13 September 2011

Only one way to God?

I was struck recently by something I have known about for a long time, though had seemed to take for granted. Jesus stated “no one comes to the father except through me.” Now I was listening a few months ago to a lecture Tom Wright gave to the Faraday foundation, entitled Can A Scientist Believe In The Resurrection? In it, Tom describes his experience of trying to read The God Delusion. One of the things that frustrated him was that in Dawkins’ polemical door-stopper, he only devotes one chapter to Jesus. I am of the understanding that Dawkins finally, after many years of denying Jesus’ existence, even in the teeth of the evidence, has ceded some ground and acknowledged that a person called Jesus probably existed, though I’m not sure if he’s gone any further than this.

Dawkins’ marginalisation of Jesus does seem to have crept into much of the atheistic discussions that I come across. Of course, it may be possible that I’m just looking at the wrong discussions! Working on the presumption that what I have viewed is at least somewhat representative, there is a trend to try to define the nature of “God” and then deny or affirm his/her/its existence.

There is an interesting idea in philosophy that I coming round to, that the ontology of something runs counter to its epistemology. That is to say, that which is most fundamental is the last thing to be known. Likewise, that which is most trivial is that which is most obvious and discovered first. Working on this viewpoint, the nature of God is something that is incredibly fundamental to our beliefs, but which is found only at the conclusion of our study. So to me, it makes no sense to try to define God as a starting position, but rather I choose to spend my life (to quote A.W. Tozer) in the pursuit of God.

So instead of going “straight for the jugular” where the evidence is more philosophical and less clear-cut, it seems only logical to me to send any investigation into the existence of God to the place where the best evidence is. That is, to the historical study of the man known as Jesus (as it is anglicised). This ties in with a recent piece by a particular Guardian columnist called Andrew Brown. Now he sort of runs the “Belief” section of the guardian website, and his own beliefs have long been an aspect of speculation, where he has constantly dodged the question. However, recently, he laid out his cards in an article entitled “Why I am not a catholic.” As with most things he writes, I agreed with some and disagreed with a fair bit too. What I found particularly interesting was that he did not accept the historical claims of the gospels. The reason I find this interesting is because it is the exact reverse of the reason that clinched my belief.

*As an aside, I actually met Andrew shortly after writing this. It was quite a random evening, where I'd agreed to meet up with Tim Skellett, who runs the Heathen Hub, and he'd pre-arranged us going to the Guardian offices to meet Andrew. It was quite a random evening, though it made for a fascinating study in body language!*

So the question then is: can you come to a correct understanding of God without Jesus? If you accept Jesus’ word, then the answer would surely have be ‘no.’ Of course, I as a Christian, I would naturally be inclined to go along this route. That is not to say that my understanding of God is necessarily correct in all things, I strongly doubt it is. Of course, I couldn’t tell you which bit! I would admit to being very tempted at this point to making some remarks about other religions, though as my ignorance of the details of these is excessive, this sentence is the only comment I shall make on them.

The other thing that came to my mind was Antony Flew’s final book, There Is A God. I haven’t got a review on this website, though I would heartily recommend it. The Appendix from Abraham Varghese ought to be skipped, due to its scientific illiteracy. The overall gist of it is as follows: Flew authored a very famous paper, entitled Theology and Falsification, which has become a foundation of much of modern atheistic thought. If you have a read of it (which I would recommend you do) anyone who has read/listened to some of the “new atheists” will recognise the thrust of the argument. In the first part of this book, Flew gives a summary of atheistic reasoning. In the second, he gives his reasons for rejecting his atheism and why he was convinced there was a God. There has been a lot written about whether Flew was in a fit state of mind, and there was also speculation over whether Varghese was the actual author of the second half of the book. Now Flew did not become a Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. It would be more accurate to describe him as a deist. He reached this view by far more philosophical means than historical (although the other appendix, by Tom Wright, is very good). The book does have a feeling of a man who has not yet finished looking (something that, if you get it from this blog, means that I am not totally useless at communication), and I think it is a shame that Flew died before he was able to offer the world what may have been his most valuable contribution to philosophy.

In my own view, I think that the “proofs” for God’s existence fall a long way short. As a mathematician, a proof may be difficult to understand, but it is nonetheless a watertight argument which holds together whichever way you try to pull it apart, provided you stay within the bounds of logic. This last part can be quite important, as I have pointed out before on the fall of logical positivism as an intellectually sound philosophy.

Referring back to Wright again, he uses a very good analogy when it comes to trying to understand God. He likens it to shooting arrows at the sun. Nomatter how good our aim is, we ultimately lack the strength to be able to hit. Paul, referred to this when he said “For now, we but see in a mirror (Gk: esoptron), dimly.”(1 Cor 13:12)

One of the key failings of trying to prove God’s existence by naturalistic means is that such methods are only fit for their scope. Since the general understanding of God is that it exists outside of nature, then conventional methods of scientific enquiry and proof are instantly shown to be hopelessly inadequate for the task. It is like having a sheep tied to stick with a rope in the middle of a field, and expecting the sheep to be able to graze the grass on the next field.

This doesn't of course, reflect on anything anyone says about the reality of God’s existence, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist or Pastafarian; it only affects the epistemology of that existence. I recall reading a few months ago (forgive me for not being able to provide a reference, it slips my mind where I saw it) a short piece by Alister Mcgrath where he quoted Dawkins as saying something along the lines of “[if god did exist, he would be far greater and more complex that anything the human mind could possibly comprehend].” McGrath’s response was to agonise at how close Dawkins had come to actually understanding something about theology, yet turned his back just before the moment of comprehension.

So might it be, that after centuries of trying to prove Jesus wrong when he said he was the only way to God, that having been confounded at every turn, we might have to acknowledge that he was right after all?

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