|I have just finished leading a Lenten book group on Sam Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation”.It is a profoundly irritating book for several reasons:– it is a blog masquerading as a book. It errs on the side of punchy certainties and easy put downs rather than nuanced argument
– Harris, has, in my opinion and that of others (one atheist friend of mine) with whom I have discussed his work, a God-shaped hole problem (Tim Keller’s phrase): he is craving an absolute but denies God
– He sets up conservative Christians as his target and, in doing so, claims a rather modest victory.
He brings up the issue of Theodicy (as he should) but his argument lacks nuance: God is either impotent or evil. The classic response to this is to note that, if there is a possibility that God may permit suffering in the service of a greater good, then the “impotent or evil” argument fails at its core.
Where the argument should be is in the interplay of God allowing actions that may lead to suffering in the service, for example, of the greater good of mankind ‘figuring things out’ in the exercise of freewill. In fact, granting freewill arguably let the genie out of the jar (or the snake into the garden) to begin with.
That leads to the question of ‘miracles’, aka God’s intervention in the world in response to prayer or His own wish to intervene. I believe God can and does intervene, but I can’t explain why or when or to what degree or the extent to which intervention may or may not interfere with freewill at some point.
I don’t believe that the fact of awfulness in the world is proof that God does not care or that He is impotent. I believe we may have a view of how things should go in the world that clashes with events as they unfold. Science assists us in understanding (among other things aplenty) natural phenomena such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Science also informs us that, given what we know about our environment, New Orleans, to give one example, is not wisely located or properly defended.
As a species, we take risks, make compromises but frequently suffer consequences with less equanimity than perhaps we ought to. We turn to God for answers when sometimes we know the answers – precisely because He has granted us the wherewithal to know them: freewill and the intellectual resources to understand our environment and our place in it.
I firmly believe that the presence of evil/bad stuff is in part due to the accumulation of generations of bad choices we have made in the exercise of our freewill. We are contaminated by the consequences of these bad choices much as second hand smoke pollutes the lungs of those in the vicinity of the smoker.
So, where is God in all this? Helping us to navigate if we choose to ask for direction. Helping us to find the resources we need within ourselves and our community. Giving us, as always the example of His Son.
And so to the struggle highlighted by Kenelm Tonkin in his reply to my earlier post on New Atheism with the role of Christ.
I think it is helpful to research the history. The history of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is actually quite sound and, as you might imagine, thoroughly researched. That is important because it leaves one to explore, with confidence that the debate is real and substantive, the central question of why was Christ born, why did he live and die and what does His resurrection mean?
God created the world, saw it was good and then saw how we messed it up. He rebooted (flood) and thought it heavy handed and promised not to do THAT again. Yes, perhaps an allegorical explanation of a cataclysmic event, but this is not central.
God needed a way to make His presence real. He wanted to walk among us for a time – grass roots, bottom up – and show us what He had in mind: the way back to Eden aka what God hoped for and intended for us (I will come back to that).
So, Jesus walked among us and showed us the way. We have this super-reliable account(s) of his life, death and resurrection in the form of the New Testament. He gave us lots to work with. He knew and God knew we would mess up again (and again). We did. Allowing us to crucify His mortal form was part of the reality of Christ’s humanity, designed to demonstrate that this mortal coil is NOT what IT is all about.
The resurrection was designed to show us what comes next. This mortal coil is the beginning. It can’t be the end because it is not as God intended. It is imperfect and messy. Yes we can do better (a multi-level video game) and we will, but God has more for us. No, we will not be resurrected as Christ was in this world. But Christ came back to us in this world and then departed precisely to show us that there is more: we must follow him and, if we truly believe that, we will gain the perspective we need to suffer the slings and arrows of this world.
Why bother if we are going to reboot into a better eternity? What did God intend for us? This world is a beginning but it is not irrelevant. What we do now does reverberate in eternity in the sense that we take it with us. We matter in the world. What we do matters. The love we give to our neighbor, our family matters. Using our talents matters. We take with us into eternity the consequences of our actions for ourselves and for others. There are marks for effort – marks on our own psyche and marks on the collective psyche of the community we inhabit.
If we are not open and malleable to the influence of God’s grace in our lives, we are going to have a tough time in eternity, not because God will judge us harshly and send us to eternal damnation but because we will have done that to ourselves. We will truly have hardened our hearts.
Now, assuming God has His way and we graduate to the final level, to Eden, what then? Why did God create in the first place. What does that tell us about God? Something to look forward to.
I received one of those terrible phone calls today conveying the awful news that a dear friend of mine had been caught in an avalanche in France, buried for 15 minutes, dug out, airlifted to Grenoble and is on life support. No more news for now.
