Understanding the Incarnation: An Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

“If God wanted to forgive our sins,” complains Dawkins in The God Delusion, “why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?” I will confess that, before I became a Christian around three years ago, I shared Dawkins’ perplexity. In fact, the Christian claim that, “Jesus died for our sins,” (meaning that before God could forgive us for wronging him he needed to become a man so we could murder him) was finally as strange as the claim that, “Honi the Circle-Drawer philandered for our monogamy.” If it was not utterly nonsensical then it was so impenetrably obscure that only a religious mystic could fully understand it—and even then he would then be unable to explain it to others. [1]

The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, would not share this view. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that there are good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, he would become incarnate in order to live a perfect life filled with great suffering that ends in a miracle. In other words, not only is the crucifixion of God Incarnate not incongruous; it is precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists.

Swinburne begins his argument with two preliminary axioms. The first is that if God exists God is by nature morally perfect—that is the sort of being whose existence we are postulating. The second is that human sin and suffering is a necessary feature of the universe God has created. Swinburne argues that such suffering is something which God (if God exists) has good reason to allow but is also something to which God (being morally perfect) is also likely to respond in a dramatic way.

In this first post it will be my concern to argue for the necessity of human sin and suffering and then discuss the first of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become incarnate in response to it. The two remaining reasons that make up the rest of Swinburne’s argument will be presented in subsequent posts.

The Sin and Suffering of Man

Suffering is an unpreventable feature of any world in which virtue and moral self-determination are widely attainable for finite agents. This was a point I discussed in a previous post.  Again, briefly: Free will ensures that we have a choice between doing good and doing evil while humans are so made that when we do good it becomes easier to do good again at the next opportunity and when we do evil it becomes easier to do evil again at the next opportunity. [2] In this way, we gradually strengthen or weaken desires of different kinds and so form a moral character.

Without free will none of this would be possible. And while God is omnipotent, his omnipotence needs to be understood in a way that allows for the constraints of logical possibility. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with free will and ensure that they do no evil. And so human suffering is a potential feature of any world in which virtue is widely attainable.

It is only because God wants us to freely become good people that he permits temporary moral evil and suffering. But it needs to be noted that it is not free will alone, but free will and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest most virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their free will to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. Swinburne suggests that it would not. A world in which opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available must therefore contain natural evil.

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, forbearance, and so forth, and highly probable that some of us would have no such opportunities at all. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, includes both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle, selfish and shallow.

The initial conditions of the argument are therefore as follows: Human beings are misusing their free will to do evil. As a result, many individuals and societies are developing a bad moral character. This fact, together with the natural evil necessary to ensure that opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available, causes human suffering that is often widespread and profound. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect. How is he likely to respond? Swinburne argues that God will likely respond by becoming incarnate. Let us now consider the first of the three arguments he gives.

To Fulfil an Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

Parents often subject their children to suffering for the sake of some greater good. Mrs Bell, for instance, may put her overweight daughter on a stringent diet. Mr Wild may ask his son to attend a “difficult” neighbourhood school for the sake of good community relations. Under such circumstances, it is good but not obligatory for the parent to show solidarity with their child by taking a share in the suffering that has been imposed. Thus Mrs Bell may decide to join her daughter in eating a green salad for dinner even though Mrs Bell herself is not overweight. And likewise Mr Wild may present himself at the “difficult” neighbourhood school to enrol in the parent-teacher association or offer to coach the soccer team.

In both examples the suffering imposed is mild. But Swinburne suggests that when the suffering imposed reaches a certain level of intensity the good of sharing in that suffering for the one who imposes it rises to an obligation. In this connection he offers the following example.

Suppose, firstly, that England has been unjustly attacked and the government has conscripted all men between 18 and 30 to defend it; suppose, secondly, that a parent may “veto” the conscription of their son if he is under 21; suppose, thirdly, that older men under 50 may volunteer. Most parents with teenage sons veto the conscription but Swinburne, in view of the gravity of the situation, refuses to do so: He insists that his 19 year old son enlist. Suppose finally that Swinburne is 45 and so himself eligible but under no obligation to serve. “Since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service,” concludes Swinburne, “I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.” And of course in circumstances of this kind the sharing could not be incognito. “The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering but to show him that he is doing so.”

The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Incarnation can be spelled out as follows: Given the amount of pain and suffering which God, though for a good purpose, permits us to endure it is very plausible to suppose that he incurs a moral obligation upon himself to share in that suffering; and given that God, being perfectly good, always performs the morally best available action, it is very plausible to suppose that he would discharge that obligation. This could be achieved by means of an incarnation; that is, by becoming human and, “living a life containing much suffering and ending with the great crisis which all humans have to face: the crisis of death.” And one way to ensure that he has shared in the very worst suffering humans must endure is to live a life that ends in a brutal and unjustly imposed execution.

A moment ago it was noted that the obligation to share in the suffering one imposes on another can not be discharged in secret. Thus an incarnation would not fulfil its purpose unless the knowledge that it had occurred were made widely available to the future human race. And since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration he must also found an institution—such as the Christian Church—to proclaim his message.

Swinburne therefore argues that the terrible suffering of Jesus, including his betrayal and his brutal and unjustly imposed execution, is not incongruous on the assumption that Jesus was God Incarnate; rather, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect of God given his moral perfection and the great human suffering which, though for good reason, he allows.

The next post in this series will discuss the second of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become Incarnate: To provide a means of making atonement.

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[1] Here one thinks of Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon. Zen Buddhism is said to have begun when Buddha held up a white lotus flower to his followers and said—absolutely nothing. No one understood the meaning of this, except for one disciple, who smiled subtly and with that subtle smile Zen Buddhism was born.

[2] As Emerson put it, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”

The Possibility of Miracles

One of the skeptic’s most familiar complaints about Christianity is that it asks us to believe in a lot of mythological nonsense that has been scientifically falsified—such as parting seas and virgin births and men who walk on water. It is certainly true that the Bible contains accounts of miracles. And it true that a Christian is committed to taking at least some of these literally. Indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the claim that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead—a point realised by the Apostles themselves.1 But can the skeptic justify his claim that it is absurd and irrational to even entertain a belief in miracles? In this post it shall be my concern to show that the answer to this question is: No.

