trying to explain the consequences of atheism. On atheism, we just make up what matters in our own heads. But – we are kidding ourselves on. These things don’t actually have any ultimate consequence what so ever.

 

“Nonsense,” you might say. “Many things matter.” That’s right. We think they do. I listed a bunch of them at the top of this blog. We think that some things DO objectively matter. But if there is no God, no ultimate reality, this cannot actually be true. Why? Because everything I care about is actually just in my head. It only matters to me. I make up what matters for myself, it is completely subjective to myself. I think in my head that my life matters, that the people I love matter to me, that events in the world matter…and that the sustainability of the planet matters. But none of it is true. It’s just a temporary illusion.

“But it matters to me,” you reply. Well – who are you? Apparently, a temporary biological mistake that doesn’t live for very long.

“Rubbish. I don’t live alone. I’m part of a community of people.” Right. People who all think that their thoughts matter. But their thoughts do not matter, they are pointless. It doesn’t matter how many futile people are in your group, and whether you think you belong or not. All your lives add up to one thing. Futility.

Why do I think that the ideas in my head about how to make the world better – are objectively true? They can’t be objectively true, because there is no objective truth. There is only what I personally think and feel. And I will not be here for very long to think it.

Because if there’s no God, then each of us and the planet we inhabit are eventually doomed to death and nothingness. So – lets look again at the list we started with:

  • The climate. How do we look after the planet for our kids and grandkids?

Sorry – WE HAVE NO FUTURE.

  • Should I go to University, and if so then which one?

It doesn’t matter whether I do further education or not. My life has no value and I won’t exist for long.

  • Who I should spend my life with?

It doesn’t matter. My life has no value. Singleness is equivalent to years of togetherness. Both are meaningless.

  • Should we have kids?

      It doesn’t matter because we will all cease to exist.

  • What school should my kids go to?

              Well – why do I think that their education is of any lasting value?

  • Which scientific area of study should I focus on expanding?

              Why bother? The Universe we are studying is running down. The achievement of knowledge I help humanity gain today will just blow away like grains of sand in the near future.

 

 

Do many atheists live with the implications of atheism…the unyielding despair of it? Perhaps they just put these implications to the back of their minds so they can try to live happily? No wonder Craig says, “The fundamental problem … is that it is impossible to live consistently and happily within such a worldview. If one lives consistently, he will not be happy; if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent.”[2] Consistency points to despair, happiness involves surrounding yourself with the illusion that life matters when it doesn’t. Which is inconsistent with the reality of despair.

You cannot rebel against extinction… on atheism.

 

The thing is – if atheists are wrong and there IS a God, then this desperate situation changes completely. And ironically, our opportunities for rebellion open up significantly!

 

First – people matter. We were created for an important purpose, they were crafted lovingly and they matter to the ultimate reality – God himself.

Second – there is objective right and wrong. God defines them, and we inherit this sense. We are right to challenge immoral behaviours, because what is good and right IS better than what is immoral.

Third – we all have a future. Death is not the end, it is a transition to the next stage of existence. So how we live today is significant, and is a precursor to what will happen next after we die.

 

But this isn’t just a more positive choice than atheism. It makes sense of our lives.

It seems to me that, the implications of atheism are completely at odds with how people normally live their lives. YET – the implications of theism (there IS a God) are completely explainable and justified and consistent with our assumptions about life. We live as if people matter, that there is objective right and wrong and we have a future that matters.

Is it possible to rebel against extinction? YES – when we recognise the importance of the place of God in our lives. Maybe we need to decide then to find out about the God who makes all of these assumptions of ours sensible and possible in the first place?

 

 

[1] Ecclesiastes 2:11, NIV.

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third Edition (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 77.

Are We Just Star Dust?

He rolled his eyes at me. “How sad that you need approval from some external deity. I am happy with my life as it is. I make meaning for my own life, thank you very much. I need approval from no mythological deity.”

I nodded. “Well – I’m glad you are happy with your life. I’m also happy with mine – so that makes two of us! But the issue here isn’t how we FEEL about our lives. Rather, the question is how we make sense of our lives. You say there is no meaning beyond the natural world. We are physical beings and nothing more. Is that what you are saying?

“Yes,” he announced.

“Well,” I continued, “I’m sorry but – there’s a problem with your statement. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not we are open to receiving approval from God or anyone else. Rather – the problem is about the assumptions you are making around the truth and the importance of your words.”

He raised his hand and replied abruptly. “Enough of your talk about God and absolute meaning. I am happy with subjective meaning…I give my own life its purpose. This is important…everyone needs to grow up and do this, particularly religious people.”

I laughed. “Okay. I hear that you think this is important. My question to you is why? Why is it important? And to whom?”

He stopped, a quizzical expression on his face.

I pressed on.

“I hear from many people that we are just physical beings in a physical universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson announces that we are star dust, and we should be happy about that. If all we are is physical stuff…then Neil’s words are meaningless. And – so are yours.”

