Hope Still Flickers in Fearful Times

C S Lewis gave a talk entitled, “Learning in War-Time.” He was speaking to a group of undergraduates at Oxford University as they each faced the terrifying prospect of being called up to military service, and to fight in the war. He spoke words of encouragement and hope to those young lives. But his talk also speaks wisdom that applies to us today as everyone is facing the COVID-19 virus.

 

Here’s my own version of Lewis’s talk for us today:

This COVID-19 virus forces each of us to remember death. Is that grim? Well, this reminder would have been a great encouragement to the Christians of the past who always taught that we should be aware of our own mortality during our lives. They would have approved.

But this awareness brings a dawning realisation along with it. All our precious personal plans, hopes and dreams were always facing a final frustrating end. We just forgot about it. Yet we’ve been living in a universe all along that we must finally and personally come to terms with. If we used to think that human culture was unstoppable, then this crisis shows us how wrong we all were! If we thought we were building heaven on earth, a permanent place for us to experience ultimate satisfaction in our lives, we have finally had our illusions completely shattered. Culture is in tatters and in crisis now. But – these shattered illusions have come not a moment too soon! This shattering is good for us. We each need to reflect on our mortality. Urgently.

Yet for those of us who are beginning to realise that life is actually all about learning and humbly offering our lives to God, then there’s an important truth here. We are the ones who are pointing to the ultimate reality that faces all of us. There is true beauty to be  experienced in heaven after the end of our earthly lives. It’s not too late for everyone else to get on board with viewing life this way too, because doing so may just mean we lose this broken human culture, but finally gain God’s wonderful and everlasting joy in its place. And that – is a very worthwhile exchange.

 

That’s my feeble attempt to apply C S Lewis’s wisdom to each of us today.  You can read the original in – C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (San Francisco:Harper Collins, 1980), 62 – 63.

 

Finally, here are Jesus’ words on the matter:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27, NIV)

What Makes Christianity Unique?

Did you know that it’s estimated that 4200 distinct world religions exist, and they all teach something different? Yet amongst all the world religions, Christianity is unique. Here are five important reasons why I think that.

 

First – Christianity is based on evidence that is open to scrutiny. For example, the New Testament says this:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[1]

This evidence is of the historic variety. If Jesus’ resurrection can be shown to be historically false, if we can find a better explanation for the claims of the New Testament, then Christianity can be dismissed. Does it surprise you that Christianity could be so quickly disproven? With Christianity, if the historical basis can be dismissed, then the claims of Christianity can also be dismissed. So far – 2000 years in – no one has made a convincing attempt at doing this…the historical basis is simply very strong by ancient standards.

Notice that this is not the case with Islam, for example. There is nothing to the claims of Islam of a testable, historical nature. We must just embrace it as a worldview and hope for the best. We won’t know whether we backed the right horse until the other side of the grave. As Welch describes the life of a Muslim, “throughout life people are tested by their Maker, as the Qu’ran says in 21. 35/36: ‘And We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.’”[2] Islam is a long term experiment requiring all your eggs in its metaphorical basket and giving no option for a simple historical evidential test like Christianity does. It’s a similar story with Buddhism. Craig Hazen puts it this way, “you had better get yourself a Zen Master and you are going to be working at that thing for a long time until you ultimately experience enlightenment. You might want to put that on the back burner until you push Christianity out of the way.”[3] Christianity is an evidential belief system, so if you are shopping for a religion, it makes sense to start there first.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion where God gives salvation to us as a free gift. Christians refer to this as grace. What is grace? Well, grace is sometimes described as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”. In other words, God generously gives us the richness of his love based not on anything we have done but based solely on what Jesus has done in his atoning death on the cross. Christianity offers a free gift of salvation and it’s the only religion to do this.

Islam doesn’t come close to this. Canon Andrew White, who has recently returned to the UK from leading the church in Iraq, is an expert on working with Muslims. He says this. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] Further, some eastern religions place demands on us around meditation and walking over hot coals. Why put yourself through that first? Does it not make sense to check out something that is free first? Anyway, as Hazen suggests about salvation, “given that we are limited beings, it would make sense that God would have to give it to us.”[5] Christianity has a ring of truth about it.