Let us begin by defining a miracle. A miracle is a claimed event which, if it occurred, would constitute a violation of the laws nature. By this definition it is not even certain that all of the extraordinary claims in the New Testament are miracles. In Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, for example, the American analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga includes a Quantum Mechanical account of the transformation of water into wine—sportingly provided by the atheist physicist Bradley Monton. GRW, for what it is worth, refers to the Ghirard-Rimini-Weber approach—one of a set of collapse theories in quantum mechanics. Morton says,

The wave function for each particle is spread throughout an unbounded region of the universe at every time except perhaps momentary instants of time. This means that for each particle there is at most a finite region where it couldn’t be localised by a GRW hit. Some, probably even most, particles could be localised anywhere. So for changing water into wine, it’s not a big deal—you’ve got a bunch of individual particles that are composing the water, and they can all have GRW hits such that their positions are redistributed to the locations that would be appropriate for them to compose wine.

Monton’s final assessment is that, “all of the other miracles are unproblematically compatible with quantum mechanics.”

Morton helps to show that even the most extraordinary claims in the New Testament are not in principle beyond the purview of science but such speculations are, in the end, beside the point. And this is because the Christian claim is not that the miracles recorded in the New Testament are Quantum anomalies—even ones orchestrated by Jesus. Christians claim that the miracles of Jesus, and in particular the Resurrection of Jesus, did violate the laws of nature. This is the precisely the point of the miracle: Since violating laws of nature is something which only God can do, the Resurrection constitutes a divine signature on the life and teachings of Jesus.

I will now briefly discuss three standard objections to the belief in miracles and show that each one is ultimately without warrant.

The Objection from Scientism

The first objection holds that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world. Its proponent claims: If something cannot be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment, then we cannot hold a justified belief in it. And since miracles, by definition, lie beyond the scope of the scientific method (i.e., are unquantifiable, untestable, etc.) we cannot hold a justified belief in miracles.

The problem with this view, dubbed “scientism” by its critics, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. Consider: The claim that the scientific method is the only valid source of true beliefs about the world is a metascientific claim—a belief about the world that cannot itself be empirically measured and quantified, or proven by means of a repeatable experiment. Perhaps one could attempt to demonstrate the validity of scientism with a philosophical proof. But since any such proof would both advocate the scientific method as the sole source of truth, and originate outside the scientific method, it would invalidate itself.

In recent times scientism has enjoyed an unselfconscious resurgence in the writing of the New Atheists but it can be traced back to a mid-twentieth century movement in Western philosophy called Logical Positivism. Logical Positivism held that the only meaningful statements were those capable of being verified through sense experience or (as in pure logic and mathematics) those that are true by tautology. All non-tautological claims were subject to the “verifiability criterion” championed by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book, Language, Truth and Logic. The existence of God, interestingly, was not rejected outright; it was simply excluded from the conversation. Ayer said that it was just as absurd to be an atheist as to be a theist. The statements, “God exists” and “God does not exist” simply had no meaning.

By 1945, Logical Positivism had been abandoned by its own founders. The first problem with the verifiability criterion was that it forbade the metascientific precepts necessary to formulate a theoretical framework for scientific inquiry. The second problem was the fatal one already noted: The verifiability criterion is itself neither tautological nor verifiable. As the mathematician David Berlinski puts it, “All such arguments, when self-applied, self-destruct.”

The Objection from Hume

A second influential objection against the belief in miracles goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that the inductive confirmation of natural law in everyday experience is so overwhelming that no eyewitness report of a violation of natural law could ever outweigh it. For instance: The fact that heavy objects are always and everywhere observed to fall to the Earth is overwhelming background evidence against a report that, say, a marble bust of Mozart had levitated into the air. Whether this miracle had really occurred or not, a rational person would be compelled to reject the report of its occurrence on the basis of his everyday experience of gravity.

Contemporary philosophers of religion identify two flaws in Hume’s argument, both of which are discussed by Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne in his influential book The Existence of God. Swinburne first notes that, even granting Hume’s assumption that the only relevant background evidence is our experience of the laws of nature, there is no reason to suppose that this evidence always counts decisively against the report. “Maybe,” Swinburne writes, “so many careful witnesses report very clearly what happened that their evidence can outweigh the evidence from the normal operation of laws of nature.”

You might object that people lie, hallucinate and are easily deceived. But in support of his point that, very occasionally, we may be rationally compelled to accept evidence for a miraculous event from multiple, credible witnesses, Swinburne appeals to two fundamental principles of rationality: The Principle of Credulity and the Principle of Testimony. 

The Principle of Credulity states: If to a subject S it seems that x is present then, in the absence of special considerations, probably x is present. If Mr Green has the experience of it seeming to him that there is a German shepherd on his lawn then that is good evidence for his believing that there is a German shepherd on his lawn. “The principle of Credulity,” Swinburne asserts, “is a fundamental principle of rationality and unless we allow it to have considerable force, we quickly find ourselves in a skeptical bog in which we can hardly know anything.”

In ordinary experience we also use a wider principle: Other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us is probably true. “Most of our beliefs about the world,” observes Swinburne, “are based on what others claim to have perceived—beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond immediate experience.” Swinburne argues that such beliefs are justified even when (as per usual) we do not personally vet witnesses for their reliability. Thus the Principle of Testimony: The experiences of others, in the absence of special considerations, are probably as they report them. In his book Swinburne enumerates and discusses various special considerations and shows that none of them can be universally applied to religious experience.2

Contra Hume: On these two principles of rationality detailed reports of a miracle from several credible witnesses may outweigh the inductive evidence of natural law from everyday experience—even without including the evidence of natural theology in our total background evidence.

