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, Robot?

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly his short stories, many of which were based around robots and robotics. He famously created his “three laws of robotics” which were “the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” These laws are:

  1. a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov wrote plots that played on the unintended consequences of applying these rules, or of the potential conflicts between them. And both he and others played around with these ‘laws’, adding, taking away and modifying them for various creative purposes. But beyond the world of science fiction, scientists have looked at Asimov’s laws as a potential starting point for instilling ‘moral’ values into real-world robots, and their uses in human society.

While it’s clearly a bit simplistic and misguided to directly compare God’s creation of man with man’s creation of robots, I think there’s value in looking at faith for a few minutes through Asimov’s eyes.

Before looking at similarities, I need to repeat what I’ve said previously, and frequently, whether in this blog or in conversations. God did not create us to be robots. God gave us free will, autonomy, and this is perhaps the most fundamental concept in my whole understanding of existence. Because if we don’t have free will then, in my opinion, our lives as conscious beings are essentially meaningless. I might as well be a hammer, built solely for the task of hitting a nail.

So we have free will. We can do what we want. Why then don’t we live in a world of utter chaos, of anarchy? Why is there a general semblance of order in the world around us? Why do we notice and dislike the times when people act in a way that is contrary to our social norms?

Well, on the surface, there are laws and conventions that have been constructed by human beings over the centuries. They have been designed, amongst other purposes, to control our excesses, to limit individual freedoms for the benefit of society as a whole. We are born into this set of rules, we grow up with them, and with a few exceptions we come to think of them as normal, rational and good, so we accept and live by them.

On a deeper level we have instincts which are designed to keep us alive and thriving as individuals and as a species. Depending on your worldview, these instincts come from God’s purpose, from evolution, or from some combination of the two.

But as Christians there is another level to be considered, and that is the level of scripture. This is where I find the comparison with Asimov’s laws fascinating.

Your mind may immediately jump to the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These are possibly the most obvious direct comparison the the three laws, and are sometimes described as “the moral law.” There are more details, naturally enough considering the difference between human and robot motivations. But although they are listed, and when described they may be numbered, there isn’t an obvious hierarchy like Asimov explicitly stated. You could argue that the first is the most important, because if we have other gods than God, we have less reason to obey any of God’s commandments. But scanning down the list, should we prioritise the honour of our parents (abiding by the fifth) even if that leads us to murder someone (contravening the sixth)?

The Bible has been described by some Christians as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” And almost all teaching I’ve heard in many different churches refers back to scripture as the base point from which all good decisions should be made. I understand why. This is the physical evidence of what God has said to us. It’s the absolute truth to counter the danger of moral relativism. It’s real. You can hold it in your hands and you can show it to someone.

I can imagine the Bible as the equivalent of the software that is programmed into the positronic brains of Asimov’s robots. In fact, David points us in that direction when he says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)

I can imagine that when faced with any decision or dilemma a “good Christian” will refer back to the source code, comparing options against the relevant words of God in scripture to come to the right conclusion.

But do the rules to be followed comprise the 10 commandments? Or the 613 commandments? Or does a Christian ignore the Old Testament and base their rules on the instructions they read in the Gospels and Epistles?

How do we handle situations when there is a conflict between laws, or between written laws and our innate sense of moral good? And there will be conflicts. There are classic philosophical scenarios that can demonstrate this. For example, Kant’s dilemma of the murderer at the door or the trolley problem.

Even if we can find ways to satisfy ourselves that we can resolve any such dilemma, I see a bigger problem, which is that if we live our lives completely according to what we read in the Bible, we are running the computer program, and we effectively become robots after all. What then has happened to our free will?

Maybe you could say that if you have made a free choice to follow the rules, you are not a robot. Maybe.

I am coming to the conclusion though, that God does not intend the Bible to be a rigid rule book, or an operating system designed to direct our every action. I believe it should be taken seriously and that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It provides guidance, and describes principles. It shows the consequences when certain rules are followed or ignored. But it does not give an answer to every question raised in a person’s life. It never has, or we wouldn’t need to pray, because the answers to our prayers too would be in the good book.

I think that knowing the Bible as thoroughly as possible gives a wonderful foundation of knowledge and wisdom. But when we get to the real basics there are not 3 laws of humanity. There are not 613. There are not 10. There are 2.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

If we can just do our best to live our lives according to those two rules, I don’t think we need to tie ourselves in knots or rack ourselves with guilt about the ways we have inevitably fallen short. Let us breathe the spirit of the law. We are imperfect and God made us that way, and He loves us. He is love. Let us try to emulate that to whatever extent we’re capable.

Being a Christian Shouldn’t Be Hard

When my friend wrote a blog post titled “Being a Christian is Hard” my immediate thought was “Is it? Or do we just make it hard?”

Part way through the post, my friend said the same thing, but only to ask the question. These were my thoughts in response, which I added as a comment, but I thought were worth putting down here too.

We do try too hard, even if we only focus on those key actions of love, obey and forgive.

