Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Christian nation?

Conrad Mbewe does not want Zambia to describe itself, in its constitution, as a Christian nation.

Jeremy Walker disagrees with David Cameron, for saying that he wants Britain to be a Christian country.

I used to agree with those two brethren, but now disagree with my older self.

There's much that they say that is good, and many dangers to avoid.

Good: Brother Mbewe doesn't want Zambia to be a secular nation, though this does beg the question of what he does want (he wants to just leave it be - which seems to mean, he wants the answer to the question left undefined; unsatisfactory). Good: he does not want us to confuse the state with the church. Good: he is not in favour of superstition, formalism or hypocrisy. He does not want us to confuse our nations with Old Testament Israel. He wants us to realise that the church is God's agent of regeneration and change, to not confuse the gospel with morality, etcetera, the first birth with the second, the nation from above with those below, the limited role of the state in regulating evil with the gospel's work in redeeming society, etcetera. He wants us to learn the historical lessons of the Constantinian settlement. Mere words in constitutions cannot replace, or supplement, or aid, the work of bringing in spiritual reality. Good, good, excellent, and so on!

And yet, and yet... I think I can agree with basically all of brother Mbewe's arguments, and brother Walker's commendations of them, and yet think that they've fallen short of supporting their conclusions. And I can do all this, as a Baptist, believing in a proper separation of church and state.

There's a fault-line that we can expose with the right questions:

1) Is Christ Lord of everything - including of the state?

2) Since the answer to that question is "of course he is", we then ask: "and should the state actually do anything in particular to acknowledge that Lordship, or does it have no practical effect?" Is the state meant to submit to Christ's Lordship, yet without admitting that it is doing so? Is it meant to be a secret?

Is the state meant to self-consciously reform itself in line with God's will, or not? If it is, then where does it get guidance concerning God's will from? There have been attempts in Christian history to derive a set of principles from nature/general revelation alone. The results have not been promising. The spectacle of a Christian theologian, self-consciously attempting to derive from the Bible principles about general revelation that will then allow the state to operate without the Bible, is absurd and should make us ask "how did we get here?"

Mbewe is exposing the fault-line when he realises but then tip-toes around the question: "so, what kind of state should it be?" It's all very well to say "not a secular one"; but the final answer "please, just leave us room to be Christians in our churches!" is unsatisfactory. The state is ordained by God, and under Christ's redemptive Lordship. His death and resurrection should have an impact on the state, as on everything else. Should that impact be an unspoken secret? Are hypocrisy/superstition etc. and "just leave us alone" the only two possible answers available to us?

I suspect that eschatology comes in here. If we expect Christ to bring all things into visible submission to himself and to complete the Adamic mandate before his final revealing, then you can believe as I do, that present and former incarnations of the "Christian state" leave much to be desired - and yet also believe that Caesar is intended to say "Christ is Lord" and not simply leave it as an open question. The question will be resolved as Christ exerts his all-authority more and more; the Christian state will in fact be a Christian state: in word and deed. Just because there are false starts and faulty settlements along the way is not a reason to abandon the whole idea, any more than the present faultiness of the church means that we need to throw our lot in with Harold Camping.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

This is what incoherence looks like

In a Guardian CIF article, Denis Alexander, as part of his hopeless quest to synthesise Darwinism with the Bible, asks the question, why did Jesus die? Good question; but he does not answer it in a coherent way. He gives no more of an answer than he did when he published "Creation or Evolution - Do we have to choose?".

Read it yourself and see if you can figure out the answer. Alexander himself during the article asserts that the Bible nowhere teaches that physical death is the penalty of sin (Alexander holds that death was always man's intended lot, a necessary part of the evolutionary process); yet also on the other hand asserts that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins.

Each time I come across something new from Dr. Alexander, I try to hunt for his explanation of how these two assertions harmonise. I'm not the only reviewer who's raised this issue and tried to get an answer; I'm not aware of anyone who's succeeded yet. Death is not the penalty for sin; Jesus experienced death as the penalty for our sins. I've read this latest one through three times, trying to spot the clue. I don't think there is one.

There's quite a few other give-aways about Dr. Alexander's departure from orthodoxy in the article; I've just chosen to highlight this big one in this blog.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Literal interpretation and asking the wrong questions

I had a discussion with a couple of good friends the other day about millennialism. One friend held to a pre-millennial position, the other a-millennial.

