Tag Archives: God

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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.

Dead birds and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

People get in real trouble if they try to link world events to specific acts by members of specific governments. We saw that with Danny Naliah yesterday. Exhibit B is YouTube Prophetess (or televangelist) Cindy Jacobs – who suggests a bunch of birds are dying because of a decision to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy regarding homosexuals in the US Army.

If we could track God’s direct intervention in judgment like these guys suggest:
a) I’d be a very rich man.
b) He’d be using a better logical connection than “the Governor’s name is B.B and this is happening in a place called B.B.”
c) He’d be doing much nastier things to much nastier places. Queensland is Australia’s Bible belt. We’re the birthplace of Ken Ham. Why isn’t Kings Cross flooding?

H/T Scotteriology.

God and his AK-47

The manufacturer of this toy must have listened to Benny Hinn’s “Holy Ghost Machine Gun” sermon – here’s God, the action figure, replete with AK-47… umm. Fail. Still, he’s clearly a male, so the maker’s theology is better than K-Rudd’s… and Bonhoeffer probably would have used an AK on Hitler given the chance…

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Dialogue with Atheists

I love my atheist friends. Not only do they brighten up my work days with interesting emails, the also get me thinking quite a bit about what we do right and wrong as Christians.

The Internet Monk has entered into his own little dialogue with an atheist – it’s interesting reading.

That old “morality” chestnut comes up. One of the things atheists seem to find profoundly annoying (apart from being generalised and slandered as a bunch, and references to Hitler) is the idea that you can’t be a moral person without God.

This is a communication breakdown. When I say “you can’t be good without God” it’s because I believe in God, believe humanity to be totally and naturally sinful, and believe that God graciously allows sinful people to act morally. Other people mean something different – they mean that you can’t be moral without “believing” in God. They’re different. And I think we need to be careful to express the difference in meaning. Non-theists are capable of moral behaviour. Theists believe that’s because God lets them, atheists don’t feel that compulsion because they don’t believe God is there to do it.

The internetmonk article also brings up the question of indoctrinating children and whether or not this constitutes “child abuse” – which it can’t possibly, if God is there. And I believe he is.

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Mothering instinct

You know what gets my goat. People who blame “mother nature” for things like massive bushfires and floods. 

How come “mother nature” is allowed to be evil and nasty and yet atheists and other anti-Christian philosophers say their big problem with the Christian God is that an “all loving, benevolent God” would not allow suffering.

Other thoughts:

I don’t know where the idea of God being “all loving” is – I think he’s holy and righteously angry as well. It’s in the bible people. 

Fires and floods don’t seem to be particularly “motherly” unless you’re a really nasty parent.

Why is it “more rational” to attribute this sort of disaster to “mother nature” than to God? I confess I don’t see “mother nature” out there trying to find followers. 

If there’s one thing that annoys me more than Christians trying to piggyback their causes cynically on the back of a disaster it’s hippies doing the same. If I hear one more hippy claiming that these fires are proof that we need more stringent carbon targets I will scream. My thoughts on climate change not withstanding the idea that Australia, a piddling island nation in the scheme of things, has much influence on the climate anyway is ridiculous. And calling for something that will cost Australian jobs while people are struggling with massive loss of life and a looming recession is not very sensitive. It could be political suicide though. On second thoughts. Go for it Greens. And invoke “mother nature” as you do it.

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Odds on God’s on

British betting agency Paddy Power are taking bets on the existance of God.

Current odds are 4-1 that God exists – down from 33-1 at the opening of betting.

Unfortunately scientific proof is required prior to a payout being made.

Perhaps Dawkins will pull a Satan from South Park and bet on himself then throw the fight…

From the article:

“Interest in the wager has increased greatly following the recent launch of a campaign to have atheist adverts placed on London buses declaring that “there’s probably no God”.

As a result of a flurry of small bets Paddy Power, which also runs books on who will be the next Pope and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has cut the odds on proof being found of God’s existence to just 4-1.”

“The atheists’ planned advertising campaign seems to have renewed the debate in pubs and around office water-coolers as to whether there is a God and we’ve seen some of that being transferred into bets.

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Sign of the times

If there’s one thing I hate more than atheists advertising on buses (actually I don’t hate that – “probably no God” – where’s the commitment…) – it’s so called “Christians” doing nutty things to give the rest of us a bad name.

The Westboro Baptist church systematically protests at the funerals of dead US soldiers becaues they believe the US system’s lax stance on homosexuality. I don’t think they read the bits in the bible where Jesus hangs out with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors… anyway, kudos to this guy for his funny sign campaign. If you can’t beat them – join them.

