Method, attitude and expertise

Since focusing more of my time onto the website as opposed to other internet forums, I have learned so much. None more so than about myself, how I handle certain pressures and react to situations. I’ve probably made just about every mistake in the blogging 101 book from merely glancing through pieces to jumping on bandwagons, from not thinking things through and checking references to just being stubborn even though whoever I’m responding to is right.

The most recent of these mistakes has concerned the furor surround Raza Aslans book “Zealot; the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Once I heard the general conclusion of the book, I knew it was not a book I was going to agree with. After his interview with Fox News and his proclamation of being an expert, I jumped on the train of questioning his credentials. It wasn’t totally unjustified in my defense; when your bio lists you as associate professor of creative writing and you’re doing a book essentially about scholarship and history, alarm bells start ringing. It has echos of Richard Dawkins citing a professor of German language as his example of Jesus’s existence being in scholarly dispute. When Aslan’s credentials came up in discussion last night, I too quickly and too forcefully jumped on it pointing out the above. Yes, he has a PhD in sociology of religion, but it isn’t his main discipline and he’s going into a well researched field. I was convinced he would have nothing to really offer. The fact he was a Muslim didn’t bother me, his credentials did.

But I was already looking to dismantle his arguments before I’d even read them. Learning from one mistake led me to making another. I was getting angry at a book I hadn’t read purely because of the conclusion of it, and decided Aslan wasn’t suitable to write such a book. Not exactly the open minded tolerant approach I’ve always tried to encourage. I may have researched the historicity of Jesus but I’m not a scholar, I’m not trained in that discipline (computers and digital forensics are more my areas) I didn’t need to get as dismissive and almost angry about it as I did. Zealot would probably have been an appropriate word for me.

Reviews of the book have been coming in from the professionals though, I’ve read 2 in particular; one from Antony Le Donne [1] and the other from Greg Cary [2]. Both biblical scholars, both are not interested in Aslan’s credentials or indeed his religion. They take it purely from what he has said in the book and the criticisms are aimed at that and that alone. They are in a position to critique Aslan’s work.

All this does raise the issue of how much can the layman question? I was absolutely wrong in my approach and attitude but was I wrong in questioning period? I mean, it’s good to check the credentials of someone, you need to know they know what they’re talking about. But who is in a position to question whether those credentials are valid for the topic? Should I just accept what I’m being told and just drift with the currents of the majority view? History has shown that a majority view does not automatically equate to a true one. Not everyone can study and get a Ph.D in a subject, but we need the experts.

The discussions over Raza Aslans book are going to continue. It will generate discussion within religious groups, I’m just going to learn the art of quiet contemplation. Think my record is 7 and half minutes.

 

References:

[1] http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.co.il/2013/07/a-usually-happy-fellow-reviews-aslans.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/reza-aslan-on-jesus_b_3679466.html

 

First published 1st August 2013

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Not in a church? You’re of no use then apparently

This is pretty much  what was said on Twitter last night, and it felt like I was punched in the stomach. For someone who is struggling with church and trying to repair his relationship with Christ, to be told I’m effectively of no more use to God until I do find a church is almost crippling. The tweet in full was:

Christians detached from a local church, no matter how spiritual or mighty, play no part in broadcasting God’s wisdom to the world -Eph 3.10

This just made me want to get even further away from the church, and add it to the list of things I’ve been labeled. After some pleading with God for reassurance that I was in fact still of use and had a part to play, a soothing phone call with Sarah (and some sleep) I looked up Ephesians 3:10:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,

Context though is vital so if we back up a few verses in chapter 3:

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.  I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power (Ephesians 3:2-3,7)

No mention that if you are not a member of a church, you play no part in broadcasting Gods wisdom. Revelation it seems is not limited to churches and Paul is proof of this, he wasn’t even a member of a church when he wrote to the various churches that he had visited. There’s no evidence Paul was a member of any church during his ministry, or any of the disciples. So what does Paul mean by it’s Gods intention to use the church to make known his wisdom? Well, Jesus once said:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20)

This does not have to be in a church or even as a church, this can simply be 2 or 3 (or more) Christians gathering around someones house, or in barn, or a beach or; you get the idea. It’s not about membership, church isn’t a golf club, it’s about being together as followers of Christ. The context of the above verse is dealing with sin, but do you really think Jesus won’t be there because we talking about something else? People often say that church is about community. I absolutely agree, but you don’t have to go to a church to find community a Christians. The person who posted the original tweet went on to say “People get saved into community“. The perception of what church is between then and now is radically different in some ways, but the concept of it being a community is still there.

