Tag Archives: epistemology

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Snippet // GK Chesterton on belief via a system of truths

A while back I posted something about how my approach to deciding what is ‘true’ or what I believe is based not so much on skepticism, but on my ability to integrate a new piece of information into the system of truths I already believe (or my ability to adapt the system around new information). I’ve increasingly realised that this systematic approach to truth makes it a little harder to speak about why I believe what I believe in a sort of succinct way to people who don’t believe things I believe, be they foundational (like that Jesus existed, claimed to be divine, and his death and resurrection are a form of proof for this claim), or secondary sorts of things that flow out of those core beliefs.

I think GK Chesterton articulates the challenge this presents pretty nicely in Orthodoxy

“When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.

But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab…”

And a bonus. Which I love. On the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith, and how this is something good and not something to be resolved. He talks, first, about the humility the Gospel requires when it comes to an acknowledgment of our utter sinfulness, and the ‘pride’ required for Christians when it comes to saying that we are living, breathing, rulers of God who rule the world on his behalf.

“And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism — the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them….

“In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny — all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points.”

And finally, on just how difficult “Orthodoxy” actually is.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

SNIPPET // CS Lewis on science, truth, and knowledge

“In our age I think it would be fair to say that the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education. In discussion with wholly uneducated audiences I have sometimes found matter which real scientists would regard as highly speculative more firmly believed than many things within our real knowledge; the popular imago of the Cave Man ranked as hard fact, and the life of Caesar or Napoleon as doubtful rumour. We must not, however, hastily assume that the situation was quite the same in the Middle Ages. The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences, did not then exist. The ignorant were more aware of their ignorance then than now” — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

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On Fry, Brand, and Jesus: Why two comedians have a laughable view of God

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11 

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

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Handing in my Skeptic’s Card

handing in my skeptics card

I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…

I’m not a skeptic.

This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.

For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.

I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.

There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.

Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”

The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.

I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.

I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity.  But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.

This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.

New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.

Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”

I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

I’m liking this quote more and more.

I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.

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The limits of modern science and the notion of “best explanation”

Here’s a New Yorker article about the shortcomings of the scientific method. Basically it looks at the idea that heaps of scientific ideas are greatly exaggerated by early results without adequate testing and as experiments continue the results become less impressive.

“The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws…

“Once I realized that selective reporting is everywhere in science, I got quite depressed,” Palmer told me. “As a researcher, you’re always aware that there might be some nonrandom patterns, but I had no idea how widespread it is.” In a recent review article, Palmer summarized the impact of selective reporting on his field: “We cannot escape the troubling conclusion that some—perhaps many—cherished generalities are at best exaggerated in their biological significance and at worst a collective illusion nurtured by strong a-priori beliefs often repeated.”

Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions.”

So what does this all mean. Obviously science has great explanatory power. And can largely be trusted, over time, to give us an improved understanding of the world we live in, and how it works. But we’ve got to keep remembering that science is a human tool used by stupid people and subject to mistakes, and external pressures like the need to publish in order to secure research funding. There’s a really interesting quote at the end of the article that dovetails nicely into this thread on the Friendly Atheist, where the problem with holus bolus acceptance of scientific naturalism is demonstrated once again (particularly see my question in the comments). Arguments to best explanation are great. And necessary. But we’ve got to keep a bit of epistemic humility and perspective and remember that one generation’s best explanation is the next generation’s $2 archaic science textbook on sale in the nostalgia section of the op shop.

“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”

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Apologetics: The Study of Scripture as a Scientific Pursuit

Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia is our guest today. He’s looking at apologetics from the vantage point of the scriptures… He called this “The Study of Scripture as a Scientific Pursuit” – it’s actually more accurately “an introduction to presupposition apologetics.”

These are my notes.

Knowledge is a great challenge and a philosophical question – “how do you know what you know” – that’s the beginning of the study of the Bible. When we’re defending the faith through the scriptures we’re claiming to know something both of the Bible and of God.

The study of religion is useful in apologetics.

What is religion – from the Latin roots – “the tying/binding together of things that are separate.”

Scientism: I only know what I can know by the scientific empirical method. This is the form of religious skepticism that we know today. How do you put God into the test tube? You can’t. So taking this approach to religion doesn’t work.

The science of religion is different to the religion of science.

The science of religion – how do we know what we know? The study of the binding together of things (man and man, man and God) through religion…

This uses science in the broad sense of the word – it’s analogous to what a linguist, anthropologist or other pursuit of knowledge does (outside of the material sciences).

Think about religion in its broad sense – the way Paul Tillich considers it – “religion is that thing or person that is beyond everything else that we engage. It is that absolute transcendent reality or ultimate concern that defines us.”

Everybody has that ultimate concern that defines us. How do we really know what that ultimate concern is in our life? What is it?

