The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

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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.

How Serious is the Skynet Threat?

You know there’s a new Terminator movie coming…right? How vulnerable are we to Skynet and the threat of dangerous, killer robots? I don’t mean the characters in a movie. I mean us. In real life?

Jeff Bezos says we are in a golden age of AI.[1] Who are we to disagree with him? His company Amazon are using cool AI techniques to get orders placed, processed, packed and delivered to us more quickly than ever before. It’s not just Amazon. Netflix use AI techniques to improve video quality while we binge our telly, and Uber use AI techniques to find a driver quickly. Actually…our lives are increasingly affected by AI. And – we are always looking forward to the next new and cool application of AI that brings us our next dopamine hit!

But are we actually at risk from the rise of the machines? Some people think so. The Way of the Future Church is about respectfully handing control of the planet from “people to people + machines.”[2] Clearly these people think people are CURRENTLY in control of the planet. Wow. The average natural disaster or unexpected occurrence in life might suggest otherwise.

I studied Computer Science as an undergraduate, and I’ve worked in embedded software as a developer and applications engineer for thirty years. I’ve loved the stories about sentient machines, but I’ve never thought we were at risk of ever seeing one. I love the AI techniques that make life easier for us. But I’ve never expected machines to take over from the people coding their algorithms. Am I right to think so?

Bob Marks, Director of Walter Bradley Institute and Distinguished Professor of Computer Engineering at Baylor University would agree with me. He defines AI as “anything we can do that is gee whiz with a computer.”[3] Are there things that a human can do that AI cannot? Absolutely. AI is a technology that is coded for by humans, and there are vitally important characteristics of humans that AI cannot share.

 

1 – Humans are Creative, AI Isn’t

In order to write code, the engineer must engage his creativity. The human experiences qualia, they are conscious as they design the latest clever algorithm. But creativity is not a trait that is codable for.

All computers conform to the Church-Turing thesis. This effectively means that computers today cannot do any more than they could do in the 1930s. What they CAN do…is do the same thing many billions of times faster than before. Computers execute pre-coded algorithms increasingly quickly. That is all.

For Skynet to rise, AI must be capable of coding smarter AIs, which in turn code smarter AIs. Only humans are creative in this way. AI isn’t.

But couldn’t AI become creative?

 

 

2 – What is Computer Creativity?

Marks says computers can’t become creative, and he appeals to the Lovelace test to explain why.[4]

If a computer program responds with an output that cannot be explained by the original actions of the computer programmer, then we can say the computer is displaying creativity. Studies have shown that computer programs can make surprising actions, but they always stick to the bounds of their programming. They don’t creatively develop new capabilities in the course of their operation. Computers follow the algorithms they have been coded to follow. You cannot code for creativity or consciousness.

 

3 – But What About Advanced Deep Learning, Neural Networks?

It sounds pretty short sighted to say AI can never be creative. Or is it?

We need move beyond fun fantasy and start to understand what it is the computers can and cannot do. I knew someone once who called computers “very fast idiots.” The most advanced deep learning neural networks that are being developed today are an example of his judgement.

By allowing a deep learning network to go over the game of GO again…and again…and again, it can get to the point of being able to soundly beat the GO world champion. Google’s AlphaGo did this convincingly, soundly winning a three match series.[5] But does that mean that AlphaGo is smarter than the human its playing? No – it means AlphaGo can play Go better than the human. That is all.

Think about it this way.

AlphaGo made surprising moves when playing Go…and these moves allowed it to win the matches. So – it was just doing what it was coded – and trained – to do. But is AlphaGo truly creative? If it asked for a drink, or made an insightful observation about its opponent’s financial situation between moves – these would be instances of AI creativity. But AlphaGo cannot do this.

Neural networks are not creative. They are good at dealing with specific tasks that display high levels of ergodicity. It’s trained to do a very specific task – to play Go. Nothing else.

