Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Biblical Texts (again)

My thoughts on the nature and authority of biblical texts continue to develop over time. The last post about this was a retreat into ambiguity, I think. Although I still think that it's important to elevate the involvement of the human author, I think there is still something to be gained by classifying the texts.

Kierkegaard moved in this direction when he insisted that we should take any text from the New Testament and just do it. As far as he was concerned, any New Testament command must be obeyed. It had the status of unquestionable authority. As has been pointed out elsewhere, he didn't give the Old Testament this kind of lofty status.

While I won't go so far as to advocate for the inerrancy of the New Testament, I'm happy to leave those texts as canonical for Christianity. That makes it the core of the Christian scriptures. And as for the Old Testament? I like to think of it as apocryphal. I don't quite take the approach of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglicans though:
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine;
Rather, I think the apocryphal works are the texts of the situation of the Christian Event. They describe the ideology, philosophy and theology of the time but are not the foundation of Christianity.

I think they're still worth reading, but only as situational documents. There's much better reading with the Christian Scriptures, and much more that can be followed.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

What morality looks like

The court case which arose from the inquest into the death of Diane Brimble has closed, and the defendant has been found not guilty of the charges. The article in the Sydney Morning Herald takes a look at the situation, and compares the verdict and the public interest in the court proceedings against the public interest in the inquest. Our moral outrage, it seems, is confined to inquests and not court cases.

More important than commentary about the state of public opinion is the overall point of the article; that is, the court case was about legal responsibility between people but could not be about moral responsibility between people. From the article by Geesche Jacobsen:
"Despite the inquest's approach, the case was not about moral responsibility, about what ought to have been done. And ''bad, loutish or maybe even insensitive behaviour'' as Justice Howie called it, is no crime.

Should she have been photographed during sex?

Should she have been kicked off the bed?

Should she have been left lying on the floor, having defecated?

Should people - young men and four young women from another cabin - have laughed about her, even looked at her, and done nothing?"
Dianne Brimble saga ends with lives still to heal

Jacobsen highlights that the prosecution's case was only about legal responsibility.
There was no general duty to help a stranger in distress, however unusual that seemed, Justice Howie told the jury after the prosecution acknowledged in the final days of the trial it could not prove Wilhelm had had a duty of care towards Brimble. No legal duty.

Although there was no legal duty of care, I share Jacobsen's dismay that no one helped a person in need. I also share this sentiment from Scott Stephens[1] that we no longer recognise what morality looks like.
By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctuary of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to well-being and personal security, and by neglecting to advocate some alternate form of virtuous community, they end up supplying the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of rationality.
Hillsong for the unbelievers
If morality is reduced to "well-being and personal security" such that there is no moral duty between people, then we are in need, more than ever, of the gospel. It's a poor reflection on human nature that we have taken the ideas of personal choice and individuality beyond the realm of community responsibility. An individual is free to choose, and will experience the consequences of those choices, but if those choices lead that person into trouble then the gospel insists that the strong help the weak.

In the parable of the Samaritan, the traveller chose to journey along the road and the consequence was severe assault and theft. The priest and Levite did not help, but the Samaritan did. Now, which of these fulfilled their legal responsibilities? All of them. And which of them embodied the gospel? The Samaritan.

We've are too comfortable with the notion of personal choice and personal responsibility, to the extent that we feel we can abandon compassion. This is woeful, and the gospel calls us to live better than that. The gospel tells us to look after the people around us, to take care of the stranger in need, to be good neighbours to all.

[1] Yes, I know I refer to him often. He's usually right about things like this.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Forgiveness and Penal-substitution

Lately I've been thinking about forgiveness and the penal-substitutionary explanation for Jesus' crucifixion (yes, even before AUFS brought it up, despite my delay in writing). I think, perhaps quite simply, that forgiveness itself is enough obstacle to oppose the idea of substitutionary punishment.

Forgiveness is, after all, an act of the will that leads to reconciliation. Suppose two people argue and hurt each other, when they forgive each other they are reconciled. No one needs to be punished. Furthermore, during Jesus' ministry there doesn't appear to be any obstacle to Jesus just simply forgiving people. He said it to the lame man in Matthew 9.

Now, you might argue that Jesus can do this because he's divine, and we can't because we're not. But even a little later (Matt 18) Jesus commands his followers to forgive others. So if the authority to forgive is freely given, what is the point of a substitutionary punishment?

It's a simple thought, I concede, but is enough to cause a problem with the doctrine of penal-substitution.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Atheism stumbles over Easter

I'm happy to be reading again, along with a little "Blogger" button that let's me just grab the page I'm reading and start commenting. Ain't technology grand?