“Why?” he retorted? Perhaps because Neil says them after Carl Sagan before him, my friend thinks that gives them more meaning. But – if Neil and Carl Sagan are right, their words have no meaning.

I continued. “Because what you are saying is – we are ONLY brains, constructed of biochemistry, composed of atoms that were cooked in the stars. There is no human soul. No God. Right? In that case, I don’t see why the words and thoughts of any of our minds are any more significant than other natural events…like the sound of the wind blowing in the trees.”[1]

Do you see the point I am making to my friend?

1 – if all we are is physical, then everything we do and say and think is ultimately physical.

2 – if everything we do is simply physical, then nothing we do is any more significant than other physical effects in the world. Trees swaying in the wind, for example.

Conclusion: we might think we are profoundly creating our own subjective, personal purpose for our lives. We may write and produce a TV series like Cosmos, even.  But actually nothing we do or say or believe actually matters. It’s not true or false, profound or pedestrian. It simply is. We simply are. Like swaying tree branches.

If that is the case – then what we say to each other does not matter, and has no consequence when it comes to truth or significance.

 

What does this mean? Well, my friend is kidding himself about subjective meaning for his life. He doesn’t even manage subjective meaning for his thoughts!

 

YET – if there IS objective meaning and purpose, and a God who has constructed reality to make it so? Well, that’s a whole different thing! Then, a human being’s words DO matter, because they either point towards or away from that ultimate, objective reality that created us. They either help us to get closer to it, or further away. They help or hinder. Words become more than just physical motions and sounds. They become pointers to the objectively real.

 

If something in the Universe ultimately matters, then we can do science, we can understand morality, and art moves us for a reason.

 

How interesting that everyone talks as if their words matter, and their thoughts are significant. Perhaps this fact about how we speak – and the assumptions we make about the importance of our words and thoughts – undermines the whole enterprise of atheism and shows it to be self-refuting? Because unless there is a God … our lives are meaningless. But if there is nothing but physical matter – whatever I believe about anything (God included) doesn’t matter and isn’t true or false. So atheism becomes a self-refuting and pointless exercise.

That doesn’t sound like the world we actually live in…

[1] C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper One), 139.

Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Sometimes people will say to me something like, “I might believe there was a God if there wasn’t so much evil in the world.” I’ve always scratched my head at this response because it seems to me that evil is MAN’S problem – not God’s problem. The perpetrators of great evil in history have been people.

So, why is it that good people seem to suffer? Take my little sister Anne, for instance. She died of a horrible disease at age 37…way too young. Anne was the nicest person you could ever meet, and she was a source of strength, kindness and hope to many people. But – I know Anne. She would have hesitated at agreeing with you that she was truly a GOOD person. Why? Because as a Christian she knew the real state of her heart and what she was capable of if she let her guard down.

I don’t think Anne is that different from anyone else. Certainly not that different from her big brother. We are all capable of evil acts. Elie Wiesel survived the Jewish Holocaust, and said “man isn’t only executioner, victim and spectator. He is all three.”[1] Clay Jones suggests that perhaps human niceness is more of a survival strategy than anything else. We tell ourselves we are good, but actually we fear the consequences of the evil that we know lurks in our hearts. Do flirty co-workers avoid affairs because of innate goodness, or because they fear the loss of the reputation is they are found out? Do murderers stop at red lights because they are good people, or because they fear the possibility of a car accident if they keep going? The fact that much good is done in the world does not mean that good is done by good people, just normal people who are doers of particularly good acts.[2]

But why is there so much suffering in the world? I would suggest three reasons:

  1. Because people are capable of making other people suffer.
  2. To wake us up to the mess the world is in, and to drive us to God. He really does have a project underway to transform people’s hearts from the inside out. “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”[3]
  3. To wake me up to my own personal guilt, and to drive me to God. But not to bury me under despair. Rather, as an incentive for me to stop rejecting God’s transformative project and to get on board with it myself.[4]

 

Yes. I know, it’s tough to hear about the next heart breaking event on the news. But – I do genuinely think that hope and light bleeds through each act that brings pain and darkness. We all face the end of our lives one day. And…

“If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins – make a clean breast of them – he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.”[5]

 

[1] Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall, trans. Stephen Barker (New York: Avon, 1970), 174.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Colossians 3:10, New Living Translation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1 John 1:9, The Message.

 

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Can You Know Whether or Not the Bible Contains God’s Special Words?

He smiled at me.

“So it sounds like you believe that the Bible is special, somehow. That even though it was written by people, it was inspired by God. That somehow it contains God’s special message to mankind.”

I braced myself for the inevitable onslaught. “Yup. That’s what I believe.”

The onslaught didn’t come. Instead, he asked a simple question. “How do you know, Stuart?”