An issue that often comes up in such discussions is, the question of "literal" versus "spiritual/metaphorical" interpretation.

I hold that this is a false question. It tends to skew the outcome from the beginning. It plays into a modern, false dichotomy. (Ironically, when faced with a false "physical/spiritual" choice, modern believers have tended to retreat from the physical realm into the spiritual one; but in the question of eschatology, have felt it is the "spiritual" choice to take the most "literal" possibly interpretation of prophecy. Perhaps this is a compensation - the devil largely gets the material world now, but Jesus claims it back in the millennium? One of the points I raised with my pre-millennial friend is that I dispute that pre-millennialism is the "literal" option. Revelation chapter 20 taken "literally" does not mention Jerusalem, or a bodily resurrection of all believers, but takes place in the heavenly realm, where John says that he saw "souls". But I digress).

This literal-versus-spiritual view of the question tends to view prophetic interpretation as a matter of a sliding scale. A line is drawn, from "purely spiritual" at the left end, and "completely literal" at the right end. Then we have to decide where to land on that line. Those of the pre-millennial school tend to say, we should go as far to the right as possible. This sometimes leads to unwarranted chest-thumping and drawing connections that don't exist - if you go further to the left, you are a secret liberal! Taking the Bible seriously involves "literally-as-possible", otherwise you don't really believe (my friend did not take this line)!

Where "possible" is involves a number of subtleties. My friends was dispensational pre-millennial, and in my view the particular subtleties of that school are indistinguishable from arbitrary special pleading. A time reference of one thousand years in Revelation must mean exactly one thousand years otherwise we have mangled the plain word of God; but to take a "generation" in Matthew 24 as a literal generation is "wooden literalism" which we must avoid - hmmm!

This whole idea of a sliding scale is wrong. We need to get past the idea that it is the right interpretative grid to bring to prophetic understanding. Much better is to let the Bible interpret itself. This is actually to take the Bible more seriously, not less.

There is plenty of examples of already-fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. There is a large cupboard of prophetic imagery - stock usages of the prophets, which we can see the meaning of. The LORD coming on the clouds. Multi-coloured horses travelling through the earth. Jehovah coming down from Mount Zion, etcetera. Prophetic imagery is interpreted for us in the Scriptures already. Our job is not to set up our own rules and a zero-to-one-hunderd spiritual-literal scale with its ensuing set of mistaken questions. Our job is to understand the Bible's own rules to interpreting the range of prophetic images, and apply those. We are not given Daniel and Revelation in a vacuum; they cycled and recycled imagery that was part of the prophet's stock-in-trade, rather than inventing something entirely new and leaving us to figure it out for ourselves.

At times this more Biblical approach will bring issues which intersect with the literal/spiritual question; for example, when Jeremiah said that the exile in Babylon would be 70 years long, he really did mean 70 years as in 840 months as in 70 trips around the calendar, and not something else. But a study of prophetic usage emphatically does not lead to the sliding scale as the basic tool of interpretation. If we start there, we will not end up with authentically Biblical answers.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Bible, right and wrong

The notion that the Bible was “at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women” would have raised the Hitch-hackles. As he put it in his debate on religion with Tony Blair in Toronto in November 2010: “We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong.”

  1. The Bible itself tells us that those without the Bible know right from wrong - that's how those without the Bible can still be justly judged on the day of judgment. God has placed a knowledge of right and wrong in our hearts - a knowledge that will show we are right to be condemned, because we have not lived up to what we know (Romans chapter 2:14-16).

  2. The historical examples chosen make the (controverted) point very well, that the answer given is irrelevant. We may not need the Bible to know that right exists and is better than wrong. Even so, we do very much did need the Bible and its influence on our culture to have the power to put that knowledge into practice. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is one thing; but having the will to respond to that knowledge is another. That's what the Bible teaches too; the law may be written by the finger of God upon tables of stone, but until it is written upon our hearts by the power of the risen Christ we won't be able to keep it as we ought.

