Morality needs God

Ron Smith vs Matthew Flannagan | “Morality Does Not Need God” | Waikato University

Hello readers, today we have uploaded the the debate with Dr Ron Smith and Dr Matthew Flannagan to YouTube, though some of you may have noticed it floating around Facebook. It was a well-attended debate, in total 200 people came along and participated.

This sort of event is what we like to see at Thinking Matters, people from both sides of the “God” debate coming together and engaging in a civil and intelligent conversation. You will be able to tell that Matthew and Ron disagreed with each other, yet they disagreed with “reverence and respect”, showing that disagreements over religion do not necessarily divide. In addition, the questions that were asked of the interlocutors, were penetrating but at the same time, cordial. No one got offended and everyone was calm.

In his opening remarks Dr Frank Scrimgeour, the moderator commented:

“It is an important occasion, and an important topic that befits a university, particularly a contemporary university that seeks to place more moral claims on its students, more than was the case when I was an undergraduate student … I trust that it will be a fun evening and I look forward to crowd response, but I request that it will be done with dignity and good nature. I am sure that enhances the quality of the conversation … I am not interested in moderating a debate where people cannot hear the participants. So I guess the more you disagree with someone, I challenge you to listen harder and be ready to ask the insightful question at the appropriate time … Think hard and enjoy yourselves.”

Ron echoed this sentiment saying:

“I was an easy target for the invitation to speak in this because I have become increasingly concerned, to be frank, about the extent to which the university has attached itself, and areas within it, to particular ideological views, and really shutdown discussion in a variety of areas … where discussion is inhibited. Now if there is anywhere in the community where discussion ought to proceed without persons needing to be protected against the possibility that arguments don’t sit well, it’s a university. The university has failed to live up to its obligation, so this is the test of the principle.”

Both of these men understand how important debates on the existence and nature of God are, and have identified that a university ought be a perfect place for such a discussion to go ahead. One of the key reasons why the debate was a true victory, was because it showed that people can disagree about the most important things in life and still part on good terms. Matthew defended the Christian conception of God and Morality in the true spirit of 1 Peter 3:15-16, where St Peter commands:

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

May this also be something we never forget.

how to be an atheist

An Interview on “How to Be an Atheist”

In a new video from Crossway Books, Justin Taylor sits down to talk to Mitch Stokes about his provocatively titled book How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.

Stokes was an engineer before he studied philosophy under intellectual heavyweights Wolterstorff and Plantinga. His previous book, A Shot of Faith (to the Head), expertly navigated deep philosophical and scientific waters to help readers get an understandable grasp of the rationality of theistic belief. His new book, How to be an Atheist, encourages skeptics to be more skeptical about the certainty of their skeptical beliefs. It sounds like an interesting read.

Karl Faase

New Video Series on How Jesus Changed the World with Karl Faase

Olive Tree Media have released a trailer for a new DVD series about how the life and teaching of Jesus changed the world and why it matters. Hosted by Karl Faase, the 10 episode series includes interviews with notable Christian academics such as Miroslav Volf and Rodney Stark. The series comes out in July.

Karl Faase is the Senior Pastor of Gymea Baptist Church and CEO of Olive Tree Media, an Australian-based media organisation which produces DVD and television series for Christian media and church use.

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Diamond in the rough – Why Christianity is unique

In my previous post, we explored the falsifiability (or lack thereof) of some world religions. Here we will dive straight into the credentials of my personal favourite – Christianity.

We left off with you asking a question – How is the Christian religion any different from the others? Wasn’t Christianity founded by a solitary, subjective figure ? Didn’t Jesus claim to hear directly from ‘The Father’? Isn’t he also circularly impervious to the attacks of the enemy?

Yes, Christianity is founded on one man, claiming to be God. And yes, he does command your trust by virtue of him being God and owning you.  So far, so circular. The differences become clear when you take a look at the biblical authors approach to this issue. Rather than falling back on their divine authority and declaring “Believe, because I said so”, like Muhammad, the Buddha, and Joseph Smith, the biblical authors say, “Take a look for yourself”. Christianity invites investigation.

