Monday, November 16, 2015

My Thoughts Regarding Evidence for God

A friend recently told me he had lost his faith. He had been a young-earth-creationist and had found the apologetic arguments regarding the relationship between science and scripture dissatisfying to the intellect, and insufficient evidence for his continued walk with Christ. Still, he asked for my thoughts on faith, how it fits with our current scientific understanding, and what my "best argument is for God's existence."  I generally dislike engaging in apologetic arguments, as I think Christ is best reflected in the life lived by faith and in the life of the Church, but below is the substance of my reply. Many Christians may find it controversial, but within it I believe I have confirmed the orthodox faith while also affirming the value and reliability of scientific discovery.

"I think the only argument for Christianity is found in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I do not think "proof" of God's existence can be found in cosmology, or evolutionary biology, and certainly cannot be found in any argument for a "god of the gaps."

Interestingly enough some of the 20th century's best theologians (including the theologian and theoretical chemist Charles Coulson) fully recognized this and emphasized the centrality of Christ's person to any theological understanding of God's work in the cosmos. I am particularly fond of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was put to death for opposing the Nazis and leading the confessing church in Germany during WWII) quote,
"How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."
It is with this in mind that I define my faith, not as "blind belief," as some might claim faith is; but instead as "relational trust," based on the evidence related below. I trust God because I think He has been trustworthy in the past, even in the midst of the chaos and suffering in which we find ourselves. Some might argue that this contradicts Hebrews 11:1, which states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Many Atheists tend to see this as justification for casting Christianity as unreasonable. But I would contend that this passage is not referring to things of the past, but things of the future. We do not hope that the past will happen again. Instead, based on what has already happened (and the evidence on which we base the knowledge of what has already happened), we hope in the unseen future.

The thoughts which follow are largely the result of much wrestling on my part. However, I've come to the conclusion that throughout scripture, God does not punish our doubt, instead He often speaks to us through it. If this weren't true, then we would have to ignore the dialogues of Gideon and Moses, many of the Lament Psalms, the entire books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, and the narrative of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Thomas.

So, here I'll outline my current thoughts on my faith. Please bear with me, because this is a long one, but in the process of laying all this out, I am trying to communicate why I still have faith while at the same time affirming a completely material cosmos, discoverable through the natural sciences:

1) My Thoughts on God and Humanity
I am a Christian, but I absolutely affirm the necessity of scientific discovery for accurately shaping our worldview. I have no problem with the current, standard theories concerning the big bang, multiverses, or evolutionary biology. My current understanding of God most resembles what might be called Extensionalist Panentheism. Unlike Pantheism, best exemplified in some of the more spiritually inclined writings of Albert Einstein and Baruch Spinoza, which equates the total sum of the Universe (or Multiverse) with God; my understanding of Extensionalist Panentheism posits that the Cosmos is an extension (or expression) of the mind of God. The expression of God subsists within every particle or force within the Universe, and yet expands beyond it, even into,paradoxically, non-existence and potential futures. In this view, the Universe becomes an outflow of the mind of God, in whose Word everything finds existence (Jn. 1:3).

Its intelligence may be expressed through revelation (the interaction of mind-to-mind), but whenever such revelation happens, it takes the form of direct experience, and so in the process of abstraction and human mental process (including the translation into symbolic language), becomes a dim reflection of the original revelation and is written down by those who receive it using the best (often mythic) symbols available to them (i.e. the prophets of old). Ultimately however, the perfect revelation is expressed in the Word made Flesh, the Incarnate Son of God whose relevance is communicated through the Spirit (sometimes known as "ruach" in the OT Hebrew or "pneuma" in the NT Greek, both roughly translated as "breath" or "wind") (cf. Gen. 1; Jon. 1).

This perfect expression took on carnality, for the sake of carnal beings. I think that we are wholly physical (I do not believe we have a spirit, other than that which fills all life, that can be separated from the body, as this strikes me as a Neo-Platonist and Gnostic idea which was introduced to Christianity in the third and fourth centuries). Even our minds, where we find our identity and personality, are generated in the brain; just as the cosmos is generated from God through the Word. Because we are completely material, in a material cosmos, any salvation of the individual must be expressed materially. This is why the New Testament (and especially the Pauline and Johannine Writings) place such an emphasis on the bodily resurrection. Christ's sacrifice may have been the first and only truly selfless sacrifice, and served as both an example and as the avenue through which salvation comes. But if Christ was not bodily resurrected, then human beings have no hope of bodily resurrection in the future (1 Cor. 15:17).