Courtesy of Online Opinion comes this opinion piece. Atheism repels feeble Easter attacks - On Line Opinion - 15/4/2010. It's the usual atheist approach to religion, beginning with the scientistic declaration of the primacy of positive evidence over the absence of evidence.
Atheists simply accept that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural—no more, no less. There is no element of indoctrinated belief about atheism. Atheism is founded on the concept of evidence.
Supposing this is true, then I imagine that I'm an atheist. A declaration of "Jesus is lord" is the central declaration of Christianity, marking the claim by the believer that they acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. There is credible historical evidence that Jesus the Jewish Peasant lived in second century Israel, teaching and gathering followers. However, when the follower declares that "Jesus is lord" this is a statement of faith, a statement of devotion. This kind of statement doesn't even require a supernatural being to be involved. What it does require is discipline by the Christian; discipline to learn, understand and obey Jesus' teaching.

Whereas "Atheism is founded on the concept of evidence" faith is founded on the concept of conviction and fidelity. The believer encounters a truth that redefines their world, and goes on to live in fidelity to that truth. This kind of truth is not in the same language game as facts and evidence, making a scientific assessment of an individual truth difficult. The closest we have so far is something like Badiou's ontological theory of the Event. Even this, however, insists that truth does not arise from the systematised facts of the situation, but that it cannot be named or accounted by that situation. The desperate search for the facts of a truth is a waste of time because it is impossible.

I'll give the author some credit for this gem, though.
Religious leaders have never encouraged their congregations to use their brains throughout history, and this situation has not improved in modern times.
Mostly true! This is a double-edged sword, though. On one side, few religious leaders (especially contemporary pentecostal Christian ones) encourage intellectual engagement with the Bible, preferring them to read short, disconnected snippets of the text. The broader themes and intra-biblical dialogue is lost this way, resulting in some wild and crazy theologies. On the other side of the sword is the necessary property of the gospel: it is universally addressed. It's not a message exclusive to the intellectual, or exclusive to the working class. As a universally addressed truth, it ignores those distinctions and presents itself equally to all.

Again, an atheist has come to religion with the hammer of science; seeing everything as a nail. Despite the clumsiness of their approach, they still have valid critique of religion in general (and often Christianity in particular) that the Christian must address.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

More AC Grayling Critique

I confess that I wrote my previous piece on AC Grayling before I'd heard the whole talk. That was a mistake. It so happens that I found two more points to object to, so perhaps I should have waited and bundled it all together. Nevertheless, let's continue with objection 4.

Remember that Grayling identified that science can help religion, but religion can't help science because religion has nothing useful to say about the Higgs boson? This, apparently, was enough justification to discredit religion; that is, if religion cannot contribute to a single area of science, it is useless. Now let's find out what Grayling has to say about how science gives answers to questions of
those matters of the heart and mind of human beings which concern them most—questions about love and their relationships and their response to beauty. And the answer is no, they don't because that's not what science is about.

You know if you said to the botanist who is examining some dicotyledon somewhere what is the meaning of life, or how should I best love my wife or something, the botanist should properly say well, just let me put my botany to one side and respond to you as another human being. But to think that the natural sciences are somehow going to answer everything would be to be scientistic, and no responsible scientist is scientistic, no responsible scientist thinks that science is going to have all the answers and that is why we have such a rich resource in the arts, in music, in drama, in the novel, in philosophy, in history, in the conversation we have with one another at that dinner party that Mr Hitchens is talking about when the possibilities for these things arise.
Religion and Science, Part 2 of 2

It seems that Grayling has double standards. Religion is flawed because it doesn't provide a complete overlap with science, but science is not flawed when it doesn't provide a complete overlap with the arts.

And lastly (again, I know) Grayling asserts that of all the oppression in the world, the oppression caused by religion should be removed promptly. Again I quote.
It's certainly true that most of our fellow human beings today as throughout history have been impoverished and oppressed in ways that make it very difficult for them even to have a chance to address these questions. A long time ago again Aristotle said the possibility of good lives for people does involve an element of luck: where you were born, when you were born, in what circumstances, whether your family has wealth, whether you can have an education. And it behoves us all I think, as being sensitive to the plight of our fellow human beings around the world, that we should strive to ensure that they do have the chance to think in these terms about what would make a good life, rather than mere survival.

Now of course one of the things that we would have to do is to reduce the oppressive effect of religions on them.
Religion and Science, Part 2 of 2

I contend, however, that to isolate religion here is scapegoating more than it is a solution to the problem. A larger problem is the oppression of capitalism and greed. Multitudes are still enslaved today through the capitalist structures that create Asian sweatshops and the slave camps of Dubai. It isn't religion that led to this, but the love of money. Grayling is right to say that we should work together to remove oppression, but he's wrong to isolate religion and put it at the top of his list.

With these extra two objections, I have to say that my disappointment is bigger than it was before.

A.C. Grayling at the Atheist Convention

I was listening to selections from a talk by A.C. Grayling, given at the recent Global Atheist Convention. Based on the introduction, I'd hoped for some robust argument to provoke some discussion. To be honest, I was disappointed. Here are just three parts of his talk that I take issue with.

