Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Word of God - Part 1 - Your input please...

I was raised to believe that the Bible was the 'Word of God'. These days I'm not so sure. But just out of interest, if there are any Christians reading this blog, I'd be very interested to know how you would go about demonstrating to a non-believer that the Bible actually is the Word of God? Feel free to interpret the 'Word of God' phrase in any way you want. Please comment.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why suffering?

I just listened to last week's Unbelievable show on the subject of 'Why Suffering?'

The show followed the usual format of a Christian, in this instance Sharon Dirckx, author of "Why?", and an atheist, Alom Shaha, author of "The Young Atheist's Handbook", but this week also featured two short interviews with Christians who have had to deal with great suffering in their own lives.

What the show failed to do was really engage with the 'Why?' question. Which is a big shame because that suggests to me that Sharon Dirckx's book also fails to get to grips with it. I have to say that Alom's issues against God, in the light of suffering, were far better expressed and thought through than Sharon's fairly standard apologetic arguments in favour of God. It became clear to me, in the final interchange between the two, that Alom had won the debate.

But anyway, what interested (and frustrated) me more in the programme was the two interviews with suffering people. 

The first was with a guy who had lost his wife and toddler son in a car accident (he wasn't in the car), but his young daughter (who was in the car) had survived unharmed. By his own admission he was a nominal Christian when the accident happened, but he turned to a much stronger faith following the accident, and spoke of the strengthening he experienced through God and the support he received from the Christian community. He also spoke of how he is blessed now with another wife and three more children.

The second interview was with a woman who has suffered with MS for the past 12 years, and has a fairly hard time looking after her daughter as a consequence. What seems to have helped her through all this is the help, support, and assistance from people in her Church, and a feeling of hope for her future - in heaven - which she believes comes from God.

The thing that struck me about both stories, was that they could both be retold in the context of a different deity and a different religion, and the stories would still ring true.

The guy, faced with death, thought "this can't be the end for my son", refused to believe the secular take on things, saw a religious symbol (in his case he saw a cross on the wall of the mortuary), and decided to investigate the faith of his ancestors, in order to find meaning. He found meaning, hope and support in a religious setting. I have no doubt that exactly the same process could happen for a nominal Muslim in Pakistan, or for a nominal Hindu in India, or whatever. All religions offer community, support, hope, and meaning. The problem is they cannot all be true. In this instance, there is no clear evidence that supports the Christian faith up against any other faith. Its great that the guy found the strength and support to carry on, but his story offers no evidence that Christianity is any more true than any other religious claim.

In the case of the woman, while her story was very different, the same could be said. For her it was the support of the religious community and the hope that her faith provides which has enabled her to cope. But I'm sure you could play out the same scenario in a Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, setting and the same processes would work. You don't need a 'real' God behind the system, what you need is the promise of hope and the assistance of friends. These are available in all religions. 

Of course, this is where 'secular humanism' fails. While it can (sometimes) offer the help and support of like-minded individuals, it has no promise of hope for the future.

But maybe we need the promise of hope, even if that hope is false. Maybe its the promise, not the reality, that enables us to continue through the tough times.

Oddly enough, I listened to this podcast just after reading a chapter in Valerie Tarico's book "Trusting Doubt" (proper review to follow, once I've finished the book) which was basically on the subject of the shared values of most religions. Which probably explains my thoughts above.
The 14th Dalai Lama apparently said:
"Every religion emphasises human improvement, love respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion has more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."
I'm not totally sure that's 100% true, I'm sure some religions are founded on other principles, but in general terms, the main, popular, religions all endorse these values. Generally religious people of all religions strive to be humble, charitable, and trustworthy. So in almost any religion, a suffering person should find a community to support them.

What these people have found, in their suffering, is not the love of God, but the support of humanity. Just because they have found it in a religious context does not mean that the religion is in any way true.

So the question remains. Why suffering? This show certainly didn't answer the question. And I'm unlikely to read the book that the show was promoting. But I still find it very hard to reconcile the Evangelical view of God with the fact of suffering. A God defined by love, and unlimited in power would do more to help those he loves. I have yet to hear a decent apologetic response to this.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to get to heaven or hell?

I was at church on Sunday. The preacher was speaking on Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the "Rich man and Lazarus". The sermon ended up being a traditional 'full gospel' type message, with an invitation to become a Christian at the end.

