30 September 2011

The best of the web

Here’s my roundup of a few things that have caught my eye. I don’t necessarily agree with them all, but I do think they are at least interesting.

A very interesting piece from Barna on why young people leave churches. Although it does raise the question as to whether or not these reasons are limited to older people or whether they have their own criteria.

Confessions of a doubting Thomas has a piece on whether Jesus was just an archetypal hero of fiction.

I don’t know if it’s true or a hoax, but a piece on a South African airline had me laughing at my desk when I read it.

Epiphenom has a look (with plenty of links) at a preliminary study which has suggested a possible link between autism and atheism. Personally, I’m not convinced.

And I share this video with you, as I cannot find a single thing about that isn’t brilliant:

29 September 2011

The BC/AD & BCE/CE “debate”

As you may have seen, there was a mini debate that flared up over the last few days in response to an article in the Fail on Sunday about the BBC dropping the use of BC/AD as a label added to years in favour of BCE/CE. There are some very good pieces on the web, and I have referenced these at the foot of this post.

This is something I’ve changed my mind over in the last few years, so I’ll pen down my initial objections and why I am now not really fussed over it.

My objections

I first came across the use of BCE/CE as an alternative to BC/AD about 10 years ago. I can’t tell whether this had anything to do with my leaving a christian school around that time or whether there was a noticeable upturn in the use of BCE/CE as an alternative. If anyone has any statistics (preferably with references) on the relative usage of the terms, then please do point me towards them. I think the debate could be much better framed with more facts and less rhetoric, though the same is true of pretty much every debate I can think of!

At the time, I was younger and a little bit of a fundamentalist. My immature gut reaction was to think that this was stripping Christ out of the language, much as in the same way many Christmas cards are dubbed “Seasons Greetings.” I do still think there is some element of the “out of sight, out of mind” brand of secularism within this, but I do think it really is too minor to get one’s knickers in a twist about.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the terms were replaced with something that actually had some meaning, some reference, that signified an important event. When talking about housing construction in the UK, we often use World War 2 as a demarcation point, with buildings referred to as pre-war or post-war. But Common Era and Before Common Era are devoid of any meaning. I think this may be behind the supposed objection by the Plain English Campaign. I say “supposed” because the Fail only includes one quote from their Press Officer and yet there is no statement on their website about it.

My acceptance

Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world. There is still a demarcation boundary between these two eras, and it would be a very dull mind indeed that doesn’t enquire into why the two are separated. What event was it that heralded such a turning point in how all of history is oriented? Yet there are admittedly problems with the BC/AD system. Not least, it is widely regarded that whoever did the sums on behalf of pope Gregory got them wrong, and that Jesus was probably born in around 6 B.C./B.C.E. There is then the question of whether this is actually an important date for christianity at all. The hinge point is not Jesus’ birth at all, but rather it around the Easter weekend which witnessed his death and resurrection. Of course, there is then debate about precisely when this was, with dates ranging from A.D. 27 to A.D. 41.

I am writing another blog post at the moment on one aspect of the interaction between religion and politics, but for now I will summarise my view that I don’t agree with any group (religious or secular) imposing their system of beliefs on another. Discussion and persuasion are far better means to achieve a goal than dictation. So while the more fundamentalist view may be that this is an imposition of secular values stamping all over their beliefs, you have to recognise that the use of the BC/AD system may be perceived to be the exact reverse.

My opinion is that it should be the goal of the church to preach the gospel. Let the world know the historical facts and our best understanding of the interpretation of their implications. People can then be free to choose whether to accept or reject them.

I don’t consider that this silliness over a dating system is a serious hindrance to that goal.

I was reminded of the introduction to 1 Timothy, when the author writes:
“instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God” (1 Tim 1:3b-4a, NASB)
And on that note, I shall allow it to distract me no further.

Other references

Leading the charge from the newspapers was (unsurprisingly) the Guardian. The case here is made from an FAQ section of the BBC website, though the Guardian links directly to the FAQs, which has no link from the BBC’s religion site.