“But Hume’s main mistake,” continues Swinburne, “was his assumption that in such cases our knowledge of what are the laws of nature is our only relevant background evidence.” Equally relevant to our assessment of a purported miracle is any background evidence for the existence of God.For if on the total background evidence it is plausible or even probable that there is a God, then it is plausible or even probable that there exists a being with the power to violate the laws of nature. Evidence that there is a God is evidence that laws of nature can be violated—which will have particular relevance in cases where the reported event is of a kind that God, if God exists, would have good reason to bring about.

What reasons might God have to cause an event that violates laws whose regular operation he usually ensures? Swinburne suggests that there are reasons of two kinds. The first is to answer human prayer. “A world in which everything occurred in accordance with natural laws,” he notes, “would not be a world in which God had any living interaction with human beings.” The second kind of reason why God might violate natural law is, “just occasionally to put his signature on the work or teaching of some prophet in order to show that that work or teaching was God’s work or teaching.”

Swinburne argues elsewhere that, on the assumption that God exists, an Incarnation authenticated by a divine miracle has a certain likelihood given the moral perfection of God and the obvious general fact of human sin and suffering.4 And when this consideration is combined with the evidence for the existence of God from natural theology, a multiply and independently attested miracle of the right kind under the right circumstances may outweigh the inductive evidence that, when natural laws operate in the usual way, such things do not occur. Hume’s attempt to show that a miracle is always unworthy of credit fails.

The Objection from the Laws of Conservation

The third and final objection to miracles is the claim that special divine action in the world would violate the laws of physics. Plantinga asks us to consider this example of a miracle: God creating an adult horse ex nihilo in the middle of Times Square. During such an event the laws of conservation of energy, momentum, and so forth, would all be violated. Physics, meanwhile, tells us that this is impossible. The objector concludes miracles are impossible.

However, the laws of conservation apply to systems that are causally closed—closed to causal influence from without. But as Plantinga reminds us it is no part of standard physics that the universe is causally closed and whether or not it is depends on whether or not God exists. For consider: If God does exist then there exists an omnipotent being who can act upon the universe from without. Evidence for the existence of God is therefore, equally, evidence against the causal closure of the universe. And likewise: any system in which a miracle occurs is, ipso facto, not constrained by the various conservation laws. One cannot reject a miracle on the unproven assumption that God does not exist and therefore the universe is causally closed; indeed, the reported miracle may be evidence against the assumption on the basis of which the skeptic is rejecting it.

We have seen that there is no indefeasible objection to the possibility of miracles and so no way for a skeptic to prevent at the outset a rational inquiry into their occurrence. Whether it is rational to believe in the foundational miracle of Christianity—the Resurrection of Jesus—cannot be settled a priori. It needs to be settled in the court of historical analysis.4

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[1] Paul writes, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” 

[2] See my summary of his argument here.

[3] See the Modal Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, as well as the arguments from Cosmic Teleology, Biological Teleology, Consciousness, Adequation, Moral Experience, Desire and Religious Experience. All nine lines of evidence for the existence of God are also lines of evidence for the possibility of a being who can violate the laws of nature and so for the possibility of miracles. They must therefore be included in our total background evidence for a purported miracle. 

[4] There is no space to detail the argument here. See his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I summarise the relevant part of that book here.

[5] See the historical argument for The Resurrection of Jesus.

If God Commands Something Evil, Does That Make it Right?

Many Christians believe that we have a moral obligation to obey what God commands. Since God commands us not to murder or commit adultery (Exodus 20:13-14), we are obligated not to do those things. Since God commands us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39), we have a duty to do just that. In fact, many Christian theologians and philosophers take this notion a step further, arguing that our moral duties are actually rooted in God’s commands. On this view, if God commands something, then we have a moral duty to follow that command. On the other hand, if God didn’t command anything, then we wouldn’t have any moral obligations or duties. This view, called ‘divine command theory’ (or DCT for short), is appealing to Christian scholars and laypeople alike since it grounds moral duties and obligations in God. In addition, it squares well with what we read in scripture.

A moment’s reflection, however, reveals an obvious objection to this view. If God commanded someone to torture a child, would torturing the child be the right thing to do? If our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do, then it follows that if God commanded us to do something wicked like torture a child, it would be our moral duty to torture that child. We might spell out the objection like this:

(1) Our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do.

(2) God can command us to torture children.

(3) Therefore, if God commanded us to torture children, we would have a moral duty to torture children.

Plainly the idea of having a moral obligation to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions. It seems absurd, or at least strange, that a command from God could transform a wicked and evil action into a morally obligatory one. One might conclude, then, that since grounding moral duties in God’s commands leads to such absurdities, they are likely not the foundation for our moral duties and obligations. As sceptics argue, there must be some other way to ground moral duties.     

However, philosopher Matthew Flannagan thinks that this conclusion is unwarranted[i]. According to Flannagan, the defender of divine command theory has reason to deny premise (2). This is because when Christians refer to ‘God’, they are referring to a being who is holy, just, righteous, loving, etc. As such, what premise (2) really states is that a holy, just, righteous, and loving being can command us to torture children. However, assuming that torturing children is essentially unholy, unjust, unrighteous, and unloving, it is not at all clear that God can issue such a command. If commanding unjust actions makes the commander unjust, then it follows that if God (a perfectly just and righteous being) issues such a command then he is both just and unjust, both righteous and unrighteous—which is a contradiction. Therefore, Flannagan argues, premise (2) is false.

In fact, as Flannagan points out, in order for the objection to succeed, one must implicitly assume that no just, righteous, loving person would command wicked and evil acts. He states “the very reason… sceptics cite this objection is they think… ‘no informed, morally sensible person would ever endorse this [kind of behaviour]’”[ii]. In other words, the notion of having a moral duty to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions and simply isn’t the type of thing a reasonable, just, loving person could command. But, given that God is a reasonable, just, and loving person, he could not issue such a command. Therefore, premise (2) is false.

With this in mind, it seems that divine command theory is a tenable view for Christians to hold.  In answer to the question, then: God cannot command wicked acts, as the question assumes, and therefore no dilemma arises.