 

It’s a reasonable enough question. Right? It’s one thing to BELIEVE…it is quite another thing to KNOW. Knowledge claims require solid justification. How do I know that the Bible contains God’s special words?

If Christians believe the Bible to be special revelation…do we know that just because the text claims that it is so? That sounds a bit weak. Do we know because we feel it is true? Well – yes, scripture is properly basic to Christians, but that’s not going to help the sceptic who needs some logical argument supporting our claim about how special the Bible is. Besides, Muslims would say the same thing of the Qu’aran.

 

Jonathan Morrow lays out a non-circular argument to support the claim that the Bible contains God’s special and true words.[1] This argument appeals to the historical reports in the most recent part of the Bible – the New Testament. The argument doesn’t require these scriptural claims to be special in any way…just that they accurately reflect what happened in the past. This is a logical, historical justification of the claim that the Bible is God’s special revelation to mankind.

 

  1. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God.

He claimed authority that God alone possesses. For example, control over nature[2],  speaking for God,[3] ability to forgive sin[4] and authority over the final judgement.[5]

He owned special titles from Judaism pointing to his divinity. I’m talking about Messiah, Son of God and Son of Man. All were understood by the original audience as pointers to divinity.

 

  1. God authenticated his radical claims by raising Jesus from the dead.

We know this based on five minimal, historical facts that must be explained when considering the claim that Jesus rose from the dead:

      1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
      2. Jesus’ disciples claimed he rose and appeared to them.
      3. The Christian persecutor Saul was radically changed to chief proclaimer of the Christian faith.
      4. The sceptic James, Jesus’ brother, was also suddenly changed and became a Christian leader.
      5. Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

These facts are typically accepted even by the most sceptical and antagonistic historians.

 

  1. Jesus of Nazareth taught the divine inspiration and the authority of Scripture.

He recognized the Old Testament’s authority:

  • He did not come “to abolish the Law … but to fulfil.”[6]
  • He submitted himself to the moral authority of the Old Testament, often using the words “It is written…”
  • Jesus submitted himself to his God given mission, understanding that he “must suffer many things and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again.”[7]

He provided for the writing of the New Testament:

  • He appointed the apostles himself as ministers of the New Covenant.
  • He promised the Holy Spirit to them, who will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”[8]
  • The apostles recognised they were writing with the authority of Jesus.

 

  1. Since Jesus of Nazareth is Divine, his endorsement of the Bible carries the authority of God.

 

So – why is it reasonable to say that we know the Bible is God’s special revelation?

The answer hinges on the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words:

“if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the most likely reason was to confirm the truthfulness of Jesus’ teachings. If we are correct in this, then the inspiration of Scripture follows as a verified doctrine, affirmed by God Himself when He raised Jesus from the dead.”[9]

 

[1] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).

[2] Luke 11:20.

[3] Matthew 7:28-29.

[4] Mark 2:1-12.

[5] Luke 12:8-9.

[6] Matthew 5:17.

[7] Mark 8:31.

[8] John 14:26.

[9] Gary R. Habermas, Jesus and the Inspiration of Scripture, Areopagus Journal 2, no. 1 (2002), 15, quoted in Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible.

Unbelievable Truth and Equality

Beshir Kamel is an Egyptian Christian whose brother was beheaded by so-called Islamic State terrorists. Beshir was interviewed on television, and he openly forgave the terrorists for their atrocity, and prayed for their own souls.

“Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance…”[1]

What is this outpouring of forgiveness about? How is Beshir’s response possible? Isn’t hatred and bitterness more likely?

Last weekend at the Unbelievable Conference, Lorcan Price pointed out that the answer to this question is tied closely to another question. What is truth?

I often hear folks say truth is what you make of it. No wonder then that Unbelievable 2019 focussed on speaking truth to a world that is post truth, and less concerned with what is objectively verifiable and more concerned by how things make us feel.

Lorcan observed some important aspects of truth and equality today:

1 – Christianity is founded upon true statements, which correspond with reality, and have been revealed. God has come to this planet at a point in time and in person to rescue humanity. Yet we have not worked these truths out for ourselves. God has revealed these truths.

2 – Today, people are more concerned with their own truth. For example, Oprah Winfrey will often refer to the importance of “finding our own truth.”[2] Yet there’s a problem. If we focus solely on what is in ourselves, we stop being able to see clearly.

In Old Testament times, they talked about seeing God thru his revealed truth, and it being a bit like peering thru an opaque window. We can kind of make things out…but not clearly. The Apostle Paul alludes to this idea himself.[3] Yet if we stop looking for God’s objective truth, the glass changes and simply becomes a mirror reflecting our own positions and biases. We stop looking for truth, we end up just looking at ourselves.

3 – So why is everyone so concerned about human equality in the world? If Naturalism is true, and we are all just physical accidents of nature alone, then is there really any firm ground for someone to claim that we should treat human beings with equal dignity? Surely survival is key, and seeking equality for the weak, poor and disenfranchised just irrelevant?