Coming back to Ephesians 3:10, who are these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” Paul speaks of? He didn’t seem confused between heaven and earth as his letters showed. One commentator views it as follows:

This was one things, among others, which God had in his eye in revealing this mystery, that the good angels, who have a pre-eminence in governing the kingdoms and principalities of the world, and who are endued with great power to execute the will of God on this earth (though their ordinary residence is in heaven) may be informed, from what passes in the church and is done in and by it, of the manifold wisdom of God; that is, of the great variety with which God wisely dispenses things, or of his wisdom manifested in the many ways and methods he takes in ordering his church in the several ages of it, and especially in receiving the Gentiles into it. The holy angels, who look into the mystery of our redemption by Christ, could not but take notice of this branch of that mystery, that among the Gentiles is preached the unsearchable riches of Christ. And this is according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord,

I’m not going to pretend I fully understand all of that, but it sounds very grand and very powerful; far more than merely needing be connected to a church to play a part. It does seem God is being put into a box where he can only use the church, and completely disregards anyone who is currently having problems with church. Many of these issues are very legitimate. and many have walked away so that the true message of Jesus can be found and preached. Statements like the one made at the outset of this simply give the impression that God has abandoned them, or comes across as power plays and control; not to mention just beating on people already struggling.

If you’re not currently attending a church, God hasn’t abandoned you, neither are you of no use to him. I have found the stories of people in a similar position to me very helpful during this time of searching. The tweet did help me with one thing though, it helped me rediscover what “I follow Christ, not Christians” really means.

Maintaining integrity; my response to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has weighed in on the science vs religion debate. In a recent interview he proclaimed that he doesn’t see faith and reason being reconciled. One website seemed to get very excited about it. Like many newspaper articles however, the headline doesn’t seem to match the rest of it.

As he explains his position, it becomes clear his difficulty is with a literalistic interpretation of scripture put forward by certain Christian groups; interpretations he openly acknowledges that are not held by everyone. If you take the Bible and try overlay modern scientific discoveries and terminology, then you are absolutely going to run into a lot of problems. This isn’t the fault of science or the Bible, but of the person using them in such a manner.  As Peter Enns puts it:

These are ancient stories that ask ancient questions and give ancient answers to those questions and it’s our obligation to find out what those are…..it’s a matter of expectations. The assumption that science and bible need to be in some meaningful conversation from my point of view that’s exactly the problem. When we begin there we’re creating problems for ourselves that we would otherwise wisely avoid.

When approaching the Bible, the question should be what is the Bible trying to say, what were the authors trying to convey? It’s not as simple as saying “oh it’s figurative, myth etc”, the Bible authors simply were not asking the questions we are. We should engage with it in the context of the ancient world.

The moment you say “the Bible says” you are no longer dealing in science; you’re talking theology and biblical scholarship, but it’s not about accepting science over the Bible, or believing one to be more “true” than the other, it’s about maintaining the integrity of both.

Following on from the point of maintaining integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s main concern seems to be with what is being pushed as science and is trying to be smuggled into science classes. On this he will find support from many religious scientists, who have been on the receiving end of abuse from those who do not hold to the evolution paradigm. We need to distinguish between the claims of young earth creationists for example, and saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe. Young earth creationists take Genesis as literal history and a scientific account and anything that disagrees with it is wrong, including the age of the earth, decay rates, etc. They start with presupposing what the findings should be and interpret from there. As Francis Collins puts it in his book The Language of God,

If these claims were actually true, it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology

Simply saying that God is responsible for the creation of the universe is very different. This is not re-interpreting or ignoring the scientific data; and it’s not a conclusion that comes out of what we don’t know but out of what we do. What science finds regarding age of the universe, evolution of species etc, in no way threatens believing God is ultimately behind it all.  Much like when they found the Higgs Boson, the more science finds out the more I go ““wow, how amazing is God to design that?” The more I know about anything, the more I appreciate those with the skills to design or create it, but I’m not invoking that person as an explanation to cover over what I don’t know. If science hasn’t answered yet then so be it, I don’t feel the need to have to insert God to fill the gap, though I will consider the possibility that it’s a question that science can’t answer because it’s not designed to (which is another massive topic in itself). I don’t have to choose between God and science. So whilst I think the Bible and science are separate and possibly should be kept that way, they are not in conflict or incompatible and should be interpreted in light of the fields they belong to, i.e they should critique themselves as opposed to each other. Some standpoints are just as bad theologically as they are scientifically.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does touch on a massively important point regarding the basis of faith, which I think sums up everything so far:

“….if that’s where you’re going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance…….If you’re going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread”

