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Defending Christianity is Not Enough

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center”]”We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”[/pk_box]

C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock.

[Source: Tim McGrew]

Is the Magic of Harry Potter evil?

The following is an excerpt from the excellent book How Harry Cast his Spell: The Meaning  Behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books, by author John Granger. It is a great read and I would recommend it anyone. You can buy it and other books by him at Amazon.

Read more

Meditation in a Toolshed

Does being a Christian forever disqualify you as an appropriate authority on the truth of Christianity? If I wanted a true account of the Christian religion, would I do better to try see things as a Christian, or as a fair-minded secular religious studies professor? C. S. Lewis provides a helpful illustration in “Meditation in a Toolshed”[1]

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

C. S. Lewis seeks to combat the idea that it is better to evaluate the truth of a worldview (to slightly change the metaphor) by looking in from the outside. Lewis observes that this “modern” idea has been swallowed and assumed without discussion for the last fifty years. If this idea were correct it would be disastrous for the Christian, for how then can one be confident of their religious belief?

Let us go back to the toolshed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled.

He calls the idea that we should only be confident with just one way of knowing – such as by looking at things – “rot.” He concludes,

. . . we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. . . we must start with no prejudice for or against either kind of looking. We do not know in advance whether the lover or the psychologist is giving the more correct account of love, or whether both accounts are equally correct in different ways, or whether both are equally wrong. We just have to find out. But the period of brow-beating has got to end.

1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 212

The Anthropological Argument: Part 2

In my previous post I briefly summarised some anthropological arguments for God’s existence that have been used over the centuries. In this post I shall state and defend a specific anthropological argument, and examine if it is a good and convincing argument. Unlike other anthropological arguments which appear on the surface to be rhetoric, I shall express this one syllogistically.

1) Whatever man needs to exist, exists.

This premise is wholly plausible. For instance, man needs water to exist. Its a sure bet then that water exists. Air is needed to fill my lungs so I can continue to exist and therefore, since man does continue to exist, air exists.

Similarly, man needs relationship to exist. This existential need is no less real for its lack of physicality. Even hermits have pets. There is something about man that is relational. Recall the film Castaway, with Tom Hanks. Whilst alone on his island, he made a ball a friend and called it “Wilson” out of his need for relationship. That relationship was as real as the island about him, and just as essential as food and water for his continued existence, despite the ball being an inanimate object. When we are alone we turn on the TV or radio just for the sound of it to fill the house, for there is a need in us to have relationship, however impersonal it may be. Which leads us to our second premise.

2) Man needs God to exist.

To support this premise one could cite the religious impulse of man, or that for all human beings worship, in some form, is inescapable. Appeals to universal human existential questions, such as; “Is life meaningful or meaningless? Is there a purpose in existence? When gazing at the stars in the night sky the powerful vista evokes the question in all of us, are we are alone in the universe?

One might also appeal to the need of humans to have objective moral values and duties, and for a necessary first-cause to first create and then sustain human contingent existence. But these are utilised in other argument of Natural Theology, and as much as possible we want to let this argument stand on its own legs.

There does seem to be something about ourselves that requires something more than what the earth and all its treasure can provide. In similar fashion to Augustine, the songstress Stacie Orrico observes,

“There’s gotta be more to life,
than chasing down every temporary high to satisfy me
‘Cause the more that I’m
Tripping out thinking there must be more to life,
Well it’s life, but I’m sure, there’s gotta be more
than wanting more.”

We reach for the transcendental. We seek for the sublime. People strive all their lives to fill the hole in their chests, even if they never realise that is what they’re doing. Often the most successful men and woman are empty inside. Some of the deepest lows come after achieving the greatest heights and finding it was not as fulfilling as they hoped it would be.
God seems uniquely capable of fulfilling the existential needs of humans. Especially in regards to meaning and immortality, but also with respect to grace as a solution for guilt, purpose for living, hope for the future, fulfilment as a productive member of society in the present, etc. This leads us to the conclusion.

3) Therefore, God exists.

But is this a good argument?

Excursus: I hold that for an argument to be “good” it must be logically sound, having no formal or informal fallacy, with true premises. However, one need not know if certain premises are true, these premises must only be more plausible than their contradictory. If an argument has all these criteria then one is rationally obliged to accept the conclusion, no matter how painful or annoying it may be. That makes it a good argument. Obligation to be rational aside, one hopes that the simplicity of the argument and plausibility of its premises is convincing to at least some of those who would naturally be opposed to the conclusion. But I do not hold this hope to be a condition for a good argument.

As the conclusion does flow logically from its premises, commits no informal fallacy that I am aware of, the only question that remains is this; are the premises true or at least more plausible than their contradictory. There seems to be nothing wrong with the first premise, so attention diverts to the second premise. Does man need God to exist?

I think so. For all the reasons given above, and those I cannot express. Also, as a Christian theologian I believe it to be so on the basis of Biblical revelation. However, I can see that these reasons would not be convincing to an obstinate atheist, nor someone mired in a naturalistic worldview, where the idea of God merits no more consideration than the toll of a distant bell [1] does a teen who thinks he’s invincible. As long as God remains an unfelt existential requirement the detractor of the argument can simply deny the second premise and be done with it.

This pattern I find to be the weakness of all the anthropological arguments. Though it meets my criteria for being a good argument, it fails to be a convincing argument to anyone significantly detached from Christianised anthropological thought. This is not an indictment of the anthropological argument, it merely reveals a limit of its utility in evangelism and apologetics.

It does however seem to me that this specific anthropological argument (along with other reasons of course) lingers in the background of many people’s story of how they eventually came to accept Jesus Christ as King of their lives. C.S Lewis said “emptiness is at the center of my being.” This emptiness or need could well be the method God uses to draw people to himself, just as salt on the tongue draws a camel to water. So while it is not the argument itself, it is the deep intuition of the subject of this argument which convinces in the end. As Augustine said “We have a God-shaped vacuum in us that can only be filled by Him.” I would only add it might be the case that it is only until Christ enters into our lives that we recognise the vacuum was indeed God-shaped.

1) a knell: the sound of a bell, esp. when rung solemnly for a death or funeral. Figuratively used with reference to an announcement, event, or sound that is regarded as a solemn warning of the end of something.

The Anthropological Argument: Part 1

The Anthropological argument is actually a family of arguments, all of which have human beings as their starting point. An Anthropological Argument for God’s existence is then any argument which begins with man and ends with God as an explanation. In this post I shall briefly summarise examples of popular anthropological arguments and how they have been employed. In my next post I shall state and defend a specific anthropological argument, and examine if it is a good and convincing argument.

Some examples of anthropological arguments are;

(1) The argument from the human body as an exquisite biological machine. (2) The argument from the beauty of a human person in the totality of his being. Both of these however, in my opinion, are best described as a type of the teleological argument. It is understandable that the categories in Natural Theology would have some cross-over.

(3) The argument from mind or consciousness of human beings could be described as anthropological. However this is a large field of enquiry in both breadth and depth, and besides this strictly does not argue for God’s existence – at most I think it proves that God’s existence as an immaterial mind is possible because immaterial minds are exemplified in the human persons. Accordingly this type of argument I think should be placed in a separate category of its own.

(4) Blaise Pascal’s whole apologetic method was anthropological. Unhappy with the traditional arguments for God’s existence efficacy to convince, he decided to start with something people could not ignore – themselves. His first step was to dispel apathy. He would then observe that man is simultaneously noble and wretched. For instance,

“The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be wretched. A tree does not know itself to be wretched. So it is wretched to know one’s wretchedness but it is great to know that one is wretched. (218)”

So man is wretched because the universe can easily crush him like a reed. But man is noble because he knows this, while neither the reed nor the universe takes any note. After other examples he goes on to explain how it is only the Christian religion that is able to explain this seemingly contradictory state.

(5) C.S. Lewis included an anthropological type argument in his apologetic. This was captured in a song by New Zealand’s popular singer/songwriter Brooke Fraser.

“If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy,
I can only conclude that I was not made for here
If the felsh that I fight is at best only light and momentary,
?then of course I’ll feel nude when to where I’m destined, I’m compared.”

(6) Francis Schaeffer used an anthropological type argument in conjunction with his cosmological arguments, arguing a universe that includes personal beings must be a result of a personal cause, for a non-personal universe cannot produce personal beings. This argument by itself seems thin on the ground, but gains its force in the context of the rest of his writings.

In a Million Years

“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse – so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Granite Publishers, Inc, 2006).

Metastasizing the Christ Myth

What is the relationship between ‘myth’ and the art of following Jesus? Ought we to treat the reports we have in the canonical gospels in the same way as we may treat the tales of Thor, Osiris or Hercules?