You don’t tend to see equality in the natural world, though you do see cooperation going on. Yet humans go beyond mere cooperation. We recognise the need for equality. Why? Because even though all people are different, we are all made in God’s image, we reflect him. This is a gift, it’s not a naturally occurring thing.

4 – Usually it is the weak and small who lose the right to equality, and have their dignity overlooked in society. Think about the elderly and the unborn child. When we move away from absolute truth, and look for our own truth instead, then this has consequences on society. The weak begin to suffer.

5 – So Christians must not succumb to the search for “my truth,” and instead must stand for Christ’s objective truth. This is what Beshir Kamel is doing as he prays for his brother’s murderers. He recognises that we are all made in his image with equal dignity – them included. Whatever has been done, there is hope.

Christians will experience hard times as we take a stand for objective truth. But we stand on the shoulders of the Christian martyrs of the past of have taken a stand. And Jesus promise to us is – “I will be with you.”[4]

[1] Modern-Day Martyrs Show Love and Forgiveness, The Aquila Report, https://www.theaquilareport.com/modern-day-martyrs-show-love-forgiveness/.

[2] Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Winfrey: Your Own Truth, https://www.podcastone.com/episode/Oprah-Winfrey-Your-Own-Truth.

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[4] Matthew 28:20.

Unbelievable 2019 and the Millennials

At the Unbelievable Conference 2019, Kristi Mair gave some great and vital observations about how to position Christianity’s absolute truth claims for millennials.

The plain fact is that our culture does not sit well when an absolute truth is held up. What is an absolute truth? It is “inflexible reality; fixed, invariable, unalterable … there are absolutely no square circles.”[1] Here’s another absolute truth claim. Jesus said it. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[2] Christianity is built upon absolute truth claims like this one; we can only get to God or ultimate truth through Jesus, not Mohammad, Buddha, etc.

Kristi reminded us there are big problems here:

 

1 – How Dare Christians Impose Truth On Anyone?

Kristi reminded us that this sort of thinking is viewed as archaic, but also highly divisive. How dare anyone put their own “truth” above anyone else? This culture views tolerance as everyone agreeing with everyone else (impossible), and so anyone who makes a unique and absolute truth claim is starting to sound hate filled and just plain wrong.

 

2 – Scepticism is the Norm for Millennials

They tend to deeply mistrust people, viewing us as offering much but delivering little. They’ve been burned once too many times by people. Scepticism is the norm for millennials and is viewed as a healthy way to live because:

  • there are so many options in life, we’ve always got to suspend judgement to achieve mental tranquillity.
  • compelling arguments exist for and against everything, so there is no single way.
  • truth is not absolute. Rather, truth is a culturally conditioned part of our environment.

 

3 – Absolute Truth Claims are Dangerous

Kristi pointed out that the two big historical events for most millennials are 9-11 and the Iraq War, both of which were rooted to some extent in religious truth claims. If this is what religion does, then it is to be feared. Religion is dangerous.

 

 

Yet before truth was a “WHAT” – it was an “I.”

“I am,” Jesus said. The truth is a person. And not just any person. He claims to be God himself. And as such, he is in a position to threaten our desire for self-rule in our own lives. So how does the church engage with sceptical millennials on the person of Jesus? Kristi suggests three important points:

 

1 – Do Not Treat Truth as the Hook

Millennials don’t want to know what your truth claim is in some abstract way. Rather, they want to know how the Christian gospel applies to their lives. This is about reframing their understanding of their humanity and showing that they are part of something much bigger that God is already doing.

2 – Let Them See the Tangible Outworking of Christianity

Because truth claims are often viewed as power plays, we under cut this by actually showing them a tangible outworking of the gospel. How? Invite them into the community of the church.

Kristi positioned the Christian gospel in these terms (I think I’m stating this correctly):

Jesus came so that you can be free to be you to ultimately bring this world to goodness.

3 – I Need to BE A Disciple to Make Disciples

The millennial scepticism radar is looking out for fakes and can spot them. So, the challenge for the Christian wishing to reach millennial culture is to open a portal to our own personal joy and suffering in life. As followers of Christ, and ambassadors of his, we must genuinely be disciples and be willing to invite people into the reality of this in our lives.

 

Kristi pointed to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” as a picture of what Christ wants to do for us. He wants to love us in a way that both restores and renews us. This is what Christianity is.

 

Stuart’s thoughts:

I appreciated Kristi’s talk and I find her points timely, helpful and challenging. She wants the church to reach millennials, and she’s thought about how we can do that.

Yet, I have been pondering on her millennial definition of Christianity.

“Jesus came so that you can be free to be you to ultimately bring this world to goodness.”