In the discussion of "science and religion" he posed the question about what each could offer the other. His answer was that science can help study the phenomena of religion, whereas religion can't help understand the Higgs boson. Not only has he presented this only from a scientific viewpoint, but he's been quite selective about his areas of interest. Should we instead be asking about how religion can contribute to discussions in the philosophy of science, or the social dimensions of science? While I'll be at the front of the line to argue that science and religion are incapable of contributing to each other in all areas, it was oddly dismissive of Grayling to target only the asymmetry between the two.

Going further, in his critique of religion, he bundles all religions together in order to build a picture of religion in general. Christianity, Islam, Roman religion... all with their own nuances that distinguish one from another, and with dialogue inside each one, but selectively lumped together as RELIGION for his own purposes. It's precisely the same technique as the woeful selection of proof texts used by the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church, harnessed only to support a preconceived notion.

Lastly, his analysis of the common ancestor of science and religion was a cheap shot. Ignorance, he proclaimed, was the common ancestor of the two and there has been a parallel evolution of science and religion ever since, in just the same way as from a common ancestor came Cro Magnon man ("Us," he said) and Neanderthal ("and them," he said). The invocation of "us and them" is a sorry indictment, and perhaps the genuine self-disclosed exposure of the talk. Just as he grouped the Nuremberg rallies with the skilled rhetoric in a megachurch, he himself uses the same techniques in order to appease and enthuse his audience.

I'd hoped for a reasonable talk, but didn't get it. Instead I heard biased argument from someone claiming to pursue a scientific method of inquiry. I'll leave this with some words from Scott Stephens, in his more lengthy review of the convention.

But the GAC was a different matter entirely. As was observed by several of the speakers at the Convention — Phillip Adams and Tamas Pataki being the most courageous - that initial sense of moral outrage seems to have been traded for satire, and the commendable desire to argue for the superiority of atheism over every rival outlook has devolved into self-indulgent bravado.

This style of atheism lacks the appropriate seriousness, and so ends up pandering to the fashionable cynicism and ethical disengagement that dominates Western societies.

Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's description of German Protestantism in the 1930s, the upshot of such atheism in our time is to make people feel better, or at least more smug, about their morally bankrupt lives.

Consequently, the GAC will prove to have been little more than a Hillsong for the irreligious - which is to say, an orgy of self-congratulation presided over by egotistic pseudo-celebrities.

To put it in a nutshell: the fundamental problem with the type of atheism on display at the Convention is that it is a conceit that perfectly suits our times by providing morally indefensible lives with an alibi, a kind of rational overlay.
Hillsong for Unbelievers, Scott Stephens

Edit: See also some comments from Margaret Coffey about the Global Atheist Convention. She shares similar disappointment about the actual content of the GAC. See, for example:
It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’.

Monday, 12 April 2010

What do we preach?

The proclamation of the gospel has, for far too long, felt like a sales pitch. First, convince the customer (unbeliever) that they have a need that they didn't know about. Second, provide the customer with a potential solution. Third, get the customer to take action. This is the basic structure of the "all have fallen short of the glory of God, including you, and need Jesus to get out of it, so believe!"

But does Christ need a groundwork of sin-awareness before we can preach Christ? Not according to van Driel.

Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).
Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology: A Review � P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

Although this is not enough argument by itself, it should serve as a caution not to burden the gospel proclamation with unnecessary baggage.

Christianity and politics

We have an election here in Australia later this year, and although most of you aren't thinking about it yet, the idea of what it means to vote as a Christian is worth thinking about.

"My own view is that, in respect of the “Big Four” political issues - war and peace, the just distribution of wealth, human rights, the environment - orthodox Christian teaching supports a generally “left-wing” policy prescription. Conversely, in respect of a raft of vitally important social phenomena - sexual mores, marriage, drug-use, gambling, pornography, sanctity of life questions, to mention just a few - the Christian position is decidedly conservative."

On yet other issues, such as crime and punishment and censorship, Christian teaching is impossible to categorise in worldly terms.

Further, even the apparently clear-cut issues have a Christian twist. For instance, the Bible unquestionably takes the side of the poor over the rich, and posits charity as one of the greatest human virtues. But it also encourages thrift, self-reliance and obedience to (secular) law.

Most importantly, while Jesus’ sympathies were fiercely egalitarian, he was not a social reformer. His primary emphasis was upon individual salvation.

With all these considerations in mind, the great English theologian C.S. Lewis once observed that a fully Christian society would thrill almost no one. “Each of us,” he wrote, “would like some of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing”.

Tellingly, and wisely, Lewis added: “That is just what one would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways.”

Ultimately, the best that each of us can do is to try to obey the dictates of conscience.

The ugliest feature of modern politics in Australia is that our mainstream politicians are discouraged from following their conscience (Christian or otherwise) when voting in parliament. Not to toe the party line on a given issue is to risk ridicule, ostracism, demotion - even expulsion.
Christianity and politics: a problematic mix - On Line Opinion - 1/3/2010

Get ready for the campaign.