For example, studies have been done around training them to recognise tanks. But you would never use them on a real battlefield. Why? Bob Marks explains that it turns out the networks spent more cycles learning about the landscape behind the tank than the tank itself! Also, the use is so very specific – that you could not trust it in constantly changing battlefield conditions. The computer algorithm is not conscious and it cannot explain what it is doing. Rather – it is following very specific, repeatable rules. When the situation changes and no longer matches the conditions trained for, the computer lacks any creativity to deal with this situation. Battlefields are all about changing situations! Neural networks would be instantly vulnerable to making bad decisions.

So much for Terminators.

 

4 – What About Quantum Computing?

These computers also obey the Church-Turing thesis. There’s no magic leap into conscious AI here.

 

5 – Will I Lose My Job?

Marks thinks this is possible for some people. But he also thinks this will give humans increased time to enjoy life and do more creative jobs that AIs are incapable of doing.

 

Conclusion

In summary, Marks reasonably concludes that while AIs will improve the quality of our lives, they will not pose any threat to us. Unless, of course, someone applies one of these dumb, non-creative machines in inappropriate ways! But then there’s nothing new there. It’s not Skynet that threatens us…its actually other people and ourselves.

 

 

[1] Jeff Bezos is Launching…, The Verge, updated Jan 17th, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/17/18186481/amazon-remars-jeff-bezos-conference-ai-machine-learning-robotics-space.

[2] Way of the Future Church, http://www.wayofthefuture.church/.

[3] Computer Engineer Bob Marks Discusses the Perils and Promise of AI, Discovery Institute, September 4th, 2019, https://www.discovery.org/multimedia/audio/2019/09/computer-engineer-bob-marks-discusses-the-perils-and-promise-of-ai/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] AlphaGo Takes the series title, Wired, Thursday 25th May, 2017, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepmind-go-alphago-china-may-2017.

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.

Challenging Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies do happen. Lots of people think they are common. 71% of Americans think the government are hiding the truth about UFO’s, 9/11 was an inside job, and the Apollo moon landings (or at least the first one) was a hoax. But how likely are these conspiracy theories? And what logical tools can we use to explore them?

First – here’s a real conspiracy. On June 17th 1972, burglars were arrested in the Watergate complex in Washington DC. They were discovered to be part of a small group connected to President Nixon’s re-election campaign, seeking to wiretap phones and steal documents.[1] Conspiracies are about small groups of people attempting something immoral. Watergate failed because the group was exposed.

So – what about UFOs and the Apollo moon landings?

Ken Samples points to five questions we can ask of these claims to test the logical basis of the conspiracy claim.[2] These logical tools reveal the majority of conspiracy theories to be false.

1 – Does the theory hold together?

Does it have a solid foundation or is it contradictory? For example, think about the claim that aliens are visiting the planet. Given the vast distances that would have to be travelled, and the physical laws that would have to be overturned in order to achieve this, the theory starts to look contradictory. The facts required for the UFO government conspiracy don’t hold together.

 

2 – Does the theory comport with the facts?

Good theories don’t only fit with all the facts, they also tie them all together. The Watergate burglars were where they should not be, with wire tapping equipment, and one of them had the telephone number of Nixon’s government office. These are simply facts. But the theory that they are conspiring to steal information they should not lawfully have – ties these facts together.

A bad theory will reject some of the facts because they are inconvenient to the theory. For example, people who try to claim that the Jewish Holocaust did not happen during WW2 have to reject the data available from Jewish, Axis and Allied sources. They may mount a theory, but they will have to hide certain facts that the theory does not comport with.

 

3 – Does the theory avoid unwarranted assumptions?

Often when you start to investigate a bad theory, people make unwarranted claims to make the theory stand. For example, consider the claim that the Apollo moon landing was faked. The documented evidence shows that 400, 000 people were employed on Apollo and over 20,000 industrial firms and Universities were active in the enterprise. It was a massive undertaking in financial terms and man hours. It was also massive in the sheer number of people that had to be involved to make it happen.