Another post about God

I’ve heard some strange claims about direct instructions from God – but this one takes the case – who knew Allah was a Bruce Willis fan?

A 40-year-old man walking his dog in the nude was Tasered by police when he refused to follow an officer’s commands.

David McCranie of the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida says an officer on patrol spotted the man shortly after 8pm Friday.

The man was asked what he was doing and told the officer, “Allah told me to watch a Bruce Willis movie and walk the dog,” McCranie said.

McCranie said using the Taser was the only way to subdue the man without having to hurt him.

The man was then sent for mental health evaluation and treatment.

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The love god

I was listening to ABC radio last night at around 11pm. As you do. And I heard an insightful interview with Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay. Mackay is widely regarded as having his finger on the pulse of Australian culture and society – along with futurist Clive Hamilton he’s one of the media’s most widely quoted sociologists. His views are pretty widely respected. Mackay was speaking on his own personal views on spirituality and religion – his criticisms of the “organised religion” and “the church” were the same we hear trotted out time and time again – too focused on sex etc – which are probably true in some ways. The church is portrayed as being hung up on church – largely because that’s where the greatest distinctions between Christians and the world express themselves. Mackay was anti-church but pro “God”, pro spirituality and anti militant atheism in a refreshing way – he suggested that Dawkins in the God Delusion takes the best of science and compares it with the worst of religion with unsurprising results. 

Mackay is a smart man. He forms a compelling argument based on his unique knowledge of culture. However, he misses the boat when it comes to the following statement:

“love is God”

This conclusion was the result of much thinking and reflection – and some interaction with the church in the past. While it’s almost exciting to hear the “intellectual left” moving away from the aforementioned secular humanism – this represents a more insidious misconstruing of any theological or logical understanding of a creative force – people keep turning abstract nouns like “science” and “love” into God.

This new intellectual position on “god” takes humanity’s most powerful emotion and deifies it essentially reinventing God in an airy fairy palatable package. While it sounds nice it doesn’t really make sense. It’s really essentially a bastardisation of the biblical position of “God is love” so it sounds right – but it really only considers one element of “God”. What does this love centric theology do with issues like the existence of suffering and bad stuff? I don’t know – I didn’t hear the rest of the interview. But if you’re so inclined you can hear it here.

 

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It’s the end of the world as we know it…

So the large Hadron Collider has been turned on. While I may have spent yesterday running around yelling “Panic Panic!!!” and singing Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole… they’re not actually colliding any serious particles until later this year.  

The idea, for the unconcerned among you, is to recreate the conditions of the big bang by colliding particles travelling at close to the speed of light. The intention is to find the Higgs Boson or the “God Particle” – how Mr Peter Higgs name became synonymous with God is beyond me.

When you perform a task of this magnitude a lot of nut cases come out of the wood works – there’s a group convinced the experiment will create black holes which will destroy the world. They made a youtube video – which I haven’t seen so won’t link to. There are crazy Christians who seem a little concerned this will somehow “disprove God” or help atheists in their thinking. And then there are the stupid, ignorant atheists – perhaps my favourite group in this situation who provide comments like this on the news.com.au forum:

“I love how 99% of the negative comments about the LHC are all from Christians. I’ll Believe Physics, thats been proven, over christianity, which hasnt been proven, anyday…Christians: Look at it from a ignorant christian perspective. They are spending 11billion to prove that God created the earth. Meanwhile i dont see Christians spending money to prove that Science didnt create the earth..” – Alex from Adelaide.

Thanks Alex for your valuable insight.

Christians do not argue that science didn’t create the earth because to do so would elevate science from a study of observable phenomena to a sentient being able to perform the act of “creation”.

My other favourite was this one:

“The church must be soiling itself waiting for the day that scientists proove there is no god and that we were created from the big bang and they have the hard and fast proof. The biggest business in the world “the church” will be bankrupted. Unless of course religion can actually proove god exists. Science will have the hard and fast proof very soon. Posted by: Andrew of Australia

Andrew is obviously pretty angry at the church – angry enough to make a claim about science’s ability to prove or disprove the metaphysical.

Atheists, in the main, are a fairly ignorant lot, often influenced by militant atheists to “believe in science” as some form of religion. Here’s the thing Alex, and other atheists out there, us Christians also believe in science. Some Christians even engage science as a weapon (think Creation Science Ministries or whatever those guys call themselves). Scientific outcomes are driven by starting hypotheses – and these are driven by the organisations funding the research. Science is not an objective entity. Science is a broad church. The reality is that science is now driven by ideology and commercial imperatives more than any church I know. Throw money into the mix and see what sort of “scientific findings” we can come up with. Most churches are driven by a goal to spread the gospel – for free. Most churches I know are “not for profits” and their “wealth” is tied up in physical assets used for the cause. Would you have churches meet in our “public” school buildings Andrew?