Third, Christianity is a completely holistic life. In other words, Christian belief always holds in whichever sphere of life the Christian is currently in. We think the same way whether we are at Church, or our work or at home. We “get to live a non-compartmentalised life.”[6] Chan Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “cleansing of the mind from concepts and information by meditation and spontaneous action which can lead to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”[7] The Buddhist may deny logic in his religious life, but in his financial dealings or even simply in caring for his family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, and the Buddhist risks going bankrupt or putting their family at risk. Yet a Christian can remain the same, whatever they are doing.

Fourth, Christianity just fits and makes sense of the world. The Buddhist claims that “Suffering exists, but there is no-one who suffers”[8]. But how can that be? Hinduism is just as confusing. Joseph Campbell recounts a visit to Indian teacher Sri Krishna Menon where he asks, “Since in Hindu thinking everything in the Universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to …brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? And he answered, ‘For you and for me – the way is to say yes.’”[9] In other words, it is not for us to use judgement, the Hindu way is to accept everything however moral or immoral, reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair. This cuts across everything within us that cries out for reason and justice.

On the other hand, Christianity looks our broken world full in the face. Our world is full of suffering because mankind has rebelled against the God who created us, and so our world is, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[10] We look at the Universe around us, and study the exquisite complexity of nature. From our limbs to our organs to the cells of which they are composed, life looks designed. There’s a good reason for that. The God we see in the Bible claims responsibility for that job.

Fifth, Christianity has the person of Jesus right at the very centre. Strangely, other religions want Jesus in their boat too. There is something about this guy! The Qur’an mentions him in a way that puts him beyond even Mohammad when it says, “When God said, ‘Jesus I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me’”[11]. Further, Hazen reports that, “Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists call him the enlightened one.”[12] So it would be reasonable to ask if all the other religions mention Jesus respectfully in one form or another, does it not make sense to start with Christianity that has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes?

 

 

Conclusion

Study the different world religions, and you will find that Christianity is unique in these five important ways. BUT – you don’t need to do all that hard studying. Instead, try and dismiss the compelling historical evidence of Jesus death and resurrection. Decide whether you want to reject God’s free offer of love and forgiveness in favour of a works-based religion instead. Consider the benefits of a life that is holistic and that fits with the world as it is observed today. And finally, consider the person of Jesus who is at the centre of the Christian message.

Makes sense – right?

 

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:4-6 NLT.

[2] John R. Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions Second Edition, (Penguin Books, 1997), 176.

[3] Craig J. Hazen, PH.D., Christianity and the Challenge of World Religions, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[4] The Vicar of Baghdad: ‘I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any’, The Spectator, accessed November 24th, 2015, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/isis-bombs-have-exiled-the-vicar-of-baghdad-to-surrey-but-hes-itching-to-go-back-to-the-middle-east/.

[5] Hazen, disc 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 9.4.

[8] Spurgeon’s, 8.5.

[9] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books, 1988), 83.

[10] Romans 8:22 NLT.

[11] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.

[12] Hazen, disc 2.

Surviving Philosophy Class

So – it’s the first day of your new Philosophy 101 class. Now, this is not a subject you know too much about, so you are a bit nervous. But – at the same time – you want to learn as much as you can from this class. So – you select a seat on the front row, and you sit down.

The professor greets the class and he says, “Here are five common Philosophical statements that you’ll hear regularly in our culture.” He starts writing…

 

  1. There is no God.
  2. You do not have free will.
  3. You do not know that you exist.
  4. You do not know that other people exist.
  5. You will not escape the death of your body.

 

He turns to face the class. “Sound familiar?”

You review the list and, for sure, numbers 1, 2 and 5 ring a bell for you! But what about 3 and 4? Actually – he’s made an interesting point. How DO I know that I exist…not to mention the other students in the room…and the professor himself?

The professor speaks again. I’m going to show you in a couple of minutes now how we are going to address each of these common philosophical statements in this class. And – by the way – I think all five of these statements are WRONG. Here’s why:”

 

1. We can argue that GOD EXISTS.

The Kalam Cosmological argument points to the universe and says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

 

2. You DO have Free Will

Studies on human consciousness and how we engage in the world as conscious beings give us overwhelming evidence that we do possess free will. And – frankly – we live each day of our lives assuming that fact. Besides – there is no good reason to suppose that you and I do not possess free will.