He is absolutely right, and this is a position too many Christians find themselves in even though it’s not a faith advocated by Jesus and the Bible. This kind of faith is blind faith and absolutely is incompatible with reason by its definition; but it’s not a faith that is universally applicable. As I have argued elsewhere (here, here and here), the Christian faith has evidence to support it and is based on evidence. As Paul Davies has argued, faith plays a part in science

Even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is obviously a very passionate scientist, committed to seeing science carried out correctly. So are many scientists who are religious, who share similar concerns that he expressed. Whilst I disagree with his overall conclusion, he has raised and brought to light some issues that are very well worth exploring and need addressing; and many Christians are already doing so, with this being my partial attempt. For the conversation to be worthwhile, the integrity of the relevant fields should be maintained and discussed on their own terms. Then we can start having a discussion.

Experience versus the Bible

Shane Raynor asked on Twitter “What order would you put these in— 1 being the highest priority and 4 the lowest? Scripture, experience, reason, and tradition” I would put them in the order of  1. Experience 2. Reason 3. Scripture 4. Tradition. Our experiences, good and bad, make us who we are, influence every aspect of us including how we view others. They can also protect us and get us through tough situations. As C.S. Lewis puts it; Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.  Some would put Scripture above all else and use scripture in response to situations. What do you do though when scripture doesn’t reflect the realities of said situation; when experiences seem to go against the Bible.

During a discussion on Huffington Post Live, theologian Darrell Brock talked about being gay being a choice and being in rebellion against God because that’s what the Bible teaches. The passage that alludes to that is:

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:24-27

This passage is one of the so-called “clobber” passages; verses that are used to demonstrate that homosexuality is a sin (they got their name because of the way they are used).  Whilst scientists are still debating what determines someones sexuality, Paul is suggesting here that it is punishment for disobeying God, for worshiping idols and that God has given them over to their lusts. As I type this, the Gay Christian Network is holding their conference in Chicago. Many LGBT Christians are coming together for fellowship, to praise, to worship and learn about God. These are not the actions of people who God has given over to their lusts. Listening to their testimonies and chatting to them, their love for him is very much in evidence; they aren’t people who are in rebellion against God. My experience just doesn’t warrant such a conclusion.

My experience seems to against the Bible.

Thing is, I don’t see the passage as addressing homosexuality. In the verses preceding it, Paul is talking about people who have turned from God and started worshiping other idols. Some commentaries say he is referencing pagan worship and in the verses after this, Paul drops a bomb by saying that who he is writing to are also like that. So my experience isn’t so much against the Bible but with certain  interpretations of it. Another example is the concept of original sin, to which we come to Paul again. Paul says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory God” and that sin entered through the actions of Adam and Eve. Putting these 2 together, many Christians claim that humans are utterly depraved and incapable of acts of “good”.  Whilst humanity has been responsible for some horrendous atrocities, it has also been responsible for incredible acts of kindness and grace that sometimes defy explanation.

Once again my experience seems to go against the Bible.

Looking back at the Genesis text though, no where does it say anywhere that the guilt and inability to choose good, is imprinted into all humanity as a result of what Adam did. The very next set of verses is about Cain which includes this:

“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  Genesis 4:7

God doesn’t say “because of what your father did you will now only choose sin and there’s nothing you can do about it, and this applies to the whole of humanity for all time”. He said Cain had a choice, he could either choose to follow God or not which is the same choice his mother and father had. People are good, they just make bad choices sometimes (or a lot of the time).

Those who say that scripture should come first, would say that I’m allowing outside influences to govern how I read the Bible; that I should let the Bible govern how I read it. I get what they’re saying and I agree to a point, but you can’t even read the Bible without outside influences. The Bible doesn’t teach you what grass is, what mountains are, it doesn’t teach you how to even read.  Experience can work against you though. Throughout history, outside influences have caused changes in interpretation. The prevailing view was that the earth stood still, our experience is that everything else moved. We then discovered that we’re the ones moving, but we still talk about the sun rising even though it only appears to be rising. This outside information though, changed how we interpret certain passages. Culture has also driven how we interpret passages. Slavery was seen as normal and acceptable and many Christians in the day pointed to scripture to support their view. Now, very few Christians interpret those passages the same way and seem to go through some mental and interpretive gymnastics to show why.

There are many many examples that could be used, but ultimately experience and reason have to become before scripture. To put it the other way round would be to ignore everything that makes us human, and that doesn’t end well.

European Court got it right

I posted this around this time last year, but this article has prompted me to re-publish it. Yes, there is a real concern regarding how people are treated because of their religious beliefs, but that does not give religious believers the right to discriminate against others and hide behind the “it’s against my religion” excuse.