My good friend, Craig Schiffer, lives life at full speed at maximum volume with huge enthusiasm and energy. He has been a friend, mentor and business partner for 15 years. I pray he will be with us for many years to come and that one day we will share a bottle of Bordeaux together looking over Lake Annecy from his deck.
Craig and I have shared a similar path since 2006 when we both left the place we were employed and struck out on our own. From 2009-2012, we were in business together. It was not as successful as we would have liked but we learned a lot and it gave us what we needed to move on – separately but still connected.
We have both needed to reinvent our careers a couple of times in the past few years. He is someone from whom I learnt tenacity and persistence. I am sure he learned some things from me also.
I mentioned him recently as an example of someone who keeps moving forward, doggedly persisting in the pursuit of making worthwhile things happen in the business world. This person was lamenting his lot in life, having just lost a job and being unable to see a way forward because he was ‘too old’ and lacking in skills – the sky was falling and he found nothing to be grateful for.
Remember Craig Schiffer, I said. Older than you and still battling to improve, to make something happen, to provide for his family. He has suffered many setbacks and carried on. No excuses.
Craig has never been a huge fan of staying on piste. He has always taken guides to ski the more adventurous terrain. He is an accomplished rock climber and has introduced his kids to his sense of adventure. His competence and skill make you feel safe.
So, how and why this happened, I don’t know. These things are random. It is simply bad luck to cross paths with an avalanche. I am sure Craig took precautions.
That leaves us dealing with the consequences of randomness. It is hard because there is no-one to blame. We may curse, as the Psalmists did, at the great misfortune and injustice. Will God intervene at our behest and pull the broken pieces together again? I pray He will because I don’t believe the world or Craig Schiffer are finished with each other yet.
Pray with me that those taking care of Craig are able to summon all their skills and expertise to help him overcome the tragedy that has befallen him. Pray for the strength and support that his family will need to to be with him.
I have been interested recently in a lot of the posts I have been seeing on Sam Harris’ blog. I particular, I picked out a TED talk he gave in 2010
He discusses the issue of whether or not the recipe for right living, happiness and well being is something that may ultimately be discernible in the same way as scientific facts.
He seeks to refute the notion that values and facts inhabit their own spheres – non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA.
He points out, correctly I believe, that the notion that facts and values should inhabit separate domains may lead us to into the realm of moral relativism where we might claim, for example, that, because Proverbs 13:24 suggests that sparing the rod is spoiling the child, that view is the moral equivalent to the point of view that corporal punishment is child abuse.
We may claim also that judging as primitive and not conducive to well being the practice of clothing women in a full burkha is cultural imperialism.
He remarks that we accept that certain opinions on certain matters are owed more deference because of the evident expertise of those who hold those opinions. His opinions on string theory are not consequential because he knows next to nothing about it. Why, he says, is it less obvious that the Taliban [or ISIS] has nothing to say worth listening to on matters of well being and how to run a society properly aligned with human happiness?
So, why is this post about The New Atheism and how does this relate to something near and dear to me, namely Christianity?
I have been puzzling lately about the issue of freewill and prayer. The following HuffPost article is on point.
New Atheism is largely about the importance of not allowing what the movement’s adherents would describe as flawed reasoning to lead people astray from the true path of human progress by distracting them with religion. In some cases – this certainly has been observed by religious critics – New Atheism can be quite evangelical.
The Huffpost article skewers religion and belief in God on the twin horns of freewill and omnipotence. I do have trouble in reconciling prayer with freewill. It does not stop me praying, but I do wonder about its effectiveness.
So, here is where my thinking is evolving. I don’t believe God is omnipotent and I don’t believe in God’s omniscience – as those terms are typically used in debates concerning freewill and the problems of evil. In summary, the arguments go, if God is omnipotent, how can he permit evil; if he is omniscient, doesn’t that undermine freewill?
In the Old Testament, God put his thumb on the scale quite a bit. He helped out in battles, took sides, gave instructions, destroyed (almost all) creation, allowed it to rebuild and definitely picked winners. Unfortunately, it didn’t all go according to plan.
He gave us an instruction manual to live well in the world – The Ten Commandments. We didn’t do a good job of following instructions and lost our way.
I do believe in God as creator and I do believe that, as creator, he intervened in the world through Jesus. He gave us not just instructions for right living, but a model for right living.
God gave us freewill to be the best we can be and the worst we can be. He gave us the discernment to tell one from the other and the capacity to move our world in the right direction. He gave us the capacity to discern false arguments and clever wordplay (if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big he cannot move it?) God, as C.S. Lewis put it, cannot do things that are non-sensical such as not be God. Nonsense cannot make a good argument.
