Friday, June 28, 2013

Heart or head?

For some reason I've been reflecting on the idea of believing something 'in your heart' compared to believing it 'in your head'. What happens when heart and head don't agree on what they believe? Can your heart-belief cause your head-belief to shift, and vice versa?

Fundamentally, and this is an issue I've been struggling with for several years now, what happens when you believe something passionately with your heart, yet become convinced that it can't be true in your head? What happens, as far as I can tell, is that the heart simply has to follow the head eventually.

Christianity makes emotional sense to me. So many things that are done in church seem to work on an emotional level. And not just on an emotional level, but on a practical level too. When the church gets it right, being part of that church is a real blessing, it provides real community, real emotional and practical support, real companionship, conviction in unity, a reason to be altruistic, for some a reason to keep living at all, it gives a real sense of the presence of God and an apparent pathway into transcendence which is almost impossible to convey to someone who has never experienced it.

Put simply, as I have said on this blog before, worship works. Church works. Corporate prayer works. All of this can be a great and life-enhancing experience. Put together, it is more than enough evidence to make the heart believe in the truth of Jesus and the claims of Christianity.

But. Is there a reality beyond the psychological experience? Christianity makes promises for what you can get in this life, and in the life to come. Indeed, Christianity promises a life to come. For a great many people in 'good' churches, Christianity delivers on its promise for this life. But, of course, what it can't do is demonstrate - at all - that it can deliver on its other promises. Good feelings now cannot imply anything about whether there is a post-mortem existence or reveal any aspects of that existence, good or bad. This disconnect is a problem for my head.

Meanwhile, my head has been looking at the evidence for the historical reliability of the claims in the bible. And the claims are simply not historically reliable. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is just as much of a disconnect between the historical claims of Christianity and contemporary experience as there is between contemporary experience and the promise of life to come.

To summarise, Christianity seems to work in practice in the present, but it is wrong about the past, and it cannot demonstrate that it knows anything about the future.

Inevitably, the shifting beliefs of my head have pulled my heart into a disconnect with its former emotional beliefs. I no longer feel the unity of church or feel the transcendence of worship. But to get that back would mean having to simply switch off all my critical reasoning and reject or forget what I believe to be true about reality.

If you've never been at this crossroads in your life, you really can't know what its like. Any comments from confirmed atheists about it being a clear and obvious choice are irrelevant. Because they don't know. I can totally understand the situation of that character in the original Matrix movie who chose to opt back into the Matrix system, because he wanted the taste of the food there, even though he knew it was false. I've taken the red pill, I've seen what the outside is like, yet the fiction of the inside is very appealing still. 

No conclusion to all this. Not yet... Even if the end is inevitable, there's still some wrestling to be done.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

...the reason for the hope that you have...

1 Peter 3:15 says: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
Its a famous verse, often quoted and applied by Christians. The thing is, in my experience, Christians usually seem to interpret the verse to mean something other than what it actually says. What it does not say is always be prepared to explain or defend why you believe what you believe, what it says is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have.

So what is the hope that Christians have, and in what way is this hope different from the hope of non-Christians?

You see, I think pretty much everybody in the entire world hopes that when they die physically, that  this won't be the end of their consciousness, and that they'll go somewhere pleasant, possibly somewhere better than here. Pretty much everyone hopes that this is true, even if they don't actually believe it.

Hope and belief are totally different things. You can hope for many things that you may believe to be unlikely or impossible.

Why do we hope that death is not the end? Because we're human. And we worry about the future and the unknown. We hope that the future will generally be full of joy and happiness and relatively free from pain and suffering. We hope that this applies on this side of our inevitable death, but of course we hope that it continues beyond that too. 

So the Christian hope is really no different from the hope of everybody else. 

