Thoughts on Genexis 2019 – Beginnings

I was excited to hear about Genexis – a series of talks at Coventry Cathedral aimed at presenting “an evidence based case for a creator God.” If you’ve read many of my posts I expect you’ll know that I have a sincere interest in apologetics, and this was a rare opportunity to hear the arguments, and the evidence, in person and close to home, presented by renowned experts. The talks continue on Mondays throughout September, people of “all faiths and none” are welcome, and the tickets are free, though very limited now. It’s my intention to write some thoughts here on each of the sessions. I’m not expecting to give lengthy reviews or to delve too far into the topics myself, as this is something I naturally do in the course of my thinking and writing. But hopefully I’ll give a small flavour of the sessions, and my strongest take-aways from them.

The organisation and presentation of the first session was encouraging, my ticket was quickly scanned and I was able to find a seat fairly close to the front, although large screens were available to give a good view to the whole audience, as well as showing helpful illustrative slides. The atmosphere was welcoming, and there was clear encouragement for the idea of asking difficult questions and thinking critically about the given answers, rather than just accepting any “information” given, either religious or not, on the basis of “blind faith.” The format of the evening was a series of introductions about the event and the speakers, leading to Sir Stephen Males talking about the nature of evidence and expert witness (he is a judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) before he introduced the main speaker, Professor Ard Louis. Professor Louis then presented his evidence for God in the creation of the universe, before taking a few pre-selected questions from the audience.

I made an audio recording of “Beginnings” but unfortunately the sound quality is dreadful. I hope that video of the talk will be made available in the near future.

To start at the ending, I left the cathedral at the end of the evening feeling disappointed. On further reflection, I realised that this was based on natural but unrealistic expectations I had brought to the event. Because what I was hoping to find was something irrefutable – the silver bullet that could destroy the atheist argument once and for all. Of course this wasn’t going to happen! It’s very frustrating, but I’ve written some previous thoughts about why this might be necessary. Maybe I’ll try to get a question into a future session on this subject though, as I’d like to get a second opinion.

Ard Louis is a theoretical physicist. His topic was ostensibly “creation” – how the universe came into being, and how this points to a creator God. I think this specific point actually took up quite a small proportion of his presentation. This is understandable, because while it is possibly the most fundamental aspect of the “does God exist” question, it is probably the hardest area to actually find “proof” for, due to the limitations of observation, and the laws of physics (more on those later).

Louis first described the huge size of the universe, and then went on to talk about the origins of the “Big Bang” theory, including a very helpful presentation slide showing the size of the universe over time – which really put the concept of “inflation” into context for me – I’ve always had a soft spot for astrophysics.

He then discussed the question of where the universe came from, and suggested that this was in fact the wrong question, and we should really ask where did the laws of physics come from? This is because those laws are apparently what brought about the big bang, and also because (as a later session will detail) they are extraordinarily well tuned for the purpose of allowing life to exist. He said that this points to two possibilities – a multiverse, or a Creator.

So where did the laws of physics come from? No one knows definitively, but Louis described three plausible answers to the question, which I will paraphrase here.

  1. They have always existed
  2. They randomly came into existence from nothing
  3. They were designed by an external intelligence

Louis admitted that all three of these possibilities are troublesome in their own ways, but he found the third answer the most coherent and compelling.

And that, I suppose will be the theme of the whole series of talks – which answers are most coherent and compelling? Given that some truths are unknown (and possibly unknowable) where does the balance of the evidence point? Our own “instinctive” answers will be based on the worldview that we have adopted, but we always need to keep our minds open and question our assumptions, or else we will fall into the “blind faith” trap, and that is neither scientific or Biblical.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Peter 3:15

A significant percentage of the talk dealt with the supposed conflict between science and faith. I can’t recall a time that I was convinced that such a conflict existed. To my mind they are largely looking for answers to different questions, in two different realms – mechanism and meaning. But Louis also gave many historical and contemporary human examples to demonstrate the fallacy.

These were presented in a section he called “zombie myths” about faith and science – zombies because no matter how many times you cut them down they keep coming back. This section gave me my most satisfying moment, when a truth I was instinctively aware of was articulated in a way that I’ve never managed to do. This is the myth of the “pink unicorn” as Louis put it. Basically it’s the criticism that believing in a creator God is the same as believing in a pink unicorn, or a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster.

The response is so simple. These comparative examples are constructs “within” the material universe. They are figments of imagination, just as I can imagine a phone that transforms into a car when I touch it with my nose. Such an object or creature cannot exist unless it evolves or is built. A creator God by contrast, and by definition, exists outside of the universe and does not need to be bound by the physical laws of His creation.

I think this is also suggested in the Bible, for example in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Maybe I still haven’t articulated the rebuttal very well, but then I’m not Ard Louis!