Remember: the law is beyond us. The sermon on the mount is beyond us. “Love as I love you” is beyond us.

We all (and of course I include myself) need to relax, trust God, and trust ourselves. Trust our instincts because we are made in God’s image. Trust our conscience because it is the voice of the Holy Spirit. Trust our wisdom which is a gift from God. If we trust in those things with humility, then we are not leaning on our own understanding but we are leaning on God with us. And when we lean on God with us we can relax and trust what He said:

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11:28‭-‬30 NIVUK

It’s all so much easier said than done. We want to do our best, we want to please the Lord, we want to try. And if we realise we’re trying too hard, we try not to try. Being a Christian can be very trying!

I’m learning to trust more than I try. I’m learning to be more than I do. I think it’s a lifelong lesson though, and I’m just grateful any time I manage to rest in God.

Daily Reflection – Conclusion

I made it! I succeeded in posting every day for two weeks, and my timing only slipped at the end of the period.

The discipline of regular writing, as well as the subject matter, has given me a lot to think about in itself.

First, I sometimes felt uncomfortable with what I was sharing on what is supposed to be a Christian blog. If I recognised biblical echoes I would share references or scripture fragments, but to some extent it felt like I was indulging myself.

Is that such a bad thing? Isn’t that one purpose of a blog – to reveal yourself and your ideas to the world? Isn’t it everyone’s right to respectfully express themselves? And isn’t God interested in every aspect of our lives – so there shouldn’t really be a sacred/secular divide? I think the answer to all three of those questions is yes, but I still worry.

Second, I opened myself up in a lot more detail than I am used to doing, even with most friends and family. I think it was time to do it, but it wasn’t easy. On the other hand, censoring myself would have been even harder, and would have bled the authenticity out of my words. I don’t expect all my future posts to be quite so revealing, but now that a door has been unlocked I should feel able to talk more freely in the future whenever necessary.

Third, I think there were times when I reached the limit of my mental energy during this exercise.

It might seem strange, when I typically wrote just a few paragraphs, but I would often finish writing simply because I couldn’t summon the energy to continue developing the thoughts I’d embarked on. It was frustrating because I would often know there was much more I wanted to say, to expand or clarify on my reflections, but I knew that if I carried on I would lose structure and my words would turn into some kind of stream of consciousness, which might have been interesting on some level, but would have weakened the points I was trying to get across.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m still fragile.

Fourth, despite these struggles and concerns, I feel liberated by the experience of the last fortnight. I’ve known for a long time that I want to write more, one way or another, and this has confirmed that desire. I don’t know what form my writing will take in the future, but it will develop.

Looking to the future of this blog in particular, I can only continue to represent Christ as well as I’m able, and to share my thoughts on Him, and how He shapes me, and how He carries me through the storms of life.

I feel a great responsibility whenever I write. My readership may number in the dozens or low hundreds, compared to the millions influenced by some in this world, but every one of my readers matters to me. I want to be true to myself and my God. I want to be a friend and a comfort to some, and a thought-provoking challenge to others. None of us have all the answers, but hopefully I can at least ask some of the right questions.

Thank you for sharing this leg of my journey. You’ll be hearing from me again, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’

Exodus 14:14 NIVUK

‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

John 16:33 NIVUK

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1‭-‬4‭, ‬6 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Endings

I’ve never been good at goodbyes. When ending a meeting or conversation I usually try to have the last word, not because of my big ego, the opposite in fact, as I want to be sure the other person knows that I’ve acknowledged their last words.

More seriously, I have the issue I described in my “attachment” post a few days ago. Letting go of relationships, even when I see the harm they are doing me, is very hard.

I’ve also been prone to avoiding some relationships altogether because of the inevitable end. I’m think of pets, which I’ve not wanted to share my life because I don’t want to see them die. For the same reason I’ve resisted getting too close to people who are old or very ill. I’ve missed out on so many opportunities to experience precious moments, and I’ve robbed others of such moments because of my fear, or should I call it my selfishness?

I think I had this fear even before the death of my father. He passed away suddenly, and much too soon, when I was in my late twenties. I had moved away from my hometown so I wasn’t there when he left us. I remember seeing him at the funeral home and kissing him goodbye. I don’t remember what I felt. I probably just felt emptiness. It’s strange (or is it?) that I don’t fear my own death so much as the death of others.

Accepting that everything ends is so important. It’s the only way to truly appreciate what we have now, and now is all we have in this world. Sometimes I think I’ve learned to accept it, but more often I know I have a long way to go.

All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalms 90:9‭-‬12 NIVUK

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 3:9‭-‬13 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Promises

As a Christian I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heroes, except for Jesus of course, and the “heroes of the faith.” Well I had an earlier life in which I picked up a few heroes, and one of them, for better or worse, was Frank Sinatra.

Yesterday evening one of his lesser known albums came to mind, and this morning I lay in bed and listened to it. I just want to talk about it, so I’m not sure exactly where this will go.