Not if the Sydney Morning Herald has its way. I’m no Hillsong apologist – in fact I have massive problems with their “prosperity” theology and their music, and and endless list of other gripes that I won’t go into. But this article on public schools as secular institutions being no place for any form of religion is dangerous and stupid. It’s also the worst piece of ideologically driven journalism I’ve seen for a long time, and it belongs in the opinion pages – not the news.

Quotes from the article below:

“A teacher at one public school said students had returned to class after an Exo day concert complaining about attempts to convert them, while the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations says it is an attempt to sneak evangelism into schools and reveals the need for new laws.”

“The NSW Education Act says that “instruction” at public schools must be non-sectarian and secular except in designated religious education classes.”

“A spokeswoman for the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Association said religious recruitment in schools was inappropriate. “We need to ensure that children when they go to school aren’t exposed to discreet evangelism,” she said.”

I would think that an opt in program clearly run by a church group openly trying to promote the bible is hardly “discreet evangelism” or “instruction” or an attempt to “sneak” evangelize.

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On secular humanism

In my continued reflections on the debate I’m having with my e-friends (ok, so they’re friends in real life – but the tyranny of distance means I see them maybe once a year) I find myself increasingly frustrated with the “secular humanism” movement. It’s really a quasi-religion set up to give atheists a framework to debate from. Secular humanists see their beliefs as the default “logical position”. 

The definition of humanism from Wikipedia:
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

My problems are as follows:
1. Humanism describes itself as optimistic on the human race’s ability to save itself. Human nature is seen as inherently good – but slightly selfish. This is how they reconcile survival of the fittest with external factors like our social “herd” instincts (best epitomised by Facebook), good and charitable acts without external motivation (which is how they dismiss the good and social acts of religious adherents), and the chaos obviously occurring between humans (Russia v Georgia is the latest example).
2. Humanism holds itself on a pedestal – and humanists look down on those who need the “crutch of religion” or the “imaginary sky friend” to get them through day to day life.
3. Humanists, in relying on reason, dismiss the notion of the supernatural – and will not debate on the possibility of anything supernatural existing without first seeing the evidence. This makes even approaching a discussion on religion almost futile.
4. Humanists rely on faulty evidence when dismissing Christianity – eg inaccuracy of scriptural translations.
5. Humanists are sold on postmodern thinking – which is yesterday’s news – rather than the modernist view of truth as verifiable, actual and objective.
6. Humanists are generally pretty smart – and generally blinkered by confidence in their own ability to reason. Human intelligence has limits. Humanists, in relying on their own prowess and dismissing the opinions of others as “subjective” and influenced by wants, desires and needs – are limited to their own capabilities. Some of the world’s most revered scientists – perhaps by nature of their positions as revered scientists are secular humanists – eg Einstein.
7. Further, humanism fails to recognise the limits of human capabilities – what if one day God is scientifically demonstrable? What happens to the current humanists? Human knowledge and understanding is in a constant state of flux – to pin a philosophy down to “what we currently think we know” or “what we can currently test” is dangerous.
8. Ethical living is not a natural response to atheism – nor is it the common response. Because secular humanists have realised the shortcomings of their position (slippery slope of morality) they seek to massage their philosophy to include this concept of “ethics based decision making.” Anarchy and hedonism are more logically consistent results of atheism.

Some key highlights from Wikipedia:

“In certain areas of the world, secular humanism finds itself in conflict with religious fundamentalism, especially over the issue of the separation of church and state. A faction of secular humanists may judge religions as superstitious, regressive, and/or closed-minded, while the majority of religious fundamentalists see secular humanism as a threat to the values they say are set out in religious texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an.”

“Some criticize the philosophy of secular humanism because it offers no eternal truths nor a relationship with the divine. Critics allege that a philosophy bereft of these beliefs leaves humanity adrift in a foggy sea of postmodern cynicism and anomie. Some argue that this philosophy has always been antireligious and it is often used in connection with atheism.Humanists respond that such criticisms reflect a failure to look at the actual content of humanist philosophy, which far from being cynical and postmodern, is rooted in optimistic, idealistic attitudes about the future of human society that trace back to the Enlightenment, or further, back to Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and Chinese Confucianism.

“Secular humanism describes a world view with the following elements and principles:

  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.”

You can’t really argue with someone holding these beliefs that a supernatural being exists – it runs counter to the tenets of their “faith.”