I’m looking forward to the next three Genexis evenings, which will each contain two sessions. I hope I’ll do justice to them in my future posts.

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I Recommend Unbelievable?

I know that not everybody has the same enquiring mind as I do. I have a tendency to over-think, and over-analyse, nearly everything if I give myself the chance. When it comes to faith I think there’s a delicate balancing act to perform. On the one hand, absolute certainty (whether that’s religious or atheistic) can lead you down a fundamentalist road that damages both you and those you influence, no matter how pure your intent. And certainty allows no room for spiritual growth and development. Can you ever truly believe you have all the answers? On the other hand, too much doubt will leave you open to being like a wave blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Ephesians 4:14).

Apart from my internal questions about what my faith means and how I should live it, I am fascinated and sometimes disturbed by the reactions to faith that I see in the world. I want to understand why people, who often seem to have access to all the same evidence as me, can interpret it in such different ways. Partly I want to understand so that I’m better able to express my own reasons to believe (1 Peter 3:15), but I also want to learn from them. Because I do believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on this planet if we take the time to do so. Everybody, even your closest relation, has lived a different life to you, and has something unique to teach you from their own life experience. In some cases you may learn something, like a way of thinking, that you completely reject, but even that has value.

This is why I’m so pleased to have recently discovered “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio. That’s the same source as “Be Still And Know” that I’ve written about previously. Unbelievable? is a weekly debate hosted by Justin Brierley and typically involving a discussion between a Christian and a sceptic, although there can be variations on this format. I listen to it as a podcast, but for other methods you can check out the show page here.

I’m not going to pretend that I always find the discussions satisfying – in fact that is very rarely the case! Even in the nearly hour and a half dedicated to each topic it’s obvious that sometimes we are only scratching the surface. And I will often find myself frustrated by unconvincing arguments put forward by both sides of the conversation. Nevertheless, I learn something about other worldviews, and I also learn something about my own, understanding more about the areas where I have surety and those where I am less confident.

No matter what belief you have, if you are interested in the big questions of life, and what it means, I recommend that you have a listen to Unbelievable? It’s guaranteed to provide food for thought.

 

A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

Ricky Gervais v Stephen Colbert – The Real Answers- An Open Letter

This is a nice little article which provides succinct responses to some of the standard “New Atheist” arguments. No argument or response in itself is likely to change anyone’s mind one way or another, but I hope and pray that articles like this can at least convince some people to open their minds to the possibility that they could be wrong. Every thinking person, whether a believer or not, has a duty to themselves to consider this possibility from time to time.

TheWeeFlea.com

gervias-colbert

This article is now on the Premier Christianity website

Dear Ricky,

Loved your appearance on the Stephen Colbert show – two of my favourite entertainers discussing the most important subject in the world – what’s not to like?!   I would like to answer some of the questions you raise in the clip below.  I have heard you raise them several times before as though they were slam-dunk unanswerable questions.  Let me at least do you the courtesy of assuming that they are genuine questions and not just accusations.

The whole thing resurrected some memories (of which more later)…I’m really sorry that you got that obnoxious tweet about going to hell and the various things that the Tweeter wanted done to you.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not personally apologising, or apologising on behalf of the church or God, anymore than I expect you to apologise for the numerous tweets I…

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Is That All There Is?

It’s not entirely surprising that our reaction to some artistic works changes with our worldviews. When I first heard this song, twenty or more years ago, I think my first thought was “hmm, a bit old-fashioned,” and then when I listened to the words, I found them sadly sweet, and because my life too felt sadly sweet, it struck a chord and became one of my favourite songs to chill to.

So it has remained on my playlist, but since finding Christ this is one of many songs I wonder about, thinking is it right for me to still connect with this. After all, the twin themes seem to be nihilism and hedonism, neither of which are exactly fruit of the Spirit.

 

Well, I can think of at least two reasons to value this song.

First, if it connected with me, then it will connect with others, and maybe it will help them, comfort them to know that there’s someone who saw things the same way they do. It’s a truth too easily forgotten in our darkest times, that “you are not alone, you’re not the only one who has felt like this.”

Second, a song like this challenges me to think about big questions, and talk about them like I’m about to do right here.

The song is actually based on a short story called “Disillusionment” by the German writer Thomas Mann. You can read it here. It is the story of a man for whom everything in life is a disappointment because nothing in the real world is ever as great, or as awful, as it is in his imagination. It is very dark, and like the song, it ends with the speculation that death itself will be the final, maybe the greatest, disappointment.

When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller adapted the story into a song, they added a chorus which suggests that as our imaginations and expectations can only lead to disillusion, we might as well stop worrying and just enjoy empty pleasures. In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die – a corrupted conflation of verses from two very different passages of scripture (Isaiah 22 and Ecclesiastes 8).

