What question is Christianity answering?

“If Christianity is the solution, then I don’t believe in the problem” – I suspect many of you would be inclined to think something along these lines. Let’s explore this briefly. I write on this topic as I think it’s important, and in the gracious outworking of God’s plan, others have told me some things that have changed my life and that grip my intellect and view of the world in a way that alternatives have not been able to… So, here you go. (Sorry for the odd layout of these pictures; sorting out the html is too tricky for me. They’re odd books, from what I hear [see, e.g. here], so maybe it’s appropriate.)

become a betterEvery day a FridayIts your time
I was particularly provoked into writing this after hearing a conversation in Burger King earlier in the week. As I sat there by myself killing some time by sipping on a small chocolate shake and half-heartedly pretending to read up on bioinformatics (yeah, my life is exciting), I quickly noticed the conversation occurring a few metres in front of me – bioinformatics textbooks can have that effect. Two uni student-aged guys were discussing Christianity; one a Christian with evangelistic intent, the other a reasonably intelligent skeptic. Neither were hugely well informed, making for rather frustrating listening. As one might expect given the state of teaching in most Auckland churches, even though he was generally the one driving the conversation in terms of topic, the Christian was forced to back down on or admit not knowing an answer to a number of points. He knew what he believed, kind of, but his reasons for doing so were soon found wanting, leaving him with an incoherent muddle of mostly unjustified ideas.

This Christian guy had a remarkably interested interlocutor, but the way ahead for this discussion was strewn with rocks that he was ill-equipped to remove. The conversation began, or I first noticed it, as they debated about the necessity of faith; it moved on to the more comfortable topics of politics and morality, but I’ll stick with that first part. The Christian spoke of perceived psychological benefits – faith gives you hope and security and inner peace – and the non-Christian basically said that he didn’t need it. It was a fair answer; not because faith in Christ is actually an optional add-on to a successful middle-class student life, but because that was how it had, to all intents and purposes, been ‘sold’. The acceptance or rejection of Christianity by a person should not be made to rest on mere aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, perhaps most young adults in churches in Auckland hang their faith (and doubts) on aesthetic factors without seriously considering the alternatives. This is not to say that aesthetics is unimportant or irrelevant, but in explaining and defending the gospel, there is much more that needs to be said. [Why didn’t I say something, you ask? I was considering it, but them getting up to leave after a few minutes was enough of an excuse for me to not leave my introverted comfort zone.]

Christianity is not, in the first instance, answering any of the questions that people in our society commonly come to it (as a worldview) with. How can I be happy? How can I be a better person? How can I have better/more/any sex? What can I do to make more money? How will I survive through the dark and lonely nights and overcome my existential angst? How can I succeed? What political system should govern our society? Should I pursue career/relationship/education-pathway X? How do I achieve inner peace? Why do I spend so much / so little time reading this blog? Intelligent, fascinating, even ‘good’ questions… But, according to the gospel, not the central one.

Surely, Zach, religion is all about being a better person or achieving some sense of transcendence or purpose … what are you saying here?!? Well, I’m saying that I think the important question is actually something like “what is the nature of reality?” Or “what is most fundamental in this universe?” The key is not even, I note, the popular line “how can I have a relationship with God?” which puts the focus on us and can easily be interpreted as being about fulfilment of felt needs. No – the Christian faith is primarily a claim to having truth about the way the world is, and includes a message that one’s life needs to be ordered in light of this reality. It is eminently relevant to you, but it’s not primarily about you.

So, what is reality really like? I could write a block of text about God’s glory, the Word made flesh, the Trinity, community, relationship, rationality, ethics, Christ’s righteousness replacing our failings and orientation towards failure, how service trumps success; and other such theological things, but perhaps the best thing you could do now would be to go and read the Gospel according to Mark (it’s just a few short chapters of text [available here]), and then talk with a Christian (or anyone, really) about what you find there. There are a number of things that might make more sense with the help of some context, but the key message concerning who Jesus claimed to be, and why it matters, should be fairly clear. He claims to be the central figure in human history – it’s worth investigating.

As a biographical side-note for those inclined to psychologise our differences, I don’t think you can just write this off as the ravings of a religious nut (I guess I would say that though). Contrary to what you may think about my upbringing, it took me quite a while to work this stuff out, as I was never really taught it as a child; as those around me had quite a private and pietistic faith, my Christian influence in a concrete sense (prior to my teenage years) was largely limited to a few moralistic lessons in Sunday school and a smattering of Bible knowledge. I remain a Christian today only after serious exploration of Christ’s claims in response to intense questioning. I have good academic results at a postgrad level and am taken seriously by experts in some of those areas, but I would say that I have invested much more heavily in things with which this post is concerned. Sure, ‘everyone knows’ that Christianity is wrong or just a subjective personal belief – but after applying myself to the issue I can’t see why, so if you take that line, do let me know what I’ve missed. If you’re not too sure either, perhaps it’s time to call the bluff.