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On dialogue with atheists

I have some friends who are atheists – not just soft agnostics like most of society – but reasoned, secular humanists who think Dawkins lacks objectivity and is a rabid fundamentalist. You know, the logical type of atheists who have thought through life and made their own conclusions on the basis of the evidence they see around them. The type who make “moral judgements” based on empathy and reason. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in pretty intense debate with them via email. The discussion has been protracted and mostly frustrating. I’ve also been feeling pretty outnumbered – it was three to one and then they introduced these two guys I’ve never met into the email circle. One of them is pretty much the only person who now reads this blog – so hi. I actually don’t know where he sits on the issue because he just commentates on the debate – and how much he hates analogies. 

This debate has made me question – not my beliefs – but my response to having them attacked. Pride is something I struggle with. I want to be right, I want to engage in the debate in an intellectual sense and essentially prove my faith* and convince these guys they should convert – and be just like me. Which again, kind of misses the point of Christianity – because I should be trying to convince people to be just like Christ. Here’s the rub – the Bible promises that the world’s wisdom will see Christianity and its message of a capitally punished God as foolishness (1 Corinthians) – so I can’t expect to be convincing, nor can I mention this in some kind of argumentative context – because to argue the veracity of something using that thing doesn’t really stack up. I can’t say “the Bible is true because it says it is.” Nor can I say “the Bible is true because I have experienced that it is” – because that is subjective. I also can’t say – “the Bible is true because all the observable evidence (ie pain and suffering) suggest it is” – because all the observable evidence is observed, and compartmentalised based on the starting hypothesis – ie if God is not there it’s all just chance and coincidence. My basic instinct in this debate is to debate. To apologise (in the “mount a defence for” sense) for my beliefs. Is this the right way to respond? I’m not convinced that it is – not in the frames of science and philosophy.

Science is limited. Science has merit, and a place in the world. Science answers questions of cause and effect, and makes observations to test and demonstrate hypotheses – science is good at what it does. What it can’t do is test that which can not be observed – and it is limited to the theories and subjective whims of those testing them through hypothesis. I can observe “facts” and essentially plug them into my frame of reference to demonstrate a theory. The theory always comes first.

History also has limits – postmodern criticism has merit – but to rob any text of the chance of being true and accurate objective history does a disservice to our understanding of human history and anthropology. Why can’t we trust the accounts of a number of people recorded in the one book – from very separate original documents – to reveal truth? This exercise also taught me that those who are passionately disinterested – or dispassionately interested – in Christianity have very little knowledge of the actual text of the Bible – and its history. Instead relying on years of inaccuracies and insipid, purposeful lies. “The bible has been changed over time” is one of those half truths that misses the point – it hasn’t been changed by whim – but by desire to bring it closer to the original text based on rigourous academic scholarship. It has been used as a political tool in the past – and those who most stridently opposed that were the Christian church – and these men were martyred for the cause. This sort of shoddy criticism has no grounding in anything but what my atheist friend told me in primary school so I believed it.

I think it’s unhelpful to present this debate (theism v atheism) in the sphere of the rational, observable or philosophical. To do so puts the existence of God on our terms – a God by nature transcends the rational and observable. God sets the rules for this debate – not humans. To move God into these realms, and into our terms is not rational or reasonable – if God exists then there is no reason for him to conform to our experience of the world – or human conventions of understanding – anymore than there is reason for us to bark when communicating to dogs. We do not do this when interacting with our subordinates (the animal kingdom).

Thanks to Dawkins, Atheists now tackle these arguments by realigning the burden of proof and changing the terminology – now we, “theists” have to demonstrate why God must exist – before even tackling which God they should believe in. Therefore the Bible is dismissed as an authority (partly because post-modern literary criticism means nothing can be trusted as true anymore), Christians can’t claim any unique authority on the debate on the basis of the historicity of Jesus – particularly because any of the eye-witness accounts to his life must now be ignored or disputed, any third party accounts of Christianity – and the leaders of the early church – are not as valuable as “modern science” and observation – and the default position is now that the complexity of life is a product of randomness and an infinite spectrum of time. I don’t really understand that being the default. Atheists are now critical of the “watchmaker” assumption – ie when you see a wristwatch in a field you assume based on complexity the watch was designed and placed there. I think that’s something that’s been slowly indoctrinated. Atheists are now taught to proselytize in the same way they accuse Christians of brainwashing their children and others.

One of these guys scoffed at my suggestion that his lifestyle is the result of his atheism – and vice versa. He suggested the two were not linked. The atheist point of view by definition dismisses the idea of God – and hence questions regarding whether their atheism influences the way they live are flawed – theism v atheism is still the fundamental question that ultimately shapes the worldview of the individual – morals, ethics, philosophy and conduct all stem from this fundamental position – whether we (or they) like it or not.