In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul addresses the bodily resurrection of Jesus to a culture steeped in pagan philosophy and mythology. See Paul’s words below:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for the our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)

Paul is reminding the Corinthian church of the basic theological foundation that he lay when he was ministering in Corinth – in fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus Christ of Nazareth was murdered, buried, and resurrected to claim a people for himself. The Corinthians didn’t have hearsay and rumours to go on with these claims, but actual witnesses of the events. While some of them had fallen asleep (died), others lived and continued to shine as beacons of testimony. Paul’s appeal to eyewitnesses to solidify the flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus from the tomb mirrors that of the Gospel writers. Frequently in their accounts, names of seemingly inconsequential people are given to add some extra oomph to the eyewitness accounts. To put it another way – “If you don’t believe me, go ask this guy.”

Paul goes a step further in the following section of his letter:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 

If Christ has not been raised, you faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

If in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 17, 19)

Let me try to put this in an even more provocative way – if Christ was not raised from the dead, then Christianity is pointless. Did you hear that? You are of all people most to be pitied if you have given your life for a cause still six feet under. If you are of the persuasion who thinks that even if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the Christian life is still worth living because of the “family values and strong morals” it breeds, go for it. But don’t call it Christianity. As for me, I am going to eat, drink (a lot), and be merry, for tomorrow I die.

By staking the the future of the Christian religion on an historical event that did not happen in a corner, the biblical authors willingly opened themselves up to scrutiny in a way that no other religion has or ever will. While the followers of Muhammad, Buddha, and Joseph Smith point to their leaders’ enlightened, mystical authority as unquestionable proof, the Christian bases their Leader’s authority by pointing to an empty tomb and saying, “Take a look for yourself”

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All religions the same? Take a closer look

An oft repeated sentiment today is that all religions are basically the same in that they are all subjective, unscientific, and just plain false. So in today’s secular climate, how does someone go about filtering out the good from the gunk? Is there even a concept of good religion, or are they all gunk?

Secularism has firmly removed religion from the public sphere of objectivity and ‘science’, and placed it in the private corner of subjectivity and ‘faith’. This means that religion can never really be considered true in any meaningful sense. It can provide meaning for adherents in a utilitarian sense, but can’t authoritatively direct mankind due to its obsession with ancient books and garden fairies.

I don’t see the majority view changing on this anytime soon, so for the purposes of this post, I will appeal to an objective and scientific concept to bring the objective backing the world craves to the subjective sphere they despise. This concept is known as falsifiability.

What is falsifiability?

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, suggested the criterion of falsifiability – a scientific hypothesis must be inherently disprovable before it can be accepted as a legitimate theory. While this criterion was originally only used within the physical sciences, it was eventually used across a number of social sciences, including anthropology and history.

By applying falsifiability to a small number of the world’s great religions, we begin to see weeds amidst the wheat. Take a look at these origins stories:

Islam

An Arabian merchant begins to receive visions from the Almighty God (Allah) whilst in a mountain cave. Turns out these vivid hallucinations are actually the words of Allah, the one true God. Muhammad is the True Prophet and forms a people in submission (the meaning of the word, Islam) to Allah.

Buddhism

The Buddha, or “the awakened one”, shares his eternal insights with man on how to transcend our earthy desires to reach the spiritual Nirvana.

Mormonism

Disillusioned by the various Christian denominations before him, a young boy named Joseph Smith asks God to give him wisdom for which path to choose. One day, while in a wood, Joseph receives an angelic vision of the true faith and Mormonism is born.

Can you see the similarities between these three religions? They all originated from moments of quiet contemplation. This does not necessarily mean that they aren’t true but it does create skepticism when considered in the broader context of the respective religious histories. Turns out caves and trees are perfect places to start a religion.

It isn’t that these three religions aren’t falsifiable – their claims can be investigated and doubt shed. The issue is that they automatically reject criticism based on their internal frameworks, making them inherently unfalsifiable. Muhammad and Joseph Smith can’t be wrong because they were declared as authoritative prophets of God. Rejecting Buddha’s teachings proves that you are filled with desire, and thus not worthy. What we see is the proverbial bait and switch – offering a falsifiable claim only to remove it right before your eyes using their own theology (or in Buddhism’s case, a-theology).

Take a look

Wasn’t Christianity founded by a solitary figure, you ask? Didn’t Jesus claim that he heard directly from ‘The Father’? Isn’t he also circularly impervious to the attacks of the enemy? Good questions. Let’s look at them next time.