Blundering in like the hapless modern-day Falstaff that he is, Boris Johnson has written a piece in the Torygraph.

The satirical blog, The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, has an excellent take on it.

Probably the best right-wing defence of the Mail’s piece comes from Heresy Corner.

The final, concise, word goes to Phil's Treehouse.

Of course, there are plenty of others which I may have missed. This is just what I’ve found from a quick perusal of the web.

28 September 2011

Laws of the web

Just a quick little thought. I was perusing a couple of articles in the Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free, and there have been a couple of invocations of Godwin’s Law recently.

What I was wondering this: is there an equivalent of Godwin’s Law on any “religious” discussion about bringing up Richard Dawkins? This may be done either by quoting/paraphrasing him as an appeal to authority, or to use him as a straw man?

If there is please let me know. If not, perhaps there could be a title awarded to the first person to bring him up. Maybe a Richard-head, or some abbreviation thereof?

Sorry, not feeling terribly gracious today.

26 September 2011

Einstein, falsification and the spirit of science

There has been much written over the last few days in reaction to the news coming out of CERN that some neutrinos may have been observed breaking the “cosmic speed barrier.” I won’t go into too much detail here, as there is plenty to be found elsewhere on the web, though of varying qualities. One of the things that has bothered me is that many of the news sources refer to c as “the speed of light.” This is incorrect as the c which is used in relativistic notation is specifically “the speed of light in a vacuum.” Everyday experience tells us that the speed of light varies in different media. When you’ve seen a straw or stick in water appear to be bent, this is due to refraction. Refraction occurs because the light has a slower speed in water than it does in air.

My second slight gripe is over the fact that the result has not been confirmed. At the time of writing (Friday night/Saturday morning) the results are still subject to further scrutiny. For me, I wonder if the experiment which produced the result has been repeated. The best science must always be reproducible, given the same setup. This, of course, does assume invariance under time translation. Now *THAT* would shatter the scientific paradigm, if it were falsified.

There is also a slight laxity when discussing the idea of neutrinos breaking the speed barrier. The special theory of relativity doesn’t actually prohibit faster than light travel. If you actually work through the equations, what you end with is that you cannot accelerate a massive particle (that is, a particle that has mass, it’s nothing to do with it being exceptionally large) to c or beyond, from a speed which is less than c. The reason being that as it accelerates, it actually gains mass. The more mass it has, the harder it is to accelerate and you end up that as the speed approached c, the mass is unbounded (or in other words, it tends to infinity) and so cannot be accelerated any further. In theory, if a particle, at the point of its creation, travels faster than c, then it will remain faster, though it does throw out a whole host of other problems which I shan’t go into here.

So what if Einstein was wrong? He was still a hell of a lot smarter than I am. He wrote the paper “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies” when he was 26, younger than I am now. I still find it amazing at how much others achieve at a comparatively young age, and to be honest I find it quite depressing at how little I have achieved given that I am fast approaching 30.

If Einstein’s theory does need to be superseded, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have to remember the historical context in which he worked. The Michelson-Morley experiment had falsified the idea of the ether, so something new was needed. Building on the work of Lorentz, Einstein’s view not only needed to be radically different from the prevailing Newtonian viewpoint that had dominated physics (or natural philosophy as it was originally known) for the previous few hundred years, but it also had to incorporate the well-tested Newtonian model in the vast majority of cases. In other words, for massive particles travelling at significantly less than c, the theoretical predictions between Newtonian and Einsteinian dynamics should differ by an unobservably small amount.

If Einstein now needs to be revised by another paradigm shift, any new model will also have to incorporate the results that have supported Einstein’s work over the last hundred years. Einstein’s remains a very accurate model of reality. Had it been a poor model, it might have been found out much sooner.

All this points me towards falsification. I think I have mentioned in another recent post that I am currently reading through Popper’s The Logic Of Scientific Discovery. Towards the start, he makes a very good demolition of positivism, and makes his proposal that scientific theories ought be falsifiable, rather than be built up via a kind of inductive method based on verification.