 

3. You DO Know that You Exist

Descartes in the 16th century said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, because I am thinking, I can know that I exist. If I ponder my existence and attempt to convince myself that I do NOT exist, I am therefore engaging in conscious thought what proves that I do in fact exist.

 

4. You CAN Trust Your Senses and Know that Other People Exist

Think about the people that matter most to you. Now, it seems to me we have a choice of three actions we can take here:

  1. Truth neither our reason nor our senses and dismiss everything. But this seems pointless.
  2. Trust our reason but not our senses. But why would we do that? It seems wholly inconsistent.
  3. Trust our reason and our senses and believe in the external world, and therefore the people who live there.

Philosopher Thomas Reid concluded, our reasoning faculties as, “all fitted by Nature to produce belief in the human mind, some of them in the highest degree, which we call certainty, others in various degrees according to circumstances.”[1]

5. You Have A Soul

People all have a strong intuition that they are disembodiable. In other words, we sense that we could still exist even if our bodies did not. Now we may dismiss that intuition with our reason…but the intuition remains all the same. Well – this is the idea that we HAVE bodies, but we are not “one and the same” with out bodies.

There is evidence that this is how the world works. Consider your parents or grandparents. Their bodies have grown old, but they have the sense that they as persons have not. The professor scratches his head. “I can’t believe I’m 51,” he exclaims, “but you’re as old as you feel…right?

Also, your body is divisible, but you aren’t. Imagine you are involved in an accident and you lose one of your fingers. Are you any less a person as a result? Sure, your capacity for achieving intricate actions with your hands may be impaired, so your actions and your approaches to life might be affected. But have you lost a bit of yourself by losing a finger? How about a leg? No – you are still you. You just need to adjust to living life in a slightly different way.

What about your brain? Sure, brain states have physical properties. But you also have mental states that do not have physical properties. Areas of the brain fire when exposed to stimuli. But you can’t scan the brain and find evidence of the red unicorn you were just thinking about. This suggests two different things. Your brain states are caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. And this is linked in a mysterious way to mental states, experiences in your soul. Hey – there are many things in life that we know to exist, but cannot see. Is the soul that much different from those?

Conclusion

The professor puts down the pen and eyes the class. “Right,” he says. “Any questions?”

Adapted from Philosophy 101 You are Wrong About Everything, https://thedailyapologist.com/philosophy-101-you-are-wrong-about-everything/

[1] Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 150.

Was Jesus Actually Born on 25th December?

December 25th has, for so many people on the planet, been the date when the celebration of Christmas happens. The celebration of the birth of Christ. BUT – was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

 

In the first century, the day we now know to be 25th of December (on our later Gregorian calendar) was a big party in the Roman empire. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a celebration of the return of the invincible sun god. This was an opportunity for folks in the northern territories to celebrate the point in winter when the days begin to get longer again.

 

Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire, so why celebrate Christ’s birth on 25th December? Did the Christians try to compete with the Roman celebration? Did they copy it?

 

John Dickson recounts two possible theories for why Christmas lands on the 25th December.[1]

 

One – the date is just a coincidence! Some people in the early church actually thought Jesus might have been born on 25th December. They based that on the assumption that he must have been conceived on the date of his crucifixion, and they put that at 25th March. So – nine months later would be 25th December. Yet – to be honest – this all seems a bit tenuous to me.

 

Two – the Church reclaimed the pre-existing Roman party on 25th December. The Christians decided not to cancel the party that so many people had grown up with and looked forward to each year. They didn’t want to stop the celebration of the “return of the sun.” Instead, they decided to RECLAIM the party as a celebration of the coming of “the SON of God.” They weren’t saying that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. They were saying his birth was worth throwing a party about…and the pre-existing party seemed a great time to do it.

 

And so – those in the Western Church have celebrated Christmas on 25th December ever since. It’s not his actual birth date. It’s the date when the fact of his birth is celebrated.

 

By the way – Dickson reminds us that the Eastern Church (everything East of Greece) celebrates Christmas on 6th January, not 25th December.

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

If God exists, then why do people die in natural disasters?