If we are to claim that the astronauts did not reach the moon, then we have to make the assumption that all these people, or at least a significant proportion of them, were willing to keep this secret. But not just that, but they were all able to KEEP this secret in the face of jubilation around the world, and fifty years of celebrations. This starts to sound like an unwarranted assumption. After all, it would only take one person to crack … and the game would be up! Yet in fifty years, there has been no whisper of falsification by those actually involved. Just by people with a conspiracy axe to grind.

 

4 – How well does the theory handle counter evidence?

When counter evidence comes to light, how well does the conspiracy theory deal with this? For example, on the moon landing, how does the hoax theory cope with counter evidence like:

  • the photographic evidence from American and Chinese satellites showing the Apollo equipment remaining on the landing sites.
  • the bouncing of lasers off of instrumentation on the moon.
  • moon rocks.

 

5 – Is the theory open to falsification? If so, how?

Can a theory be proven false under certain circumstances? Or is it simply impossible to falsify it? Conspiracy theories tend NOT to be open to falsification. There is always another unwarranted assumption that stops the process of falsification.

However – a good theory IS open to falsification. This is one of the reasons that a good theory has rational weight. For example, if there was no connection between the Nixon government and the Watergate burglars, the conspiracy theory could have been quickly falsified.

 

 

Conclusion

It’s fun to kick conspiracy theories around. But when we put them through these logical filters – most of them drop out as false.

So – the next question is – what happens when we expose the theory that Jesus rose from the dead – to these logical tools? Well – the theory comes out to be a sound one. I’ll talk about that next.

[1] Watergate Scandal, History, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/1970s/watergate.

[2] Logically Questioning Strange Ideas and Controversial Theories, Reasons to Believe, accessed 29th August, 2019, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2017/07/11/logically-questioning-strange-ideas-and-controversial-theories.

I Feel for Marty Sampson

I feel for Marty Sampson.

 

I’m working from people who saw his recent Instagram post, which has now been taken down. He expressed his wrestles and doubts with Christian belief, and he gave us a list of these.

  • Church leaders who fall
  • apparent Bible contradictions
  • eternity for the unsaved (Jesus in the Gospels refers to this place as Gehenna – we translate this as Hell)

…his list went on. I get it. These are real issues to grapple with. After each one, he complained that no one was talking about these things. I’ve spent years talking about these things. They need to be discussed. Why on earth wasn’t Marty doing so in his church?

He apparently concluded that he was not a Christian any more. “It’s not for me … Christianity just seems like another religion at this point.”[1] If that’s where he is, then that’s a real shame, because he put his finger on something really important in his Instagram post. Something that, if he allows it to, could move him forwards in a positive way.

 

“I want genuine truth, not just the “I believe it” kind of truth.”[2]

 

I totally agree with him here. That’s what I think Christianity is. Christianity is about genuine truth, not “I believe it” kind of truth. It has ALWAYS been this. But it sounds like … Marty hasn’t realised this before. True Christianity has never been about saying, “Just believe it. Have faith and your faith will get you through.”  If you are a Christian believer and you think that your Christian belief is grounded on faith alone…like Marty…then one day you are going to be in trouble. Serious – trouble. And – it’s just a matter of time before the wheels start coming off. Unfortunately for Marty, this has happened in a very public way.

 

Yet people will ask, “isn’t faith important?” Of course it is. “So – why can’t Christianity be grounded on faith alone?”

 

Well – you’ve got to understand what the word “faith” means. Faith is not the ground of knowledge about anything. Faith is our RESPONSE to the knowledge of the revelation about Jesus we have received. Faith does not give us any knowledge about God, we need to find that knowledge about God elsewhere. This is what doing theology is all about, folks. If we don’t do the work of understanding the Bible, then there will be no source of knowledge to ground our beliefs on. Oh – we may go along with the crowd in church. We may develop as a leader, find ourselves repeating what the other leaders say, and feel we are right because other people are impressed and believe what we say. We may even advance in the use of our gifts and talents in various ways. But inside … we will always be thinking … “is this stuff really TRUE? Can I bet my life on Christianity or not?”