While this is my first time reading it, the general philosophy is very familiar, having been woven into the fabric of my scientific education.

All of science is provisional. The work of the great scientists represents our current and best understanding of the universe we live in. As Richard Feynman put it, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is to be deemed unquestionable, whether it be the work of Newton, Rutherford, Dalton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Feynman, Witten or Hawking. All are fair game.

To claim that to challenge any scientist or any theory is a kind “heresy” is a claim that could only be made by someone who has little to no understanding of the spirit of science. No theory of nature should be beyond question, even if we don’t have the answer. In fact, the nature of science is to state that there we don’t have the answer. All we can come up with are models of how the universe works that line up as closely as possible with reality. Of course, not everyone holds this view, as was demonstrated by Hawking & Mlodinow last year when they published The Grand Design in which they proposed a bizarre model of “model-dependent realism” though, thankfully, this seems not to have caught on. Yet I applaud them for at least challenging the spirit, which in itself is a spirit to challenge. A merry-go round of Russian dolls, perplexities and unknowns, and so the confidence of an earlier generation may be shown to be no more than hubris, and the quest for truth continues.

How do you define a christian? Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

Link to part 1.

One of the major developments in the history of christianity was the development of the various creeds. Probably the most famous of these in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. There are various other creeds such the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasean Creed, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These have been used over the years as a statement of faith to affirm what various christians believe. i.e. a christian might be defined as someone who agrees with one or more of these statements of faith. However, I have some reservations about them:

Firstly, they are often taken as foundational, when in fact they are really conclusions. I recently had someone “throw” the Nicene creed at me during a discussion as their way of stating what I believed. I found it quite ironic as the discussion had been started by an atheist who was tired of being told what he believed, and I pointed out that christians were also often “told” what they believed. I think the irony was, unfortunately, lost on my accuser. However, it showed the perception that such creeds have outside of christianity, as being the basis on which on all else rests. As I shall demonstrate later in this post, there are some conclusions in them that I have not yet reached.

If you were to define a christian as someone who believes one or more of the creeds, then what about someone like me who has some reservations about a few points? It strikes me as a little too dogmatic.

Second, there is a dilemma over how long or short they should be. Generally, the shorter they are, the more inclusive they are, and the level of inclusiveness will decrease the more detail is included. I will deal with inclusion/exclusion in a little more detail in the next part. For now, I am not convinced that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor 1:10, NKJV)
that he had in mind a kind of “Stepford church” where everyone absolutely thought the same thing. After all, the same letter has chapter 12 in it (I won’t copy it all here) where he talks about us all being different, yet united in Christ. So it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that in chapter 1, what he had in mind was that all should agree on “the basics.” Of course, here is where we hit the nub of the problem – how do agree a) what the topics that should be foundational are and, b) what the content of those statements should be.

I have had many disagreements over the years with people over what issues are foundational. Admittedly, most of those have been with creationists who argue along the lines that if you don’t believe the literalist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, then how can you claim to believe any of the bible.

The more interesting debates are on b) where people’s own theologies and prejudices really come to the fore, my own included, though I shan’t delve into them here. I’m sure a browse through this blog (especially anything tagged “apologetics” will reveal something of my worldview)

The third objection I have about creeds is their formalistic structure. The bible is not a book of systematic theology. Nor is it simply a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” To restrict the books of bible to a short list of normative statements has two effects:

1) It strips the bible of its richness. There is much that is nuanced in the composition of the bible, with the same topics being approached from different viewpoints by different writers, addressed to different audiences.

2) It sets in stone what may already be misunderstood and creates further room for misunderstanding. I would liken this to the codifying of the American constitution, where the supreme court judges have it as their job to interpret the constitution and where, it seems to me, their interpretations can be quite far removed from the intentions of the original authors. It is a case of a text being ripped from its context as a pretext.