    Thus we have the irony that it's the Christian West where talented bon vivantes like Christopher Hitchens could spend and mis-spend the cultural capital of freedom and prosperity that centuries of Christianity had bequeathed to them; an irony that sadly Hitchens never properly appreciated.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Prosperity and envy

Douglas Wilson here has a useful test to do with social justice, progressive politics and envy.

Misotheism masquerading as science and reason

Misotheism, aka atheism, claims for itself the mantle of science and reason.

Like small children sometimes claim to be super-heroes. Then it's time for tea and bed.

Consider some of the claims of misotheism:
  • Everything came out of nothing, unaided by anything (because there was nothing to aid it). (Not out of a vacuum; out of nothing).
  • Complex order came, by itself, out of disorder, guided by nothing and with no external input; though science has never yet observed such a thing happening.
  • Complex codes, e.g. in the genome, produce themselves without intelligent input; which science has never observed.
  • Self-consciousness (the "I" which is the essential fact of our existence as personal individuals) is basically an illusion (in which case we ask, exactly who is the being experiencing that illusion?)
  • Life can spontaneously generate itself out of non-life, guided by nothing - despite the fact that millions of man-hours of intelligent human research have not yet been able to produce such an outcome, and science has never observed it.
  • Natural selection, filtering the species based upon survival possibilities, produced every face of human life - including those which have no plausible known value for survival (like genuine talent in art, music, chess, higher mathematics, etc.). All the evidence is that humankind of vastly over-endowed for mere survival - the offered explanation does not meet the facts.
  • Many of the universe's physical attributes exist within a very small band which is fine-tuned for existence and life, despite no known material explanation why that should be. (Note that the misotheist's observation "but if it weren't so, we wouldn't be here to observe it" no more explains this fact than the survivor of the firing squad's observation "of course I survived, otherwise we wouldn't be able to have this chat" explains why the crack shooters all missed).

In the face of this vast "reality gap" between observed scientific facts and misotheistic explanations, the best that the Internet misotheists have been able to come up with is empty rhetoric - not science but childish attempts at philosophy. "Science is still working on that", "You're just preaching God-of-the-gaps", "Physics hasn't yet had its Darwin", etc.

Little Johnny says, "and after tea, I'm going to fly to the moon!" Of course you are, little chap - but don't forget it'll soon be bed-time!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Original sin, again

Child psychologist Margit Ekenberg told Sweden's Aftonbladet newspaper: 'Children can be cruel to each other, but not evil.

'Children who commit acts like this have probably not received the care and assistance they needed from adults in setting limits to their actions.'

Those are the words of a supposed expert, responding to the case of a ten-year-old boy who strangled a four-year-old to death and dumped his body in the bushes.

Perhaps something got lost in translation? Hmmm....

Apparently, "cruelty" is not itself evil. How did she conclude that?

How would Ms Ekenberg know what evil is? What standard is she measuring it by?

Since strangling someone to death is, in fact, evil (the standard we measure that by is God's law), obviously ten-year-olds can commit evil. You only need one instance of a ten-year-old committing evil to prove that yes, ten-year-olds can commit evil.

As indeed can four-year-olds.

"'Children who commit acts like this have probably not received the care and assistance they needed from adults in setting limits to their actions.'" - since children of age ten can't (allegedly) commit evil, then why do adults need to set limits to their actions? If evil is actually impossible for them, then what is it we're meant to be stopping them from doing?

Apparently, we're meant to be stopping them from committing "cruelty". But since cruelty isn't evil, what's the problem, again?

Ms Ekenberg apparently subscribes to a situational view of the cause of (non-)evil. She believes that it's because adults haven't applied appropriate "limits".

What are those limits? Again, as ten year-olds are apparently beings who exist outside of the sphere where categories of "good" or "evil" apply, we must be meant to educate them on some other basis. It's apparently not "appropriate" to tell them that throttling the weak is wrong, as ten-year-olds can't commit wrong. Is the idea just that we educate them about what would be evil if they were older, so that when they're older they won't commit evil after it becomes possible for them to do so? "Don't throttle the weak now, because if you do it when you're older, it'd be evil" "What - it's not evil now?" "Nope, just cruelty." "Is cruelty evil?" "Not for you, no". "Thanks. Can I throttle you now?"