What Christianity (and other religious systems) brings to the table is a fear that there is potentially pain and suffering after death. For eternity. So adopting the Christian world-view actually increases the potential of worry for the future. (Likewise for other religions.) In a purely naturalistic world-view, there is probably the belief that death is the end of consciousness, and the faint hope that maybe its not, and there might be something nice beyond. But no real fear of death. (As Woody Allen said "I am not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens." As someone else said "Where I am, death is not, where death is, I am not" - why should you fear something which, by definition, you won't be there to experience?) But the real fear of judgement and possible damnation after death comes purely from a religious world-view.

The Christian hope for salvation in the hereafter is predicated on Christian belief in judgement and hell. Without the latter, there is no meaning in the former. The 'good news' of the gospel relies on acceptance of the bad news inherent in the gospel first. 

So the Christian, attempting to give a reason for their hope in Christ for salvation, first has to give a reason why they fear the possibility of hell. And the reason they fear hell is that they have been convinced by the bible or the church that they are inadequate and don't deserve anything but hell. They've been convinced that they are sinners. Which literally means that they have 'missed the mark' and having missed the mark, they don't deserve a prize, but rather actually deserve punishment. What sort of a system convinces people that they are bad people, failures and inadequate? Only one that seeks to control people. If God is good, the message would be one of empowerment, but it really isn't.

Last time I heard a time of 'open prayer' in church I was struck by how many people there prayed about their own inadequacy and weakness. The message of Christianity, and this is reinforced in the believer in many ways, is not only that they are weak and inadequate, but more than that, that they have to be weak in order to be saved.

So ultimately, the reason the Christian hopes in salvation through Christ is because they believe they are inadequate, don't deserve anything good, actually deserve punishment, and all they can do is admit weakness and hope on the grace of God.

I'm not sure that is really good news.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jesus is alive...

We sang a song in church last week, for which the main focus of the lyrics and the 'hook' of the tune was the words "Jesus is alive!" This phrase, in a variety of languages, has been one of the main declarations of Christian worship for the best part of two thousand years. But singing it this week made me question why. Why is this phrase a primary article of worship? Its not a statement about something Jesus has done (for us), but is rather a statement of belief in an attribute of Jesus.

In contemporary Christian understanding of Jesus, he has been alive for all of eternity past and will be alive for all of eternity future. Yes, there was that brief three day period when he was apparently - in some sense - dead, but that's barely a blip in an eternity of life. I realsed, when singing those words last week, that the message of the song wasn't 'Jesus is alive again, having been dead', it wasn't a celebration of resurrection 'Jesus is risen', but it was simply a statement of belief that the Christian God is a living God, not a lifeless one like the idols of the pagans.

Then I realised that this statement of worship pre-dates Christianity. Its all through the Old Testament too. God is 'the living God' (e.g. Deut 5:26; Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26; etc.) and oaths in the OT were sworn 'as surely as Yahweh lives' (e.g. Judges 8:19; Ruth 3:13; 1 Samuel 14:39; etc.). I found myself thinking that the Christian declaration 'Jesus is alive' is basically an update of the OT statement about God. Then I searched and found that the phrase 'Jesus is alive' (or something equivalent) does not actually occur in the NT!

The most common phrasing for a similar thought that I found in the NT is Jesus / Christ 'has been raised', although there are a few 'has risen' type statements in the gospels. But the most common type of phrasing describes an action that was done by God to Christ - God (the active participant) raised Jesus (to whom no action is attributed) from the dead. The statement is not about something Jesus did or about his attributes. So if that's the NT way of thinking, then why has the 'Jesus is alive' type thinking come to be so dominant?

This return to OT-type thinking seems to be a post canonical shift. Its as if the OT thinking about God has been transferred onto the NT character of Jesus, making him the active participant. This looks like a harmonisation of Christian thinking and Jewish thinking. Some speculate this happened in the 2nd century resulting in the emergence of the 'Catholic' variety of Christianity.