Of course, in all this, I have not (yet) denied the actual content of the creeds themselves. I will only state my reservations about one (the Apostles’ Creed), for fear of boring you even further, and of repeating myself. You can then decide whether to burn me at the stake or not.
1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.
In point 3, I am not convinced of the historicity of the virgin birth. Firstly, the eyewitness evidence “from the beginning” was from the start of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, so I am quite sceptical about the source from which Matthew and Luke obtained the nativity narrative. There is also the potential that Matthew in particular was not originally a Greek composition, and that the word that was translated as virgin (gk: parthenos) may have originally meant “young girl.” This latter theory seems to be falsified though by verse 18 of the first chapter “Now of Iesous Messiah the birth thus was: being betrothed for the mother of Him, Mariam, to Ioseph, before joining of them, she was found in womb, pregnant by Spirit Holy.” (Green’s literal translation).

In point 4, there is a statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” The canonical gospels make no mentioned of where Jesus went (if anywhere at all) during the time of his death. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am mistaken), the idea of Jesus going to hell was a comparatively late idea, and the earliest writings to contain the idea was in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. The earliest date for this work is the mid-second century, though it was more likely written towards the end of that century. In it, there is “a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep [i.e. the dead]?” and from the [talking] cross was heard the answer, “Yes.””

The point that really sticks in my craw is point 9: “I believe in a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” At the time it was composed, nothing resembling the modern Roman Catholic church had been established. The first use of the term “pope” (I am here using the Anglicisation, if you will forgive both the linguistic sloppiness and the denominational pun!) was used as a descriptive for Damasus the first, some half a century after the first council of Nicaea. The term catholic, therefore, had the contemporary meaning of “worldwide” with none of the connotations that we would associate with Roman Catholicism today. My point here is not so much with the actual statement of this section of the creed, but rather with the wording as used, which I think is misleading to the modern reader. Readers who are likely to misinterpret the term “catholic” are also likely to misunderstand the term “saints” where this is actually a general term for believers, rather than any special subset of holy folk who have been beatified.

So far, I’ve been quite negative, and you have probably tsk’d and tutted your way through this with various disagreements along the way. To try and give some balance to this, I’m not wholly opposed to them. I think they can be a great guide to study where we can ask “how were these conclusions reached?” and “why are these considered the important points?” However, I believer in the idea that christianity is not restricting, it is freeing. And I will choose to exercise my free thought to believe what I think is true, and not to be dictated by some conclusions that others have made for me.

To my understanding, one of the key features of their development was less about asserting what christians believed to those outside the church, but rather to defend against heresies that had developed within the church. So for example, some of the items included in the Athanasian creed were included for the specific purpose of countering Arianism. By this, there was an attempt to make a distinction between who “truly” was a christian and who merely professed to be such. This leads to the sociological problem of “the other” and how that may be used to define a group identity, which I shall look at in the next part.

22 September 2011

How do you define a christian? Part 1: Intro & self-definition

Introduction

The question "how do you define a christian" is one that has been bugging me for a little while. It sometimes crops up in conversations I have with non-christians who are keen to try and put me in a box. The question often comes in some variation of “what kind of christian are you?” At this point there’s usually an involuntary rolling of the eyes, but I do my best to be helpful. Afterwards, I often question myself as to whether it’s the best approach to pander to someone’s expectations or whether it would be more kind to let forth an exegesis on what christianity means to me. Erring on the side of caution, and not wanting to come across as a “bible-basher” my current thinking is that the gentler answer is the more productive.

It’s not a question I actually can give a definitive answer on. Here, I am just exploring some ideas, and would welcome other views and input on the matter. To my way of thinking, there are 4 routes we can head down, and I will sketch each of these in turn. There is some overlap between them, but I’ve tried to segregate them as reasonably as possible. These are:

-Self-definition
-Following a creed
-Sacraments as boundary markers
-Denominations, cults & heretics

I also acknowledge that my articulation is somewhat lacking to be able to discuss this without resorting to the occasional tautology, but I have felt they needed to be included, or else I’d be driven down a reductionist road of infinite regress, which never leads anywhere meaningful. I will also be quite frank, which may cause some offence, though that is not my intent.