Assuming I’ve stated this correctly, I think this poses some questions:

  • What does “free to be you” mean? Does this feed the desire for self-rule? Because unfortunately, the Bible says that self-rule is the thing that got mankind into the mess it’s in today. Our “eyes were opened and we were free to live independently of our loving Creator.[3] I think we need to clearly define what “free to be you” means in terms of our dependence on and worship of God, not on our own self-rule.
  • Are we really supposed to “bring this world to goodness”? This sounds like it might be a job that is beyond the church’s pay grade? But we sure are called to steward the world’s resources better,[4] call people to belief in Christ, and when everything created is finally wrapped up,[5] we are to enter the next reality that’s to come.

As D L Moody apparently said, “I look upon this world as a sinking ship, and the Lord has given me a lifeboat, the only thing that can be retrieved from the wreckage of the world is individual souls; the earth itself is beyond redemption.”

 

 

 

 

UPDATE:

I spoke with Kristi after publishing this blog and she clarified a few things for me:

First – the quote is from Josh Chen:

“Jesus came, lived and died to free you to be who you’re created to be and to restore the world to goodness.”

Second – Kristi feels these ideas resonate strongly with the millennial desire to shape the world, to contribute and bring change in there here and now. This desire is real, and is relevant whatever our eschatological perspective may be. I think she makes a great point here.

 

[1] Absolute Truth, All About Philosophy, accessed 24th July 2019, https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/absolute-truth.htm.

[2] John 14:6, NIV.

[3] Genesis 3:4.

[4] Genesis 2:15.

[5] Hebrews 1:10-12.

Doing the Right Thing

Jack Malik wakes up, and he doesn’t realise it yet, but the Beatles never existed as a band and never changed the world with their music. If you’ve not seen the movie Yesterday … I’m going to spoil part of the plot for you below. If I were you…I’d watch the movie before reading this.

 

Still here?

 

Ok.

 

I was really struck by the undercurrents in this movie. Part of the genius is … they don’t state it explicitly till later on, you just see it developing on Jack’s face as he decides to bring Beatles music he recalls, to a world that has never heard it. Jack spends much of the movie with an expression of panic on his face. He’s viewed as a musical genius, able to cook up a world changing song in 10 minutes. Of course, he’s doing nothing of the sort. He’s just remembering music composed by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison many years ago and reproducing it. No-one else knows that.

 

Or – almost no-one knows that.

 

Suddenly we discover that two other people in the world – like Jack – remember who the Beatles were! Jack’s NOT alone in his memory of them after all. And these people watch as Jack is propelled to super stardom. The inevitable consequences loom. And finally – these individuals confront Jack – and tell him that they know what he is doing. That he’s not the original composer. Jack’s face says it all – “I’m a fraud, I’ve been found out, I’m finished.”

 

But what happens next is truly special. They basically say to him, “Jack. Thank you. We aren’t musicians. We can’t sing. But we love those old songs. The world is a better place with these songs in it. And you are making this happen. Your secret is safe with us, and we are just thankful that you have the courage to do this.”

Rather than judgement – Jack receives appreciation and thanks.

 

Here’s what hits me about this. Before the conversation with these people, Jack faced a moral crisis. Should I come clean and tell the truth? That I didn’t write these songs? After his conversation with his new friends, he realises what service he is providing to the world, and to those folks who know who the Beatles were. He has every reason to feel justified in keeping quiet about the source of these songs and carrying on regardless.

But he can’t.

Even though he has every reason to carry on his present course…and be the star, he decides not to. Not because he can’t face stardom (tho it has its downsides). Its also because – he realises he has to tell the truth. He cannot lie about what he is doing any more.

C S Lewis said, when someone makes a moral judgement (like Jack saying to himself ‘I ought to tell the truth’), “they think they are saying something … true, about the nature of the proposed action … not merely about their own feelings.”[1] There is something objectively real about the urge pressing on us to act truthfully. And when we act untruthfully, we find ourselves justifying our behaviour to ourselves…as Jack does. But if we don’t believe that decent behaviour is objectively right and we ought to follow this Moral Law, “why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”[2]

 

If there is no one who we are ultimately responsible to, why are we built with this moral core, this need to behave morally? Social programming and evolutionary development of society only gets you so far. We don’t feel beholden to abstract principles. No … we are guilty before a person. Jack is caught in the headlights like a frightened rabbit. Why? What is that about?

 

“Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?”[3] Matter and objects cannot make us guilty, it takes a person to achieve that. A young child drawing on the kitchen wall will not receive punishment from the kitchen table. But when his mother sees what’s he’s done, then he’d better watch out!

 

Surely … our moral obligation points to One who we are ultimately accountable to … a person before whom we are ultimately guilty. A God who is willing and able to communicate, and very interested in right conduct and fair play.[4] It’s before his gaze that I am ultimately guilty.

 

And yet … however real my guilt, a surprise awaits for anyone who faces him. Like’s Jack’s experience in the movie, the outcome is not what we expect. We don’t need to receive judgement. Instead, we can receive acceptance, love and affirmation in spite of it all.