Christianity is different to other views of the world; unlike atheistic naturalism, it accepts that the world is under-girded by rationality and has a purpose, and unlike various other religions, it is about good news of what God has done through Jesus rather than a self-help plan for getting into heaven or rising above this world. The popular conception of Christianity as a moralistic fairy story is wrong. There’s more to say, but if you’d like to hear it, particularly if you’d like to disagree with me, I’m always happy to chat. I won’t even write a blog-post about it.

the things you know

“I knew that there was no God, that the Old Testament was a gruesome series of atrocity stories and fairy tales, while the gospels were a laughable invention used to defraud the simple.”
Peter Hitchens (who now thinks otherwise)

[from here]

a final thought for the day

as I end the day reading a few paragraphs of a systematic theology and listening to ‘my epic’ -” lower still” (look it up on youtube), I’m reminded of the paradigm of humility, namely Christ. I’ve felt quite humbled over recent months, by my own inability to do as well as I would hope in various areas of life. Yep, I am a rather proud bunny, it would seem, and unjustifiably so. But if Christians have it right, then Jesus was humbled to a far greater extent, though completely undeserving, unlike me.

What struck me today was that this humility wasn’t just an act of self-sacrifice, it wasn’t some kind of masochism that was driving what happened – instead, it was done in order that people might be brought into relationship with God, and more specifically that God would be ‘glorified’, or seen to be exalted. God will effectively be magnified or raised up by people as a result of Christ descending to a shameful and humiliating death.

I’m not working out a full application here, but I find it a powerful image anyway, and it definitely shapes my sense of my place in the world and in relation to God.

“Imperative” – JR Mott on Christianity in NZ, 1896

Christian missionary statesman John R Mott wrote, after his first visit to NZ & Australia in 1896:

“Shall these Colonies become a mighty Christian state, or shall they be  given over to secularism? Shall they be self-centred or shall they become a great missionary force? The answer to these questions hinges on the answer to yet another. Shall the universities remain centres of secularism and scepticism, or shall they become strongholds and distributing centres of Christianity? The need of some voluntary student Christian organization to answer this question in the only safe manner is imperative.”

He was probably right, and if we replace ‘colonies’ with ‘nations’ not much at all has changed, in my opinion.


JR Mott in 1910 – image from Wikipedia


lessons on life

So, here are some thoughts on what I’ve learned from being involved in leadership in a Christian group at uni. They’re mostly pretty cliched and obvious, but I learnt them (or at least claim to have done so), so I’ll share them just in case they could be useful. After years of failure and frustration (amidst other things) with an eventual modicum of success, I think I have, at least, something to say about what not to do. I’m really pleased with what God has done through the group, believe that in the end it was a good use of my time, and look forward to seeing what happens now.

In a word, it’s all about direction – work out the way to go with the help of others, and go there whilst taking people with you. Actually, that is probably too vague to be good advice, so don’t base your life on it.

1) Put people first, or at least high up the list. Great programmes are pointless if people don’t get the point or are too tired to participate. That said, there’s a balance, and a lot of people could benefit from being pushed a little, so it’s not a great idea to immediately cave in to people’s natural apathy or laziness. A group which aims to ‘just hang out and be friends’ isn’t going to be hugely productive (some people will probably disagree with this, as it’s cool in Christian circles to prioritise ‘community’, but to me it’s fairly obvious that mere social groups without a goal are not going anywhere), but getting the scales even is a challenge.

2) There’s lots to do out there. The work of Christian ministry is never done, so please pick a task and get to it. Even try starting something new; there’s plenty of need for that. If you leave it to “others”, there’s a good chance it won’t happen or that they’ll burn out, or both. The God who upholds the universe doesn’t need us, but he does use us and recognising this is part of our function in life.

3) God uses the everyday small things as well as the big things. Making a small effort to chat with a person has sometimes been far more productive than things that many hours (and a few dollars) were invested into. HOWEVER, big events and programmes provide unique opportunities too and can produce unseen fruit, they just need some people around who are able to do the ‘small thing’ of connecting with others too.

4) If you do nothing you won’t be criticised. If you want to do something different than the status quo, to start with you’ll get a mix of flak, lack of comprehension, and merely being ignored (the default position). The movement from being ignored to being criticised can come with a small thrill, as at least they’re engaging! The shift from criticism or lack of comprehension to actual support is gold. Note, constructive criticism which provides real alternatives (and ideally is accompanied by offers of help) is great.

5) Don’t assume you’re on the same page as people – you’re probably not. “Communication is the key” and other such gems of obviousness. This was true in small and big ways within the group, within the wider organisation, and with the leaders of other groups; I think it would’ve helped to check people’s understanding of purpose and practice/method more often. You don’t want to find out at the end of the year that things didn’t work out so well because people privately disagreed on what is important.

So yeah, put first things first, and get to it. If you’re not sure what to put first, please do talk to me about it.