It is always a heart breaking tragedy when people die as a result of tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. But – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of these people, or claim God doesn’t exist. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harms way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics are just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – its possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Save People from Natural Disasters

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from natural disasters? And prolong their lives?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from natural disasters is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us from natural disasters?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every bullet and oncoming car…what might happen?[1]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that its okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunch time, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the drivers seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again, and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the drivers seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Does it Matter If Beauty Is Just In the Eye of the Beholder?

We often talk in terms of our tastes. “I love that band or that movie franchise. You like Marvel, I’m more of a DC guy.” (does anyone say that?) This makes it sound like beauty – what we think looks or sounds aesthetically pleasing to us – is purely subjective. It is only about my tastes, my likes and dislikes. Like ice cream. You love rocky road, and I love mint choc-chip.

But are we right? Is beauty ONLY in the eye of the beholder?

Imagine you are looking out to the horizon at the end of a beautiful day. “That sunset is beautiful,” you say. Or you stop on a hike at the sight and sound of a waterfall. “It’s just so beautiful,” you agree with your friends. One day, your spouse does something for you that is wonderfully sensitive and touching and you cannot help but comment, “They are such a beautiful person.” It seems that we also talk as if certain things – sunsets and waterfalls and people – contain the property of “beauty.”

No one has a thought about something horrible – like rats – and therefore concludes that they themselves ARE horrible. No – they conclude that it’s the rats that have the property of “horrible.” They are just observing that in their conscious mind.

So – if beauty is objective, what are we to make of the subjective side of taste that I mentioned at the top of this blog? When you like rocky road ice cream, but that stuff makes my nose wrinkle? Doctor Sean McDowell makes a helpful and piercing observation:

“Nothing follows for TRUTH from DISAGREEMENT.”[1]

Sean is saying that, just because we have different opinions, this does not mean there is no truth on the matter. We intuitively know this in many different areas of life. People disagree about the conclusions of scientific theories, mathematical theses and historical observations. Just because we disagree, this doesn’t lead us to conclude there is no truth. It just leads us to work hard to find the truth of the matter in these particular fields of study.

Lets apply this principle to the question of objective beauty.

1 – Just because we disagree on what is beautiful, this does not lead us to conclude there is no such thing as beauty.

2 – The very fact that we disagree on our opinion of what constitutes beauty means that we all agree there IS such a thing as beauty. For example, if we disagree on our music tastes, we agree that such a thing as beautiful music exists.

3 – Perhaps beauty is a bit like morality. It’s a standard, a functional framework within which we all live our lives? We may appeal to subjective moral feelings. But ultimately, when we think about it, we realise that morality is found to be something objective, pressing in on all of us.

 

So what?

Again – Sean makes great observations.

1 – Beauty has no apparent survival benefit. If the universe is only material and nothing else (Naturalism), we do not need beauty to survive. Naturalism does a bad job of accounting for the beauty we find during our lives.

2 – Beauty fits very well within the Christian worldview. A beautiful creation flows from the nature of a beautiful God. And so, its not surprising that we find beautiful technological intricacy when we explore the function of the cell in biology. Or the beauty of a mathematical theorem that predicts what we find in nature, or the kindness of a person to another person.

 

What about suffering? That’s not very beautiful. Yet Naturalism cannot explain why suffering matters to us. Under Naturalism, suffering just is. Yet within Christianity, suffering makes sense. Suffering and evil are the opposite of what is good and beautiful. A subversion of the objective beauty that was originally laid down by God.

 

So…does it actually matter if beauty is subjective? Sure it does – because a purely natural, subjective understanding of beauty does not account for it. On the other hand, I think there are good arguments for objective beauty, and this beauty reminds us that our world has been made beautiful by a beautiful creator who longs to be involved personally in our lives.

[1] Sean McDowell, Is Beauty Merely in the Eye of the Beholder? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIF48BhPCIk.

Review of Science and the Mind of the Maker

I bought Melissa’s book earlier this year, and was blown away by the clarity and compelling nature of her arguments. Then, while at BIOLA University in June, I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and listening to her talk about her “Maker Thesis.”