 

Endnotes:

[i] [BiolaUniversity]. (2013, Sep 14). Matthew Flannagan: Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjf4AfuilWk&t=253s

[ii] ibid

When in Doubt

It is part of human nature to doubt. In a world in which the prominent worldviews are contrary to Christianity, it is no surprise that many followers of Christ have doubts about their faith. I know from personal experience that doubts can often seem overwhelming, and that it is extraordinarily easy to blow them out of proportion. What should simply prompt reflection and consideration instead causes one to become anxious and defensive both internally—emotionally and intellectually—as well as externally—in one’s interactions with others. In such cases, there are two missteps that believers should beware of. Firstly, we can mistakenly perceive an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief, when in fact that belief has little or nothing to do with the objection. Secondly, we can assign far more importance to a given belief than it truly has. As a result of these two missteps, doubts and objections can appear to have implications that they do not necessarily have.  

As an example of the first misstep, take the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites. Critics often argue that God’s command to the Israelites to kill the Canaanites[i] was immoral, and therefore the God of the Bible cannot be good. Obviously, this conclusion is troubling for all who believe that God is essentially good. Must we accept it, or is there an alternative? One option would be to repudiate the argument. This, in my opinion, has been successfully done by a number of apologists[ii]. Another alternative would be to grant the argument, but deny the conclusion. Let’s see what happens if we explore this route.

Suppose that God’s command to kill the Canaanites was immoral, and that an essentially good God could not have issued such a command. Rather than inferring that God is not good, the Christian could instead conclude that the Israelites were mistaken in thinking that God had issued such a command. If we draw this conclusion, then the objection does not undermine God’s goodness, but rather biblical inerrancy, since the command is recorded in scripture. Clearly this is still a troubling conclusion for most believers. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the first misstep that doubting Christians can fall into; namely, perceiving an objection as undermining a particular Christian belief (e.g. God’s goodness) when it actually does not necessarily do so.

This brings us to the second misstep: assigning more importance to a belief than it warrants. In the Christian worldview, some beliefs are more central—more important—than others. For example, the belief that God exists is vital, while beliefs regarding the rapture and tribulation are far less significant. Philosopher William Lane Craig offers a helpful analogy that emphasises this point. He states:

Our system of beliefs as Christians can be compared to a spider’s web which radiates out from a central point. These strands of the web represent different doctrines or affirmations that we as Christians believe. Some of these doctrines are more central to the web of belief. If one of these doctrines were plucked out, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire web and the web might even collapse. But if one of these peripheral strands were to be removed, there would be little reverberation in one’s system of beliefs.[iii] 

If we picture Christian beliefs like a web, then the existence of God would be a core strand, along with the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection. If these claims turned out to be false, then so would Christianity.

Returning to our earlier example, then, which belief is more central to the Christian faith—belief in God’s goodness, or in scripture’s inerrancy? Although giving up either would send colossal tremors through one’s web of beliefs, I believe that abandoning the former would do more damage than the latter. That is to say, belief in God’s goodness is more central to Christianity than belief in biblical inerrancy. The danger is that, in constructing our web of beliefs, one might place more importance on a doctrine than it warrants. Then, when that doctrine is challenged, the accompanying doubts appear to strike far closer to the heart of the Christian faith than they should. The moral of the story is that, when in doubt, we should think carefully about what belief an objection undermines, and make sure that we place that belief in its appropriate place in our ‘web of beliefs’; neither attributing more significance to it than is warranted, nor underestimating its importance.


Endnotes:

[i] See Deuteronomy 7:2; 20:16-18.

[ii] For some responses to the so-called slaughter of the Canaanites, click here and here.

[iii] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-revelation/doctrine-of-revelation-part-7/

End of Life Choice Bill: A Response

Euthanasia is a weighty subject—a subject that cannot be broached without reflecting upon human suffering, harm, and death. Since the proposal of the End of Life Choice Bill (ELCB), euthanasia has been the subject of extensive public and private debate here in Aotearoa. For those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for any person over the age of 18 who has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”, who “experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable”, and who can “understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying”[i]. In December 2017 the bill passed its first reading, and the second reading will be held once the Justice Committee have finished receiving public submissions. In this post, I will argue that the ELCB is flawed in such a way that renders it unacceptable as public policy. Briefly, my argument is that the safeguards in the bill are unable to sufficiently minimise the risk of patient manipulation, and, since the government should not accept legislation for euthanasia that fails in this regard, the bill should not be accepted.


Safeguards

Section 8(h) states that attending physicians must do their best to ensure that patients’ requests for euthanasia are free from external pressure, and three primary safeguards are outlined[ii]. The physician must:

  • Talk to “other health practitioners who are in regular contact with the person”
  • Talk with “members of the person’s family approved by the person”
  • Fill out a form detailing the actions he or she took to ensure that these obligations were fulfilled.

My contention is that although these safeguards offer some protection against manipulation, they do not sufficiently minimise the risk. As an example, consider this situation:

A family stands to benefit from the death of a terminally-ill relative. As such, they manipulate their ill relative into requesting euthanasia, even though it is not a choice she wants to make. Nonetheless, she informs her health practitioner of the “decision”, and requests euthanasia. The physician talks to the patient, as per the safeguards, who falsely affirms that the request was autonomous. The physician then converses with the family, who do not admit to having manipulated the patient. Consequently, the physician sends the necessary forms to the Registrar, which approves the request, and the patient is euthanised.

This example indicates that, even when the safeguards are followed, patients can nonetheless be manipulated into requesting euthanasia against their wishes.

Objections

There are two obvious rejoinders that would nullify this argument. Firstly, someone might contend that it is all very well and good to theorise about these kinds of abusive situations, but, in reality, no one would ever do such a thing. To this objection, I would quote ethicist J. D. Velleman: “no one would ever do such a thing as abuse his own children or parents—except that many people do”[iii]. In light of the atrocities that have occurred and do regularly occur in our society, the aforementioned scenario hardly seems unlikely. But, if it is not unlikely, then it deserves to be seriously considered, and should be a significant factor in our assessment of the worthiness of this bill.