The problem I have with this is that the passage he was preaching on doesn't contain the full gospel, or anything like it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the passage in question actually disagrees with the traditional gospel message in a number of important ways. So let's have a look at this passage:
Luke 16:19-31 (NIV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The basic assumption of this passage regarding how to get to heaven or hell is plain - if you are rich, live in luxury, and ignore the needs of the poor in this life, then you will end up in hell, whereas if you have been poor and had a hard life in this world, you will get blessing and riches in the next. This is a thoroughly Jewish and not-Christian view of eternal realities. It is far closer to eastern concepts of karma (you get what you deserve) than it ever is to Christian concepts of redemption and salvation (Jesus paid, so you get blessings that you don't deserve).

The preacher, and Christians in general don't notice this problem because he/they have a fundamental assumption that all parts of the bible have the same message and the same viewpoint. All this comes from divine inspiration, so Luke 16 must agree with John 3:16...

I'm not sure the writer of Luke 16 and the writer of John 3 would have agreed on everything. They clearly don't agree here. Here, salvation has nothing to do with belief in Christ, and everything to do with karmic justice. Here, as in several other parts of Luke (and Acts), being rich is seen as bad in and of itself, and the best thing a rich person can do to attain eternal life is give away their riches to the poor.

Of course, its not just Luke that has differing views on how to get to heaven or hell than John, parts of Matthew and Mark also seem to have other opinions, like the famous parable of the Prodigal Son; there all that is necessary for salvation is repentance, again with no reference to faith in Jesus, much like the message preached by John the Baptist.

There is also something funny going on in the final verses of this passage. The original storyteller (whether Jesus, Luke, or someone else) suggests that "Moses and the Prophets" (i.e. the old testament books, minus the 'writings' like the Psalms, etc.) contains all the info you need to know how to get to heaven. Live according to these rules and you will be saved. Once again, this is a Jewish message - be a good Jew and you'll go to heaven. But the final verse appears to take a side-swipe at the Christian message! Could the original version of this story (presumably in edited form here) really have been casting scorn on the story of the resurrection of Jesus? From one point of view it could be read to say that Jesus' resurrection is irrelevant to salvation, and what people really need to do is listen to Moses and the Prophets... Is this an anti-Christian message that has been 'sanitised' and adapted to (partially) fit with the Christian message?

Finally, if we consider that there were oral versions of this story in circulation which may have varied slightly from each other in each retelling, and the version we have in Luke is only one version of the story among many (and not necessarily the original or definitive version), might we also speculate about some of the others? What if one variation on the story considered that the requested resurrection of Lazarus actually happened - that Lazarus returned from the dead, and sure enough his resurrection wasn't sufficient to cause people to repent. What if that re-telling of the parable became narrated as an event rather than merely a parable? Could it have been this story that the writer of the 4th gospel heard and included in his story - not as a parable, but as a miraculous act by Jesus? Given that miraculous resurrections are rate events, while story modifications happen all the time, this seems quite plausible...

Are you sure that all this stuff is divinely inspired and accurate reporting of what Jesus said and did? I'm just not sure anymore.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Great Omission - What is being dead like?

One thing that always struck me as being a bit odd about the resurrection and post-resurrection stories in the New Testament is that nobody - not the disciples, not Jesus, not anyone else - raises the issue of what Jesus experienced during his three days of being dead.

If somebody I knew had spent some time dead, and then come back to life, the very first things I'd ask would be "So, what was being dead like?", "Tell me about heaven?", and so on.

The fact that none of the characters in the NT stories do this simply does not ring true, at least if the Acts or John chronology is accurate. (Matthew and Luke's accounts don't really give any time for conversation between resurrection and 'ascension', Mark's account, of course, doesn't go anywhere after the empty tomb.)

If there was time for conversation after the resurrection, but before the ascension, then Jesus must have discussed what being dead was like. But this conversation is not recorded in any of the writings of the new testament, whether in the gospels or the other writings. This suggests to me that nobody had a conversation with Jesus about what being dead was like. And the only conceivable reasons for this are either Jesus didn't come back from the dead, or that he did but didn't speak to any of his disciples (or anyone else for that matter) after he did.

But if either of those are the case, then the accounts of Acts and John report fictional stories.

Sigh. Here we are again. Yet another chain or reasoning that leads me to conclude that some, at least, of the biblical stories are fiction...