Some of Lillback’s basic presuppositions:

  1. Everyone is religious – we all have an “ultimate” concern or a transcendent reality.
  2. Because all human beings are finite we all believe something – we’re limited, we’re not omni-anything, so some of our knowledge comes from belief or trust in something external. This is how we know, or think we know, what we know. The phrase “people of faith” applies universally – we all have a transcendent concern and a faith that comes out of that. These presuppositions come cf Abraham Kuyper. They necessarily therefore live their lives in faith flowing from that presupposition.
  3. Nobody is objective. We can not look at the world objectively. We all have these presuppositions that get in the way of seeing the “facts” – we all look at things and define them via our bias. Nobody is ultimately objective. Cornelius Van Til: “imagine a man of water living in a world of water who builds a ladder of water to climb out of the water so that he can see what is not water” – we can not escape what we have perceived and defined our world to be. If we bring materialistic assumptions to the world we can not help but find materialistic conclusions (that by nature exclude God).

These presuppositions must be engaged with the people we encounter. People try to engage the world in the following ways:

  • Deduction: logical inference based upon the presuppositions in which we operate. The logic we use is like a refrigerator – if you put good meat into the freezer two days later it’ll still be good. If you put rotten meat in it won’t come out good. Logic is a capable tool, but not magical.
  • Induction: gathering data together to draw conclusions.
  • Intuition: instinctive knowledge based on our suppositions.
  • Revelation – we can not know God by our own investigations, we will only know God if he reveals himself to us. The daring claim of the science of religion as a Christian is that it is impossible to know God without revelation.

As Christians we too are finite, and not objective (in fact our subjectivity is moderated by the Holy Spirit – not just our bias) – we put our faith in revelation.

Our framework is exactly the same as the non-Christians. Our presuppositions are the same. Our treatment of ourselves is consistent with our treatment of others.

We all have this transcendent point from which we operate. Everybody starts with preconditions born out of their presuppositions. Ours is “I believe that God has spoken through the Scriptures…” Following this presupposition we can stand on the word of the Lord. Taking this stance removes the ability for culture to pull us in ebbs and flows and beat us with erudite arguments.

Philosophers in the realm of epistemology suggest we know certain things to be true regardless of our experience (eg. if I took two apples from one side of the room and two from the other and put them in the bag then we’ll all agree that two and two makes four. We intuitively know this). We also have knowledge by experience (a posteriori). The Christian says we have that knowledge through our experience with the Bible. We also have internalised knowledge through the work of the Spirit (a priori). The Holy Spirit is part of our presupposition (ED Note: which provides interesting ramifications re: confirmation bias). Scripture is self-authenticating to those with the spirit (ED Note: which also has some interesting ramifications re: circular reasoning).

We are called as gospel preachers and teachers to ask people to experience for themselves rather than understand our descriptions, “taste and see that the Lord is good” – Millbank used Edward’s honey analogy.

The Science of Religion is the knowledge of our ultimate concerns. These ultimate concerns come with presuppositions. We all interpret our world through our presuppositions. Christians believe that the knowledge of God is only possible through revelation. We believe the Spirit gives us an a posteriori and a priori basis for trusting the revelation of God through the Scriptures. The Christian therefore is called to study the scriptures “scientifically” – this is a Christian epistemology of the study of scriptures… we talked about definition, presuppositions and method… which leads us to the scriptures.

Kuyper: There are two types of science in the world because there are two types of people. Those who are born from above by the Spirit and those who have not. These types of people will look at the world and the Bible very differently.

We look at the Bible as though it is God speaking to us – other “biblical scholars” study the words on the page very differently. Even when the Bible is open it’s a closed book to the second category of people.

Bible bits that support this view:

1 Corinthians 2: An extraordinary passage on the epistemology of religion from a Christian perspective. This is a rough paraphrase (Peter read from an NIV, I had my ESV in front of me)… starting from verse 10.

“But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit… only by those who have been touched by God can know these things… we have not received the Spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God… The natural person does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God because they are foolishness to him…”

Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17): he declares his worldview and declares the need for repentance – Van Til said the greatest apologetic is to preach the Gospel.

1 Thessalonians 2:13

“We thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”

The word of God isn’t clever exegesis and stirring oratory but the way the Spirit works through the Bible.

Luther: I don’t defend the Bible, I preach the Bible. The Bible defends itself…

Apologetics from a Christian perspective is a declaration of the Bible’s truth from the Bible. And this is legitimate because everybody comes at the world with their own presuppositions.

Another analogy: an explorer visits a lost valley and discovers a lost people – a tribe where every person was blind. None of them had any idea what seeing was. And the explorer tried to explain to them what seeing was. Nobody believed him. They couldn’t fathom the existence of seeing. He spent time alongside them, becoming part of their community – one day they asked if he wanted to join the tribe – on the condition that he pluck out his eyes…

This is, apparently, an analogy for apologetics. Let the reader understand.