Secondly, many people argue that there is no evidence of significant abuse or error occurring in countries and states where assisted-dying is currently legal. As one study indicates, “rates of assisted dying in Oregon and in the Netherlands showed no evidence of heightened risk for [vulnerable groups]”[iv]. When considering an increase in euthanasia among elderly persons, other researchers state “we deem it less plausible [than other explanations] that the trends indicate more vulnerable groups feeling increasingly forced to choose euthanasia”[v].

Two responses come to mind. Firstly, interpretation of these findings is mixed. Though some researchers conclude that there is no indication of abuse, others question both their methodologies and conclusions[vi]. In some cases, the data is consistent with error and abuse. For example, a study of euthanasia in Belgium found that life-ending measures were frequently enacted without an explicit request, and that in these situations “family burden and the consideration that life was not to be needlessly prolonged were more often reasons for using life-ending drugs”[vii].

However, a more fundamental consideration is this: if manipulation were occuring, it is not clear that we should expect to find evidence. After all, the abused person is deceased, and therefore cannot testify, while those who committed the abuse are unlikely to admit their wrongdoing. Since these are probably the only parties privy to the abuse, a lack of evidence is what we should expect both if manipulation is occuring, and if it is not. Therefore, absence of evidence does not equal absence of abuse.


In sum, I do not believe that the ELCB provides adequate safeguards against manipulation, and therefore it should not be accepted. If euthanasia is to be legalised, we as a society have a duty to make sure it does not adversely affect vulnerable people. As such, any proposed legislation must be subjected to rigourous scrutiny to determine whether it achieves this end. In this regard, I believe the End of Life Choice Bill fails.

 

Endnotes:


[i]ELCB Section 4: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285950.html

[ii] ELCB Section 8: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2017/0269/latest/DLM7285956.html

[iii] Velleman, J.D. (1992). Against the right to die. Journal of medicine and philosophy, 17(6), p. 675.

[iv] Battin, M. P., van der Heide, A., Ganzini, L., van der Wal, G., & Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D. (2007). Legal physician-assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in “vulnerable” groups. Journal of Medical Ethics 33, p. 591.

[v] Dierickx, S., Deliens, L., Cohen, J., & Chambaere, K. (2016). Euthanasia in Belgium: trends in reported cases between 2003 and 2013. Canadian Medical Association Journal 188(16), p. 412.

[vi] E.g. Finlay, I. G., & George, R. (2011). Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and The Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on. Journal of Medical Ethics 37, pp. 171-174.

[vii] Chambaere, K., Bilsen, J., Cohen, J., Onwuteaka-Philipsen, B. D., & Mortier F, D. L. (2010). Physcian-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal 182(9), pp. 896-897.

 

Thoughts on why the Holy Bible is worth reading…

“‘The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World’ – centers in the truth of the basic assumption of Biblical Christianity that the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, is what throughout it claims to be, the record of an unfolding revelation of God.” – E. M. Blacklock[1]

I was given my first Bible when I was 19 years old. At the time I was transitioning from years as a student and competitive swimmer, to a typical life of a young adult leaving a life of strict discipline. I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Christian man who spent many months trying to convert me to Christianity. He didn’t quite convince me, but sometime in our friendship he gave me a Bible. It became my most treasured possession. Many years later when I became a believer my Bible became essential as I navigated this radical way of living called Christianity.

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

In April 2018, GQ Magazine published an article: ‘21 Classic Books You Don’t Have To Read By The Time You’re Thirty.’ On the list at number 12 was the Bible. Part of it’s blurb read:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned… 

Many Christians rushed to online forums to express their outrage. Yet the comments were nothing new, being reflective of the Bible’s standing in our western secular culture. But was the author correct in his descriptions of the Bible?

While it is true many Christians in the West do neglect personal Bible reading, many of us do read it daily. There are also many Christians who risk their lives to own a Bible in countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The Bible is not a single book with one author. It is an extraordinary collection of 66 individual books and letters. 39 books make up the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures), and the other 27 make up the New Testament. These books were put together in a Biblical Canon – books that meet the standard and criteria of authoritative inspirational writings[3].

The books of the Bible were written by around 40 authors over a timespan of around 1600 years on three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe, and in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The authors came from different cultures, education and socio-economic backgrounds, and included: Kings, prophets, battle hardened military leaders, sea battered fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, and even a zealous Pharisee!

Miraculously, despite such diversity, there is a clear meta-narrative – a Golden Thread[4] – weaved throughout the books of the Bible, revealing the story of a creative, relational God and the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity. The Bible is beautifully unique in both its complexity and unusual unity.

Is the Bible repetitious?

Repetition is often used in the Bible, giving readers varied perspectives and a more thorough view of events. It also emphasises ideas and themes of importance such as the laws of the Old Testament, or God’s repeated patience with His rebellious people.  The Bible also contains many ‘undesigned coincidences’ where small details in one account of a story add further detail or meaning to accounts by other authors. These are more easily found in repeated narratives such as the Gospels[5].

An example of repetition often put forth by Bible detractors is the question of why there needs to be four Gospels. In the Gospels we are given four very different eyewitness accounts of Jesus. Matthew writes a theological biography of Jesus; Mark from a literal, discipleship perspective; Luke from an historian’s perspective; while John writes from the perspective of an evangelist, prophet and pastor seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians[6]. These four independent perspectives add depth and meaning to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Is the Bible self-contradictory?

As the Bible is a collection of ancient near eastern texts they should not be read through the filter of our western perspective. Many so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, they are differences, misunderstanding of the text or textual variants. Most English Bibles add textual variants in footnotes. An example of a biblical contradiction is Mark 15:25 where Jesus is crucified on the third hour, whereas John 19: 14-15 has Jesus still standing before Pilot in the sixth hour.  Mark is using Jewish time reckoning – dawn to sundown – placing the crucifixion at around 9am. John if using Roman time reckoning – midnight to midday – places Jesus before Pilot at 6am. John appears to use Roman time reckoning throughout his gospel. 

Is the Bible sententious?

The Bible is full of moral sayings, proverbs and parables. There are lessons to be learned and warnings given, but always with the aim of improving the lives of communities and individuals to whom they were given. Biblical narratives, whether historical or proverbial, give examples of the need for moral laws by sharing the real traits of Biblical characters. Raw emotions, actions, reactions and over reactions are laid bare in both Old and New Testaments. Sins, faults and shameful behaviour and their consequences are exposed rather than hidden. .

Is the Bible foolish?

It is doubtful a ‘foolish’ book could continue the serious worldwide influence the Bible has maintained for over a thousand years. Ironically, this often maligned book continues to sell more copies than any other book in history. People have risked their lives to ensure the Bible reaches believers in countries where it is banned. Others have dedicated their lives to making sure it is translated into indigenous languages. 

The Bible’s influence has brought more good to the world than any other book in history. A few examples are:

Martin Luther King Jnr and his call for human equality; Christian missionaries and their self-less, determined education of the poor, indigenous people and women; William Wilberforce and his tireless and often seemingly hopeless work to end the slave trade; Kate Sheppard and her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand, resulting in the first votes for women in the world[7]; The incredible intensity and beauty found in Classical art, literature and music.

All of the above have their roots in a Christian worldview based on the truths found in the Bible. These truths reveal  every human being as having intrinsic worth and purpose and were created by an awesome loving God. Biblical Christianity was a dominant influence in forming our democratic western culture with all the freedoms we enjoy today.

Is the Bible ill-intentioned?

By its continued existence, despite constant opposition, the Bible proves its own worth and standing. It is a book of good intention and has offered direction, hope and purpose for billions of people over thousands of years. 

The Holy Bible is worth reading. It is a rich library of books and letters containing various literary genres from poetry and prose, through to history, philosophy, and theology. This great Book acknowledges and answers the questions of life giving meaning and a salve to what C. S. Lewis describes as that ‘old ache[8].’

I opened this post with a quote from E. M. Blaiklock’s 1975 lecture and I will finish with his closing remarks:

J. G. Lockhart tells of Sir Walter Scotts last days. The great writer was incapacitated by a stroke. Lockhart writes: ‘He desired to be drawn into the library, and placed by the central window that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him, and, when I asked from what book, he said – “Need you ask? There is but one.” ‘  True. There is still but one.

Endnotes:

[1] E. M. Blaiklock, OBE, The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World, The 2nd Olivier Beguin Memorial Lecture. 1975. E. M. Blaiklock was Chair of Classics at Auckland University from 1947 to 1968. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics. 

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[3] These are the number of books in the Protestant Canon accepted by Protestants from the time of the Reformation, although all 66 books were accepted as authoritative from the first century.  There are several other books included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon’s such as the Old & New Testament Apocrypha. I will discuss these further in my next post. See also: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, WW, Dr., Blomberg, C. L. Dr., Hubbard, Jr, R. L. Dr. 2004, Ch. 4, The Canon and Translations.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to the Bible. 2014.

[5] Due to space I have not added examples of undesigned coincidences in this post but will in a future post as it is an interesting topic. The concept of coincidences that are undesigned was first discussed in William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, 1869, and followed further by John James Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences, 1869. A contemporary book has been written by Lydia McGrew – Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, 2017.

[6] The Holman Concise Bible Commentary, B & H Publishing, 2010.

[7] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/womenandthevoteinNewZealand.pdf

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” 

Why Does Anything At All Exist? Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts examining the argument for God’s existence from contingent beings. Click here to read the first post.

In my previous post, I presented the cosmological argument from contingent beings[i], and defended the second premise. As a reminder, here’s how the argument runs:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

In this post I’ll argue that (1) is plausibly true—that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, and that nothing exists inexplicably.  


Observation Supports (1)

As far as observation and evidence go, (1) is very well supported. We regularly observe that things have explanations. For example, we observe that a particular animal exists because its parents reproduced and gave birth to it, or that a house exists because a builder was contracted to construct it. Furthermore, history shows that in instances when humankind once lacked good explanations for some phenomena, an explanation has since been discovered. This gives us good reason to think that someday we’ll be able to explain things that we currently cannot.

Additionally, if (1) were false, then we would expect to observe things that don’t have explanations. But this is not what we observe. As noted above, when we search for explanations, we generally find them, and have good grounds to think we’ll discover one if we don’t. Edward Feser writes “[if (1) were false then] events without any evident explanation would surely be occurring constantly, and the world would simply not have the intelligibility that makes science and everyday common sense as successful as they are. That the world is as orderly and intelligible as it is would be a miracle”[iii].

The Self-Evidence of (1)

As well as being supported by everyday observation, (1) is also somewhat self-evident; consider this example. Imagine you’re tramping through Aotearoa’s native bush with a friend. Together you marvel at the beauty of tui and fantails, and your friend offers intriguing explanations of their behaviours. As you walk and talk, you also ponder the comparative rarity of kauri trees and explanations for their scarcity. Moments later, you spot a smooth, translucent sphere resting among the bushes. “What’s that?” you wonder aloud. Glancing momentarily, your friend responds, “Oh that? It just exists inexplicably” and continues along the track.

What conclusion would you draw? Unless your friend has a propensity for extreme literalism, you would surely assume that she’s joking, and just wants to keep walking. Since we know that things have explanations, no one would take seriously the claim that the sphere literally exists without an explanation.  

Imagine further that the sphere was larger—large enough to encompass New Zealand. Would this negate the need for an explanation? What if it were the size of the earth, or as large as the universe? In both cases, it still calls for explanation. As William Lane Craig writes, “merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation[iv]”. Similarly, just as the sphere requires an explanation regardless of its size, so the universe seems to require an explanation, despite its immensity.


The idea that everything has an explanation of its existence, then, is supported both by our observation of the world around us, and by our intuitions regarding explanations. Several other arguments can be offered for this notion, and, if you’re interested in further reading, I recommend Edward Feser’s book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” (particularly chapter 5). An obvious question raised by (1) is, “if everything has an explanation, then what is God’s explanation?”. It is to this question that I’ll turn in my next post.