What’s the connection between naturalism and the rationality of belief in God? A response to some of Rosenberg’s claims.

On February 1st, philosopher of biology Alex Rosenberg debated William Lane Craig on whether faith in God is reasonable. It was a very interesting debate and brought up some issues that will I think continue to be discussed in the philosophy of religion for some time. Rosenberg’s productive contribution to that discipline however, looks likely to be minimal. His attempts to engage with serious Christian thought in ethics, and New Testament scholarship were of low quality, so I will focus on some issues relating to science, in which we might expect him to do better.

Prof. Rosenberg, it seems, has a deep and unshakable faith in science. I don’t have a problem with this, and in fact I have appreciated some of his work in the philosophy of biology and hope to read more. His faith in metaphysical naturalism however, is misplaced, in particular if his own beliefs about the absurd consequences of naturalism (which place him on the ‘hardline’ end of the spectrum, in my experience) are true.

Yay, science! This image of various famous scientists is from Wikipedia.

(1) Is Craig confused about the link between atheism and the other purported consequences of science?

Rosenberg claims that Craig misrepresents him. Science (S), Rosenberg has previously said, has certain consequences, including X, Y, Z, (e.g. no intentional states, no moral facts, no ‘selves’) and atheism (A). He thinks Craig is deeply muddled in arguing ‘not X, Y, Z’ and concluding ‘not A’ while still accepting Science, S. He is not logically entitled to either conclusion. These are fair points, if Rosenberg has indeed understood Craig’s argument.

In his own rebuttal, Craig re-interprets Rosenberg’s scheme by replacing ‘Science’ with ‘Scientism’ (a.k.a. epistemological naturalism, EN). I have not read Rosenberg’s book, but this seems an unlikely reconstruction to me. Granting that Craig’s distinction between EN and MN holds, I don’t see how EN by itself could entail X,Y,Z. It is more plausible that Rosenberg holds to MN on the basis of his understanding of the implications of science, and draws various conclusions from that more substantive doctrine. Perhaps Rosenberg starts with EN and shifts into MN, I do not know.

Regardless, Craig’s overall strategy can be defended here. As I see it, he disagrees with Rosenberg’s use of the term ‘science’. Where Rosenberg uses ‘Science’, a better term is ‘Metaphysical Naturalism’ (MN). If the logical consequences of MN are false, then MN must also be false. The falsehood of MN still doesn’t though, on my interpretation of Rosenberg’s scheme, entail the falsehood of atheism. Craig is however, I think, offering a kind of contrastive explanation – he argues not that the falsehood of naturalism entails theism, but rather that naturalism is false and that the alternative for which there is evidence is theism. Remember, he has arguments for theism which are independent of his critiques of naturalism by way of its untenable consequences. In doing this, he is implicitly denying the connection between the truth of scientific claims and MN.

To rephrase, Craig seems to think that Rosenberg’s problem with theism is that he holds to EN, but Craig argues that EN should not be a problem as some of Craig’s arguments fit nicely within an EN framework. If this is the case, I think Craig is mistaken, for Rosenberg quite clearly holds to MN and that’s the problem.

Rosenberg seems to think that Craig is unable to show what he needs to merely by denying MN – he needs to attack atheism directly and should leave MN alone as a mere distraction. Craig is right to attack MN however, because if MN is true then theism is false. If MN is false, theism has lost a significant opponent and if the evidence for theism stands, then theism seems to be the most plausible option on the table.

(2) The applicability of maths to the physical universe.

I’ll work more on this later, but Rosenberg seems to construe this as a kind of design argument – something like ‘out of all of the mathematical objects out there, only particular ones (a limited subset) describe our universe, therefore design’. I say this as his response is to point to the vast number of mathematical objects and functions which are possible, and to suggest that we’re simply narrow-minded if we conclude design from the subset which is applicable to the physical universe.

This is not how I’ve thought about this argument before, but I will think more on it.

(3) Science has no use for God in its explanations. Therefore no God.

In his last speech (supposedly a ‘summary’), Rosenberg introduced a new argument. He says that “God makes no contribution to the predictive power of any part of any of the sciences”, and therefore, due to the absence of a role for Him, science provides “a considerable reason to deny the existence of God”.  Also, “If God could do as much for science as the number 2, then physicists would be much more receptive to His existence”.

There is much that could be said in response to this, but for starters, it seems fairly clear that Rosenberg has failed to see that God could have a ‘bigger picture’ role, in creating a context where science is possible – a physical world governed by particular laws of a mathematical nature. Just because God doesn’t feature as an immediate part of a scientific explanation doesn’t mean that God is of no use to science, as scientific explanations are by their nature generally ‘local’ and ‘immediate’ in their extent, while God’s explanatory role is primarily ‘global’ and either ‘prior’ or concerned with teleological ends. Modern science doesn’t deal in global explanations, considerations of the first cause, or teleological notions, so it’s little surprise that God doesn’t show up much.