I do not think science nor scripture support a vision of the afterlife where a person's disembodied spirit eternally inhabits heaven or hell. For one, we've come to discover through the neurosciences that the seat of our emotions, memory, and intellect all rest in the biological processes of the brain. Our hope is not in a disembodied, eternal heaven; but in a bodily resurrection and a restored creation where humanity is no longer separating from God by our sin and where we are no longer subject to the suffering found in chaos (Rev. 21:1). If there is judgment and a reckoning for the broken relationships we've caused, and for both individual and systemic sin; then I think this reckoning takes the form of self-imposed bitterness and hatred in individuals, to such an extent that one could stand in Paradise itself and still feel as though they were burning in hell. If this state is permanent, then it is likely so, because a person's bitterness and sin has twisted them up so much inside that they wouldn't receive the gift of grace even if it were offered.. Since I affirm that we are made in the Image of God, in that we have the creative and destructive powers of free will (Gen. 1:26-28; Deut. 30:19), I think that even when all is accounted for on the Last Day (which would require a physical resurrection), if a person is willing to turn from their own twisted insides toward the ever-present mercy of God, then they will receive it immediately (cf. Ps. 103:1; Ps. 118). I'm not 100% sure on whether those who find themselves in that state would do so, as it may be that if a person truly becomes utterly consumed by hate, then they may not even want to turn away from their own suffering, out of sheer bitterness and obstinance.

2) My Thoughts on the Old Testament
If God exists, and if this God were to reveal anything about Himself, then myths are just as good a literary form as any. After all, even today, we use myths (movies, fictional literature, etc.) to communicate ideas which are central to our cultural and relational understanding. Myths are often used to convey very poignant truth about who we are, and to completely dismiss them as irrelevant because of a lack of understanding regarding their source and purpose, is a bit silly.
 As C.S. Lewis said,
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches... and in this respect irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
I think that the Bible is a mix of song, poetry, myth, history, proverb, and parable. But when we confuse these literary genres, we totally miss the point of the text.

For example, the Jews most likely borrowed many of the elements in the creation story, the flood, and the early genealogy lists from the Babylonians (and them from the Sumerians before them).

But what makes the biblical stories kind of cool (if you're a nerd like me) in this context are the changes they made to the stories. In the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics, the earth is flooded because humans just party too hard and keep the gods up, so they decide to kill everybody. In the biblical story, God regrets his decision to create humanity because it fills the earth with violence.

This theme crops up again and again in the OT, and shows that even at an early point (they were probably included in the OT at the latest 2,600 yrs ago, but maybe a couple of hundred years before that), ideas about social justice were beginning to take shape. Even in some of the more brutal parts of the OT, the system of laws in place is much “fairer” in the modern sense than comparable law codes of the time (like Hammurabai's).

Also, and this often gets lost on modern audiences,but the narrative (especially from creation to the flood) takes on a very precise parallel structure. Genesis two (Adam & Eve) and three (Cain & Abel) are parallel structures, the days of creation are parallel structures (days 1 & 4 – light & light givers created; days 2 & 5 – waters & fish created; days 3 & 6 – earth and land creatures created; day 7 is a bookend of “rest); the flood exhibits a similar parallel device, as does the tower of babel, and the entire section of Genesis 1-7 exhibits an overarching parallel structure.

Additionally, in the Babylonian creation stories (the Enuma Elish), Marduk wrestles Tiamat (a chaos dragon), kills her, and creates the world from her carcas. In the Bible, Yahweh only needs to speak the Word, and chaos (tohu – an early cognate of Tiamat) recedes. This makes Yahweh a bit unique in the ancient near east, in that creation is an extension (through the Word) of God's mind into “the void” or “nonexistence.” The chaos dragon creeps up again throughout the OT and even in the NT, as a dragon or leviathan.