[1] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1977), 36.

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 2009), 8.

[3] Lewis, Mere, 23.

[4] Lewis, Mere, 30.

Our Knowledge Crisis

“There is no truth,” he barked authoritatively.

“That’s interesting,” I replied. “It sounds to me like you are making a claim here that you think is true.”

“What do you mean?”

I shifted in my seat. “Well, you just said it is true to say…that there is no truth. Right? Sounds like you are making a truth claim here.”

He blinked at me for a moment.

I continued. “So, where does that leave us? Well – it sounds like your statement ‘There is no truth’ is actually self-refuting. Clearly you do think there IS truth. If you didn’t…you wouldn’t be trying to convince me of the truth of your statement!”

There was a pause.  “Not really,” he shrugged. And our conversation ended.

 

The Knowledge Crisis Explained

This conversation…and many more like it…happen all the time. People live in a daily crisis of confidence in what they can actually know and rely on. There is – a crisis of knowledge playing out in our lives.

Listen to people’s growing scepticism of authority, the continual claims of “fake news” in media, and consider our tendency to throw up our hands and claim, “I give up. There is no truth.”

Look – don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think it’s our fault that we’re in this mess, and I don’t think we are being stupid. I think there are good reasons why we have ended up in this confusing time, and it’s not all down to wrong choices. Though it is the result of wrong beliefs. I think we are standing on the shoulders of people who have brought confusion and who have undermined our ability to “know” things.

Yet I also think there is hope for the future. Let me explain why.

 

What does it mean to Know?

If there really is a crisis of knowledge, then you might be asking, “what is knowledge anyway?”

To answer this question, let’s go back to Plato, who described knowledge as “true belief with account.”[1] For him, to know something is to have true belief and reasons to justify our belief.

Knowledge is often described today as a stool with three legs. If a claim lacks any one of these legs, it cannot be claimed to be knowledge.

The knowledge legs are, “belief, truth and justification.”

Belief:

Perhaps I believe that 2+2=4, or lying is wrong or God exists.

Truth:

Truth is what corresponds with reality. So a true belief about the world describes something about how the world actually is.

Justification:

Justification is the reason and evidence that supports my belief.

 

Do you agree that’s a good description of what “knowing” something is all about? Well, these three legs have received a beating over the years. So much so, that our ability to objectively sit on the stool and know things has become diminished.

How has this happened?

 

Grounding of Knowledge

Prior to 1650, the pre-modern’s grounded their knowledge in a transcendent source (or God) who exists beyond human knowing. When Plato expressed knowledge about a horse, for example, he said this immaterial equine idea has been made real in the world. So – people could see horses in the real world and know they were seeing them. For Augustine, these ideas existed first in the mind of God.

However, something happened after 1650 which began to erode people’s ability to know. Thinkers stopped grounding knowledge in a transcendent source. Rather than bother with God, Enlightenment philosophers decided that human reason alone was sufficient to ground knowledge. No God required. Before the Enlightenment, people looked beyond themselves to ground knowledge. At the Enlightenment, people began to stop doing that and instead they began looking inside themselves instead to ground knowledge.

So – how successful was this new epistemological project? How enlightened was it?

Not very.

 

Unsuccessful Grounding of Knowledge

Descartes claimed that knowledge could be grounded in human reason alone. We can only believe what cannot be rationally doubted. He said, “conviction … remains [with] some reason which might lead us to doubt, but KNOWLEDGE is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can NEVER BE SHAKEN.”[2] Yet, he had a problem. His claim did not only reject false beliefs, it also rejected many things we DO know about the world. Worse, Descartes claim even rejected itself because his claim wasn’t self-evident and immune from possible doubt. Even so, his ideas began to erode people’s ability to know.

David Hume then tried to regain certainty by proposing a different idea. He said we can have knowledge, but only about things we can experience with our five senses. All ideas are products of impressions (sensation).[3] If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I only believe what I can see or touch,” then that’s Hume’s approach to knowledge. But – this approach also fails. Why? Well, if knowledge is only about what we can sense, then this eliminates much in life that we do know but not through our senses. For example, mathematics, the laws of logic, cause and effect and the assumption that the future will be consistent with the past. Hume’s ideas lead to scepticism about the world, just like Descartes.

Kant was the third modern who tried to ground knowledge inside human reason. His radical approach was to suggest the following. Previously, people have assumed that the world shapes how people think. But what if it’s the other way round and our minds…shape the world? In that case, we construct reality for ourselves. “Kant’s philosophy is human autonomy … [which] means giving the law to oneself.”[4] But – there’s a problem. This approach doesn’t help us account for what we intuitively know. Kant’s ideas suggest we all construct our own reality, so that if he’s right there are therefore no universal truths. But I think there are universal truths that all cultures agree on. For example, think of moral issues. It’s never honourable to double cross your friends, show cowardice or hurt children. These are always wrong in every human culture. But if Kant is right, this should not be the case.

