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Monday, 23 August 2010

The Big Problem with Western Thinking

Christian turned atheist
I am reading a book about a Christian who turned into an atheist because he was convinced by the arguments of atheistic thinkers.

There are too many issues in the book to take up here, but the core issue, which surfaces in all sorts of other places too and reveals a big problem with all western thinking, is the issue of 'epistimology'. Let me explain.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things, how we become sure of things, the reasons we believe things. Western epistemology is almost exclusively intellectual: we are convinced of something if it can be proved with reasoning or proofs. If you can give me enough proofs I'll believe it. In other words we believe things because of mental reasoning processes. This kind of epistemology owes itself squarely to a movement called The Enlightenment (a better title would be better The Narrowing, though I am sure that name won't stick!) and the Greeks. 

The enlightenment (those that praise it prefer it to begin with a capital e) narrowed down knowing to the mind, to the reasoning processes of the mind, and that is a massive mistake. Reasoning processes play an important part in how we know things, but they are limited.

There are many ways we become sure of things which have nothing to do with logical proof. This is because being finite creatures, we simply cannot base all our beliefs on reasons - there is simply no way we can prove everything. Nowhere is this more true than in science. A scientist takes as given a thousand facts and formulae which he or she finds in the literature. Life is too short to prove each one so they take these 'on trust', they believe them not because they have proved them, but because they trust the people, the community which have established them. This is nothing short of faith - there is nothing wrong with this kind of faith provided we admit it and don't deceive ourselves.

So, apart from reasoning ourselves to the conclusion, there are other ways of knowing things are true; and faith is a prime example.

Other ways of knowing
In the New Testament  John says things like this. He says that as poor people in the church are cared for by the better off, as we care for those in need, this spontaneous and divine generosity provides evidence that we belong to the truth (when our hearts might suggest otherwise, see 1 John 3:16-20). In other words we can know through experience.

Jesus said on one occasion that people around the church will know that we are followers of his by the love they observe in the church. They will 'know' by the experience of love.

Reason, faith and experience are all ways in which we come to conviction that things are true. The enlightenment narrowed down knowing to logic and reason.

Back to the book written by the convert to atheism. If we live by the sword be die by the sword. If we live by reason we can easily die by reason. This is why reason alone is no sure foundation on which to build our lives and why it is so fickle: what if all the research on which this author has based his new-found atheism is one day found to be false or partial? Then his new found faith will lie tattered on the ground.

Reason is good and reason is important but it is never sufficient ground to believe. It turns out that even when people say it is the sole ground on which they base their belief, it isn't. The author in question abandoned his faith not merely because of reason, but also because he felt let down by Christians - a bad experience.

Christians should appreciate the wonderful minds God has given them and thank God for the gift of reason. But they shouldn't buy into the enlightenment's (inconsistent) lie that reason is King. There are many reasons we believe and some of the most important lie outside the realm of tiny little human reason. Nor should Christians imagine that people are won to Christ by naked apologetics. They are just as likely or more likely to be won to Christ - humanly speaking  - by the pure holy other-worldly example of a simple humble Christian.

What is a Christian?

Many true ways to answer this question. Here is one. A Christian is a man or woman whose deepest heart desire is God himself.

Scratch below the surface desires and needs of life, such as food and companionship and so on and get to the bottom level of desire. What do you find? A Christian is a man or woman who desires God. "My soul finds rest in God alone" is how the psalmist put it.

This, we must insist, is so different from the world that it requires a supernatural heart operation. Most people are quite happy with the desires of food and drink and companionship and pleasure.They may well realise that these things fail at the deepest level, but they have no desire for God. But a Christian has been 'born again' and transformed at the core level of their being so that now they long for God more than any other thing or one.

And they discover that God is more than able to satisfy the deepest desires of their hearts and so daily to renew their strength.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Lessons from The Dragon's Den

I'm a  fan of the BBC's programme for entrepreneurs The Dragon's Den and an occasional viewer. Several common features reappear again and again.

First, the show reveals our limited knowledge. One or even two Dragons will rubbish a new product with vehemence bordering on rudeness, to the great embarrassment of the entrepreneur, so that you think the product is the daftest invention in the history of the world. But then one Dragon will say he disagrees and believes the product has massive even global appeal! What this reveals is that each of us sees just one tiny part of the whole (in this case understands one tiny part of the global market).

Second, the need for perseverance. What, at the start of the grilling appears a futile case may soon turn out to be an amazing opportunity.