When I listened to this song a few days ago, it brought to mind quite a well known interview that Stephen Fry gave to Gay Byrne early last year. He starts his reply to the question about what he would say to God…

“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

There is much to be debated in that answer, and in the rest of Fry’s opinions articulated in that interview and elsewhere. But today I want to focus on how I connected his diatribe with the Peggy Lee recording.

Because in truth, if I could look at this world, and even this universe, in all its beauty and all its horror, with all its grandeur and all its injustice, and if I honestly believed that this is “all there is,” then I would probably do two things. First I would rant at God “if there is one” about how unfair and mean and stupid he is. Second, I would break out the booze and have a ball.

Because really, if that’s all there is, what else is there to do?

Now I can’t give a neat answer to the question “what’s bone cancer in children about?” There are many, many awful things that happen on this Earth. Some are manmade, and others are out of our hands. But let’s just imagine for a minute God creating the universe and making it perfect – perfect in the sense that nothing can go wrong, there can be no evil, no pain and no tears. According to the Bible there is such a place, but it isn’t Earth. Even in Genesis 1, before everything went wrong, Earth and everything in it is not described as perfect, merely “very good.”

In fact if this world and we human beings had been created perfect we would never have had a choice about how to live. We would only ever be able to make the decision that is right in God’s eyes – because by definition the Creator decides what is right in His creation. We would be robots, programmed not with Asimov’s three laws but with God’s ten commandments. The world would be beautiful and perfect, but our part in it would be meaningless. And if we were somehow given free will but nature held no peril, what purpose would our lives really have?

This outcome would not be so different from the atheist’s alternative. Theirs is a universe where there is no creator and no reason for creation to take place. It just happened, and from that moment on everything that has occurred has been entirely subject to the laws of physics. Every atom of every cell of your body is in its place because of the interaction of fundamental forces and particles. Every thought you have and every action you take is predetermined by those same natural laws. Because “if that’s all there is,” then you, as an individual, have no control over what the laws of physics lead you to do. And ultimately this means that your life, and this entire universe, has no purpose or meaning whatsoever.

Disillusionment.

There is another possibility. This is the possibility that God created the universe with intentional ‘flaws’, and that He created us with free will so that we could choose whether or not to follow His direction; so that we could decide how we wanted to respond to the threats that an ‘imperfect’ world presents; so that we could experience pain and grief and thus understand what joy really means. And all of this gives meaning to our lives. What we do, or even just try to do, matters. What we say and what we think matters, because they really are our thoughts, words and deeds. We have responsibility, and we have purpose.

And yes, there is a place of perfection, described in Revelation 21. A place where a child who died of bone cancer can live again with no tears and no pain. Maybe the broken life will be forgotten, or maybe it will be remembered in a way that heightens the joy of the new life. I don’t know. I don’t really know any details of what heaven and hell will be like. I think their reality is beyond the description of words, even the words of the Bible’s writers, even the “extravagantly rich” words that led Thomas Mann’s protagonist to his unhappy conclusions.

When every other option speaks of futility, I will choose to believe in the one that speaks of hope. And I will try to make good choices when facing the difficulties of this world, and I will try to enjoy the good things it offers, and I will know in my heart that the best is yet to come.

The Gentle Touch

If you gave me a handful of beans I could prove something to you. I could show, you by careful separation and addition of beans, that two plus two does not equal zero.

I could also show you that two plus two does not equal one. Or two. Or three. Or five. Or six.

Need I continue with this illustration? If anyone came to me with their own proposition for the value of two plus two, I could use my handful of beans to prove them wrong. But as long as people kept coming to me with their different ideas, I would spend all my time proving that they were each wrong.

I would much rather show once that two plus two equals four, and then get on with my life, using the simple proven principles to help me in my daily tasks – shopping, time-keeping, cooking and so on. If anyone suggested to me that two plus two equals twelve, well I’d have my evidence for four, and I could show them, and we could discuss any questions they had about it. If they chose to ignore my evidence and refute my conclusions, that would be their right and they would have to live with the consequences.

I was attending a Christian apologetics course this week, and the subject of the session was different worldviews and religions. Much of the discussion that evening took the form “Islam teaches this…”, “Hindus believe this…”, “Muslims practice this…”, it seemed that we could find an endless list of everything that is wrong with every other worldview.

And I couldn’t help thinking “two plus two does not equal zero”, “two plus two does not equal one”…

Then a wise participant spoke about the danger of telling someone what their faith means, and advised that dialogue should start by asking them what it means to them, and then take the discussion from there.

These ideas have been running around my mind and started me looking at issues of evangelism, apologetics and conversion, maybe in a slightly different way than I did previously.