As the writing of this particular piece has gone on, it just started to get longer and longer. So I have decided to split it up into several separate parts in order to make it more readable.

Self-defining?

One of the first and most obvious definitions of a christian is for someone to simply self-define. i.e. a christian is whoever says they are a christian. At first glance, this is quite appealing, as it is the free choice of any given individual to be whatever they want to be. However, you quickly come across difficulties. I have come across a group before who called themselves “christian atheists,” who are a very interesting bunch; they don’t believe in God, but do think that Jesus was a great moralistic teacher. So, as followers of Jesus, how many other christians would affiliate themselves with this group? I think not many.

More recently, we had the example of Anders Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway recently. He described himself as a christian on his Facebook profile, though again, I don’t think that many christians would recognise his right-wing extremism in the gospels.

The short answer to this dilemma is that if I am free to say that I am a christian, anyone else is free to make the same claim, yet we can believe completely different things and consequently display different attitudes and have different relationships. To simply state that one is a christian is completely meaningless without some other definition of christianity that various parties can agree upon. It’s a little like two people who call themselves vegetarian, one of whom is fine with eating fish and another who is not. Who is then to determine which is vegetarian or not? Are they both vegetarian, given the difference in their viewpoints?

The obvious step is then to then to define some set of parameters which can be agreed upon. In the case of christianity, this has come about the form of a doctrinal basis, statement of belief or creed, which I will look at in the next part.

21 September 2011

The best of the web

As you are well aware, this is not the highest quality blog on the internet. One of my problems is trying to be concise. At present I’m cooking up “How do you define a Christian” though I’m already over 1,800 words and I haven’t even finished with the Apostles’ Creed!

So in the mean time, please find some links to some much better-written blogs than mine. Since finally getting my Twitter account unblocked, I’ve been able to harass various people who now have one more idiot of whom to think “who the hell are you?” It does allow me to see a wider of range of blogs, though, which I am grateful for.

About half way between a blog and news editorial site, we have Open Democracy. This is usually replete with great articles, but this week, I’ll point you to their Anatomy of a networked riot.

There are some very interesting thoughts on the anthropic principle at Quodlibeta. There is plenty there that I’m sure many will disagree with, but it is well-written and thought-provoking.

The best discovery I made on twitter. I follow the Natural History Museum who retweeted something from minibeastgirl. Her boundless enthusiasm for all things entomological is highly evident, and makes for a great read.

I recently came across Confessions of a doubting Thomas, which is a marvellously honest account of one man’s doubts about Christianity. The blog, like this one, contains a fair few book reviews, and we actually cover some of the same books. So I would recommend that his reviews be read as a counterpoint to mine.

Batty Towers has an account of the Great North Run. It brought back some memories of when I did it back in 2004, along with the joy of finishing, the disappointment of being overtaken by a giant hamburger and the heartbreak of watching someone being resuscitated by the roadside.

Finally, here’s a duck.

20 September 2011

Book Review: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This was one of those modern classics that often crops up of “best books of the 20th century” and the like, so I thought I should read it at some point. I picked it off my shelf on the evening the 14th of August, as it seemed an appropriate time and date to begin it, having read the back cover.

I have to say I didn’t like the start of the book much. Rushdie doesn’t start at the beginning, but rather a couple of generations back and spends quite a few pages rambling on about a guy with a big nose and another who decides not to wash. The biggest issue for me was his introduction of a large number of characters who are not properly formed. When I read fiction, I like the author to be able to give me enough detail when each person is introduced to be able to visualise them, so that as I continue to read, I can visualise any scenes that occur. So the start of the novel was suffused with bit-part players who kept coming and going, but whose voices just seemed to merge together in a background cacophony.

The main story doesn’t really get going until about page 140. Once we do get going, what we have is a novel which is extraordinarily beautifully written, but which crawls along at a snail’s pace. There is no clear narrative in the traditional sense. Rushdie often seems more interested in making a sentence aesthetically pleasing than in telling a coherent narrative. Of course, there is an underlying story which permeates the book, but it is not progressed in the conventional manner of a storyteller. This lack of convention may appeal to some readers, though I personally found it quite frustrating.