Since the Jews who were in exile in Babylon knew the Babylonian myths, they would have immediately recognized the similarities and recognized these biblical stories as myths. And if they somehow missed that, then the parallel structure would have tipped them off.

Finally, just in case anyone was still tempted to treat these stories as literal historical events, there are six “Creation Psalms” (Ps. 8, 19, 29, 65, 104, 139) which use creative language and have never been treated literally. I think this is primarily because they are immediately recognized as the creative outflow found in most songs.

The funny thing is, these creation stories, from the earliest Jewish works, all through early Christianity (cf. Origen and Clement of Alexandria), were understood in their mythical, figurative, and symbolic sense. And even the laws found in the Torah suggest a much greater work in the cosmos and a more socially just form of being (compared to the surrounding cultures, even if brutal by today's standards).

When Fundamentalist (and many Evangelical) Christians take these stories literally, not only do they make the faith look stupid to outsiders, but they miss much of the beauty of these early works. And that honestly makes me kinda sad that they think they are doing good, and yet are often totally missing the message that is in the works. Unfortunately, this also encourages people on the opposite end of the spectrum to completely reject any value in the text, even though their level of knowledge regarding them is on the same level as the Fundamentalists.

3) My Thoughts on New Testament Evidence
Long story short, it's all very much open to interpretation, and I'm not opposed to an allegorical reading for many of the events surrounding Jesus' life (in fact, Clement of Alexandria argued that ALL scripture has a deeper allegorical meaning, and that only chumps take everything literally, a position which came to define the Alexandrian School). Still, based on the below considerations, I think there is a genuine historical core which makes for very interesting study and discussion.

But, even where stories and myths are re-appropriated, I still find it useful to discuss the differences with source material, and what it could mean for interpreting theological positions based on the gospels. The gospel of John has fascinated me the most out of any of them. While the first three are Synoptics (meaning they share much of their material, with the most likely hypothesis being that Matthew and Luke used Mark, Special-L, Special-M, and Q as their source materials); John is very different in many respects.

At various times this has led scholars to tend to disregard John as non-historical, but I actually think John might be the most reliable of the gospels. His gospel is unique in that he shares details regarding the temple which (generally) only insiders would have known before it was destroyed in 70 CE. His timeline is also more likely for the Passover, given Jewish practice at the time (and also more theologically significant, as Jesus dies the moment the Passover lamb is slaughtered on the Day of Preparation before the Sabbath). He writes in slightly terrible Greek (especially compared to Mark or Luke), and uses multiple Hebraic idioms, suggesting a native Semitic speaker. The source of the book is evidently Ephesus, or nearby Asia Minor, and this fits with the written accounts of John's life by the men who knew him, specifically Ignatius of Antioch, Papias, Polycarp, and possibly traditions handed on to Irenaeus. The gospel writer self-identifies as the beloved disciple in the narrative, which is most likely John (as the only major unnamed disciple in the book).

The Johannine Epistles and Revelation are evidently already aware of the Gospel's existence, and as they have an estimated composition date of the mid-90's CE, this suggests the Gospel was earlier. The language between them is very similar (though there are some significant grammatical differences with 2-3 John), and may be from the same author.

Finally, we actually have a small scrap of papyrus from the gospel, dated to about 125 CE at the latest (called P52), and possibly only one copy removed from the original. Evidence from the writing and type of script suggests a devoted hand without formal scribal training, which would be consistent with an upstart community, not yet well established.

All of this suggests at least a strong core of a genuine first-hand account by the beloved disciple. The text may have been augmented with an unnamed sayings gospel and a signs gospel. This suggests that either some of John's followers added this material, or he used additional material to assist in telling his own story (as biographers often have). Based on the writings of his followers, and the date of the gospel, I think it was relatively finished while he was alive and I think it was really written by him.

Even when we look at the fact that the other three gospels were most likely not written by the apostles themselves, their sources were most likely in circulation while the people who remembered these events were still alive (especially with Mark, who seems totally unaware of the Temple's destruction in 70 CE). Additionally, recent scholarship on oral traditions of Africa (from the early Colonial period to the 1960's) has show a remarkable consistency among oral accounts, even over hundreds of years. Ironically, the effort to immortalize events by writing them down tends to remove them from the collective memory of a culture's storytellers.