In her book, Melissa observes our Western culture is constantly pushing the notion that nature can be explained without resorting to God, and that no one should stick with such a Medieval superstition as Christianity to understand the world. Aren’t people who persist in doing that just  “scientifically illiterate or suffering from some kind of religious-induced delusion?”[1] This actually reminds me of someone who said to me on Facebook recently, “clearly Stuart your belief in God shows you suffer from some sort of lack in your life. I am sorry for you.”

Clearly, many people are comfortable with the Naturalistic worldview today and are therefore antagonistic towards those who do not subscribe to it. Naturalists exclude God and see the Universe as a closed system. This leads to materialism which says the “cosmos … can be reduced to, matter and energy governed by the laws of nature.”[2] And this forms a naturalistic bias among scientists. She points out that methodological naturalism is the claim that “scientists should always seek natural causes to explain observed phenomena.”[3]

The problem with all of this is it has a serious effect on our culture’s ability to KNOW things.

The scientific approach is only useful for explaining certain very specific areas. But it starts to break down when we ask the questions usually posed by a child. Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life, and what happened when my grandparents died? Where did they go? We become incapable of grappling with these obvious questions under materialism. So, Melissa reasonably says, “we should be free to contemplate the possible philosophical and theistic implications of scientific discoveries without being wrongly accused of having an antiscience mentality.”[4]

But – hang on. Don’t Christians always try to push God into the gaps caused by our ignorance? Wait – we cannot always be accused of trying to shoehorn God into the gaps in our knowledge. In fact, it is because we are doing Science, and gathering vital data about nature, that leads us to infer God as a reasonable explanation based on our observations! She admits that God cannot be proven or disproven using scientific methods. But, the discoveries of the natural sciences help us to infer that the God explanation is a reasonable one for the Universe, and also explains humanity’s act of doing Science itself.

I think Melissa is also saying that materialistic arguments tend to beg the question, in other word they assume what they are trying to prove.

She then goes on to ague for her “Maker Thesis” in three ways:

  • using current scientific evidence to support philosophical arguments for a Maker.
  • observing many features in the Universe had to converge to make Science possible.
  • demonstrating that creatures with a rational mind and soul account for the practices of the sciences.

 

For example, there is increasing evidence of a finely tuned Universe to support life. The materialist’s response to this evidence explains away this incredible physical specificity by positing an infinite number of randomly ordered universes, or multiverse. They claim we happen to inhabit life permitting universe that randomly occurred. Yet, this assumption seems unwarranted. There’s “no observational evidence [of the multiverse] … the theory cannot avoid philosophical problems associated with past infinities … it would explain why all the [universal] constants … must be what they are … [not] why we have a life permitting … [universe].”[5] So multiverse theory is a fallacious attempt to avoid the conclusion the universe is intentionally designed to permit life.

Melissa’s “Maker Thesis” powerfully explains “origin, rationality and intricacy of nature.”[6] And she illustrates this through cosmology, biology, the rightness of mathematics to explain nature, and the philosophical arguments for the mind. She says, scientific study gives a “glimpse into the mind of the Maker.”[7] I have to agree with her. And, having met her and heard what she has to say, I’m looking forward to hearing more from her in the future.

 

[1] Melissa Cain Travis, Science and the Mind of the Maker, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2018),  kindle edition, loc 172.

[2] Travis, loc 181.

[3] Travis, loc 219.

[4] Travis, loc 237.

[5]Travis, loc 3260.

[6] Travis, loc 3357.

[7] Ibid.

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.

Discussing the Moral Argument for God

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When you open Twitter these days…it doesn’t take long till you notice someone who is full of moral outrage about something or other. They are often indignant at words someone has spoken, actions taken/not taken,  or simply the state of the world. But – hang on. Isn’t it interesting that we can do this? Express moral outrage to each other in this way? If you think about it, we can do it because there is a moral standard that people all share. We might disagree what the right or wrong thing is in some situations…but we DO agree that a moral standard exists which imposes a big “ought” on all of us all the time. Things ought not to be like they are…that person ought not to have done what they did.

C S Lewis said it this way. The natural law of gravity tells you what stones do when you drop them. The moral law tells you what humans ought to do…but they don’t because they often do the wrong thing. In nature, you just have facts. In human nature, you have facts, and you also have how we OUGHT to have behaved but didn’t. And if you’ve ever shouted at someone and wished you hadn’t, cut someone up in the car or been dishonest in some way…you know exactly what I mean.[1]

If you think about it…that’s weird. Particularly if there is no God, and humanity is simply an accident of nature, biologically evolved from the primordial soup that swilled around when planet Earth was new.