 

Faith isn’t about saying “I believe it.” Any environment which fosters this … and teaches Christianity this way, is an unhealthy environment. Rather – faith is about choosing to trust and act on the basis of the God you are truly coming to know and believe.

 

Faith isn’t knowing what we don’t know, or believing something in spite of the evidence. Faith is not a source of knowledge at all! Rather – faith is simply our active choice to respond with TRUST in the God we have come to believe and know because he has made himself known to us.

 

What is Christian faith? It is holding on to the God we’ve learned about when the storms of doubt come raging in our lives. But we can only hold on in the first place … because we already genuinely and truly know the God who we are holding on to.

 

I’m praying Marty gets that so that he can move forward in that way. God loves you and – “he is still calling you out upon the waters,” Marty.

 

 

[1] Leah MarieAnn Klett, Hillsong writer: ‘I’m genuinely losing my faith’, The Christian Post, https://www.christianpost.com/news/hillsong-writer-reveals-hes-no-longer-a-christian-im-genuinely-losing-my-faith.html.

[2] Ibid.

Getting to the Good Place

frozen

Eleanor wakes up in the afterlife.

After inquiring about how she died, she quickly fires the question, “Who was right about all this?” In other words, which religion correctly described the afterlife? How do we make sure we get to the good place rather than the bad place?

The response:

“Hindus were a little bit right…Muslims a little bit…Jews, Christians, Buddhists…every religion guessed about five percent.” In other words – all the religions got some things right and a lot of things wrong about heaven and hell.

This is all according to Netflix’s “The Good Place” (which is a hilariously funny show – go and watch it).

In the reality of your life – maybe you reject all religions. But then, your religion is humanity; you’re already in the good place, but its not actually very good and you’re not here to stay. The afterlife’s going to be a real, unplanned for bummer when you arrive there.

But maybe there’s part of you that’s open to seeking the truth about life in religions? Whether or not the Netflix show’s assessment of religion turns out to be correct…my personal advice to you is…always start with Christianity first.

Why?

First – Christianity has EVIDENCE that’s open to scrutiny.

Historical evidence can be verified or disproved. The great thing about this is, you can test the evidence and if it doesn’t hold up then you can quickly drop Christianity and move on in your spiritual quest.

“Christ died for our sins … was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day…was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers”.[1]

The New Testament’s claims can be assessed. So – start there.

That’s not true of Islam, which is a long-term experiment. Surah 21 says “We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.”[2] So, I don’t know Islam’s right till after I die. Buddhism? “You’d better get a Zen Master…you’re going to be working at that thing for a long time till you experience enlightenment.”[3]

However, Christianity is an evidential belief system. So, start there first.

Second – Christianity is the only religion with a true notion of GRACE.

This means God shares the riches of his love based on nothing we’ve done (or not done) but instead based on Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Christianity is the only religion that has “freely shared forgiveness” at its core. This means qualification to enter the good place after death is based on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, not our final score.

Islam doesn’t work this way. Cannon Andrew White led a church in Iraq for years and is an expert on the Qur’an. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] What about Eastern religions? They point you towards demands involving hot coals and meditation.

Why do all that…without checking something that’s free first? Christianity.

Third – Christianity is a complete WORLD VIEW FIT.

Christianity makes sense of all aspects of our lives – everything fits together. That’s not the case elsewhere.

Chan Buddhism urges the cleansing of the mind…leading to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions like, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”[5] and “Suffering exists, but there’s no-one who suffers.”[6] Buddhists deny logic in their religious life, yet in their financial dealings and caring for their family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, you risk going bankrupt or putting your family at risk.