I don’t like to be told I’m wrong. I don’t even like the idea of people thinking I’m wrong. The idea, or the words, will annoy me, depending on the subject maybe even anger me, and will certainly make me very defensive. It doesn’t matter how sound and logical my reasoning is on the matter, I feel under attack, and my response is emotional and flesh-driven. I will fight back, and because my emotions are taking control, I won’t necessarily use the correct or appropriate tactics. The result may be that I weaken my original position through faulty arguments, or I damage my adversary with an over-zealous counterattack and risk losing my integrity.

I’m sure I’m not unique in this respect. I think it’s part of our human nature. It takes true wisdom to see that we’re wrong, real humility to admit it, and immense strength to repent. Sometimes it’s only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we can achieve any of this.

Whenever we encounter somebody whose beliefs differ from ours, we have to remember this part of our common nature. We have to understand that Newton’s third law of motion can apply to ideas too – to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

And this doesn’t just apply to the difference between a theist and an atheist. It could be between a monotheist and a pantheist, a Christian and a Muslim, a Methodist and a Catholic, or two Baptists who disagree on a single line of scripture. We’re talking about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Nothing could be more important. The most minor criticism could feel like an assault on the very foundations of our faith.

Nobody – no human being – is going to convince me that I’m wrong and they’re right by telling me so. And I’m not going to convince anyone else by that method.

Nobody is going to shatter my faith by explaining how I’m wrong; nor can I achieve the same result in someone else.

It’s not my job to convince anyone, that’s where the Holy Spirit will do His work. My duty is to give an account of my faith, explain the truth of how I’ve come to the understanding that two plus two equals four. And if I live according to my faith, then my hope is that my words and my life will be a testimony, and will open a mind to a possibility, or strengthen the faith of a fellow believer.

It’s valuable to know how other belief systems operate, and it’s definitely worth understanding for yourself how they fail to live up to God’s truth in Christ. For the sake of peace it’s worth talking to anyone who has ears to hear, no matter where they stand on matters of faith.

But I don’t see the value of engaging in a war of words, as if any argument you make will be the one that nobody has formulated in the last two thousand years – will be the one that stops the Muslim, the atheist, the Scientologist, the Hindu or the Jew in their tracks and convinces them of the folly of their ways. No, sorry but it just isn’t going to be that easy.

Focus on what you know and believe. Understand what God has said to you, and keep seeking Him. Let your actions be evidence of His truth. Confront opposition not with hard words, mocking and inflammatory; but gently, compassionately and patiently.

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6

Unprovable God

I enjoy reading articles on ChurchLeaders.com. I don’t always agree with them, indeed there have been a few that I would question strongly, but in general they are helpful in getting me to look at my faith and my life in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

I was very excited when I saw that a recent article was titled “Why God Does Not Want To Be Proven.” I was excited because I’ve been feeling so frustrated recently when reading the public comments attached to various news stories related to Christianity. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Take the recent announcement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The constant flow of mocking comments from atheists can be disheartening. Many will refer to the ‘victory’ of science over faith. Of course, nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, but they can counter that with similar tales of Flying Spaghetti Monsters etc. How I wish that I could just prove to them what I know of God.

Well, Matt Appling’s article makes some good points, and some not so good. I’ll let you make your own judgements on it. But as I read it, a clear message came to me, which wasn’t actually mentioned in the article, so I’ll state it here:

God doesn’t want to be proven because He loves us.

I’d better explain. I find one of the most persuasive arguments for why God allows people to do evil things, is that He loves us enough to give us the choice of whether to follow Him or not. I believe strongly that if we didn’t have that freedom – if God really was the Almighty Puppet Master – that there would be no purpose to our lives. It is only by having an option of doing wrong, that doing right has any merit, and can bring us real joy.

In a similar way, if God was to make Himself known to the world in a way that would convince the most hardened atheist – whether it be by regally floating above our heads, or by reversing time like Superman – then there would suddenly be no room for faith, and the choice of believing in Christ and serving Him as our Lord and Master would lose most of its meaning.

There’s a big part of me that wishes it were so in any case, so billions of people could see the wonderful glory of God for themselves and become part of His family. But that’s not the way He has chosen to work His plan in these days. There was a time when He was intervening regularly with the Israelites (for example, Exodus 12). There was a time when He walked among us as a Man (John 1:14-18). And since then His Spirit has moved among us, connecting to those of us who reach for Him (John 14:15-18).

He will come again, and He will be unmistakeable (Matthew 24:29-31). The proof I want atheists to see is also evident all around us right now (Romans 1:18-23).

I’ll continue to state my case for God, by logic and by my testimony, whenever it can serve a purpose, but I think I’ll have to take a more relaxed approach to the militant and mocking atheists. It’s not my arguments that will change their minds. It’s only their own choice to open their minds to a new possibility and allow the Holy Spirit to work in them that will save them. And if I can help anyone through any part of that process then I will thank God for the privilege of doing so, as I thank Him now for giving me the freedom to choose life in Jesus Christ.