Sunday, August 30, 2015

Debate Review 1: Is There a God? - Rick Warren v. Sam Harris

Below are my reactions to the informal debate between Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and the neuroscientist Sam Harris on Religion and Atheism, which was published back in 2007. This is intended to be the first review in a series of debates between prominent atheists and theists. The link to the debate is below:

Bridges in the Debate for Mutual Understanding
Hmm, while an interesting debate, I think there are a few valuable take-aways for those reading. First, you'll often find religious debates revolve around the same issues without really moving forward.

For instance, in this debate Sam Harris opens up to an understanding of spirituality that is couched in reason. That's something that both sides should really explore further, as it seems like a great bridge.

Additionally, Rick makes some statements regarding wonder, order, beauty, etc. that would be helpful both when talking about our understanding of the universe, and in the Christian understanding of God. Another bridge.

The Inadequate Treatment of Miracles
However, a number of statements were made (particularly by Rick) that were either unhelpful, in my opinion, or were not unpacked sufficiently. For instance, he appealed to miracles as a reason for faith, but did not address Sam's statistical or cultural concerns surrounding the phenomenon.

It would be helpful if miracles were explained in their theological and phenomenological sense: If miracles are (or were) real, then they have been directed by the Deity. If they have been directed by the Deity, then they were performed within that particular cultural context (time, place, etc.) for a reason, presumably as part of some greater story. And, if they occurred for a particular place and time, then they are not repeatable.

This is relevant, as it makes them statistically undetectable and experimentally untestable, but not necessarily any less real. They simply move from the realm of the natural sciences to the realm of the social sciences. In this realm, their entire context must be taken into consideration, including the context of the witnesses.

It is still possible that their occurrence is bogus, but it must be recognized as possible that their occurrence isn't. Honestly, when placed in the study of social sciences, even their non-occurrence may mean something theologically relevant.

The Value of Mythic and Poetic Language in Scripture
The problem is that both sides attempt to argue from a natural sciences standpoint. And in this realm, Rick Warren is severely disadvantaged. There are many faithful Christians who believe that Genesis (esp. ch. 1-11) is primarily mythic poetry, that while borrowing from similar tales in other cultures, is still transformed to say something real and true about the relationship between God, humanity and Creation.

It is helpful here to note, that when I use the word "myth," I do not mean the popular understanding of the word as a story that's made up. Instead, myths are generally structured stories which often call on a variety of sources and often are transmitted orally before being written down. Such stories often convey a deeper human truth. It makes sense to me that if God has revealed Himself to humanity through the stories in scripture, then he would use the cultural tools available to both reach as wide an audience as possible and maintain relevance over a long period of time. These tools would include poetry, wisdom sayings, songs, mythic stories, biographies, etc. I see no reason why He would be constrained to modern notions regarding scientific or historic accuracy, as these things have not been a major concern for humanity during most of its history.

But Rick doesn't acknowledge this. He simply says he believes in the literal reading of Genesis and doesn't back that claim up in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

The Differences Between Faith, Belief, and Dogma
Additionally, Sam seems to understand faith as the opposite of reason, and faith and dogma as equivalent. He questions why God would allow someone, born within a tradition, to be punished for believing that tradition. Rick doesn't challenge him on this, but I will. I would argue that dogma is defined as an immovable position which disregards any subsequent discovery or fact. Faith, on the other hand is much more malleable.

In fact, faith even maintains room for doubt! If you notice, almost every major "hero" of the faith in the OT has doubts at some time or another (Job, Moses, Gideon, Elijah, Jonah, the writers of half the Psalms, etc.). In each case, God never punishes the doubter. Instead, the doubter comes out stronger for the experience.

For the person born in their own tradition, they are not judged because they don't believe in Jesus (especially if they have never encountered Him). They are judged according to how they faithfully adhered to their understanding of goodness. Scripture tells us that every human being betrays that understanding eventually, and that makes our reconciliation with God (through Christ) most necessary.

Faith is better defined then, not as belief in defiance of reason, but instead as trust founded on reason, experience, and revelation. One may question their beliefs continuously, and still remain faithful. In fact, whenever new situations, knowledge, or experiences arise, it makes sense to question our assumptions. And this is absolutely OK, and I would argue, is a sign of wisdom. However, I have still found reason to have faith, and because of this, I will do my best to be faithful.

My Further Thoughts on These Issues
Note: To give a bit of background on my opinion. I am a Christian, and I believe in the God whose attributes include transcendence, imminence, and goodness. I believe God is, and has been, active in the cosmos. And I believe in objective truth. However, I also understand that truth and fact are often different things.

There is allegorical truth, poetic truth, wisdom-truth, ethical truth, etc. But in the realm of fact, there is scientific and historical fact. I do believe truth needs to be informed and understood in terms of scientific and historical fact, but I do not believe that truth needs to rest entirely within the realm of fact.