Yet a Christian remains a Christian in every area of life. We look the world in the face – study the exquisite complexity of nature from our limbs to our cells. Life looks designed, and there’s a good reason for that.

Christianity applies to the whole of my life – everything fits.

My final reason for trying Christianity first is…

Fourth – Jesus Christ.

Start with Christianity because of who Jesus is. Everyone wants Jesus on board with their religion. The Qur’an elevates him above Mohammad[7], Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu and Buddhists call him the enlightened one.[8]

If all the religions mention Jesus in some way…then doesn’t it make sense to start with Christianity? Which has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes? After all, if everyone wants Jesus on board their train…there must be something about him. Right?

In summary, I have a strong suspicion that we only get one go at life (prove me wrong). So…doesn’t it make sense to start with the religion that’s easily disproved first? The one that’s built around the free gift of salvation and makes sense of life and the universe?

Image courtesy of Pexels, https://www.pexels.com/photo/berries-berry-blur-close-up-275706/.

[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] Spurgeon’s 9.4.

[6] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 8.5.

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

[8] Hazen, disc 2.

RESPONDblog: Christianity’s Not As Mysterious As You Think

I found myself at Vasquez Rocks National Park this weekend. Actually – this was completely intentional. I was hunting for a shooting location used by the makers of the Original Series of Star Trek from the 1960s. What can I tell you…? I’m nerdy like that.

The episode I was thinking of is called “Arena”; Captain Kirk finds himself facing the war like Gorn creature on the surface of an asteroid with a suspiciously “earth-like” atmosphere. Which is handy. A superior race, the Metrones, have decided that Kirk must fight his adversary to the death. Not so superior, eh? In reality – William Shatner was acting his socks off with a poor guy sweating in a green rubber suit.

I wanted to find the spot where their iconic battle happened. After all…I remember watching the episode as a child.

My strategy on arriving at Vasquez Rocks National Park was to launch myself “Kirk like” into the mysterious and rugged countryside…to explore various trails and various rock formations in the 35 degree heat. “That looks kinda familiar…maybe they filmed it there? Oh no – hang on – maybe it was here? Man…I’m hot.”

After an hour or so trudging around in the oven like heat…I returned to the visitors centre for a rest. I sensed that I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. Walking back to the car…I noticed a big sign that I had driven past an hour ago when I first entered the park. It read, “To the Rocks” – with a big arrow pointing up a well built road to my left.

Genius that I am – I asked myself – “Hang on. Why don’t I follow that arrow…and just drive up that road? I wonder what’s up there?” I jumped into the car…drove up the signposted road…and eventually arrived at a large visitors car park. Exiting the car…I looked around. I was already hot…but I was getting warmer. I recognised these rock formations.

I began chatting on Twitter with my friend Alan. I explained what I was doing and – very helpfully – he sent me an image of the Star Trek episode that showed the location I was looking for. I gulped at the image on my phone screen. Raising my head, I looked again at the entrance to the visitors car park I had just driven through.

Would you believe it?

Star Trek had filmed the iconic Gorn battle scene HERE – within the visitors car park at the end of the road!! Of course. With so much equipment…the lights and cameras transported by truck…the film crew needed a wide space to set things up. It made perfect sense to use the car park. It’s slightly disappointing to me though that the scene was captured…in a car park. This Star Trek episode has lost some of its mystique to me now…

On reflection – I made this trip much much harder for myself than it needed to be. I hadn’t actually rewatched the episode on Netflix before travelling to the location…I was working from memories and assumptions in my head about what the location looked like. Life would have been easier…if I’d just googled a picture first. Worse – when I arrived at the park…I didn’t follow the clear and obvious signage that was provided and staring me in the face! I decided to purposefully wander off into the countryside instead.

In the end…finding what I was looking for was really easy and straightforward. It just required me to look at the source material…and follow the obvious instructions that were available.