These three great thinkers claimed that human reason could explain everything we know about the world, and by implication they tried to say we have no need of a transcendent influence on our lives. We don’t need God to explain our knowledge about the world. But – their ideas failed to account for what we know about the world. Their ideas don’t help us. Instead…they undermine our confidence in what we can know.

 

Scientific Revolution

While all THAT was going on, the scientific revolution was also happening. The scientific method develops in the West and starts to give answers, succeeding in breaking down nature so that it can be rationally understood. People started to wonder, “perhaps science does what Descartes, Hume and Kant failed to do? Perhaps science gives us the certain knowledge we want? Perhaps all we can really know is what science tells us?”

I’m a big fan of science. I love it. But however much I benefit from the application of science today, to say that “only science gives us knowledge,” is just a false statement. Why?

First – the claim is self-refuting again. To say that only science provides true knowledge is a statement that undercuts itself because the statement itself is not the result of science, but an assertion of our opinion. If we are right in our statement, then clearly science is NOT the only source of knowledge!

Second – there are other areas of life that help us know things that are not related to the scientific disciplines. This about the historical method for understanding the past, or mathematics and logic, or the study of ethics and the observation of beauty. Again, we find that this rational scientific approach to knowledge fails to account for the knowledge we have about the world.

So where does this leave us? Well, since the Enlightenment, we have struggled to really know many immaterial things that we intuitively know are part of our universe. This makes us increasingly sceptical about life.

 

Post Modernism

Post modernism has risen in response to the undermining of certainty and knowledge in the Enlightenment period.

People are increasingly suspicious of all truth claims. And you can understand why! We’ve lost the certainty that we can really know. There is no real truth, so only power remains. The ones that assert most power get their way in the world. No wonder people spend their lives in Twitter arguments and outbursts of outrage. The only truth is how I feel and what I know. And you either agree with me and submit to my power…or you effuse to submit and therefore are a problem to me! So – we stay in our little social network communities with people who we seem to agree with. At least we can know that we agree together, right?

There is Hope

Sometimes, we stop doing things in life not because they don’t work, but because they have just gone out of fashion.

Grounding knowledge in God is unfashionable for many people these days. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. All the alternative approaches we have attempted since the Enlightenment are seriously problematic. But we can always stop, turn around, and choose to pursue knowledge as grounded in God.

Hey – why not? This worked for centuries! Let’s recover it. It doesn’t mean we need to loose ANY of our scientific prowess or advancement. But it probably will mean that our lives begin to be marked by hope, rather than despair.

“Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God.” Proverbs 9:10, The Message.

[1] Plato, Theaetetus (201c-d).

[2]Descartes Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-epistemology/#InteJust, accessed 25th June 2019.

[3] David Hume: Causation, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, IEP, https://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-cau/, accessed 25th June 2019.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/#KanCopRev, accessed 25th June, 2019.

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

How Rational Is It to Ponder God’s Existence?

tachina-lee-42980-unsplash

Do your ever wonder whether God exists? Maybe you are tempted to say it just makes no sense to think that way. Do we really leave logic behind when we mount an argument that points to God’s existence?

Sure, it’s possible to propose an illogical argument involving God. The plot of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which suggested God might live in the centre of the galaxy, is a great example! Hey – as a nerd, I think Star Trek The Motion Picture is a much better treatise on faith and the personal spiritual journey.

Leaving Star Trek aside, in this blog, I’m going to argue that it is possible to mount a logical argument for the existence of God. Why? Because:

  1. Humanity has received the Laws of Logic and we use them in our thoughts and disciplines. They aren’t invented by us.
  2. The idea that the universe has a first cause is consistent with the Laws of Logic.
  3. Mounting an argument for God’s existence is not only logical, it leads to the possibility of renewed hope in our personal lives.

 

 

FIRST – what do I mean by the Laws of Logic and their impact on humanity?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental laws guiding logical human (and Vulcan) thought.

1 – the Principle of Non-Contradiction.

For all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true. In other words, if I believe that I am about to pick up a hamburger, I cannot therefore be about to take a bite out of a flying saucer. It is a hamburger.

2 – the Principle of Excluded Middle.

Either Socrates is mortal, or it is not the case that Socrates is mortal. The middle position, that Socrates is neither mortal or not-mortal, is excluded by the Laws of Logic.

3 – the Principle of Identity.

A thing is identical with itself.

Where do the Laws of Logic come from? Well, that’s a tough question to think about because they are a-priori to human thought. They come before anything that the human mind writes or says. It seems unnecessary to even consider these laws as they seem so basic and obvious to us. They come packaged as part of our finely ordered universe.