I view God’s supposed knowledge that we will take a certain course as no different – if considerably better informed – than a parent’s knowledge that their child will most likely do a certain thing because of their deep and intimate knowledge of their child. The concept of God’s foreknowledge undermining our freewill requires us to enter a realm of thinking that is foreign to the way we actually behave.
So, yes, Sam Harris, I do believe that values may ultimately be known to be as incontrovertible as facts. In reaching that goal, we will return to the point of actually knowing that, for example, the Ten Commandments do contain the essence of what we need to live a good life and have a healthy society.
What we discern now, in many cases, as being the right thing to do as a matter of faith, we will one day know as a matter of fact. Restraining ourselves from advocating right action that is demonstrably consistent with right living and from condemning behavior and belief systems that are manifestly evil is an abdication of our duty as human beings to advocate for the well being of our species and the world we live in.
When we arrive at this point and the need for faith is reduced if not removed, will God be happy or sad? I don’t know. This may be the return to the garden before Adam and Eve’s misstep with the knowledge and strength to resist the temptation to which they succumbed. It will be progress at least.
Sometimes, if you see something, you just have to say something. Today’s NYT published the following article by a college professor from University of Washington.
This professor gives a talk at the beginning of his evolutionary biology course to his students about why they ought to have a harder time reconciling science and religion.
The three pillars of his argument are:
- Just because the world is complex does not mean that it has to have been designed that way
- Mankind is not sufficiently different in a qualitative way that he can be placed at the center of the universe as God’s chosen super-being
- Bad things happen in the world and how could a loving God permit this to happen?
He starts with conceding that a creator God could have worked his plan through evolution because a creator God could have done anything he wanted to.
The rest of the article seems to be intended to undermine this first point. Unfortunately, the arguments are weak and could be easily answered as follows:
- Correct, but this does not address the implications of the Big Bang or prove that the first cause was not God
- The fact that mankind is ‘among and part of nature’ (though arguably not part of the food chain) in no way diminishes mankind’s role as a distinct and reasoning part of God’s creation
- Bad things happen because we mess things up – the presence of evil. Freewill means we are free to do so. Granting freewill means that, to be consistent, God has to allow us to work through our messes.
Overall, it is disappointing to me that such weak arguments make it to the pages of the NYT and, even more distressing, that these views are imparted as a formative part of the curriculum in a university biology class.
Professors should just be better than this. The intellectual underpinnings of religion are quite far from being as Professor Barash represents them. I suspect also, that the more interesting discussions of faith and science are taking place in the philosophy and physics classes.
I noticed the following article and thought it worth sharing for those who missed it:
There are so many things to fight about; so many things about which we can passionately disagree. Why do we do this and what do we hope to accomplish?
I can think of a few good answers:
1. We want to persuade others who are mistaken to a correct understanding of the issue involved;
2. We want company in our beliefs;
3. We want to vanquish and humiliate an opponent (!);
4. We want to win a plurality of votes for election to an office that will enable us to bring our view of how things should be to reality through the exercise of elected power.
People do not enjoy being wrong and views don’t change easily, so if we want to change the world, we should think carefully and have a strategy.
The author of the piece referenced above suggests that stories can bridge the gap between doctrinal stubbornness and empathy.
Have you ever wondered why the bond of friendship can be strained so quickly in the crucible of an animated discussion. It heals, but the heat of disagreement does not enhance understanding as the temperature cools. We just regain equilibrium and resolve to avoid such discussions in the future.
There must be a better way than avoidance. Our wants are not vastly different: a sense of purpose; family and friends close; good food and drink; adequate leisure time; health and well being; and a clear sense of progress. Why so much disagreement about how we achieve these things?
As a people, we tell stories a lot. They explain our lives, our understanding of how and why things happen. They provide humor; they convey sorrow; they astound and sadden us; provide a cause for celebration. How was your day? What happened to make you happy or sad? Stories connect my reality to yours. It is not the same, but stories help us draw closer.
Stories are not all. We need a sense of how the forest is shaped; where it needs to be trimmed and contained and thinned. Stories alone may just get us from tree to tree without a strong sense of direction. And yet….while we may shape the forest, we are not bigger than it: we live among the trees. We live in the present, shaping history. Stories describe our every day.
This story began, as many people’s days do, with a story from a newspaper that often irritates me but is never dull and leaves me lots to think about (blog about).
One of E.M. Forster’s most famous phrases is “Only Connect”. He is on record as saying the things he valued most were personal relationships, tolerance and the pleasure to be had from the world into which we are born. Through personal relationships, Forster said, we can practice tolerance, experience understanding, exercise empathy and help others to experience pleasure also.
It is hard to connect and violently disagree. Stories help. Tell me more.
It is all going to be worth reading. If it isn’t, you will let me know. You don’t have to agree. Just be thoughtful and polite!
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