 

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Thinking matters – What’s in a Worldview?

Welcome to the third instalment of my series – Thinking matters. If you are a newcomer to this ongoing conversation, I recommend reading here and here to catch up. Moving right along to the next reason why thinking matters. If we do not think seriously about what we believe and why we believe it, we are left with a hollow worldview. Before we delve deeper, let’s define some terms.

What is a worldview?

I searched far and wide for a good definition but alas. So, here is my best shot at what encompasses a worldview –

Worldview: the framework of presuppositions, ideas and beliefs through which an individual or group interprets reality.

To put it simply, a worldview is the personalised lens through which you see and understand the world around you. From this definition, we pick up on one really important aspect of worldview – everyone has one. Whether you are a sleek and smooth investment banker, or a member of an unreached Amazonian tribe, you interpret the world and everything you see in it through the lens of your own presuppositions.

What does it then mean if a worldview is hollow? Just as you knock on someone’s head to ensure there is indeed something inside, a close examination of a hollow worldview will reverberate emptiness. Presuppositions can be groundless and therefore lead to a false conclusion or vice versa, with hopeful beginnings leading to absurd endings. Sometimes, the starting and finishing lines of a worldview can tickle the ears and appeal to our deepest human desires, but when challenged by the harsh realities of life, they fall like a house built on sand.

Hollow examples may include:

  • A naturalist is in awe at the wonder of the physical world in all of its intelligibility. The logical conclusion for worship is the Designer behind the design, but their naturalistic presuppositions closed the door on this option before the conversation even starts.
  • The spiritual type who turns his back on evil and suffering in an attempt to rid them of their power and influence. They are quickly found out in this painful world.
  • The nihilist, disillusioned by the excessive agony he sees around him, intellectually denies meaning or purpose in life, but struggles to practically live in a way consistent with his conclusion.

And probably the most common:

  • The average secularite who seeks to treat others as they wish to be treated while refusing to acknowledge the source of such universal truths.

If you have read my previous two articles, you will have heard me wax repeatedly on the tendency for Christians to have their minds and actions influenced by the dominant thought trains of the day. Regarding the development of worldview, this is no different.

The harm of a hollow worldview

In a standard marketplace, goods and services are purchased with cash and if the consumer is pleased, he or she will often recommend the product to others. This increases the influence of the retailer, enabling them to spread their product through larger client bases and make more money. In an analogous way, Christianity, like any other view of reality or belief system, is competing in a global marketplace of ideas. Interpretations of reality and the meaning of life are legion and the competition is often fierce. These products are not bought with physical or digital capital, but with our allegiance

Christians stand in the midst of a world with some heavy baggage. Open them up and you will find objections of various types – intellectual, emotional, moral. Today’s idea consumers simply walk past the Christian stall, oblivious to what it has to offer. Not just oblivious, but convinced that it has nothing to offer. By not thinking seriously about what we believe and how it makes sense of the world around us, we add more fuel on an already raging fire seeking to purify the world of the Christian voice.

Towards a Christian worldview

What is the solution? How do we develop a cohesive Christian worldview that is credible, answers people’s questions, and brings honour and glory to the name of Jesus? I am in no way in a position to give exhaustive answers to these questions, but can offer a few suggestions that I am convinced are part of getting back on track.

Philosopher Douglas Groothuis proposes 8 criteria to evaluate a worldview

  1. Able to answer life’s big questions
  2. Internal logical consistency
  3. Coherence
  4. Factual adequacy
  5. Existential viability (doesn’t shy away from our everyday experience)
  6. Intellectual and cultural fruitfulness
  7. Does not make radical ad hoc readjustment
  8. Simple is better than unnecessarily complex.

An entire article could (and probably should) be written on the importance of each of these criteria, but for now they provide a good starting point for exposing the flaws of today’s dominant worldviews, and demonstrating the power of the Christian alternative.