What’s more, we don’t actually have the tools to try to work out whether the laws are true and valid, because all our approaches presuppose them. More scientific discoveries won’t help us here. Why?  Bonnette opines, “No one can actually doubt or deny the principle of non-contradiction – for the very act of denying or doubting presupposes its validity. To say, ‘I deny,’ is to affirm that you deny and to deny that you affirm, both of which need the Principle of Non-Contradiction for their very intelligibility.”[1]

So, we have to simply receive these logical laws and apply them if we are going to make any sense as we think and communicate. We didn’t invent them, we naturally connect to them and use them as we reason and interact.

 

SECOND – a first cause of the universe is completely consistent with the Logical Laws we must appeal to

What do I mean? Well, let’s look at a logical argument for the existence of God as the first cause of the universe, or multi-verse (it’s a similar argument for both). The Kalam Cosmological argument says this:

1 – Everything that BEGINS to exist has a cause.

This is one of those obvious statements. It’s not particularly controversial because it’s based on our everyday experience and scientific understanding of the universe. Things don’t pop into existence unexpectedly in our experience.

2 – The universe began to exist.

We know this from scientific methodologies that validate the theory of the big bang. For example,  the measurement of background radiation in the cosmos and the red shift of the galaxies we observe from earth. Everything is in motion from a single point where space, time and matter came into existence billions of years ago.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause. 

This follows logically from the first two premises. If they are both true, then this is a logical conclusion.

And – we can go further and suggest some attributes of this first cause. It must be timeless and immaterial. It must itself be uncaused, and incredibly powerful. Also, it must be personal. Why? Because we are conscious beings who live in the universe. That being the case, the first cause must also be conscious. The effect cannot be greater than the cause. Further, it must have taken will and choice to cause the universe. It can’t have been the result of physical cause and effect, because there was no cause and no effect. These notions presuppose physical laws that themselves came into being at the creation of the universe as we know it. No, it is reasonable to assume the universe has a personal cause.

The Kalam is only one of a number of logical arguments that point to the existence of a God. To refute this argument, you have to show that one or either of the premises are invalid, or that the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

 

THIRD – okay the argument is logical, but so what?

We’ve seen that not only do we receive the Laws of Logic, but they guide our considerations about the idea that God exists as a first cause of the universe. He created everything ex nihilo, from nothing at all. There was nothing … then the big bang … and space-time began. The Laws of Logic don’t tell us much about what this God is like. For that, we have to look elsewhere. But they do get us started in a proper and rational way.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with the idea that a rational argument can contain the idea of God. If one begins by discounting God altogether, taking the Naturalist philosophical position, then the idea of a God makes no sense because all that exists is found within the bounds of the universe. There is no supernatural, just natural. To the Naturalist, an argument like the Kalam may follow logically, but it probably makes no sense to them based on their presuppositions.

The problem with allowing our presuppositions to dictate our thinking here is – it leaves us with having to settle without an explanation. Our thinking is essentially constrained to the confines of the universe itself, we are therefore unable to consider a cause of it. This seems very unsatisfying.

Even so, scientists have formed naturalistic theories about the creation of the universe that do not require a personal first cause. Unfortunately, they also re-define the “nothing” that the universe must logically have been created from. The late Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Mlodinow, state in their naturalistic model that, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”[2] But what do they mean by “nothing?” Craig explains. “The nothingness … is not really nothingness after all but is space filled with vacuum energy….’nothing’ in their vocabulary does not have the traditional meaning ‘nonbeing’ but rather means ‘the quantum vacuum’…Hawking and Mlodinow have avoided the tough question by equivocation.”[3]

Yet the Theist has no such problems facing the tough issues around the creation of the universe. The universe appeared from actual nothing, and the cause of its appearing was a first cause whose properties sound very much like the traditional description of God.

How rational is it to ponder God’s existence? Well – it depends on your argument! But – it can be completely rational.

 

FOURTH – so where’s the hope?

The idea of God isn’t just a logical proposition. It is also a source of much hope and real encouragement to us right now. Why? Well, surely if God willed a finely crafted, logical universe into existence then he had a purpose in doing so? We are alive now, and we are considering these issues together. There must therefore be a purpose in our own personal existence? The universe was created for a purpose, and so were we. There’s a good reason why we are here, and part of the result of getting to know that God, is learning more about the purposes he has for us in his good creation.

If the creation is very good…on what basis must we assume God’s purposes for our lives are any less good?

 

 

[1]Dennis Bonnette, The Principle of Non-Contradiction’s Incredible Implications, Strange Notions The Digital Areopagus – Reason, Faith, Dialogue, https://strangenotions.com/the-principle-of-non-contradictions-incredible-implications/?fbclid=IwAR10f1xjwEYpvNKckkHwzbSk1XQR2-C0agVg5QdNAwShTkjMlF0q_wy49cQ

[2] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design quoted in The Grand Design Truth or Fiction, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/science-theology/the-grand-design-truth-or-fiction/.

[3] William Lane Craig, The Grand Design Truth or Fiction, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/science-theology/the-grand-design-truth-or-fiction/.

 

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash