A Christian’s Stroll Through the Portable Atheist

Call it the anti-Bible.  A consolation of writings for the faithless,  the infidel, the unconvinced.  I picked up the book because the topic is interesting.  I also thought it could be helpful in understanding why some people find faith incredulous or just don’t have an interest in spirituality.  With major names ranging from the new atheists to some of the old, the book offers a who’s who of disbelief and logical discourse.  I thought it could be interesting to share my initial reactions as I worked through the book, giving my own impressions of the work and offering some comments relating to elements that I find most persuasive/useful, even if one maintains a faith oriented perspective.  So begins the journey, like Don Quixote and the windmills.  If anything else, it hopefully should be interesting.

My initial impression of Christopher Hitchens is that he is an engaging writer.  His metaphors and allusions are quite colorful and his rankor is rich with  journalistic wit.  I immediately am somewhat perplexed though with the main contention of Hitchen’s rub.  He rails on and on about how illogical the Christian faith is, all the while using innumerable allusions, references and parallels to Christian ideas, events and theological descriptions.  This is what I find so interesting.  If Christianity were as illogical as he claims, such journalistic wit would be wasted, as it would run aground on countless logical dead ends.  What I find to be the opposite, is that Hitchens is able to be so engaging and artful BECAUSE OF the fact Christianity is logical and consistent.  Someone is overstating the case here, with intricate logical discourse nonetheless.  Hitchens may weave a masterful narrative of disbelief but it hinges on the solidity of the logic of Christian discourse.  To suggest otherwise seems to render Hitchens style impotent.  With every artful pary of the journalistic sword, I become less convinced of its powerful thrust.  Time will tell if the rest of the book offers more than this but that is my first impression with the introduction at least.

Learning to Walk Again

The Foo Fighters have a new album with a song titled “Walk.” It captures where I’m at right now. The line that strikes me is “learning to walk again, I believe I’ve waited long enough, where do I begin?” My year and half in California at Fuller was in many ways a respite, in spite of the fact it has been one of the busiest times in my life.  I have learned a lot about myself more than anything.  I learned that I need to manage myself and discerned key aspects of my personality where I can allow stress to affect me in negative ways. Also, the question of intimacy with God is rolling in again like slow, small waves.  I am slowly trying to wade back into the water and find my footing.  I have found myself seeking for more thoughtful engagement than I had in the past.  Some of the more uncritical approaches I developed are now giving way to deeper forms of connecting with God.  It is going beyond behavior and certain practices to the real heart of the matter.  I do long for that centering feeling when you know you are in the place where you and God are vibing again.  I think God has led us on this journey for many reasons, some connected with issues in my family, but others related to our own trust issues with God.  I feel like God is putting us in a place of radical trust where we will know for sure when he is doing something tangible and lately it has been apparent. The numerous people who helped us with moving is one example of how we experienced love from Christian friends and neighbors.  One of my biggest hangups has been expectations and being on the receiving end of actions or behavior from Christians who weren’t quite acting Christ like.  It really damaged my faith in some ways and caused me to question the efficacy of God in this world at times.  One of the worst contributors to that experience unfortunately was fundraising.  

We had some amazing experiences during our time fundraising, connecting with people who shared our vision for ministry and telling them about what we were doing.  We also encountered some difficult situations.  It was more than a number of occasions that people specifically told us they wanted to give to us only to later provide some lame excuse as to why they had a change of heart.   For someone whose living came from these commitments, the failure of a number of people to follow through with them was heart wrenching.
It wasn’t about the money so much as the keeping of one’s word. I know this shouldn’t have affected us but it did.  I felt like “where is the integrity here?”  Fundraising is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life and people were just flippant about it.  This is only one example of a number of encounters that challenged my faith in many ways. What also hurt was the alienation and exclusion we felt as we exited our church family in Denver. It was very painful and caused a lot of sadness in our family. In one sense we felt excommunicated. Its tough to leave years worth of community all at once. Especially with a new baby on the way. I couldn’t help feeling rejected by friends who we had spent a lot of time with. It has only been in the past year or so I would say that we have experienced more loving Christian actions towards us in meaningful ways. The truth is I felt hurt by God. I felt like ” these are your people and you just let them treat us this way.” I sought reconciliation with the pastor and feel good that we came to a mutual resolution towards the whole thing. We both felt regrets and sought forgiveness from each other. I harbor no ill will today and wish him the best. I just can’t help some of the feelings that linger as a result of the whole experience. Especially in relation to folks from that community. Its like a freshly healed sore, getting better, but still a bit sensitive. I want to move on and California has been a big part of that transition. Now that we’re moving again I feel cautiously optimistic about the next step. I’m calling this year “the year of Steve.” Somewhat like George from Seinfeld but focused on my own health and well being. If there is one thing I have learned from a wholist view of the person, it is how negatively my substance dualism affected my own view of my body. I definitely want to get away from the more gnostic way I viewed the physical and let God inform and challenge my life in those areas to grow and develop them in more healthy ways. So here’s to ” the year of Steve!” 🙂 and may God challenge me to continue to draw closer to him.

Big History and the Story of Creation

Map of the timeline of the universe

http://www.metanexus.net/essay/exploring-big-history

This is an article talking about the timeline of the universe.  I think it fits quite nicely with our understanding of creation.  It is interesting that science is now pushing for a narrative to talk about our universe.  Such an inclination fits well with the Abrahamic faiths,  which have always viewed creation as part of the larger narrative of God’s creative work and subsequently humankind’s vocation as caretakers of God’s creation.  It will be interesting to see what gets added when the Higgs Boson particle is finally revealed.  It’s the last link in the unified theory of the universe.

The Theory of Evolution in Two Minutes

I thought this was a quick and dirty explanation for evolutionary theory that gets at the core elements taken into consideration regarding the overarching theory.  In science, a “theory” is made up of already existing facts and laws, which are combined to articulate a larger explanatory narrative i.e. a theory.  So when people say something is “just a theory” what they don’t realize is that in science, the facts and laws drawn upon to make such a claim are not in question.  The larger explanation utilizing said data is what is up for discussion.  The laws and facts drawn upon have already been shown to stand up to rigorous empirical testing and verification.   If we can clear up the use of this terminology, it can get us further down the road in discussing these kinds of questions.  Hope it helps.

Glimpses of the Promised Land

I’ve talked a bit about feeling like I’ve been in exile over the past couple years and luckily it seems like I am starting to see the Promised Land again. I entered into my MA here at Fuller with a lot of pressing issues I needed to address. I felt completely deconstructed by my previous studies and left with no real resources to piece things back together. At the core of a lot of it was epistemology and my loss of confidence in foundationalism as a viable model for the current philosophical and cultural landscape.  I also had some areas of study  I just needed to dive right into. Over this past year, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do just that.  I feel I am starting to hone in on a better epistemological method. Many of my research hunches about where the conversations are going in numerous fields/topics have been vindicated and I am starting to get my confidence back in my own abilities to write and do biblical research. It’s strange how things change over time. Not long ago I felt totally adrift at sea, now I am starting to feel like its time to set anchor.

God has been working on me a lot too. I noticed him in some small details of my life recently and it was encouraging. They were silly little things that wouldn’t seem important to anyone. For example, I needed a dime for one last page of photocopying from a book in the library and had no money to do it. I would have to trek all the way home for one but I decided to check the floors of the copy rooms on the off chance there might be one laying around. The first room had nothing but when I went up to the second floor, there it was, right in the middle of the floor in front of the copying machine. It was like God was saying, this is small potatoes Steve. I can do this. Another instance was when a friend of mine gifted me a book that was on a topic we both shared an interest in. It was totally out of the blue and much appreciated. I know these are not terribly huge or earth shattering events but I had kept my eyes open for God, and noticed him show up in the minutest of ways. Another instance was when I was on the computer and managed to book all my flights, hotels, car rentals for trips this quarter and subscribe to the necessary scholarly organizations and register for a conference all in one fell swoop. I have been really stressed about this quarter because of all the commitments I have to keep, I have a close friend from college getting married which I am standing in the wedding party for, a trip to the SBL/AAR conference in November, two sets of parents visiting and oh I also get to TA a class this quarter. Not to mention study for the GRE and work on Ph D applications. It seemed an insurmountable task. Yet, somehow my trip stuff all pooled together into one productive afternoon. It was serendipitous and I felt like God was behind it. Then, after committing to the fact that I would have to spend a small fortune to stay in San Francisco for the conference, a friend offered to put me up for free. God has really been addressing the area of finances with us this year. It’s quite humbling to be working on your second masters and also be on food stamps. That’s just where we are right now and God has been meeting our needs. In Denver, we were very intentional about working hard and being responsible with our money. I think in some ways, God needed to show us that he can support us when we are in need and that it isn’t all about the work ethic.

Throughout it all I’ve been trying to get at the heart of the issue, why is it that I still feel like I can’t trust God?  In some ways, I feel like its God fault I’ve encountered so much adversity these past few years but then I am beginning to see the fruit of those experiences.  It changes my perspective and sometimes I think I just need a good Holy Spirit God cry session to get all this junk out.  I might visit the Pasadena International House of Prayer to do just that.  I need to let go of the overwhelming sense of loss I experienced and am trying to figure out the best way to go about it.  All in all things are getting better even though life continues to throw me challenges.  It’s good to be alive and I’m happy with where I am right now.  I think that’s all I can hope for at this stage of the game.  Soon  a lot will be changing but for now, I’ll just rest in the fact that I am finally making some progress in my life without God kind of phase.  Exile is only for a time and I for one am glad that it looks like it will soon be over.  I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side………Will it be the Promised Land?… That still remains to be seen.  One thing I do know,   I will be glad to be out of the wilderness

Did Jesus go to theater camp?

 

Partially reconstructed theater at Sepphoris

Partially reconstructed theater at Sepphoris

When we read in Matt. 6:1-8;16-18, curiously, Jesus demonstrates knowledge of theatrical terminology and practices which would seem out of place in first century Jewish contexts.  How did Jesus know what a “hyporcrite,” literally one who wears a mask or plays a role, meant when he lived in a largely rural town?  Did Jesus go to theater camp? It may sound a bit cheeky, but the truth  may not be so far off.  Richard A. Batey in “Jesus and the Theatre,” New Testament Studies vol. 30 no 4, O 1984, pp. 563-584, makes a strong case that Jesus knew Greek theatrical terms such as hypocrite, “hupocritai” occurring in Matt 6, vv. 2, 5 and in 16 “hupocrites”, because he lived close to the Hellenistic Roman city of Sepphoris.  How is this significant?

Sepphoris was founded by Herod Antipater as “the seat of his power and centre of culture” in Galilee and Perea. Here, the remains of a Greco-Roman style theater have been found in the style of Vitruvius, a great architectural mind who built the Roman water system. Herod the Great had sent his children to Rome to be educated and trained in the ways of Roman politics and culture. When Herod Antipas returned and subsequently took control as one of four tetrarchs or rulers of the region after his father died, he founded a city resplendent with Roman luxury and opulence,  symbolizing the embodiment of Roman culture he had experienced while in the capital of the empire. Being that the city was only an hour’s walk from the town of Nazareth and that Nazareth was along the main highway south of Sepphoris makes it likely that Jesus traveled there. Jesus was involved in a trade, carpentry, that would require commerce with such places and it is likely Jesus travelled to Sepphoris to conduct business and knew some Greek in order to carry out regular business deals. It is here that the young Jesus may have talked to actors or seen a performance of Greek tragedy.  One can imagine Jesus taking a break from his hard work and listening in on a  practice between actors, seeing them getting ready for a show or catching the show with his dad while they were in town.

In Jesus’ own description of the hypocrites in relation to fasting, Matt. 6:16-18, he describes how they paint their faces, the same way actors prepared for their tragic roles and comedies. Additionally, according to Craig Evans, the description of “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” in Matt 6:3 is actually instructions about how to use one’s hands in performance.  Clearly Jesus knew something about the theater and some of its mechanics.  The remains of a theater in Sepphoris has been found and dated to the period of Antipas based upon Hasmonean coins discovered in the orchestra area. (Coins were often thrown as praise for good performances, much like roses today at ice skating events.)  Hupocritesoccurs thirteen times in Matthew compared to once in Mark and three times in Luke. The theme became important for Matthew in delineating true worship from false piety and he uses it often. This would not make sense unless Jesus knew what the term meant.  Even more so, Jesus’ indictment of the pharisees and teachers of the law, the religious folk, as “hypocrites” would be particularly biting as the religious Jewish elite saw acting as a form of lying.  This is why they are offended when Jesus  accuses them of  false piety.  He is calling them a bunch of liars.  Pretty in your face.  Matthew utilizes this theme to great effect throughout his Gospel.  It would appear that Jesus had to have known some kind of Greek and more specifically, Greek theatrical terms, in order to make the kind of accusations he was making.  How did he acquire such Greco-Roman terminology? Did Jesus go to theater camp?  The idea makes me smile just a little bit.  Regardless of how he came to know the terms, Jesus certainly understood what they meant and used them to great effect.  Jesus didn’t “act the fool” but told it straight.  That’s why he was so controversial.

Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

The Barna Group – Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.

The above article is based on recent research in the changing landscape of young adults and faith.  Over the past decade I have seen a lot of this going on and have tried to address some of these issues in my blog.  The research reinforces in my mind the need to present a more robust articulation of our faith tradition that handles the many challenges of an increasingly pluralistic and technologically advanced culture.

Sam Harris is Afraid of Religion

I’ve been asked by a friend to comment on these five segments of a talk by Sam Harris about the nature of faith and reason in the modern world. Let me start with a couple general observations from my time spent listening to atheists about faith etc. and then we’ll get into my responses to the video. I find that many times there is a general disconnect between theists and atheists because Christianity is a rather large and general category into which many pour everything from mild agnosticism to right wing politics and much of it having practically nothing to do with Christianity as a faith properly speaking. The faith itself is diverse and contains a variety of streams and nuances that is lost on most who are unwilling or simply don’t care to know the difference. A lot of times I read comments by atheists and I wonder what they are talking about because what they articulate is not Christianity. I applaud those who want to understand what Christianity says on its own terms, folks like yourself who are more open to actually learning about something before criticizing it. Now that the preliminaries have been dealt with, I’ll dive in to the videos.
Faith Vs. Reason in the Modern World (Aspen Ideas Festival July 2-8, 2007)
Video 1
My first impressions of the video are that I would agree with Harris that any belief is up for debate and discussion, religious or not, if it is worth pursuing. I pick up on an unnecessary dualism he is creating immediately where he positions modernity against religion as if the two have not existed throughout the same periods. I also think he is privileging technology to set apart our period in history as opposed to others which experienced the same if not more competition of ideas. The reason people continue to appeal to ancient traditions for their moral guidance is because they have proven themselves. Ideas that last thousands of years tend to have more credibility than those which were just said yesterday. When he says that his statement about the fact that we shouldn’t be appealing to these ancient ideas for modern problems needs no argument, he is really revealing a cultural bias that favors novelty over anything old. He is also begging the question with such reasoning. For Harris and many other atheists, Sept. 11 has been a watershed moment for reason’s need to triumph over religion. “Look at what can happen” is the thought behind this recent movement. The same thing happened after the thirty years war in Europe which brought on modernity as we understand it today. I wonder since we live in a world created by such reactions if the recent occurrences simply show the lack of modernity’s ability to deal with religious thought in general. Maybe the shift to the personal ghetto of individual religious piety was a bad idea?

Harris makes some logical fallacies in his discussion of the three types of responses of the defense of God. First, the three options is reductionistic. There are more than three options i.e. what if some part of some religions are true? Second, invoking probabilities as a way of writing off religious assertions is nonsense. It’s a red herring. As far as his reasoning for the attestation of Jesus’ life and teaching, he makes an incorrect claim about extracanonical references to Jesus. There are several. He also reveals a complete lack of historiography which tells us that documents that are centuries removed from their original periods are still considered reliable and trustworthy. A few mere decades is more than enough evidence of textual veracity.
Harris views miracles as an abrogation against the laws of the natural world. Christianity does not view miracles in this way. His view is the same as Hume. C. S. Lewis has an entire book devoted to this subject, On Miracles, which delineates these ideas. God does not use unnatural means to bring about miraculous events. These are my thoughts on the first video.
Video 2
As we set in to video two, it becomes apparent that Harris is fixated upon miracles as the main content of religious devotion. This is a huge misread of faith in general. The Christian faith is partially concerned with Jesus’ miracles or the miraculous events surrounding his life. However, these are only a segment of the faith tradition. Largely Christians worship and follow Jesus because of the demonstrable power of his ethical teachings and example of what God desires for humanity. Harris is wrong in his statement that Christianity believes God dictated the Bible. That is not the understanding of inspiration most Christians uphold. They believe God inspired the authors in such a way that their own personal thoughts and writing conveyed God’s words to humanity through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Also, the ten commandments were not set up in an order of importance so comments about their order are non-sequitor.
The usefulness of ideas is a pragmatic way of viewing knowledge. Harris is a rational, empiricist so he has no use for this category of knowledge but I think there is some correlation between usefulness and the truth of something in different areas of life. It’s a major factor for scientific discovery. This does not mean it is always the case that something useful is true, but it also does not mean that the opposite is always the case. To deny any correlation can be evidence is special pleading.
Here in the middle 7:50 we really see what Harris is driving at, reason as religion. He is concerned with certainty and he feels only reason can provide such knowledge. This is my major issue with the new atheists. They simply cannot escape the restrictions of their own assumptions to inquire into other forms of knowledge. If one is unwilling to be critical of one’s own assumptions in the pursuit of knowledge, then of course no other form of enquiry will be dubbed logical. That conclusion is demanded from the outset. This is special pleading.
Video 3
Harris paints a just so picture of ethics that I find particularly unconvincing. One need only look for the numerous atheist charities….in the world to see what I’m talking about. If ethics were so obvious, why is the world so bad? When people like Harris appeal to the ease at which we can teach our children about ethics and morality, I wonder how he can be so historically bereft of the traditions which he owes this state of affairs to. It’s very easy to benefit from the advancement of ethical thought from a tradition such as Christianity. I find it hard to believe that such would be the case if religions did not exist. Rose colored glasses indeed.

Harris embarks on the next phase of atheist pet projects these days, ethics in the Old Testament. I have no qualms with the description of absolutely terrible things happening in the OT. It is a cornucopia of human depravity. When you’re talking about ethics in the Late Iron Age, one wonders why it is so surprising. Atheists tend to retroject 21st century notions of ethics onto ancient peoples and point and say “look at how unethical.” Does this make sense when they stand on the shoulders of millennia of ethical development? Harris’ comments about ethics in the ancient Near East are completely wrong. Egyptian, Assyrian and other law codes in fact affirmed the killing of an adulterer as part of their cultural norms. The Bible parallels the cultures of its day in its presciptions for the breaking of laws for the community. Harris’ comments about slavery are ignorant as well. He uses an American notion of slavery and anachronistically positions it as the slavery talked about in the Bible. This is apples and oranges. In the first century roughly one-third of all people were in slavery as endentured servants or willing slaves of one form or another. This was a culture of patronage where only 1-5% of the population held 90% of all wealth. Being free actually could be a very bad thing when you had little access to resources. Most in slavery lived much more comfortably than those who were not. Yet, we also see Paul in the book of Philemon instructing Philemon’s slave owner to welcome him as a brother i.e. as a free person. So pictures of the Bible as supporting slavery like American slavery are naïve and uninformed about the first century world.
As far as the treatment of women is concerned, I agree with Harris that the church has unfortunately been a promulgator of certain notions about female personhood which largely have been due to the influence of Greco-Roman culture and its views about women. This is not so much the content of the bible as it is the traditions that developed after the New Testament ie. 3rd cent. onward. So when Harris points to Greek philosophers to show how ethics was so obvious for people in the 5th cent and then condemns Christianity for, what was largely Greco-Roman influences, we really are seeing some picking and choosing going on when Harris tries to paint a picture.
The Greeks viewed women as property and as dogs. In a culture dominated by reason, they showed no more ethical development in their consideration for women than the supposed counterexamples he tries to show us. So which is it Sam? Isn’t reason supposed to free us from these prejudices? It apparently did not for most of western civilization. One need only look to the teachings of Jesus and Paul to see that they were radically countercultural in regards to women. They let them learn, take positions of authority, and the early church protected women from harm of spouses. There are recorded letters of Roman magistrates complaining about Christian’s who are multiplying in number because they do not expose their children and treat their wives with respect as opposed to beating them. I will admit that the church has a bad record when it comes to women but I think the sources we have in the Bible stand as a counterexample to some of the behavior that developed at a later time due to other cultural influences. This is one of the reasons I am not Catholic. They rely too heavily on the early church period traditions which were problematic in this area.
Video 4
I think in this next video we have the possibility of convergence. Human beings are described as being created in the image of God in the Bible. This means we have the capacity to make moral choices. Evolution shows this to be the case. I believe on this point we have both positions describing different sides of the same coin. What Harris fails to discuss is the fact that virtue ethics are developed in the brain through a variety of factors and the example stories provided in the Bible, both good and bad, are ways to inform our brain of virtue and ethical content development. This is essential for understanding why people still see the Bible as a way to inform our ethical behavior. Clearly context and time periods dictate our interpretive process and no Biblical theologian will disagree with this. The problem with people like Harris is that they make no room for the meaning making process and interpretive analysis that is inherent in any faith tradition. He posits a fundamentalism which says you must accept everything at face value, or you are somehow being inconsistent. I think this is ludicrous. If you are unwilling to allow the faith community to speak for itself and describe why they adhere to the interpretive methodology they employ, then you are in fact inventing a religion that is not the one you are talking about. Harris responds to and criticizes a fundamentalist view of the bible that few Christians uphold. He also has no clue or is not willing to admit that he is in fact upholding a dogma, empirical rationalism. The denial of such a commitment truly baffles me. He spends all this time critiqueing religious claims to truth, rationatlity etc. and yet cannot admit that he himself is committed to a form of enquiry concerning human knowledge. I would agree with his comments about creationism, which is an American phenomenon, but again this is a fundamentalist concern, a small segment of the otherwise larger Christian world.
Video 5
In this video, Harris makes a major misstep. He describes religious experience as purely the phenomenon that corresponds to religious devotion, yet he is unwilling to allow for God as a possible source for this material. In his words, such claims are “unjustified” and “unsubstantiated.” I find this restrictive form of dialogue the most disturbing. In essence it states that human experience cannot be used as a form of enquiry concerning the search for truth. If there is one thing current science has taught us, it is that our expectations influence our experiences. If one is priorly committed to atheism, then it is small wonder an atheist would not interpret their experience in light of theistic categories. They have predetermined a bias against that interpretive mode of description. What if that bias was wrong? What if our experience can inform our judgments about the nature of reality? The pie in the sky atheistic ethics Harris talks about here at the end is truly maddening. His attempt to create distance from atheistic regimes that committed mass killings and untold devastation is laughable. One of the curious things I’ve witnessed in these collections of videos is that Sam Harris is making these statements largely based on fear. He is afraid of what religion will do to society and wants to pre-empt that future fate. I wonder if Harris is actually creating a form of fascism through his rhetoric rather than making a case for atheism. He wants to rid the world of what he believes are dangerous ideas. Ideas have consequences. That is reality, religious or not. It seems rather peculiar to me that he tries to set religion apart from other ideas as if they are in some separate category. I question the prudence of doing anything out of fear even if for what are perceived as good reasons. Can fear affect our reason in ways we cannot anticipate? I believe it can. Fear is a dogma and that appears to be what Harris adheres to in these videos.

William Placher, 1948–2008 | First Things

I stumbled upon a tribute to the life of William Placher recently and found it to be a really well done piece that deserved to be shared. I had no idea Placher studied under Hans Frei at Yale Divinity School. Yet another reason I need to read Frei’s book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. I am definitely drawn to post-liberalism and its focus upon narrative theology. I wonder if that is why I find Placher’s style so compelling. He writes in a very unassuming, yet brilliant way. He lets the reader in on the most up-to-date discussions in theology, infuses them with historic Christian confessions and leaves the reader with a couple of questions/observations, allowing the tension to rest upon the reader. His approach is subtle, but persuasive. He doesn’t tell the reader what to believe, but lets history and theology speak for themselves. I appreciate the tone of his writing and its generous attitude towards the diversity of theological discourse. There is a kind of winsomeness in his approach that I find compelling. I think we all can learn from this as we attempt to engage in the practice of theological writing.

William Placher, 1948–2008 | First Things.