What age does evil begin to exist as a possibility for a child to commit, by the way, Ms Ekenberg? How did you determine that answer? It's apparently many years after the child can self-consciously assert its own will in ways that are contrary to God's revealed will for mankind to live. Presumably the ten-year-old wanted to inflict pain and suffering upon the four-year-old; that was his desire, and it carried over into action.

Ten-year-olds seem blissfully unaware that they are living in a universe in which (according to Ms Ekenberg) moral categories do not exist for them. They are continually debating about what is right or wrong, completely uninformed about the apparent reality that there is no such thing. They get cross if you, or one of their companions, commits an evil against them. They seem to intuitively all believe in this so-called impossibility.

What is the difference between a ten-year-old desiring to inflict pain on a four-year-old and then carrying it out, and a twenty-year-old doing the same thing? What if the twenty-year-old didn't receive sufficient "care" and "assistance" before he/she reached the magical age at which such actions become evil? Why has that now become the twenty-year-old's fault?

What's the point of all this? It's to point out the hopeless moral confusion that results when you reject the Bible's clear revelation of the reality of original sin. Original sin is also the explanation for how an adult with a brain can be accepted by a society as a supposed "expert" whilst coming out with such spewings of ignorance and darkness as Ms Ekenberg. The true path is not to be found in child psychologists of such an ilk, but in receiving a new heart from Jesus - which is a glorious possibility when you are an adult, or ten or four. Without it though, we're condemned to societies in which four-year-olds can be executed and the favoured ones in society, far from doing anything about it, actually make the evil-doers' excuses for them. The world's wisdom makes excuses for evil and tells you it's not really there; but Jesus defeats it.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Richard Dawkins doesn't really get it?

Prof Dawkins asked the Prime Minister: “Why do you support faith schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn’t dream of so labelling a ‘Keynesian child’ or a ‘Conservative child’?”.

Mr Cameron responded: “Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn’t really get it.

That was a good start from the Prime Minister, I thought. Dawkins really does not get it. Views of economics or politics may play quite a large role in a person's life. But they cannot be the foundation. They cannot constitute the basis of a world-view, as Christainity, atheism, Islam, Rastafarianism etc. do. Keynesianism may be right or wrong, but there is no pathway towards seeing a failure to honour JMK's teachings as an intrinsic moral failure, or a basic constituent of someone's personal identity.

“I think faith schools are very often good schools. Why? Because the organisation that’s backing the school – the church or the mosque or the synagogue – is part of the community.


“And it brings a sense of community and a sense of responsibility and the backing of an institution to a school.

“The church was providing good schools long before the state ever got involved, and we should respect the fact that it’s not just the state that can provide education – other bodies, too.

“So I support faith schools on the basis of the proof that over the years they’ve been good schools.”
Here I was left wondering if Mr. Cameron really "got it".

From Dawkins' point of view, a Christian education cannot, be definition, be a "good school" precisely because it is Christian and Christianity is an outmoded and potentially dangerous superstition. The issue at hand is the definition of "good" in the context of education.

Cameron does go on to explain what he means by "good", though it's not fully clear to me without more of his thinking how to interpret him. He speaks of belonging to the community, and a sense of responsibility and the backing of an institution. I'm not sure if those things themselves are the "good" of which he speaks (which seems rather weak to me - a brainwashing camp run by a suicide cult could also theoretically fulfil that criteria), or if they are simply supportive of an other, undefined (here) good - perhaps the technical excellency of the education. But if the latter, then we're still begging Dawkins' original question - what, really, makes a school good? Is a school good because it teaches people lots of information? Helps them to think critically? Helps them pass GCSEs? Or what? Dawkins would argue that Christian assertions about reality are false; hence a Christian school can only be a "good school" despite Christianity, not because of it. He thinks that thinking critically leads to the conclusion that Christianity is false. And I think only the Department of Education would be tempted to make passing state exams the objective measure of "good" - other folk might be more likely to collapse their value into one of the other two (they help us learn information, or to think critically in general).

My children's education is "good", I believe, because we are helping them to understand God's world, how it works and how to live in it, from God's point of view. We are helping them to think critically, but within a context of Christian love and care. We believe they have their own minds which are to be developed, and thinking critically, when guided by a good heart which ultimately only conversion brings, will be very "good".