In rough outline, the story follows the growing up of Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight as India became independent of British rule. The book is written mostly in the first person, although in a few places this becomes muddled when Saleem starts referring himself in the third person as a Buddha. Along with the children born in the hour after India’s independence, he is endowed with a “superpower” not unlike X-Men or Heroes, though the fantastical element is underplayed here in contrast to the aforementioned creations. The closer to midnight they were born, the more powerful their power. Saleem’s was telepathy. He is able to use his gift to “talk” to all the other children of midnight, though very little is actually done. The other key feature of the book is that, having been born at the same moment as the modern India, his fortunes and misfortunes are inextricably linked with that of the country.

I think for me, the thing that frustrated the most was that the detail was extremely fine, but at the cost of losing context. Rushdie spends most of the book describing people’s physical attributes, their actions and other mannerisms, but very little on the environment in which they lived. I am the kind of reader who likes to be able to visualise a scene as I read it. But Rushdie’s style of writing forces the reader to look through a magnifying glass at almost all times, so you can’t get a feeling for your surroundings.

The book is really quite long (~650 pages) which is why it has taken so long to finish from the time I started. As I now consider Midnight’s Children to be one of those classics that I’ve not really liked, it might be a favourite of those who liked those other books that I would put into the same category: Catch 22 & The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

16 September 2011

French-style secularism?

While I was munching breakfast, I came across this story that hit Twitter a few times from the Telegraph, about prayer being banned from the streets of Paris.

What an outrage! This is a suppression of freedom of expression, it’s stigmatising those who pray and discriminating against those of a religious persuasion!

Or is it?

On closer inspection, it turns out the problem is not really about prayer at all. It’s a traffic issue in one particular area of Paris. The headline of banning prayer is a misleading one, as prayer is not really being banned. There is nothing to stop me (apart from the cost of the train fare!) from walking the streets of Paris and praying silently while I do so. I am apt to do this around London quite often, but I doubt many, if any, are aware of this. So this legislation is not supposed to deal with prayer in general, but is solely against Muslims who are too numerous in one area to fit into a small mosque.

This is not an example of the Thought Police in action; the root cause is a gathering of one particular religion in an area that holds up traffic on one day of the week. It would be interesting to visit the scene in question just to find out how bad the issue is. To quote the article, “the prayer problem was limited to two roads in the Goutte d'Or district of Paris's eastern 19th arrondissement, where "more than a thousand" people blocked the street every Friday.”

However, there are issues raised by this that ought to be considered with due sobriety. For one, there is the understanding (or lack thereof) of the term ‘secularism’ by Claude Guéant. According to the report (if we are trust the content & the translation) “praying in the street ... violates the principles of secularism.”

I have outlined my own views on secularism before and why I would describe myself a mild secularist. This, however, seems to completely miss the point of secularism, which is to remove (if there ever was any) religious privilege. One of the architects of secularism was Martin Luther, as his reaction against the overt political power and lack of accountability afforded to the Roman Catholic Church; though it is worth noting that his 95 theses were posted not long after the reign of the Borgias, which is one of the most shameful of periods in Catholicism.

But Luther’s intention was never for an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that we have evident in the thinking of one French minister, and possibly the wider government. It also begs the question why any action needs to be taken on such a wide scale, and why it is not limited to the time and place where the problem occurs.

If the problem was solely due to traffic, then it should have been sorted out as a traffic issue, not as one of religion. I’m trying to avoid going down the “thin end of the wedge” route, but I can’t escape the possibility that some French Muslims may well have just cause to think the wedge was already feeling quite thick by now.

As a side note, there is a march for this French kind of secularism happening in London on Saturday. I couldn’t attend if I wanted to, as there are major engineering works on the routes into and out of the capital this weekend. I won’t say any more about that now, as I can’t better the well-balanced piece that came out of Theos earlier this week.