Third, the need to take risks. One of my sons complains that Deborah Meaden, of all the Dragons, avoids risks, at least in the Dragon's Den. She is forever, he says, coming up with an excuse so that she can say "And for that reason I'm out". (This can't be true in all of her life, since she is a wealthy woman). At some point in life we all have to stop saying 'I can't' or 'I won't' and take the leap of faith.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Toy Story 3

After all the hype, I  had to see Toy Story 3. Of course, with the advent of 3D, you have to put up with what seemed to be eons of ads, many of which were pushing the third dimension to the limit; one day they'll look back I hope...

The film opens with Andy now grown up and off to college. College kids don't want to play with their toys anymore and so he packs  them off to the attic but decides to take Woody with him. To cut a long story short, the toys end up mistakenly in a rubbish bag, from whence begins a great adventure....

For those who haven't seen the film, we'll not reveal the ending, but share one part of the story.

How are the toys to handle (perceived) rejection from Andy? One suggestion is to live in a children's day centre where a never ending succession of different children will play with you/love you.You'll be loved forever - even if it is by different kids. That suggestion is rejected in favour of  love by the one and only Andy.

One of the psychologies which power Toy Story 3 is the human desire for eternal and unconditional love. Where does this come from?

Deep down this desire flows from humanity's collective remembrance of the Garden. We long for the unconditional never ending love we once knew and once experienced, the love for which we were created.

The idolatry of the human heart is to imagine that this quality of love can be experienced from people. People will let us down, but there is One whose love never fails. In God's love alone can we find total and utter security.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Two Kinds of Makings

The other evening I watched a programme with my children about the creation of the solar system. Not surprisingly it bought into the evolutionary paradigm which governs all historical science today. In the absence of any alternative mechanism (for example a divine mechanism) historical science has adopted the view that all things must have come about by an evolutionary process which involves natural law plus a bit of chance.

So the solar system we were told arose from a cloud of dust surrounding our star, the sun, which coalesced into planetesimals and finally into planets. We have rocky planets near the sun because the solar wind blew away their atmosphere, and gas giants further away because there was less wind and heat.

Giving them credit, they did point out the remarkable 'chance' that has resulted in the uniqueness of our planet. For example, because we have a powerful magnetic field, the solar wind could not blow away our atmosphere and dry up our oceans (Mars bears the marks of running water, but has no powerful magnetic field). We have a powerful magnetic field because our planet is the right size; in smaller planets the core cooled quicker.

The program went on to say that this is how planets were being formed today, around new stars. 

I had two problems with this interesting programme, both arising from the producers' philosophical naturalim which excludes a divine agent.

First, planets may well form today by slow processes (though I doubt this, see below), but it is impossible to project the present back into the past. It is a conjecture - though a reasonable one- to say that how things happen today is how they happened in the past. It could well be that this solar system was made by a divine hand, and that other ones after that were made by natural processes (though I doubt this).

Second, there are certain crucial steps along the way required to make a habitable planet, which seem either impossible via natural processes (they need a divine hand) or incredible (they require very fortuous circumstances which again point to a divine hand). For example to get a gas to coalesce requries incredibly low temperatures because the kinetic energy of the gas keeps the atoms/molecules from sticking (gravitational attraction). How do dust clouds around a hot sun coalesce? Another example, where does our water come from and why have we just the right amount of water? Too much and the earth would be a water world, too little and it could be absorbed into the crust?

Science, as defined by establishment, will never grow up to include divine possibilities, because it can't accept the existence of an acting God. And for this reason, we should watch all science programs with great interest and fascination, but also with 'baloney filters' aimed at exposing the underlying poor philosophical basis.

So when I watch these programmes with my children, I am constantly having to say "not necessarily" and "that's wrong"  - along with "that's fascinating" and "that's wonderful".

On Giving Up Judgement

The Plague of Judgementalism
Of all Christian traditions, conservative evangelicals - and especially those with a reformed background - have the biggest problem with judgementalism.

There's a good reason for this bad habit. The good reason is this: concerned with purity of doctrine they tend to be constantly on the lookout for error. It is vital we learn to discern between truth and error so that we are not led astray. This good discernment, however, can easily overreach itself and become a habit of life extended everywhere. Such Christians find themselves making continual judgements about this church and that sermon, this leader and that movement. Before long they become judgemental cynics unable to enjoy or profit from anyone, any book or any sermon not in their (tiny) little theological box. What began as a noble Berean attitude has become a distorted, consuming and destructive habit. It is possible to become a believer who has to have a definite final opinion on every one, thing, book and movement: and for most of those opinions to be  negative.