In my own study, I have come to the conclusion that the bodily resurrection of Jesus fits into the realm of historical and scientific fact, and therefore the theological truths I arrive at are anchored in this. This is rooted in my understanding that the gospel accounts are for the most part reliable, at least in regards to his teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection (a complete analysis of this viewpoint would require its own post). And as a result of this conclusion, my theology rests along the same lines as the rest of orthodox Christianity. However, this does not mean EVERY story in the bible can be treated in the same way, or that every story should be treated as literally, historically accurate.

I think that in order to tell the difference, we use experiential, structural (to the scriptural passage), traditional (contextual), and reasonable (scientific, historical, philosophical) methods to arrive at our conclusions. Because we arrive at different conclusions, theological debate becomes a worthwhile exercise. However, I also believe that such differences of interpretation are not grounds for discrimination or hate, as Jesus' teaching makes clear.

The problem with the above debate is that neither side really devotes sufficient energy to using these methods to arrive at truth. In my final analysis I think Sam did better and "won" the debate. However, even his arguments were insufficient to turn me away from my conclusions. I do not think that this is due to an "unreasonable" attitude on my part.

Why Christians Should Not Give Josh Duggar a Free Pass

Below is a Facebook Note I posted on August 21, 2015, which I thought was worth posting here as well.  Also included is a link to the CNN coverage concerning Josh Duggar's fall from grace, so to speak.

I've been reading some of the comments in the wake of Joshua Duggar's ongoing and public fall, and I've been surprised and dismayed by how many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have been trying to defend his actions.

I want to say, as clearly as possible, that Josh Duggar should be held accountable for his actions. He broke the law. He broke the trust of those closest to him. And while he worked to marginalize whole groups of people for their choices and understanding of relationship (the LGBTQ community) in a democratic society, he secretly and hypocritically undermined his own publicly-stated understanding of relationship. Especially as a public figure, he should be held accountable.

I am a Christian, and while I believe Jesus lived and taught forgiveness, he also lived and taught justice (especially for the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the abused). Our theology should not divorce the two.

And one should not seek forgiveness just to avoid consequences, as public apologies often aim to do. A genuine appeal to forgiveness cannot deflect from the issue, but should fully engage the injustice done. Also, forgiveness is not just a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for those afraid of what may happen after death. And I believe Gehenna just isn't a far-off, supernatural hell of flame and smoke, waiting in the future. It is the consequence of broken relationship and destroyed trust, both here and now and the resulting damage that ripples through the ages, long after those who committed the betrayal are gone. It is the gulf of bitter separation we create between us and God, each other, and creation.

Instead, the purpose of forgiveness is to restore relationship and to begin the reparation of the damage caused by betrayal, but the victim of any injustice should never be compelled to forgive. If we really believe Christ redeems human beings, then we must also agree that he does so freely, and without compulsion. Likewise, if we claim to follow Christ, then we cannot expect or force others to forgive out of compulsion.

There are many who have been hurt both by Joshua Duggar's political work, and by his personal betrayal. Those who would forgive him, must do so in their own time, and have every right to grieve the injustice done to them. Since Josh Duggar's apologies have only been issued after he was caught, it is only natural to doubt the authenticity of his words.

We may desire the restoration of people and relationships, but true restoration cannot happen without acknowledging and correcting injustice. In this case, molestation of his sisters who trusted him, the betrayal of his spouse who also trusted him, and the marginalization of large groups under guise of civic law, definitely qualifies as injustice.

P.S. I also think the particular homeschooling method the Duggars use is complete bunk. There, I said it. :) #DuggarScandal #JoshDuggar

Evangelical Christianity Needs to Step Away from the Culture Wars

Below are a couple of great articles by Relevant Magazine on the need for Evangelical Christianity to reject political posturing, move beyond the culture wars, and embrace the life and teaching of Jesus:

These articles led me to the following thoughts...

John 13:35 says, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” not "If you win America for Jesus," or "If you institute biblical laws." Those of us who are called to follow Jesus should be shaped by what he did and taught, but that only happens AFTER we decide to to take that step, and only within the context of relationship with Christ.

It makes no sense to force these things on others, and it certainly harms the Church's ability to be a light for the gospel when we are so obsessed with political and cultural divisions. If we have anything worth sharing with the world (and I believe we do), then it must be shared with compassion, caring, and understanding. Everyone draws on their own experience, reason, and cultural understanding to make their decisions; and we must be willing to accept that.

A non-Christian friend of mine stated, in response to the above thoughts, that a person does not need religion to be moral. They can choose to be compassionate, decent, and equitable without fearing condemnation or seeking reward in the afterlife.

I responded and acknowledged that he is right, one can have morals without religion (though I would argue that all good things come from God, but that conversation probably deserves its own post). Though I don't believe in God out of a fear of what may happen after I'm dead. The idea of a disembodied spirit floating around after we die was borrowed heavily from Greco-Roman culture and philosophy, and strikes me as an untenable belief theologically.