Today is a landmark day in freedom, rights and expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHA) ruled on 4 cases involving Christians who claim to have been discriminated against on the grounds of their faith:

Nadia Eweida – a Pentecostal Christian of Egyptian descent – went home from a job as a check-in worker for British Airways (BA) at Heathrow Airport after she refused to conceal her silver cross necklace.

Lillian Ladele –  worked for Islington Borough Council in London as a marriage registrar. When civil partnerships were legalised in 2004, Miss Ladele refused to conduct them, saying it was against her religious belief.

Shirley Chaplin – was also asked not to display her cross necklace by her then employers, the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust.

Gary McFarlane – was sacked by his employer, Relate Avon, after saying he objected to giving sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples. He worked as a relationship counsellor [1]

The ECHA ruled that Nadia Eweida had been discriminated against on the grounds of her faith but the other 3 had not. Court rulings are not always known for their sense however, I can’t disagree with the rulings here. I would object to being asked to hide my cross on the grounds that it was a religious icon. Whilst I have argued previously that the wearing of a cross is not necessarily part of the Christian faith, [2] it is an expression of that faith and todays ruling suggests that it is protected under freedom of religion. Things get a little dicie when health and safety is involved which was the case for Shirley Chaplin. Who wins out here? The message from today is health and safety and I agree it should. If by wearing the crucifix you are potentially putting yourself or others at risk, it needs to be removed or in a place where it no longer poses a danger. The NHS Trusts primary focus is the well being of patients as it should be.

The other 2 are a little more complex and controversial. Homosexuality is a hot topic at the moment with plans to bring in same sex marriages which is probably why Christian Concern have targeted these in their initial response. [3] This was always pitched as a battle of rights but again, I think the court has got this right. To put it bluntly, you cannot decide not to do your job because you are faced with a gay couple. That’s like joining the army then objecting that you might have to shoot someone. The rights of LGBT people are as protected as the rights of religion. Like the NHS Trust, the councils main priority are its constituents and it simply cannot discriminate on grounds of sexuality which means, its employees can’t either. Same for private companies or charities. Employees are required to conduct themselves in a manner that is in accordance to their contract. Objecting to help a gay couple clearly goes against those standards. Indeed, on the Relate Avon website, there is the statement; Relate Avon is committed to ensuring that no person receives less favourable treatment on the basis of personal or group characteristics, such as: race, colour, age, culture, medical condition, sexual orientation, marital status,disability or socio-economic grouping  [4] (emphasis mine) A company must enforce its own rules otherwise you have anarchy.

Lawyers representing the government said previously that people should leave their faith at the door or find another job. [5] Whilst it’s not as simple as that, I can see what they’re getting at. These rulings today show for me that we are allowed to express our faith but not if it discriminates others. What’s wrong with that? After all, isn’t that what Christians are asking for? To not be discriminated against? Religion should be respected but it shouldn’t trump all others. The “it’s my religion” defence just doesn’t work in all cases. That’s the biggest difference between the case that won and the case that lost; the other 3 directly impacted other people by either being refused something open to everyone else, breaking company rules or potentially creating risk. Some would argue that we can’t express our faith without impacting people. That’s true to a degree but there must be limits. Jesus never put anyone in danger other than himself and his followers.

Jesus taught that the world would hate Chrisitans (John 15:19) but I’m pretty sure he meant we should be hated for loving him not for advocating discrimination. Everyone is fighting for their space in the world, to have a voice in society. Christians have a role to play in this world as much as anyone else does. Now is not the time for a circle the wagons mentality. Lets get out into the world, engage with its views, understand their views and maybe, despite the BBC proclaiming we’re on the road to a secular society [6] we can start being the true multicultural tolerant society we all want.

References:

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19467554

[2] http://evidence2hope.webs.com/apps/blog/show/14093692-crucifix-or-no-crucifix-

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21025332

[4] http://www.relate-avon.org.uk/faq.html

[5] http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/religious-freedom/british-government-christians-should-leave-faith-at-the-door-or-get-a

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21037173

Going round in circles

I’m really struggling with church at the moment; my experiences of church as an institution, Christians and other people’s stories are just leaving me exasperated and really not wanting to bother to go back or find a new church when I move house in a couple of months time.