There is one more thing we can do to begin to see change – we can pray. The task before us is enormous and we simply will not see success if we rely solely on our own ability and inventions (including the criteria above). When it comes to articulating the jaw-dropping panorama that is the Christian worldview, we desperately need the God at its centre to help us.

reading

Apologetic Resources for Small Groups

Small groups are a great setting for apologetic learning. Within the context of a discussion group, ideas can be more thoroughly examined, questions openly explored, and difficult concepts unpacked. Of course, as followers of Christ, our goal is never just head knowledge but to see God’s truth lived out in us. And small groups offer the advantage of not only enhancing learning through interaction, but in providing an enviroment of support for participants to apply and personalize truth in their own lives.

With an array of apologetic resources available, starting up a group can be a lot less intimidating than it once might have been. Study guides, DVD presentations, workbooks, and other materials offer enough scope to accommodate the academic level of the participants and the apologetic experience of the facilitator. You don’t have to have to have a theological or philosophical degree to be able run an effective group.  If there is a hunger for hearts strengthened by a deeper faith and a more robust intellectual life within your congregation, there’s little excuse for not running an apologetics program at your church.

Here are a few of those resources that are available:

Foundations of Apologetics Curriculum

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This is an excellent series that probably stands as the benchmark for small group resources. Produced by RZIM, the series includes 12 one-hour DVDs with accompanying workbooks. The series broaches a comprehensive range of apologetic arguments and strategies and features lectures by Ravi Zacharias and others including Alister McGrath and John Lennox.  You can purchase the whole set ($199 USD) or the individual titles ($19 USD) if you prefer. You can also preview the DVDs on YouTube (for example here).

Content:

1. Introduction to Apologetics: Conversations That Count
2. Truth and Reality
3. The Existence of God
4. Establishing a Worldview
5. The Trustworthiness of the Christian Scriptures
6. The Uniqueness of Christ
7. The Trinity and Apologetics
8. Pluralism: Do All Religions Lead to the Same Goal?
9. Faith, Reason, and Integration
10. God, Evil, and Suffering
11. Seeing & Exploring Cultural Connections
12. Reasoning From The Scriptures

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If you’re not interested in the DVD presentations, I’d recommend the Critical Questions series that RZIM also puts out. There are four discussion guides (’Is God Real?’, ‘What is truth?’, ‘Who was Jesus?’ and ‘Can I trust the Bible?) and each contain six sessions and are written by some of the top evangelical scholars, including William Lane Craig, Scot McKnight, Paul Copan, and Darrell L. Bock. The titles weigh in at around $6 USD each. One of the great things I like about this series of books is that each session focuses on a passage of Scripture and develops the discussion from there.

Crucial Questions by R. C. Sproul

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Sproul, founder and president of Ligonier Ministries, is the one of the most prominent apologists alive today and the prolific author of more over 60 books. This series of booklets that he has written deal with such topics as the true identity of Jesus, the will of God, the value of prayer, and the trustworthiness of the Bible. The booklets are succinct but solid discussions of questions at the core of the Christian life and make a great option for small groups. Each usually goes for $7 USD but Westminister Books currently has an offer where you can grab them for $4.90. You can also download pdf samples of the books on the WTS store website (for example here).

Content:

1. Who is Jesus?
2. Can I trust the Bible?
3. Does Prayer change things?
4. Can I know God’s will?
5. How should I live in this world?

The Truth Project

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The Truth Project represents an effort to redress the failure of many Christians to think consistently and faithfully from within the Biblical worldview. Produced by Focus on the Family ministries, the Truth Project is a DVD-based curriculum comprised of 12 one-hour lessons taught by Dr. Del Tackett. With each lesson tackling a fundamental aspect of life, the series is a good introduction to the Christian mindset and deeper philosophical ideas at the heart of the Biblical worldview. This is an exciting course, but it is not cheap. To buy the DVD set (includes 7 DVDs (13 one hour lessons)) on the Focus on the Family site, it will cost you $250 NZD.

Content:

1. Veritology: What is Truth?
2. Philosophy and Ethics: Says Who?
3. Anthropology: Who is Man?
4. Theology: Who is God?
5. Science: What is True?
6. History: Whose Story?
7. Sociology: The Divine Imprint
8. Unio Mystica: Am I Alone?
9. The State: Whose Law?
10. The American Experiment: Stepping Stones
11. Labor: Created to Create
12. Community and Involvement: God Cares, do I?