Despite the explosion in written gospel narratives during the first few centuries of Christianity, there appears to be a genuine core narrative and teaching to Jesus' life which carries through the four canonical gospels (which in turn rely on at least 7 sources), the gospel of Thomas (which seems to have a genuinely early core), the epistles, and the writings of the Apostolic fathers (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Shepherd of Hermas, Bartholomew, etc. who are often overlooked, though these writers knew the apostles firsthand).

4) My Thoughts on Sources Outside the New Testament
As for outside sources, there is a ton of debate on the quotes by Josephus concerning Jesus. There are three normally quoted (Antiquities, XVIII, 3.3 & 5.2, XX, 9). I think two of them are probably later interpolations into the text, but Antiquities XX, 9 appears to contain a genuine narrative concerning Jesus. The nature of Josephus' treatment in this passage may suggest that he was more familiar with the trouble-making Chrestians and the Christ they followed, and so his attribution to Jesus as the Christ may not be a sign of belief (or later interpolation), but simply a helpful identifier for his Roman patrons, who were increasingly coming into contact with this group. Still, I would give this passage's authenticity about a 50-50 shot.

Perhaps most helpful when reading Josephus is not what he says about Jesus, but what he says about the destruction of the Temple. This strongly echoes Matthew and Mark (which was likely written earlier), and actually suggests that much of Jesus' teaching had nothing to do with "the end of the world," or "the rapture," but the end of the Temple in Jerusalem and the cataclysmic change it would bring to Judaism and humanity's relationship with God.

In fact, I think we can make a strong case that Jesus never talked about an afterlife that consists of a disembodied soul floating up to God was borrowed from Neo-platonism and Gnosticism. I don't actually think there is a soul apart from what is generated by the body, or a heaven we go to. As to the breath or Spirit which emanates from God, I think this is present in all life. And when the bible speaks of humanity, it may very well be speaking of that state of evolution in which life begins to exhibit the consciousness and will which is reflective of the power of God (cf. Gen. 1:27, Deut. 30:19)

Jesus seems to be speaking of a restored creation (cf. Rev. 21:1), and the Gehenna (what we interpret as "hell") that he speaks of is the natural consequence of suffering and shame brought about by the unjust life. I think there may be a physical resurrection for us, but only if Jesus was physically resurrected, and this would indeed be a miraculous event. If Jesus was only symbolically resurrected, then I think we rot in the ground as we have always done.

Even without Josephus, we have the written accounts/letters of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Seutonius from the early second century which lend credence to the New Testament claims regarding the quick spread of these teachings.

Essentially, when all of these various factors are taken into account, I think we can reasonably say that Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught (and that some of these teachings survive), that people perceived his ability to heal, that he was crucified by the Romans, placed in a tomb (which was not unheard of in the first century, as with the case of Yehohanan, son of Hagakol, whose body was discovered in 1968), that his body was discovered missing from the tomb, and that his followers genuinely believed he had resurrected and so spread the word (with almost all of them later dying for it, even after being given chances to recant).

While I think we can be relatively certain of the above events, that still doesn't guarantee that he was the Son of God or that he genuinely resurrected. But I do think that the suggestions that he didn't exist at all, or that we can't know anything about him, lack the same level of evidence.

Additionally, when everything above is put together, when the relative reliability of the Gospels (including the at least seven internal witnesses/sources within the canonical texts, as well as genuine core elements in the Gospel of Thomas) and the Apostolic Fathers, I think that a genuine belief in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ may be postulated (especially when framed within the cosmological understanding outlined above). Now, whether you choose to believe or not, and in turn live out a life of faith or not? That's totally up to you dude. I don't blame anyone who doesn't believe. In fact, I've always liked C.S. Lewis' quote,
"I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him the evidence is against it."
I just want us to have a good-natured discussion and still be able to have a beer together afterward. :)

In any case, I wish you the best on your journey, and along the way I hope and pray that you find enlightenment, peace, and joy and, dare I say, that you even find God in the process."

#faith #evidence #science #cosmology #atheism #Christianity

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