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(Text as at 26/09/2007 20:41:17)
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I had a long discussion on Saturday 8th July 2007 with Sylvia, a Christian friend of almost 30 years standing, on “my doubts”. Useful though these discussions are, they suffer from a number of general defects. I’ve rehearsed these as a preamble1 which raises important general issues, though I think we touched on some of these questions on the day.
I have to add that on this particular topic, I feel that I suffer a disadvantage. I’m not a militant atheist, but (I think) one who has believed and would believe again if it were intellectually possible for me to do so. Also, my wife and most of my dearest friends are committed Christians. Most of them are intellectually fairly robust, but I still have to be careful2. So, because I don’t weigh in with the usual atheist swagger, I can appear to cavil somewhat, to be a fence-sitter, to ask too much, or to be “over-complicating things”.
The bottom line of all this is that I agreed to write it up Saturday’s discussion. It’s probably ended as a partisan piece, with my side of the argument polished up and expanded. But it will, I hope, be something sufficiently clear and concrete to be taken further.
Summary responses from Sylvia:
So, away we go.
- Why she is still3 a Christian.
- What should4 God have done?
- Reasons for belief: We discussed the evidential reasons why one might believe the claims of Christianity, and decided that Christian belief should be maintained for the same sort of reasons that one might believe anything else, namely intellectual conviction. Not that this is sufficient in itself – the response of the heart being required - but it is a pre-requisite. We must have discussed the role of faith, but I cannot remember anything concrete. Some Christians claim divine visitations or other miraculous interventions which we both rejected as relevant to the present age.
- The Holy Spirit: We discussed the work of the Holy Spirit. Sylvia thought that his role was primarily in the practical outworking, but on the intellectual side might be involved in our reading of Scripture. I have an issue with this – if the Holy Spirit is the author of truth, and guides the reader, why are there so many disagreements8 in the interpretation of Scripture even amongst conscientious fundamentalists? Anyway, I admitted that the Scriptures had “come alive” for me – though there are other explanations9 for this phenomenon than the direct activity of the Holy Spirit.
- Supernaturalist versus Naturalist Worldviews: The point of the introduction of the Holy Spirit into the discussion was in the context of why we should adopt a Supernaturalist worldview, if we do. One response to my current predicament (if it is one) is that it’s an artifact of an ultradispensationalist approach to the divine plan. While not denying that “spiritual things” are going on today, ultradispensationalism parks all evidential supernaturalist happenings prior to AD 70-ish, with the exception of a lot of them scheduled to happen in the future. For me this raises the issue of why we should have a supernaturalist11 worldview at all. Put crudely, this then reduces to an inference to the best explanation of why certain claims are made in a bunch of old books. Now I don’t deny that the old books are often manifest works of genius (when viewed sympathetically), nor that some very clever people (including some geniuses) have been Christians. My complaint is that other books are, or have been, seen in the much same light by their adherents, and maybe justifiably so. After all, the “viewed sympathetically” rider above is crucial. I imagine most people coming to the Bible for the first time find much of it incomprehensible, boring or false. Those of us with no vested interest in the Scriptures of other religions presumably have the same immediate reaction when reading their holy books, assuming we’ve ever bothered to open them. Yet these books have, in their own cultural tradition, been the inspiration of people of equal genius. My present view (not a very remarkable one) is that “life, the universe and everything” is so complicated and difficult to fathom that there’s an irresistible urge for an individual to latch on to some book or religion that tells him what it’s all about. In Graeco-Roman times that was, it seems, Homer, used not just for religious matters, but for tips on shipbuilding and other practical matters. Of course, it helps if this source of all knowledge is written in fine poetry or prose. Or, failing that, if the translation into one’s own language is so written. The Koine Greek of the NT was seen as barbarous by renaissance scholars in comparison with Attic, but after Tyndale, Coverdale and later polishers had applied their literary skills, the barbarisms have disappeared. We don’t get the same buzz if the NT is translated into Gangsta Rap (unless, presumably, we’re particularly spiritually inclined Gangsta Rappers, should such beings be possible).
Sylvia’s Responses: Closed System12, Supernaturalism13.
- Evolution and purpose: I think the argument was that, if there’s no God, and evolution is true (though the two are allegedly not mutually incompatible), then nothing has a purpose and isn’t that a shame. My response to that is twofold. Firstly, if that’s how things are, then that’s how things are, and we ought to face up to it. Secondly, the fact, if it is one, that there’s no ultimate purpose or permanence to what we do just focuses us on the here and now (together with our memories).
Which led on to …
- If in this life only: Over dinner we briefly touched on Paul's claim that if we (Christians) have hope for this life only, we are of all people most miserable. Why is this? Why, if there is no resurrection, should we "eat, drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die"? My claim was that this is because (at least in Paul's day) being a Christian involved sacrifices that only make sense in the light of resurrection rewards. Mike (Sylvia's husband) claimed that he had nothing to be miserable about, and that the issue is more to do with Christ not being raised if the dead in general cannot be raised, and the consequent failure of the plan of redemption. We also discussed why the resurrection was "foolishness to the Greeks". I think we agreed that this was most likely because the (neo-)Platonists thought body and encumberance to the soul, and so resurrection - finding oneself back in the body having successfully escaped from it - was hardly something to be desired15.
- Is the Biblical account of the Flood a problem?This was introduced as an example of something that in itself is hard to believe, but is accepted as part of the package. Talking of packages …
- The religious supermarket: We agreed between ourselves that Christianity is the best on religion on offer at the religious supermarket. However, I’d make two points on this. Firstly, it rests on our profound ignorance of the subtleties of the alternatives. Secondly, maybe the supermarket doesn’t stock the correct one, or such a thing hasn’t been manufactured yet, or, as materialists believe, looking for religious answers is a mistaken blind-alley.
- What honour-killings have to say about Islam: This topic was introduced by Sylvia, probably along the “by their fruits shall ye know them” lines. Any religion that encourages people to do such things cannot have much going for it. There are two responses to this. Firstly (not mentioned at the time) Christians (maybe falsely so-called) have done some pretty horrible things in the name of Christianity – you know, the inquisition, the crusades and all that – yet we on the inside know that these are aberrations. So, maybe honour killings and suicide bombings are aberrations of Islam; as their more moderate and educated adherents tend to claim. Secondly, honour features a lot in all cultures that give a high place to family dynasties. For some reason it’s always the naughty daughters that take the brunt of the outraged sensibilities, rather than the naughty sons. And honour features in cultures, such as the Cosa Nostra, not otherwise known for claims to moral probity. So, I suspect honour killings have no necessary connection to Islam.
- God, Freedom and Immortality (by Jonathan Harrison): This 700-page book had been read by Sylvia's father, and Sylvia wondered whether I'd heard of it. I hadn't17.
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