Tactics in Defending the Faith

23231This DVD package is focused on the ‘how’ of apologetics, rather than the content of apologetic activity itself.  Made available by Stand to Reason ministries, the set includes six one-hour interactive sessions with additional directions for discussion, role-playing, self-assessment quizzes, recall exercises, and other memory tools. The package is primarily for Christians who already have some familiarity with apologetic arguments but wish to sharpen their skills in presenting the truth clearly and persuasively. With PowerPoint slides and printable material for both group leaders and participants, the package costs $49.95 (USD).

Stand to Reason also has several other resources that are worth looking into, including their Ambassador Basic Curriculum and the Ambassador’s Guide to the New Atheists.

Reasonable Faith

The third edition of William Lane Craig’s textbook is a comprehensive introduction to the defense of the Christian faith and I’d recommend this only for a serious and committed group. Despite that disclaimer, Craig’s book is not pitched soley at academics or pastors, but is both accessible and enormously rewarding for the Christian layperson willing to invest the effort.  The 416 page book includes discussion of the  relationship between faith and reason, the existence of God, the problems of historical knowledge and miracles, the personal claims of Christ, and the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Along with the freely available online resources (study questions and powerpoint slides), the book is an ideal tool for those who want to go deeper into the latest Christian arguments in astrophysics, philosophy, probability calculus, and Reformed epistemology. Order the book from the Biola University website here or Amazon.

Battling Unbelief

sgbu_mediumUnbelief is not just for nonbelievers. Christians too can encounter doubt and skepticism. In fact, at the heart of our sin is often disbelief in who God is and in His promises for our lives. This DVD series, developed by Desiring God ministries, focuses on combating the practical outworking of unbelief in the lives of Christians.  The 12- week guided group study, divided into five manageable daily segments, seeks to help Christians wage war against such sins as anxiety, pride, shame, lust, despondency, and more. You can purchase the DVD set with presentations by John Piper and 12 Battling Unbelief Study Guides for $59.99 USD or get individual copies of Piper’s book for $11 USD.

Content:

1. Introduction to Battling Unbelief
2. A Passion for God’s Glory and Your Joy
3. A Passion for Practical Holiness
4. Is It Biblical? (Part 1)
5. Is It Biblical? (Part 2)
6. Origins of Radical Love (Part 1)
7. Origins of Radical Love (Part 2)
8. Battling the Unbelief of Anxiety
9. Battling the Unbelief of Covetousness
10. Battling the Unbelief of Lust
11. Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness and Impatience
12. Review and Conclusion

Also worth investigating are Piper’s excellent series Seeing and Savoring Christ and Don’t Waste Your Life.

Christianity Explored

The Christianity Explored Course is directed at those who have not made a commitment to Christ but are wanting to discover more about what it means to follow him. The course has been around for over ten years and offers a much better alternative to other courses like Alpha. Intended for a ten-week period, the series takes participants through Mark’s Gospel and raises questions that cut to the heart of Christianity, including ‘Who is Jesus?’, ‘Why did he come?’ and ‘What does it mean to follow him?’.

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The DVD set (with 14 talks) – $79.
Christianity Explored Study Guide – $4.99
Christianity Explored Leader’s Guide – $9.99
Christianity Explored DVD Starter Pack (includes 9 study guides, 3 leader guides, DVD, and How to run the course manual)  – $149.99

Content:

Preface: Before we begin
Week  1: Introduction
Week 1: Introduction
Week 2: Jesus – Who was he?
Week 3: Jesus – Why did he come?
Week 4: Jesus – His Death
Week 5: What is Grace?
Week 6: Jesus – His Resurrection
Exploring Christian Life:
– The Church
– The Holy Spirit
– Prayer
– The Bible
Week 7: What is a Christian?
Week 8: Continuing as a Christian
Week 9: Choices – King Herod
Week 10: Choices – James, John & Bartimaeus

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Os Guinness

Os Guinness on the Essence of Apologetics (Part 4)

In part 4 of this lecture series on the essence of apologetics, Os Guinness considers how to persuade those who appear ‘hard-hearted’ and how to awaken an awareness of their need for the Gospel through various creative means.

Tim Keller

How can there be just one religion?

In this talk, pastor and author Tim Keller addresses the objection of religious exclusivity and whether it is reasonable for Christians to claim that Jesus alone is the “way, the truth, and the life”.