I’ve pointed out the strangeness of this moral “ought” to people and commented on how unusual it is. And I tend to get two basic responses from people:

 

1 – Society has evolved moral standards. But, they change from time to time. It’s just what an evolving society does.

Usually the person will point to an example. Perhaps, how society is changing in its attitudes to homosexuality. This is true. They are right that cultural mores do grow and change. But cultural mores and the moral law are not the same thing. Cultural mores describe how humans behave…but they are not moral standards that we often will struggle to live up to.

What are moral standards? Certain things have always been right and wrong at every time and every culture. For example:

  • It’s always morally wrong to torture little children for fun. Ancient societies that practiced child sacrifice have always been abhorrent and people who abuse little children always criminals. Child abuse is OBJECTIVELY wrong. We absolutely OUGHT not to do it.
  • It’s always morally right to respect your elders. Now, some societies have very different ideas about what “respecting elders” looks like. But – we always OUGHT to do it in a way our culture accepts as correct.

But are these standards just how society has evolved?

I’m sure society does evolve in its understanding. But that says nothing about where our moral standards COME FROM. It just concedes that over time, our understanding of moral standards is evolving and improving.

 

 

Other people responded differently when I pointed to the moral “ought” that presses in on each of us.

2 – Yes. There are objective moral standards. But – these standards come from human beings.

Now – if you think about it, this idea is strange.

They are saying some behaviours are objectively wrong. But – humanity has set those objective moral standards itself. Because we are moral beings, we decide what is right and wrong. But – hang on – the question is – “why are we moral?” We can’t answer this question by saying, “Because we are moral.” This is a logical fallacy called, “begging the question,” or circular reasoning.

Here’s are some problems with this idea.

First – if moral obligations and duties come from society, then why is it that every society agrees on THE SAME objective moral standards (two examples above)? What are the chances of that?

Second – If people give me a set of standards to live up to, why should I care about your moral standards if I have my own? Just because you have an opinion about what I ought to do…why should your opinion influence me? You cannot describe a behaviour as objectively wrong – unless we can both point to an EXTERNAL moral standard which comes from an external source outside of ourselves. If people set this moral standard themselves, then these are subjective “ought’s”…what someone or some group of people think I should do. Why should I care? This is just someone’s personal taste … like which side of the road should we drive on, for example.

Third – behaving immorally has real weight attached to it. The point is that the moral law is different. These laws are objective, they press in on all people in every time and place. And – when we behave immorally – this has real weight attached to it. It’s not just breaking the speeding limit…immoral behaviours are sometimes referred to as “being evil.”

Fourth – If the moral law comes from humanity, why didn’t we make this standard easier to follow? If we recognise a personal struggle in behaving morally, then we have also experienced the other-worldly source to moral obligations.

Someone might respond, if I claim an external source for this moral standard, does this lessen humanity? Does it make people out to be less? Well – why would it? I’m just pointing to a difference between SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE standards of human behaviour. Subjective rules do not morally bind on all people everywhere. Objective moral standards do. Also – this is a moral standard that people aren’t very good at living up to! So that suggests it comes from somewhere or someone else.

 

 

So where does this moral standard come from?

I think I’ve observed that deep down…people just know that some things are always wrong…evil…objectively so. Child abuse is a good example of this. So the question remains – why is that?

 

The only way I think we can make sense of this state of affairs is for there to be a greater being who is of consistently good character, who embeds morality in the people he makes. He defines what is objectively right and wrong, and he imposes this standard on each person. The greatness of this being…results in the weight that lands on us when we behave in an immoral way.

This greater being must be:

  • external to humanity, and so can set a good, objective standard on us.
  • not subject to changing human cultural tastes and mores because we are different from him.
  • powerful enough to create the universe and the people within it.
  • someone we are personally accountable to for our moral behaviour.

 

This greater being sounds a lot like Christianity’s idea of a good and loving God.

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 1952), 17.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

How Rational Is It to Ponder God’s Existence?

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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