Once again, I can't help but think that the conflict between nascent Catholicism and Marcionism is hiding somewhere in here. In Marcionism (the earliest form of Christianity we know much about!) the Father God who raised Jesus from the dead was emphatically not the same God as the God of the OT. This religion was completely distinct from Jewish thinking. Meanwhile, as Margaret Barker suggests, there was a popular non-monotheistic version of Judaism which meshed well with Christian thought - that Yahweh in OT times and Jesus in NT times were the same character - the son of Elyon, the Most High God. If this is true, then Yahweh, the living God, became Jesus, the God who is alive. Throw all this into a melting pot and fight it out until only one 'orthodox' hybrid religion emerges, and it is easy to see how the idea of Jesus as the living God could win out. Maybe.

Worth thinking about though.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Bow or rainbow?

I've blogged before about the problems inherent in the story of Noah and the flood (indeed, it was my very first doubt on this blog). But when thinking about the difference between the scientific method and the religions method the other day, I found myself thinking about the rainbow after the flood. Science does a pretty good job of explaining why there is a rainbow when the sun comes out, after the rain.

What I find interesting about the religious explanation is that the majority of Christians these days don't seem to understand the symbolism that is in the original text, and so they misunderstand the original intent of the story, as far as I can tell.

Modern translations tend to say something like this: "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 NIV).

Older (and more literal translations) say something more like this: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 KJV).

Not much of a difference, you're probably thinking, 'bow' and 'rainbow' are basically the same thing, aren't they? Well, no. A rainbow is a rainbow, but a bow can mean a rainbow, or it could mean a weapon, as in a bow and arrow. Indeed, this appears to be the primary meaning of the word as used in the OT Hebrew.

What has just happened in the biblical story? God has warred against humanity and pretty much wiped it out. The appearance of a rainbow is explained as being a symbol (or maybe the real thing) of God putting down his weapon as a token that he is at war with us no more. So whenever we see the bow in the sky, we know that it is not in his hands, ready to unleash death on us again.

But by translating Genesis with the word 'rainbow', the entire message of this verse is lost. The bow switches from being a sign of war (albeit war ended) to being a sign of peace.

A very minor thought, but I thought I'd share it... I wonder how many other subtleties like this have been lost in translation?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Science and Religion...

Yet another post inspired by a recent Unbelievable podcast, I really must think for myself some day... 

Anyway, these thoughts spring from the show on "Can the Bible be retold as science?" featuring a discussion between Russell Stannard (Christian and Physicist) and Steve Jones (Atheist and Geneticist). Jones has recently published a book saying that the bible is really an early attempt to explain the world in a kind of semi-scientific manner, and the show discussed this. The fact that most of the bible clearly isn't anything like this at all didn't really come into the conversation.

This was one of the rare shows on Unbelievable where the usually impartial host Justin Brierley clearly picked a side to be on. Obviously, we know he's a Christian, but here he definitely sided with Stannard more than he usually does in such debates.

But anyway, the discussion eventually landed on the 'non-overlapping magisteria' theme. Brierley and Stannard were quite emphatic that there were some questions that science cannot answer, but religion can. Jones appeared to grudgingly agree with them. But they never got into the meat of how this actually happens. The whole discussion was expressed in terms of 'science' does this, and 'religion' does that, without actually asking the important question of how either of them answer anything.

The 'scientific method' is well established and basically goes like this:
  1. Propose hypotheses
  2. Carry out tests or observations to either confirm or refute hypotheses
  3. Discount refuted hypotheses, perhaps modify unrefuted hypotheses
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 until hypothesis is confirmed by a reasonable amount of testing and is not refuted.
  5. Always be willing to let new evidence refute an 'established' theory...
In this way, science establishes 'facts' and increases our knowledge of the universe.

But what about religion? What is the 'religious method'?

There is a science vs religion flowchart that you've probably seen that caricatures religion is basically being a set of ideas that are unchangable, irrespective of how much contradictory evidence there is. That is simplistic and in many cases outright wrong. But the question remains, how does religion answer the questions of life?