15 September 2011

Who reads this?

I do wonder who reads this, and how much is read.

The fact that the bar on the left says only 3 people do seem to belie the stats. In August, the blog had an average of 18 views per day. I had 46 alone yesterday.

One problem is the fact that there are very comments ever left. Maybe that’s because my inability to be concise means no one ever finishes them. You also can’t tell how long anyone reads them for. Have they linked to the page by accident or are they genuinely searching for something?

Over the last month, there has been a regular number of hits coming from Romania, where someone or a group of people seem particularly interested in my transposition error proof, before becoming bored with that and now keep looking at my book review for The Crucified God.

If you’ve read this far, I wave “hello” to you. Feel free to wave back.

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?

12 September 2011

Only one blog worth reading this week

Hello all

I hope you don’t mind a little plug, but there’s only one blog worth reading this week. Some friends of mine have travelled to South Africa with the charity Habitat for Humanity. They have set up a blog which they will be updating daily; detailing what they’re doing with plenty of pictures along the way. Please have a read.

7 September 2011

When randomness takes over

This is just a very quick post. Those of you know who know me, know that I’ve been working quite hard of late. This has left me rather tired, sleep deprived and writing posts of even less than usual (just see below for examples). One other effect this has had is to introduce a wide variety of fairly random thoughts into my head.

For example, I was recently overcome by a sudden desire to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. This hasn’t been on tv for years, and I think it’s high time it made a comeback on BBC2. Of course, the Q episodes were always the best.

I was also thinking about the nature of revolution. This was partly triggered by watching Che at the weekend, and comparing Che to Jesus. While vastly different in their methodologies, both were revolutionaries in their time, killed while relatively young and were motivated by love. I think love is what distinguishes between a revolutionary and a terrorist, a theme on many people’s minds at the moment.

The other thought I had was on the word “confession,” particularly in terms of liturgical creeds. Now I have never been a fan of liturgy, I still regard it as a poor substitute for thinking. But the nature of having a creed labelled as a confession implies to me that someone is “owning up” and admitting something to be true which hurts their pride. In our modern setting, the word has acquired a legalistic meaning relating to guilt, but this is not what the Christian confessions are about. They are about humility. Nomatter how much we may like to set ourselves up in loco deus, we are children of God. In what is dubbed “Peter’s confession of Christ,” Peter was not making a declaration of something new; he was speaking something true that was already known, but which he had not had the guts to admit out loud before.

5 September 2011

The Bible: what version do you use?

It always strikes me as a little odd when different people profess to “prefer” different translations of the Bible. I’m sure it has been going on for many years, though it is something I have only recently become more sensitive to. I completed most of this blog post prior to a posting from RevdLesley on a very similar theme. Some of that post has been assimilated into this (with permission) and you can read the original post here.

A phrase (or something like it) that epitomises the idea which makes me uneasy is when someone says “I really like the way this version phrases [this particular passage]…” When I hear that, I can’t help but think what they really mean is “I prefer this version because it best backs up my pre-existing view.”

I am not a biblical scholar, and have no adequate training to be able to determine what is a “good” translation. For the sake of honesty, I have included at the bottom of this post a list of the versions I use in my bible studies. My purpose is not to endorse any particular version, nor to condemn any. I will merely question some and, in particular, the cherry-picked use of them to justify a point.

There seems to be something inherently dodgy when someone picks a version to use, on the stated basis that it words a particular passage particularly well, when a different wording in a different version would make the basis for that assertion less certain. What it implies, to me, is that the conclusion has been reached in advance of reading the text and that the speaker is going in support of their opinion. I don’t like this approach, as it can lead to a skewed view of scripture. Instead, is it not better to examine one version first (I would say it doesn’t matter which) and stick with that as your first port of call? If you need to check the translation, you can use a Hebrew/Greek bible with a dictionary; you don’t even need to be an expert in ancient languages.