It occurred to me as I reflected on these hilarious mistakes, that this might not be too different from how many people approach Christianity. One friend…sceptical of Christianity… said to me recently, “Why don’t I get it like you, Stuart?”

Well – maybe its like me hunting for the iconic Kirk vs the Gorn location without watching the episode first? We’re relying on our half remembered ideas about what Christianity is about…but why don’t we just go back and look at what it actually IS all about? The life of Jesus as documented in the New Testament. How about we actually read what, say, the Gospel of Mark actually records that Jesus said and did?

Further, so many people I’ve spoken to assume that the claims of Christianity are unreliable today. Their starting assumption is that the history of Christianity is very complicated…and so one needs to dig really deeply to work out what actually happened to cause the Christian church 2000 years ago. And frankly – that is too much work for most people. Well – perhaps we are missing the clear and obvious signpost that is staring us right in the face? We’ve dived off into the countryside…and come up with nothing useful as a result. And we’ve probably given up. Instead – why don’t we come back to the starting point and follow the clear signage that has been provided to lead us to what we’re looking for? Stop assuming its hard and complicated – and just follow the road and see where it takes us?

You know, historians have identified that the oldest and so the earliest description of Christian belief is recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. There’s an ancient creed written there in this letter that predates all of the layer gospel biographies of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) by decades. The creed itself may date to just a few months after Jesus’ crucifixion…capturing what the first Christians stood for. This is the clear and obvious signage that I’m talking about. What does it say?

“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV

It’s not complicated. Its laid out clearly. Just follow the signpost. Jesus was raised from the dead – this fact was widely accepted and assumed by both friends and enemies of Christianity during the 1st century. The first Jesus followers worked to help other people become friends and followers of this Jesus too. He was crucified on a cross, but he’s not a dead, ancient figure of history. He’s a vital and real person who is still alive today.

So why don’t we get this? Possibly because…we think we know better. Can I suggest to you…from experience…that we don’t know better. Christianity is worth “getting”. It really is. And it’s not hard to do. It just requires us to lay aside our wrong thinking…and follow the evidence provided.

As I drove away from Vasquez Rocks and pointed my car to home, I laughed out loud as I joined highway I-14. What did I find funny? You can actually plainly see the Star Trek shooting location as you drive up the highway! It’s SO obvious. It’s clearly laid out for all to see…it’s not mysterious..not hidden away in some obscure spot in the desert.

All you have to do to find what you need…is first not convince yourself that finding it is just too hard. And second, follow those signs that point to Jesus Christ.

RESPONDblog: Galaxy Quest + My Limited Worldview

The movie Galaxy Quest tells the story of a group of washed up actors, tired and bored of living with the enduring fandom around their old space opera TV show from 20 years ago. It introduces us to Jason Nesmith, the actor who played the captain on the NSEA Protector space ship in the space opera. And he’s signing autographs at a fan convention…when suddenly and finally he explodes in a “Shatner-istic, get a life” way. Who does he explode at? Branden – a geeky fan who is asking for an autograph, while also pressing him on a tricky episode plot hole that Nesmith couldn’t care less about.
Nesmith roasts him.

“It’s just a TV show. You got it?!”

The movie also tells the story of a group of alien beings – the Thermians – who have been watching Nesmith’s old TV Show from outer space…and have come to believe that the stories told in the show are actually real, rather than just hokey entertainment.

Now, in addition to their viewing habits, we learn the peace loving Thermians are facing an oppressive and controlling space gangster called Sarris who wants to oppress them. They fear Sarris…yet are actually quite technologically advanced. So they decide to emulate their heroes on the TV show and build an advanced space ship to fight Sarris…and they make the ship look and behave just like the NSEA Protector.

They make it work in exactly the same way as the ship on the show. So…the computer will only work if the girl on the bridge repeats all the data the computer provides the bridge team. And the controls for the ship’s pilot are laid out just as the actor playing the pilot pretended to fly the ship.