In listening to the Unbelievable podcast, I couldn't help but think that most of the time when the folk were talking about 'religion', what they actually meant was 'theology', but even then that didn't help me in my line of thinking; how does theology answer the questions of life?

On reflection, I think there are three basic methods which 'religion' uses to establish truth:
  1. Observation, hypothesis testing, etc. - that is, basically something like the scientific method.
  2. Philosophical deduction, often linked with meditation on holy texts or traditional thought.
  3. Revelation.
Of course, in religious thinking, revelation trumps philosophical deduction, which in turn trumps the scientific method. In other words, any 'facts' established by revelation are considered to be outwith the realm of scientific enquiry, and no amount of contradictory evidence can ever refute them.

To the scientific mind, of course, this line of reasoning is nonsense. If an established 'fact' can be refuted (beyond reasonable doubt), then we should dispense with it, irrespective of how the fact was established in the first place. Indeed, if the evidence refutes the 'fact', then this leads the scientific mind to question the validity of the method that established it in the first place. So not only is the 'fact' dismissed but the process of revelation is also given less weight, or is dismissed altogether. 

On thinking through these issues I have come to realise that pretty much everything asserted by religion (well, I'm thinking specifically of Christianity here, but presumably this goes for all the other religions that I don't know as much about) eventually can be traced back to some claim of 'revelation' or 'inspiration'. It may be revelation to someone a long time ago, which was then written down, which then became scripture, which was then meditated upon, which was then interpreted, which then became doctrine, and so on, but at the end of the day, if you follow the chain of thought back, somewhere we end up with inspiration or revelation, however implicit this is.

So, once we strip all the layers away, what religion is left with is claims of revelation. Within any given religious group, these may be taken as authoritative, but viewed from the outside, these are almost certain to be taken as worthless, irrespective of whether the outside observer is an atheist or a theist of another flavour. Indeed, even within a religion, say Christianity, large groups of adherents would consider certain claims of revelation or inspiration made by other groups to be worthless.

For example, the church I grew up in was very skeptical of the 'gift of tongues', so any message received by someone through the 'gift of interpretation of tongues' on hearing a 'message' delivered in an unknown language would have been completely dismissed by them. This revelation pathway would not be accepted as valid. Indeed, for the church I grew up in, the only valid revelation pathway is the existing bible. They firmly believed that God has nothing new to say that hasn't already been said in the bible or through Jesus. But other parts of the church don't hold to this kind of belief and the revelation pathway remains open.

But if an 'inspired revelation' today is not possible, then why should a similar revelation 2000 years ago be any more valid? We actually know less about the historical revelation pathway than we do about the modern one. In modern times we can find out about the person 'receiving' the inspiration, we can assess their trustworthiness, etc. Going back to biblical times, in many instances we don't know who the people were or anything about their trustworthiness, and we really don't know how faithful the transmission of the information was from the moment it was first 'received' (or conceived) until it was recorded in written form in the bible. To be honest, there are even questions about the accuracy of the written transmission in some instances.

Basically it boils down to this: how can you validate a revelation? And I think the answer has to be, unless it happens to you, you can't. (And even if it does happen to you there may be room for doubt.)

So what we find is that science has a tried and tested and justifiable method for establishing facts about the universe, while religion doesn't.

Friday, June 07, 2013


I love this little piece of forensic textual criticism. Not sure what weight I'd give it, but it is a little bit of evidence in favour of something or other...

John 3:23 says "Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized."

Fine. The only problem with this is that none of the other gospels or any other historical source records a place called Aenon. The place is simply not there. It was claimed to be near Salim/Salem, which is attested elsewhere, but not only is there no mention of Aenon in history, there's no suitable location in geography or archaeology either. 

So it appears that John either knew of a place that nobody else knew of, or his source gave him false information. Of course, if the writer of the fourth gospel was fed false information, he can't have been an eyewitness, as some claim, but we came to that conclusion by other means long ago on this blog.