 

Endnotes:


[i] Contingent beings are beings whose explanation lies in something outside of themselves. They are contingent upon another being for their existence. More on this, and why the argument is referred to this way, in the next post.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Feser, E. (2017). Five proofs of the existence of God. US: Ignatius Press, p. 149

[iv] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 57.

Why Does Anything at all Exist?

“Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder impels us to find reasons for things”[i]

When I was a child, on the odd occasion I would find myself lying in bed at night, wondering what it would be like to not-exist. After confounding myself with such reflection, I was naturally led to wonder what it would be like if nothing at all existed. Is it possible that nothing could have existed? Why does anything at all exist? It seems possible that, instead of the cosmos existing, there could have been nothing at all. So why does it exist? It took mere minutes before my frazzled and awestruck mind gave up on these questions and slipped into slumber. Little did I know that such questions have been topics of reflection among intellectuals since the great Greek philosophers. In particular, the question of why anything at all exists is the foundation for a debated argument for God’s existence—the cosmological argument from contingent beings.


The Argument

Why does anything at all exist? Many would agree that things that exist must have an explanation; a reason why they are. Consider the universe—by which I mean everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist. If it’s true that things that exist have an explanation, then, provided the universe exists, there must be an explanation for its existence. Furthermore, various thinkers have suggested that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. Their conclusion, then, is that God is the explanation of the universe’s existence. To summarise:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

This argument is logically sound—meaning that if someone wants to deny the conclusion (5), then they must deny one or more of the premises (1-4). At first blush, premise 4 may look as though the theist is assuming what she’s meant to be proving. Never fear—I’ll explain and defend that premise in a future post. For now, I’ll examine premise 3 and argue that it is plausibly true.

Is the universe a “thing”?

That the universe exists is patently obvious to virtually all people. You might wonder, then, why bother defending this premise? Well, although hardly any person would deny that the universe exists, some might deny that it is a “thing” that requires an explanation. After all, the universe is a collection of everything that exists, and not all collections of things are actually things themselves.

For example, consider the difference between your body and a collection of random items. Your body is a collection of body parts—hands, feet, legs etc.— and, I think, it is fair to say that it’s a “thing”. We can coherently ask questions like “why is my body weary?”, or “why doesn’t my body feel hungry?”. Or, if we’re feeling philosophical, we might wonder “why does my body exist?”.

In contrast, imagine you have a collection of items sitting on your desk. Included in this collection are a pen, your phone, and a water bottle. These three items are not a “thing” so to speak, but rather a collection. Though it makes sense to ask why any one of these individual items exists (i.e. “why does my phone exist?”), it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “why does this collection of items exist?”. This is because the individual items are not unified in any way, and once each item has been explained there is no “thing” left to explain[iii].

The objection, then, is that the universe is more like the random collection than it is like your body. Once we explain every individual component of the universe, then there is no “thing” left to explain. And, if the universe is not a “thing”, then it may not need an explanation.

Defending Premise 3

How might a theist respond? Philosopher Stephen Davis argues that the universe is a thing since it possesses two essential properties of things. Firstly, it has an identity apart from other things. “The universe” is not the same as planet earth or your pet cat—it has a distinct identity. In other words, it’s something other than the earth or your cat, or any other thing that exists.

Secondly, it has properties. Davis writes, “[the universe] has certain unique properties like a certain pressure, density, temperature, space-time curvature, and so on. In its very early history everything was so smashed together that there wasn’t even atomic structure, so that the only thing there was the universe itself”[iv].

Davis also contends that, although the universe is a collection of things, it has a unifying principle, and therefore is more like your body than the collection of random items. All of the things that make up the universe are causally connected. For example, I exist because of my parents, who exist because of theirs. The leaf travels down the street because the wind blows it. The tide rises and falls because of the gravitational pulls of the earth, sun, and moon. We might describe the unifying principle of the universe as “the origin of all its members in some prior existing thing or things”[v]. For these reasons, Davis concludes that the universe is an existing thing.


I’m not certain that my boyhood-self would have understood this argument or its implications, but today, thankfully, I can, and I consider it a sound argument for God’s existence. If what Davis argues is true, then our common-sense intuition that the universe is something that exists is correct. Premise 3, then, is true. What remains is to determine whether the other premises are true, and that’s a task I’ll undertake in future posts.

 


Endnotes:

[i] Pruss, A. R. (2006). The principle of sufficient reason: a reassessment. NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 4.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Davis, S. T. (2006). Christian philosophical theology. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 4

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Richard Dawkins is Coming to New Zealand, and That’s Good News!

(From Canterbury Evangelism Network and Thinking Matters)

Who is Richard Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science populariser. He is the former University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He has written many books including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable and The God Delusion. He is a passionate rationalist who vigorously promotes science-based education, values and understanding. He is a staunch defender of atheism and a controversial critic of religious belief. He is well regarded by media and many academics as a top scientific thinker and a compelling public speaker.

Why is Richard Dawkins coming to New Zealand?

Dawkins is promoting his new book Science in the Soul in Auckland on May 10, 2018, and Christchurch on May 11, 2018. The book is a collection of 42 of his essays spanning three decades that proclaim the power and glory of science, the wonder of discovery, and the necessity of scientific thinking in diverse areas of society. He defends Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and the role of scientist as prophet. He responds to questions about whether science is itself a religion, the probability of alien life and the beauty and cruelty of life on Earth.

Why should the church be interested?

Dawkins has been identified as one of the New Atheists, a group that speaks critically against religion in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design and non-rational approaches to social policy. In The God Delusion, he argues that there is almost certainly no God and that religion is a delusion. He equates religious indoctrination of children with child abuse and offers the following description of God:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

How is this “Good News”?

Dawkins has brought the discussion of religious belief back into the public arena and we can be grateful for that. No longer simply a “private faith”, Christians are being asked to think carefully about what they believe and why they believe it in light of his strong attacks on Christianity. St. Peter encourages Christians to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). The faith and witness of followers of Jesus Christ will grow and the Church will be strengthened when we seek answers and present them with humility and respect.