BUT – the Thermians have a problem – they cannot use their cool spaceship technology to defeat Sarris. They are smart enough to build their ship. They aren’t brave enough to use it.

Their solution? They decide to naively travel to earth…find their heroes from their favourite space TV show…and take them back to their planet to pilot the ship and defeat Sarris for them! After all…these guys are their heroes…and have defeated evil many times on the show. They’ve watched it on their equivalent of TV. They think its all real.

And for some cool and interesting reasons – read pride and boredom here – Nesmith and his crazy, LA based actors from the cast say “yes” to the Thermians’ request…and travel to their alien planet to man the new and very real NSEA Protector space ship. What they don’t bank on, however, is the very real jeopardy this puts them in. And so these actors must work out a way to cope in this conflict…and survive.

I’ve been sitting in a class at BIOLA University taught by PhD professor John Mark Reynolds this week. And he reminded me of the coolest part of Galaxy Quest.

What’s the coolest part?

During their conflict with Sarris – Nesmith and his crew find themselves running through the bowels of the ship to find the engine room…so they they can diffuse the reactor and stop the ship from exploding. While doing this, they realise that – in the course of the original TV show run – they never did an episode of the show where they visited the bowels of the NSEA Protector. So – they have no idea where to go to find the reactor to diffuse it. Worse – they have no idea what do do if and when they get there.

That’s a big problem. So what do they do?

Genius idea. They contact the geeky kid Branden that Nesmith roasted during the fan convention at the start of the movie. The kid who had grown up watching the show, who bought and pored over the deck plans of the NSEA Protector. Who knew this show and the ship inside out.

Nesmith contacts Branden…but before he can ask him for help finding the engine room…Branden stops him. Not realising the very real jeopardy Nesmith is in, Branden blurts out…”Look. About the convention. I know its just a TV show. I understand completely that’s its just a TV show. There is no ship…I’m not a complete brain-case…you know?”

And Nesmith responds with three words that transform Branden’s life.

“It’s all real.”

And without hesitation…and with a whoop of confident delight…Branden explodes. “I knew it. I just knew it!!!”

Here’s what’s cool about this scene. It poses a question to us.

What if my settled view of reality…actually is more about me just settling for a narrow perspective…the little bit that I understand. And dismissing the notion that there is so much more to know! Right now – I simply don’t fully understand everything that could be known about life and reality. But there’s a future awaiting me…

Further – what if that future reality is bigger…and more amazing than I could understand today. What if it truly is bursting with goodness, with truth and beauty in a way that I’ve yet to know on this planet…so its greater than I can fully comprehend right now. So much so…that when I finally DO experience it…I might just go slack jawed…and then burst with something like…

“I knew it!! I just knew it.”

Just like Branden.

And maybe then we will reflect back…and remember. We had a suspicion that there was more to life than just this one…we had this inner sense of it…maybe from our time as a child. But we’ve grown up since then. We’ve allowed other people to convince us otherwise. We’ve cooperated as others have systematically robbed us of our hope for ultimate goodness, truth and beauty.

What a shame that has happened.

One day – we will know. We will know it for ourselves in a fresh and wonderful way. And we’ll just exclaim, “You know what? I knew it!”

I’m looking forward to the day when I begin to really experience the full wonder of creation. In the here and now…I’m living in just a fraction of it…I sense that that’s true. But there is SO much more to come in the reality that’s to come.

Why do I think that? Well…because there’s this person in history called Jesus who transformed the world with his goodness, his beauty and the truth he brought to this planet. His beauty…in what he did and said. And it all culminated in his defeat of death and his invitation to join him in the bigger reality that is to come. This points to a future reality, a bigger sense of knowing reality as it truly is in all its goodness, its truth and its beauty…in a sense that I can only imagine today.

What a shame so many of us have been duped into thinking that our narrow view of the world is the right and only one…when we haven’t given ourselves the chance to consider that there is so much more that is awaiting us.