And the idea of such a spirit being submitted to eternal torture isn't supported biblically or by our current scientific understanding. I think the Gehenna which Jesus speaks of (he never uses the word “hell”) is primarily the natural result of the divisive actions of human beings toward each other, toward creation, and toward God. When human beings are consumed by selfishness (or self-righteousness), how could the result be anything but separation? But if you notice, Jesus' message is concerned with how we treat each other in the here and now. While he still works within the framework of Jewish law, he shifts interpretation from one of fear or self-righteousness, to one primarily motivated by love.

I try to be good, and follow Jesus' teachings, not because I'm afraid. I mean, when I'm dead, the jig is up one way or another and it's all out of my hands at that point. smile emoticon But I try to be good because not only am I intellectually convinced through reason and personal experience of God's existence, but I have fallen in love with God. I love God and I love others, not just because somebody told me to, but because in my opinion it's the best, most beautiful, most illuminating way for me to live.

Am I perfect in my understanding or practice of that love? Nope. But that doesn't mean I'm gonna give up trying to live this way. And I think there are many other Christians who share the same point of view. It's true that not all of us do, but that's where the above article comes into play. It's intent (and my intent in sharing it) is to foster a conversation about what living as Christ's disciples really means. We have 2,000 years of bad blood to overcome as people have hijacked the cross for a variety causes (which arguably boiled down to a desire for power in almost every case).

Call me an optimist, an idealist, or just a plain old fool, but I think we can do better. In fact, we owe it to our God and the rest of the world to do better. And this starts by re-centering Christian teaching on the teaching of Christ: which is to love no matter what.

 ‪#‎AmericanChristianity‬ ‪#‎ChristDoesntMeanCulturePolice‬ #Evangelicals

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Problem of a God Who Allows Suffering

Someone asked me, if God were real, why would He allow kids to be born with birth defects (and finished with saying, "thanks imaginary god.") It bothered me, not just because he was challenging my beliefs. After all, our beliefs should be challenged and tested by the force of reason and experience, otherwise they're probably not worth anything.

But what bothered me was that he had a valid point. Why would a good God allow kids to suffer, like in the article below? Why do so many human beings seem to live a loveless, harsh, and suffering existence only to die at the end of it?

I've been thinking about it a lot. I think the only acceptable solution is one that fully recognizes the reality of suffering in the world and doesn't try to mitigate or minimize it. Suffering in the human condition is real, it is deep, and it is often relentless.

So, this is what I'm thinking currently: Our conception of God rests on our understanding of "the Ideal." The ideal varies from culture to culture, and over periods of time, but almost universally includes the concepts, "the Good, the Transcendent, and the Imminent." A concept of God worth engaging by human beings (whether in prayer, worship, or just simple awe and joy), must include these three (and yet is infinitely more than these) concepts. But how could an imminent (involved deeply in the details of the cosmos) and good God allow such undeserved suffering?

Well, if God is real, good, imminent, and transcendent and has created us for relationship with Him, then relationship requires free will. And if free will is not an illusion, it must be probabilistic and not deterministic in nature. By it's very definition, the existence of probability introduces an element of chaos into the cosmos. This chaotic element, would then introduce harsh realities into all of life's experience (and not just human), which would be experienced as suffering.  And free will opens the possibility for us to choose disharmony over harmony, and betrayal over trust.  If trust, in turn, is the foundation for all human relationships (including those with each other, with God, and with creation), then it leaves us in a completely broken state.  Brokenness leads to confusion, and in that confusion, it is no wonder we are unable to perceive God clearly on our own.

This does not compromise God's goodness, as God's goodness is manifest in everything created. Evil (and its cousin, suffering) are not created things, but are a warping or corruption of what is created, as a consequence both of the abuse of free will and the role of chaos in allowing both free will and a lack of total determinism in the cosmos. But the beauty and mystery of God's goodness, is that in His desire to preserve the will, and enable relationship, He suffers with us. He feels the pain of every dying child, of every victim of abuse. He feels our hurt, confusion, and rage.

Christ's Incarnation (God taking humanity onto Himself in Christ) ensures that He takes part in our suffering., His death on the cross is the ultimate expression of this as He takes all the pain, suffering, and brokenness in the world into Himself. His resurrection is the ultimate triumph over suffering and the hope of our triumph, as well. Finally, the Holy Spirit's continued presence in a broken and hurting world feeds the hope and propels its fulfillment forward, even in the face of inexpressible sorrow.  And it is through the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that we experience the hope of reparation and restoration.

I understand if people don't see it the same way I do, and I don't blame them. But these are just my thoughts as I grapple with the realities of our existence.

P.S. Some further thoughts on the attributes of God expressed in, "the Good, the Transendant, and the Imminent." We can envision these attributes, and we all have different ideas about them, but we also all agree that outside of concepts concerning God, there are no perfect expressions of the Good, or the Transcendent, or the Imminent in human experience.

This tells me that the argument that our concept of God is simply anthropomorphic projection and nothing more, is not valid. If God simply reflected anthropocentric tendencies in our species, as necessary for our survival, then our concept of Him would not rest on attributes which are utterly unattainable by any created being. ‪#‎GodProblems‬ ‪#‎Suffering‬