This question intrigued Clive Staples Lewis, a professor at the Oxford University and an expert in the elaborate myths of Scandinavia; the ancient tales of gods and men, Yggdrasil and Asgard. For much of his adulthood, Lewis was a spiritual skeptic, but eventually became captured by the claims of Christianity. He came to view the ‘good news’, centered on the person of Jesus and clearly rooted in the time and space of first century dusty Palestinian villages as a true fulfillment of the stories found in so many human cultures. He concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

To many readers, Lewis is famous (and in some circles infamous)  for incorporating numerous aspects of the Christian story into works of fantasy for children; the Chronicles of Narnia. I read them often as a child and near-completely missed the religious references. Now, of course, these stories make more sense. It was, however, in the process of making sense of them that I was able to understand the brilliant Oxford scholar’s understandings of God’s story and, through his insight, make more sense of the world.

That, of course, is one of the benefits of art. Myths, poetry and art are able to speak to the core of a human person in a way which cold equations and data tables seldom do. Does this mean we should reject rationality and objectivity? I do not believe so. Most people would accept the legitimacy of using a metaphor to add depth to a description and most would acknowledge the need for art and poetry. Eric Metaxas has rather delightfully written:

“For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms.”

In considering Christianity and myth, it is worth explaining a well-known and slightly blurry distinction between myths and legends. Myths are cultural stories unconnected with history, while legends have some kernel of truth concerning distant events buried within them. Perhaps the figure of Jesus, so clearly located within our own world, should not be treated as myth but instead regarded as a legend? Could the details of his exploits simply be clever stories devised with dodgy motives and no more historical than the stories of, say, Maui or King Arthur? This is, perhaps surprisingly, not a difficult question to answer. In a world befuddled by and besotted with claims of subjectivity and religious inclusivism, we can forget that when we turn to the New Testament we are dealing with historical writings which make historical claims of a factual nature. Yes, many claims are difficult to substantiate from outside these pages, but some key ones are not. Was Luke, for instance, the careful historian that he claims (Luke 1:3) – when he talks about historical people, places and happenings? The answer, from various archaeologists and experts on the Roman world, appears to be yes. If Luke, for instance, can be trusted in the small things of geography and government, we are not justified in simply dismissing his claims concerning God and His specific actions in history.

There are of course other objections. Some claim that the details of Jesus’ life sketched in the gospels are clearly derived from earlier pagan sources; a couple of Egyptian gods are prominent, as is Buddhism and other eastern religions. It is argued that the resurrection and accompanying details can be derived from the Mystery Cults widespread in the first century of the common era. There is a quite a bit of scholarship on the topic; for ease of access, there is a good digest of the different arguments on this page at Tekton. To summarise: many of the claims are bogus; a few are most likely a result of Christian influence on other religions; the primary sources for the more-impressive claims are not recorded and there is often a reliance on superficial appearances of etymological similarity without any reason for supposing a real causal link between certain names or themes.

If we are to treat the gospels not as myth or legend but as rooted in history, we should ask how the gospels compare in the essentials with other historical works of the time? Even a cursory look into Classical Studies will show that the records of great leaders such as Alexander the Great are beset by many problems resulting from widely differing sources – yet they are still deemed essentially historical. The broad lines of Jesus’ life have attestation from numerous accounts including many secular references. In the Gospel and other New Testament records we have an embarrassment of riches[1] compared to any comparable secular writings. For the majority of ancient historical works there is a massive gap between the earliest manuscript copies we have available and the original written text. The NT radically breaks this pattern with numerous fragments and even whole manuscript-books from the second and third centuries AD. The once-popular claim that various items in the canon were written in the late second century have fallen foul of papyriological and other evidence. The gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses – period.

If we return to Lewis’ claim: how could a man, a mere human being, be the fulfillment of the inherently nonsensical genre of myth? Skeptics may even find the question nonsensical. But laying the issue of begging the naturalistic question aside, this could only be the case, it seems to me, if this man was in fact something more than legend or myth (empiricists take note: this is what the evidence suggests). In fact, the classical Christian defence, which still has worth today, has from the beginning been eager to refute the claim that the gospel has any association with fable, as Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.” (2 Peter 1:16)

If we can admit where the evidence leads, we will see that the story of Jesus is not too good to be true. And neither is it too true to be any good. Novelist Dorothy Sayers reminds us of the awesome dramatic reality of this story:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like other men He had made, and the men He made killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 15).

It is good news: the Creator God is not indifferent to the human condition and has entered into the storybook of history. And he waits, ready to enter into the story of our own lives.

Notes

1. “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material… Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 126.