Do you know what? My anticipation is rising…there’s going to be a whoop of delight that’s going to burst out of me that day when I see that which I confidently expect to see in the reality to come with Jesus.

I knew it. I just knew it…!

RESPONDblog: Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?

gervais

I found this discussion on prime time US TV to be pretty fascinating! I’m always pleased to see when discussion about God comes out of the private places and into the public square where it belongs.

Ricky’s a sharp and witty comedian…and I do enjoy his irreverent humor. But I honestly find his atheism troubling. Not because I find his arguments compelling…its just the way he immediately seems closed to the idea of God.

I thought Colbert asked a great question out of the gate on his show…and he let Ricky off very lightly by allowing him to sidestep his good question.

 

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why does the universe exist at all? Why are we here?

 

Ricky’s response was,

“That makes no sense at all…surely the bigger question is not why, but how?”

 

Interesting.

 

First – Ricky’s saying first that the question makes no sense. Sure it does. The sentence conforms to the laws of English grammar and syntax. But that’s not what he means. What he means is that naturalism and his materialistic worldview has no good answer to the question “why”. And so rather than admit that, he moves the discussion to “how”. Interesting sleight of hand. But it seems to me that it would have been more honest to admit that he has no answer to the question “why”.

 

Second – he says that the bigger question is not why, but how. Of course…Ricky thinks he’s on solid ground now about the “how” because…well…science. He can engage on that topic because of the great work in cosmology, biology, etc. But is he right? Is “how” a bigger question? I personally don’t think so.

  • Human beings have been asking “why” for millennia. It’s the oldest philosophical question. And I’ve experienced the “why” question many times in my discussions with atheists to this day. “Why” always matters to people – whether you have an answer or not.
  • Why do we exist? That is MASSIVE. I think its short sighted to skip that one because it feeds directly into our own purpose in life. Are you saying you don’t care about that?

 

Personally – I’m of the opinion that BOTH the “why” AND the “how” are important questions. And rather than dodge them…we need to work on them. Maybe we don’t have all the answers yet – which is why we are working on them. David Robertson makes an interesting point,

“Don’t be so dismissive of the very questions that make us human.   Humans are the only animal who ask the why question.  Please don’t dehumanise us.”[1]

Too right – you are worth more than that, Ricky.

 

I also love the part in the interview when Ricky says,

“Can you prove there is a God? You say no. So I don’t believe you.”

I’ve hit this so many times myself. And it’s like…we are stuck together in this odd discussion on proof for God…with the definition of the word “prove” getting tougher and tougher by the second. Yet there are so many things in life that we naturally accept, even though there is no empirical, cast iron proof of them.

  • I have a mind as I am writing this. You are reading this and you are using your mind. You have no empirical proof of my mind. You just choose to accept it. The same for me with yours.
  • What’s more…can we prove we are not plugged into the Matrix as we read and write? No. And neither can I.
  • Can you prove there is a God? No – because someone always pushes the definition of “prove” that bit higher each time.

BUT – is there EVIDENCE for God. Now – that’s a whole different question. Of course there is evidence that points towards the existence of God. For example…

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/does-human-reason-point-toward-gods-existence-or-gods-absence/

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/respondblog-doesnt-order-in-nature-provide-circumstantial-evidence-for-god/

 

And yet…again as Robertson points out about Ricky,

“you have already pre-determined that there can be no such evidence and therefore you automatically dismiss or explain away any such evidence.”[2]

Isn’t that the truth. We come back to what is permitted or allowed by the atheist belief system. Robertson engages with many more of Ricky’s points during this brief exchange…it worth taking a read of his blog.

[1] Ricky Gervais v Stephen Colbert – The Real Answers – An Open Letter, https://theweeflea.com/2017/02/03/ricky-gervais-v-stephen-colbert-the-real-answers-an-open-letter/, accessed 13th Feb 2017.

[2] Ibid.