Anyway, assuming that John is working with false information, where did he get this wrong information from? The amazing thing is that textual criticism offers a fairly compelling case for the source.

As you probably know, not all the manuscripts of the new testament documents agree in every detail. Sometimes a 'jot' or 'tittle' is different between two otherwise identical manuscripts, sometimes the odd word has been changed here or there.

One passage in Luke's gospel (3:18) is generally rendered thus: "And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them." Its the word 'exhorted' here that is of interest.

In the 'Textus Receptus' (i.e. the generally accepted manuscript of the NT), the Greek word here translated as 'exhorted' is 'parakalon' (sorry for transliterating the Greek into Roman letters, but Greek letters confuse me), but in one variant manuscript (Codex Bezae) the word used is 'parainon', which has basically the same meaning, but is clearly a different word.

D. Paul Glaue ("Der alteste Text der geschichtlichen Bucher des Neuen Testaments," Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kude der alteren Kirche, Vol 45, 1954, pp. 90-108) pointed out that it looks like the author of John was using an early manuscript of the 'parainon' variant text of Luke as a source and misunderstood the meaning. Remember, he was reading a document which was written all in capital letters, with no spaces between words. So when faced with an unusual letter combination, he wouldn't necessarily know how to break the words apart. Splitting the letters into 'par'  (in the vicinity of) and 'ainon' (springs; fountains) gives the text an entirely different meaning, something like: "And [he did] many other things, in the vicinity of Ainon, he [preached] the good news to people." So it looks like John mistook Ainon as a place name, and inferred from it that there was water there, and so it was a good place to do some baptising...

Make of that what you will.

But if it is true, then this is evidence that the author of John copied from the gospel of Luke.

[For more info, read this.]

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Science and Faith...

Just listened to an interview with 'the Pope's Astronomer' Brother Guy Consolmagno over on the Unbelievable podcast. He comes over as a nice and intelligent guy who knows science and who knows faith, and sees no conflict between the two.

I found his outlook on life very interesting, and he made one comment which I must share with you here...

He said: "Faith is what you do when you don't have the facts and you have to make a decision anyway."

Fascinating. For him, "faith" is an action, not a belief. Its not 'blind faith' but rather a way of using your belief structure (presumably at least partially based on experience and evidence) to make decisions in contexts where you have no information or insufficient evidence. Of course, people of all belief structures have to do this, whether theists, atheists, or whatever. By this definition, atheists use faith all the time. Hmmm.

Anyway, I also found his general outlook on life and reality interesting, if slightly frustrating. Without using these words, he has a 'presuppositional' approach to reality. He says that he starts with the fundamental belief in God and then studies the universe (he is an astronomer, after all) on the understanding that all of it is God's creation; he sees it 'through the eyes of faith'. Nothing he has observed contradicts his fundamental presupposition. His world view appears to be self-consistent. He also admits that he has friends who start from an atheist presupposition and have managed to construct entirely self-consistent atheistic world views. In other words, he is happy to believe that the all the evidence that the universe has to offer is simultaneously consistent with the presumption that there is a creator God and with the presumption that there is not. Fundamentally this means that he believes that study of the universe itself cannot be used to give evidence to answer a question 'is there a God?'

I don't know about you, but I find that mindset quite frustrating. For me, if there is a God, it should be evident in 'His' creation. If a detailed and thorough study of the universe cannot lead an honest seeker to an answer about whether there is a God or not, then what is the point? How can anyone justifiably believe in a God? Is it really just a matter of arbitrarily deciding to believe or not, and then living consistent with that? Surely there must be objective evidence one way or the other?

Brother Consolmango seems to think not: "One of the things I see as a trait of God is he always gives us plausible deniability, every time he makes himself known he also says 'if you don't want to believe in me, you don't have to, its your choice'".