Dawkins, on the other hand, uses the word "good" as if it were an objective reality; yet he can only tell us his subjective preferences. In his world-view, he's simply an inevitable result of millions of years of natural processes, processes with no transcendental meaning, purpose or intelligence behind them, and no ultimate end except extinction. He may have his own quasi-transcendental purposes and goals; those that he sees as bigger than his own existence (e.g. his anti-God crusades), but there's no binding reason why anyone else should care about them. "Good" on his lips has no solid meaning that you can pin down beyond "Dawkins likes it that way". So whilst I might dispute with Mr. Cameron, who professes to believe Christianity is true yet seems quite confused about a number of Christian teachings, yet with Dawkins we can't even get the debate underway because there's no common ground to even start the discussion from. Dawkins, if you take his world-view back to basics, is simply one lump of animated meat trying to campaign about the education of the offspring-meat of another lump of animated meat. Why does he bother? He believes that we are nothing but matter, controlled by physical laws; in his view it's his physiology forcing him to do what he does, and mine forcing me to disagree with him. He bothers only because he's inconsistent. The atheistic world-view can't be consistently lived out. Dawkins behaves as if other people's children's education is important because the "we're just the happy results of meaningless physical processes" thesis is not possible for divine image bearers in a created universe to live out consistently.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Calvin on human and divine emotions

So much wisdom and discernment here from Calvin in a single paragraph:
Mark 3:5. "And when he had looked around upon them with indignation" - To convince us that this was a just and holy anger, Mark explains the reason of it to be, that he was grieved on account of the blindness of their hearts. First, then, Christ is grieved, because men who have been instructed in the Law of God are so grossly blind; but as it was malice that blinded them, his grief is accompanied by indignation. This is the true moderation of zeal, to be distressed about the destruction of wicked men, and, at the same time, to be filled with wrath at their ungodliness. Again, as this passage assures us, that Christ was not free from human passions, we infer from it, that the passions themselves are not sinful, provided there be no excess. In consequence of the corruption of our nature, we do not preserve moderation; and our anger, even when it rests on proper grounds, is never free from sin. With Christ the case was different; for not only did his nature retain its original purity, but he was a perfect pattern of righteousness. We ought therefore to implore from heaven the Spirit of God to correct our excesses.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Starlight and creation week

Many people find the following objection amongst the hardest to overcome in accepting the Bible's chronology:
"If we can see starlight from millions of light years away, then how can the universe not be millions of years old?"
The question needs sharpening. Written as above, it begs the question; i.e., it asserts the conclusion that is under dispute. Whether starlight has been travelling for millions of years or not, and whether there is an alternative possibility, is the issue at hand. The question should be re-phrased something like so:
"Given the speed that we measure light travelling at, and our calculations of the distances of stars from us, and extrapolating the calculations, it would appear that some starlight has been travelling for millions of years - how can that be so if the universe is not millions of years old?"
Re-writing it more accurately like so points towards possible resolutions. The Bible's teaching on creation is that creation was a miraculous event, accomplished without mediation by the word of God. To what extent the same processes as are observed today were operative during creatin week, and to what extent extrapolations can be made on measurements taken today and extended back into creation week, is an open question. The Bible is indeed not a science text book. It tells us that God created and formed in those six days in a supernatural manner. What the precise physical events that were correlated with his actions were, and what other miraculous processes might have been at work during those six days, we are not told.

Creationist scientists can and do spend time trying to consider these issues and propose models to satisfy the requiremenst of the data we observe today. Yet since these models are dealing with unobservable and unrepeatable events, they cannot be empirically verified. It remains an open question and also incapable of verification given our limited data as to whether any model is possible, and creationists recognise this too. That is, it is not clear if the miraculous events of creation week are even open to this kind of analysis. By definition, supernatural interventions do not follow descriptive models which are based upon the expectation of uniform behaviour.

But what is clear from this analysis is that the question, when phrased as an objection to creationism, does not carry the weight it needs to. It is only when you assume that the physical universe operated according to the same regular principles during creation week as subsequently, that it has force. And that is the very assumption which Biblical creationism denies. To hold that the Bible's teaching is uncertain, whilst believing that our extrapolations back into creation week are solid facts, is to make ourselves wiser than God and is not a valid Christian option.