How should I think about the conflict of science vs. faith?

Is it always science or faith? Is it possible to be both? We enjoy many benefits that science has brought to our lives; modern medicine, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. We can find areas where we agree with Dawkins if we’re willing to listen carefully. We can learn to discern claims of verifiable facts from claims about the implications of those facts. Scientists, like all people, are just as susceptible to affirm or ignore evidence based on our view of the world. Remember that there are faithful, obedient Christians who believe in a young earth, an old earth and theistic evolution. Be gracious.

How can I engage my non-Christian friends and colleagues?

Pray to God with thankfulness. Dawkins’ visit is a gift that can open up conversations about Jesus. Listen carefully and genuinely seek to understand what others believe and why. Affirm areas of agreement with the Christian worldview. Resist a combative response, even if you feel defensive. If you don’t have solid answers to their questions, say so with humility. Offer to journey together to discover what is really true and whether it matters to our lives. Consider Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He quoted pagan philosophers and poets to build bridges that moved people towards Jesus. He ignored those who sneered at his faith and instead went with those who were genuinely interested in learning more. Get out there and do likewise. In addition, explore some of the articles on this website, you might find something that speaks to the subjects that either you or those you know struggle with.

How can I pray?

We urge you to pray for Richard Dawkins. This is an important opportunity. Instead of being prideful, defensive or argumentative, we can choose to bless him as one created in the image of God and to pray for his salvation and a destiny that he has yet to embrace. We would love to welcome him into God’s Kingdom here in New Zealand. We choose to pray for revelation of the living God. We choose to pray for dreams and visions of Christ to flow into his life. It has been prophesied that this city is a place where people will come and meet God and then take the good news back to the nations. It is in this spirit that we believe good things for Richard and want him to have the blessing of knowing Christ.

What a privilege to pray for a man God loves and wants to rescue and restore. God used Saul to become one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists. He can use Richard Dawkins the same way.

If you would like to share this information with your church, download the Richard Dawkins Brief in PDF, print copies to A4 and then cut them into A5 sized handouts.

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Foetus in the womb

Abortion: Objections to the Pro-Life Position (Pt 5)

Welcome back for Part 5 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes[i].


“Men don’t get pregnant, and therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a phrase sometimes used to silence men when speaking on abortion. To be candid, I’m surprised but pleased that this statement has yet to be directed at me. As with many popular arguments for abortion, it has some initial appeal. Nonetheless, when examined carefully, it proves to be significantly flawed in a number of ways. Before outlining two flaws lurking beneath the surface of this phrase, allow me to state the argument more clearly.


The Argument

Taken at face value, the statement “men don’t get pregnant, therefore abortion is a woman’s issue” is a poor argument, since the conclusion (abortion is a woman’s issue), doesn’t follow from the premise (men don’t get pregnant). In order to reach the desired conclusion, we must uncover and insert a couple of hidden premises. With some re-wording, we can state the argument as follows:

1: Men do not get pregnant.

2: Pregnancy is a necessary condition for having an abortion.

3: Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience.

Therefore,

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on abortion.

This, I believe, is the reasoning most people express when they argue that men shouldn’t have an opinion on abortion. A number of objections could be raised, but I’ll focus on two that are sufficient to defeat the argument.

  1. Gender is Irrelevant to Validity

Firstly, arguments don’t have genders—people do. When someone offers an argument for or against abortion, anyone who wishes to contest it needs to address the argument itself, not the person making it. This is because an argument’s validity does not depend on the presenter’s gender, nor any other attribute they may or may not possess. For example, imagine my wife were writing this article rather than me. Why should we think that the reasoning before you is sound when presented by her, but not when presented by me? Remember, in this hypothetical situation the content of the article and the arguments therein are identical. The answer: if the content of this article is sound, it’s sound regardless of whether my wife or I wrote it. In truth, a good argument is a good argument whether it’s presented by a man, a woman, a child, a Vulcan, or a talking lion (think Aslan). 

In philosophy, this type of move, when someone attacks the person presenting an argument rather than the argument itself, is known as the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if a smoker argued “smoking kills, so don’t smoke”, someone might reply “you’re just a hypocrite!” and disregard the argument. However, the fact that the smoker is a hypocrite has nothing to do with his reasoning—it’s true that smoking is bad for your health and often leads to death, and therefore if you wish to live a healthy life, you shouldn’t smoke. While it’s true that he’s a hypocrite, his reasoning is nonetheless sound. In the same way, when someone objects to a pro-life argument by saying “you’re a man!”, they are simply attacking the proponent of the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. It’s true that I’m a man, but that fact has no bearing on whether my arguments are sound. 

  1. A Problematic Premise

Although the first point is sufficient to defeat the argument in question, a pro-lifer might further buttress their case by making another point; namely, that premise 3 commits us to absurd notions, and therefore must be false. Premise 3 states that “Individuals should not have opinions on things they cannot experience”. This, however, is clearly false. If it were true, then we’d have to conclude that women can’t have opinions on circumcision, or that no human being can have an opinion on the mistreatment of animals. In fact, if we were to be consistent in applying this premise, then, since no man can experience pregnancy, the conclusion would actually state:

Conclusion: Men should not have opinions on pregnancy or abortion.

Clearly this conclusion is false, and, as such, we should reject premise 3. But, if we reject premise 3, then the argument collapses since the conclusion doesn’t follow from premises 1 and 2 alone.


With these two points in mind, it seems evident that men are entitled to have an opinion on abortion—whether that be for or against. In fact, when you think about it, abortion isn’t solely a woman’s issue. Every unborn child has a father, and it’s often men who contribute to child-rearing when a woman chooses not to abort. We might say, then, that abortion is ultimately a human issue. This is not to belittle the undeniably profound role that women play in bearing children through pregnancy and in raising them, but it is to say that we shouldn’t forget or marginalise the part that men should and do play. I may be preaching to the choir, but I encourage you, the reader, to carefully reflect upon the ethics of abortion and form an educated opinion— regardless of your gender.


 

Endnotes:

[i] Making the Case: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Addressing Objections: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4