The album is “A Man Alone”. It’s quite extraordinary, and if all you know of Sinatra is the Rat Pack, Las Vegas or the Bobby-soxers, it should challenge some of your assumptions about his work. Its subtitle is “The words & music of McKuen” referring to the poet Rod McKuen. It’s a gentle album of songs and poetry reflecting on a life free from the encumbrance of a lasting relationship.

When I discovered the album, as a man alone in my early twenties, it spoke to me on two levels. First I would fantasise about being the protagonist in songs such as “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The Beautiful Strangers”. I would imagine that in thirty years time I would be able to sing those songs having lived that life.

And I would contrast this with my own life at that time, perfectly exemplified in a poem/song such as “Empty Is.” Sinatra and McKuen were telling me they understood where I am, but hang in there because they also knew where I was going, and it would be a great ride.

As I listened this morning I heard something subtly but profoundly different. I heard the story of a man who had started his adult life with high hopes but who had been let down by broken promises. As a result of this he made a decision not to rely on anyone but himself. He would be kind and loving to others but he would always protect himself from hurt. He would enjoy the freedom of singleness to the full, and not allow himself to fall for promises or commitments that could too easily be broken.

And yes, he enjoyed his life, liaising with different women in different cities. Not tied down, he could live his life on his own terms.

But the good times were not fulfilling. They were a shallow façade, and not far under the surface was an emptiness that would come to haunt him in his solitary times. The man is looking back with a mixture of appreciation and regret. I feel that he’s trying to justify his decisions while in his heart he knows that he missed out on something deeply special because he couldn’t trust another promise.

He makes the distinction between being “alone” and “lonely” more than once. It’s true that they are not the same thing, but it’s clear from the narrative of the album that one has led to the other.

“A Man Alone” was recorded one year before I was born, when Sinatra was just a few years older than I am now. His voice has started to lose its power, and the fragility of his singing at times accentuates the poignancy of the message. At the same time, as an Academy Award winning actor, he brings real emotion and clarity to the spoken passages.

One of the tracks that persisted in my mind yesterday was the poem “From Promise to Promise.” A short piece, which as I’ve suggested, triggers a fateful decision by the narrator, it got me pondering the nature of promises.

As usual, there is far more to be considered than I can write here. Maybe that’s good, as you can take these thoughts and apply them to your own experiences, rather than getting too entangled in mine. My thoughts, my questions, are

  • Who has hurt me most with broken promises?
  • Was it their fault, or did circumstances get in the way?
  • Did I respond with grace?
  • Which promises have I broken over the years?
  • What would I promise now, or in the future, and which promises would I avoid making?
  • How will I respond to the promises of others from now on?
  • What promises have I made to myself, and how many have I broken?
  • What has God promised me?

From Promise to Promise

I sometimes wonder why people make promises they never intend to keep
Not in big things, like love or elections, but in the things that count –
The newspaper boy who says he will save an extra paper, and doesn’t
The laundry that tells you your suit will be ready on Thursday and it isn’t
Love, well yes, but like everything else, we go from day to day
We move from promise to promise
I’ve had a good many promises now, so I can wait for the harvest
And some of them, they come about

Rod McKuen

Daily Reflection – Distractions

I’ve been very fond of my brain over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the things it can do. Its ability to think outside the box and look at things from a different angle. Its talent for logic and mental arithmetic and seeing mathematical patterns. Its creativity.

My brain can’t do everything that some people’s can. Well, not without training. But I’m happy with the things it can do. It’s brought me a long way.

There are two issues I have with my brain, though. One is my memory. I do hold on to a lot of trivial facts, especially when it comes to 20th century music. But my memory of life events, conversations and other important moments is very poor. I recall my feelings, but not the details of the circumstances that brought them about.

The other issue is distractions, and this is the one that frustrates me the most. While there are times that I can become engrossed in a conversation, performance or activity, I find that far too much of the time my brain is overactive, running through past or future scenarios, not allowing me to live in the moment and enjoy now.

I’ve been practising daily meditation sessions for nearly six months, but if anything, distractions are becoming more frequent.

But what feels even worse is distracted prayer. I’m talking to the Creator of the universe about what’s most important to me, and trying to discern what’s most important to Him, and I suddenly find myself wondering if I need to go shopping today. That’s a mild example. I realise what’s happening, and bring myself back to prayer, apologise, and continue until the next diversion of my train of thought.

God knows me and understands and forgives me, but I find it so hard to forgive myself. I wouldn’t mind if I was distracted by an external factor like a car horn. But when it’s internal it just feels so disrespectful. I’m annoyed, and almost ashamed of myself.

Once or twice I’ve experienced what I thought was a distraction, but then realised was a response to my prayer. I’ve been asking what should I do, and then imagined myself doing what God would want. Sadly most of the time my brain is taking me on a fruitless and/or fanciful road of retrospection or speculation.

I’m not sure how to solve this, or if it will solve itself in time. For now, the best I can do is be kind to myself and remain friends with my brain. We do have some good times together!