There are myriad issues that have to be dealt with in biblical translation, due to the greatly differing nature of the languages the books were written in, and those which we use today (in my case, English).While we have plenty of translations available, this allows us to get on with examining what the message meant to the original readers and what relevance it still has for us today. As my old headteacher always said: a text, taken out of context, is a pretext.

Although I think it is a bit of a shorthand, I often hear people use the phrase “Jesus said” and then quote an English translation. Maybe I’m being too pernickety, but it does annoy me a little, since Jesus didn’t speak English. So he never said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In all likelihood, he spoke Aramaic, rather than Greek, so even what we have recorded in the bible is a translation; a point, I think, missed by many Christians. So he didn’t even say: “Houtos gar agapao ho theos tou kosmos ho stetou huios autou tou monogenes didomi hina pas ho pisteuo eisau tou me apollymi alla echo zoe aionios.”

I have long been a believer in the idea that the Bible should be accessible to all, written in a way easily understandable, but which retains as close a faithfulness as possible to what we understand to be the original texts. Of course, this entails a great balancing act, and is, I think, impossible to get right all of the time. Of those versions (I would reservations about calling them translations) that try to go down the more “vulgar” route, in the true sense of the word, the most notable examples are the Good News Bible and, more recently, The Message. I always used the Good News when I was growing up in the Baptist church my parents went to; and it was seen as a children’s Bible, replete with line drawings that will be familiar to most of those who have grown up in churches over the past 30 years or so. I’m not sure when the Message first came out, though it garnered a lot of popularity when I was my late teens, and it seemed to directed at that age group. Though I would regard them as excellent introductions, from which to get the ‘gist’ of a passage, I would be extremely cautious about using them for anything else, given that much of the fine detail has been lost, and is much more subject to the individual interpretation of the writers who, I am led to understand, were not scholars of the original languages.

This contrasts with the latest version to hit the book stores: Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Readers of this blog will be aware that I admire the work of Wright and have the highest regard for him as a scholar of the New Testament. For several years now, he has been writing a series of books entitled “[x] for everyone” where [x] is usually the title of a New Testament book. These are meant as accessible guides to each book of the Bible. In each of these, Tom has provided his own translation of the texts, and this new translation is a compilation of all of these excerpts. On the post from RevLesley linked to above, there is a quote from Tom on why he felt dissatisfied with the NIV, and seems, in part, to explain his motivation for doing his own translation of the New Testament. I’ve not decided whether to buy Tom’s new translation, though through talking to his publisher on twitter, I may be going to see him at a talk and book signing later this month, which could make for an interesting lunch break.



The versions I use:

I tend to start with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This is largely because I have been informed by a pastor at a previous church, who was a reader in New Testament theology, that its New Testament translation is very good. Sometimes, the overtly gender neutrality of it annoys me, as it seems to be a rather politically correct. One of the reasons that I like to use this is that it’s the only bible I have which has a column of cross-references. So when I peruse a passage, I will follow up all the cross references, in order to try and get as complete a picture as possible.

If I’m out and about, needing to travel light, I have a small New International Version (NIV). It fits into my back pocket, so is great for portability, and tends to be a favourite amongst many churches.

My first choice for an “alternative version” will be the Amplified Bible. I like the idea of including connotations to the text, given that the original Greek and Hebrew would have carried many more overtones than a simple word-for-word translation. Although it takes a while to read through any passage, and the layout of the text is not as “reader-friendly” as some others, I find it a useful follow-up resource.

When I want to really get to grips with a text, I have an Interlinear Bible. This contains the text in Hebrew and Greek (depending on Old/New Testament) with a near-literal word-for-word translation below the line. In the margins is the equivalent English translation with good grammar. That’s because the Hebrew and Greek word ordering doesn’t always make sense in English. This version also contains the Strong’s Numbers which I look up in a concordance, and gives a fuller translation of each word, as well as the correct pronunciation.

My current church is very keen on the New Living Translation. I have never been able to find a bookshop that has this in print, so the only access I have to this is via an application on my phone. I don’t know much about the background of it, so if any of you know more about this than I, then I am willing to be informed.