Christians talk of church being a community, of not looking to get something out of it but contribute to it. That’s what I’m trying to do but anytime I contribute I get told “we don’t think about that” and the leaders “suggest” I explore those themes elsewhere. In online Christian communities my posts are either deleted or I’m just banned. The message is questions and viewpoints are only welcome providing they and the answers conform to their framework. Hearing other people’s experiences are just compounding the issue. Youth workers running a mixed faith youth group and none of the “Christian” kids have ever come on an outing, Christian parents accusing them of running a cult or being branded a traitor by church leaders because they worshiped at another church. Constantly reading stories of Christians campaigning against marriage equality and women in ministry, I’m just totally fed up with the church, all churches and this “them and us” attitude. Something N.T. Wright said resonated with me about this (as does most things N.T Wright says). When asked what is the main problem with the western church, he said “it’s the scandal of disunity……the different churches don’t talk to each other and are suspicious of each other”. I distrust just about every church at the moment.

At the heart of all this is Christ and a relationship that needs to be repaired; not just the churches relationship with him but my relationship with him. The issues I have with the church have affected my relationship and the church is known for pretty much the exact opposite of what Christ is known for;  I just don’t see the church now being the same as the church Christ talks about. Even as I type this I can hear the chorus of “but the church is the bride of Christ”. If I were Jesus I’d start thinking about a divorce in that case because the church seems to be sleeping with someone else right now. Being a Christian means to be a follower of Christ and the church seems to be following anything suits its own agenda.

Truth is, I just don’t feel I belong anywhere. Being on the fringes is nothing new for me, it’s where I’ve spent most of my life, but I’m usually there by my nature. Being forced out to the fringes is something very different. I want to be able to speak up in church, share what I know with the whole church. I feel I can contribute to a church in answering questions and helping to explore difficult topics. I’m not looking for people who just simply agree with me, but it would be nice to find some common ground. I like to be involved, I like to be doing something and as much as I’m struggling I am looking forward to doing the reading for a church service next month. I’ve had really positive feedback from the last 2 occasions I’ve read which helps.

What I know is that I need to build trust back up between me and Christ. To do that I need to separate him and the church. I still have support, but the church as an institution is not something I can handle or want to be a part of right now, I want to be and I hope it happens, but right now I have to leave it. The flaw though is that churches are made up of people, churches by themselves don’t do anything, it’s the people in them that do so it’s technically the people I distrust. To trust the churches I need to trust the people, which brings us back to the very first paragraph.

The circle is complete

Nye vs Ham; can any good really come?

It’s been recently announced that Bill Nye and Ken Ham will have a debate titled “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific world?[1]. Now, I’m usually all for debates where both sides present their views and evidence, but I’m not exactly thrilled about this one. Partly because I’m a little confused as to what this debate is; a scientific one or a theological one, but also because it’s putting forward a false choice.

If this is going to be a theological one, why put Bill Nye up against him? He’s not a theologian but then, neither is Ken Ham really. If it’s a scientific one, and the title of the debate suggests it’s supposed to be, then it could well be the most one sided and pointless debate in history. As one website succinctly puts it;

 any modern-day public debate over the fundamental tenets of creationism is a sham, a mockery of real discourse. That’s because there is no scientific debate to be had over whether the earth is billions of years old, or whether life shows strong evidence of common descent, or whether a global flood occurred within the memory of modern man. These questions (particularly the first and third) were settled by the experts who are paid to study such matters long before any of the would-be “debaters” were even born. [2]

I suspect it will become a theological discussion at some point since Ken Ham takes his science from his interpretation of the Bible, and as neither of them are theologians, I don’t expect the level of that portion to be particularly high. I think this debate would be better served by Ken Ham debating someone like Denis Alexander, Francis Collins or Denis Lamoureux; Christians with a solid grounding in both the science and theology. Actually, it’ll be better served if Bill Nye debated any of the above.

My other issue is the way the title is phrased and who they’ve got debating it. The question “is creation a viable option in modern science?” coupled with a Christian young earth creationist and and atheist evolutionist debating very much suggests you have to choose between God and evolution. This is very much a false dichotomy as evolution is a mechanism and God is an agent, they are not competing explanations [3]. Young earth creationism (YEC) and evolution are not compatible, but YEC is not the only view on what creation is and involves. A more accurate title would be “Is young earth creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific world?” but I doubt that would sell many tickets.

I may well be pre-judging Bill Nye here, I’m not overly familiar with this religious views and his views on the evolution/creation discussion. I am hoping for more Stephen Myer than Richard Dawkins but I do fear that this debate will result in a train wreck that ultimately helps no one but Ken Ham, and maybe some who think YEC is scientific. I guess some good can come of this after all.

 

References:

[1] http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/01/02/science-guy-bill-nye-and-prominent-christian-set-to-battle-it-out-over-evolution-and-creationism/

[2] http://www.godofevolution.com/why-bill-nyes-debate-with-young-earth-creationist-ken-ham-is-probably-a-mistake/

[3] https://christianonthefrontline.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/the-is-and-is-nots-of-evolution/