This is a dangerous habit, for Jesus said "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matthew 7:1) and his teaching is repeated by his apostles, notably Paul who left all judgement, including judgement of himself to God (1 Corinthians 4:3).

Kicking the habit
How can such a habit be broken?

Step 1: recognise your profound limitations. One of the good insights of postmodernism is the recognition that each of us sees the world from the very small standpoint of our own background, personality, upbringing, culture, etc. None of us can see very much and our vision is distorted by prejudice, character and so on. We see darkly. While the Word of God is clear and true, our understanding of it is sometimes poor.

Step 2: recognise the sin of pride. A judgemental Christian is a proud Christian. There are two ways of putting ourselves above another; we can either raise ourselves by boasting (but Satan is careful not to incite us to this one, for he knows we will soon spot the error), or we can put ourselves above others by lowering them  (the sin of criticism we don't so easily recognise as pride). Recognise that a judgemental spirit is a sinful spirit.

Step 3: remember we can easily make wrong judgements. The seven letters of Jesus to the churches of Asia reveal the poverty of human judgement. The church at Sardis had a reputation for being alive but was dead (nekros no less). Everyone thought the place was alive, Jesus knew it was dead. The Christians at Laodicea thought they were rich, but they were poor. We are so so often wrong in our judgements.

Step 4: there is only One who can judge correctly. To make a true analysis we need all the facts, and all the facts are available to only One, to whom alone is judgement trusted - thank God.

This is not a plea for woolly mindedness. In many things we should make judgements. Some of those judgements should be held firmly (a church which does not preach the divinity of Christ is not a Christian church, for example). But on many many other issues, we should hold fire - or at least ensure that our judgements are provisional and open to revision.

My own response to Jesus' words in Revelation has been to give up all 'church' judgements. We are prone to think "this is a good church" or "that is a poor church". From now on, all I shall say is "As far as I know they are faithful to the Bible" and nothing more. I don't know, and nor do you, what Jesus thinks of that church. We don't know whether it's alive or dead.

Jesus does and his opinion is the only one that counts.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Greatness of Rome?

Why is the Roman Empire admired?
The Twelve Caesars, written by the Greek historian Suetonius on the greatest Roman Emperors, has left me wondering why the Roman Empire is so much admired.

These guys bullied, bribed and bluffed their way into power and once there were often nothing more than plain brutes. True, some, like Julius Caesar seemed to have extraordinary gifts of military leadership, but apart from a reputation for power and might, what can be said for the Roman Empire? People say the Empire brought the world a season of peace (the so-called Pax Romana), but largely, or so it seems to me, peace by the edge of the sword. Yes they built great monuments and roads and renamed months after them (July after Julius Caesar, August after Augustus; relief that Tiberius declined to have September named after him), but what lasting good did they achieve? 

Give it to him: Suetonius, the author does try to be fair. On one occasion Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. The wait for the ransom money was frustrating to him and during it he told the pirates - who probably thought he was joking - that he would find them and crucify them one day. This is exactly what he did. He raised a fleet, found them and crucified them. Julius Caesar, however, was a generous fellow, according to Suetonius, because before he crucified them he had their throats slit. If that is generosity.....

The grisly end of many of the Emperors remind us of the words of Jesus, that those who live by the sword, will also die by the sword. 

The overuling of Providence
There was one good thing God did through the Empire. Its roads provided highways across which the apostles could travel quickly and effectively to spread the Good News of Jesus with the whole world. The Pax Romana provided a stable environment in which the Kingdom of Christ could spread and grow. And Paul, the great Apostle, because he was a Roman Citizen could travel about unhindered.

The Empire might have been thoroughly bad, but God in his Sovereign power overruled evil to bring about good. That's the way he so often works.

First Light

This is my first blog, so let me explain. These reflections will range far and wide, arising from what I am thinking, reading and wrestling with here and now. They will be more 'off the cuff' than my settled opinion: though since a blog is permanent one should not write in haste.

I have had a habit for some time of keeping a notebook of thoughts. The truly great Blaise Pascal kept such a book and named it Pensees ('thoughts' in French: I know it should have a funny mark over the first 'e'). This is the kind of thing I have in mind; though of course I am not competing with or expecting to attain to the greatness of Mr Pascal.

Well that's the introduction, and it's enough for one blog. Good Day.