The “church” has been responsible for some terrible injustices over time – or at least these have been conducted in the name of the church – ignoring the wildly publicised misdemeanours and wars, in a broader sense the church has failed to adequately educate casual church attendees. Both these atheists had backgrounds including church attendance. Both had strong – and in my opinion inaccurate – understandings of the “teachings of the church” and felt adequately qualified to make assessments on the basis of their childhood experiences. This may be unfairly representing their opinions and positions – but in my opinion something as serious as religion – and the underlying foundation we build our lives on – should be considered by adult minds. Both in the case of people who have always been Christians – and in the case of people who have chosen not to be. In either case I’d hate to think this is the kind of decision you make at 10 and never revisit.

It’s been a pretty interesting discussion all told – and I’d love any readers input on the issue. This post ended up being much longer than I planned.

*Not technically scientifically possible because faith is the belief in something that can’t be observed.

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God will be God and you will know it

God has been getting a bit of publicity lately – and not much of it is good. This is likely to continue as long as his representatives (the church) keep screwing up their key messages. Public Relations strategy centres on sticking to a key message – and not straying to the peripherals. Andrew Denton’s balanced “God on My Side” was screened on the ABC last night and showed the American Religious Right for what it is – a mixture of crazy zealots hoping to bring about Armageddon through war in Israel and a group of well intentioned Christians keen to spread the gospel through whatever mean necessary. As Christians we are called to preach Christ crucified. To proclaim the “good news” that Jesus is the key to forgiveness for our inability and refusal to live life God’s way, using puppets is fine for that. We are not called to get on TV and promise new pancreases to diabetics. While the concept of judgement is a pillar of Christianity there is no biblical text to support the idea that we should be acting to hasten judgement – instead we’re called to make hay while the sun shines (John 4:35). The church’s inability to stay on message sees it getting bogged down in debates it doesn’t belong in. Obscure theological debates (premillenialism v postmillenialism etc) should be played out in bible colleges and published journals – not fought out in public between churches or Christians. The issues of sexuality and sin – which the bible is quite clear on – need to be presented in the light of the gospel – yes, the bible clearly says God is against homosexuality, but he’s also against lying, any sex outside of marriage, pornography and any form of theft. People who indulge in any of these areas are unfit for ministry – but are more than acceptable to God if they repent. There is no sin that God won’t forgive (except final and absolute rejection of him). When the church publicly condemns sexual sin it opens itself up for accusations of hypocrisy. It is not the church’s place to judge – or condemn anyone – there but for the grace of God we all go. While a belief in Christianity fundamentally (and logically) renders every other religion false – that does not mean that we should hate – or want to nuke – followers of other religions.
The intersection of Christianity and politics is one that has raised the ire of many over the years – and interestingly the separation of church and state is not really constitutionally enshrined – the role of Christians in parliament is something Ben and I have fiercely debated all year. Non-Christians should not be worried that Christians will impose their system of morals and beliefs onto everybody as law – Christians are called to be counter cultural – not to set the culture. We should be lights to the world – we can’t do that if everybody is doing the same thing.
The scary reality is that God is real, he’s in control. If God is God – we can not dictate how he should rule, or make him in our own image. We can’t stand here and shake our fists at perceived injustices.That’s not how the philosophical concept of God works – nor is it how the God of the Bible works. People who have problems with God have a problem. People who have a problem with the behaviour of the church I can sympathise with. There have been terrible atrocities committed in God’s name. There are people around with a terrible understanding of how the Bible fits together. But I can’t help but lack tolerance for this guy. Dawkins is the pin up boy for atheists. He has written a number of books criticising belief in God. He is to atheism what terrorists are to Islam and what the crazy eyed fundamentalists from the American far right are to Christianity. But he’s also widely respected as a scholar and an intellectual. Dawkin’s extremes make his fellow atheists so uncomfortable they feel compelled to explain his statements – in the same way that Muslims dealt with the uncovered meat statements from Hilaly. While I’m not sure I completely agree with the idea of persuading people based on the odds – Pascal had a logical argument or wager supporting belief in God.
Being a Christian isn’t the latest intellectual trend – but the church does itself a disservice whenever it strays from its calling and into the murk and mire of stupid debates. Let God worry about when the world is going to end. Let God worry about bringing punishment to sinners. The more we focus on what divides the church, and what divides society, the less people are inclined to listen to what we’re saying and the more likely we are to do something stupid like invading the Middle East under the pretext of a holy war. In conclusion – Dawkins is an idiot but then the wider church is full of them.