Monday, March 30, 2009

Spin Doctor Atheism

I've been going over to Debunking Christianity to mix it up with the Atheists for quite a while now. I think they might be fed up with me, so I haven't been replying to any posts for a couple of days. However, the blog director and chief atheist, John W. Loftus, just posted an interesting article from Dr. Douglas Groothius, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He has a new book coming out defending Christianity against the attacks of the New Atheists and he posted on his web site a primer of the book. Mr. Loftus put Groothius' primer up on his site so that his atheist friends could throw rocks at it. You can read Groothius' post at DC and the atheist responses to it here:

When I started reading posts over at Debunking Christianity I noticed that the posts and comments were a lot of straw man arguments about God, Christians, and the Bible, etc. At first I tried to keep my mouth shut and be agreeable to show some understanding with sympathetic comments. However, after a while I felt like they were getting away with bullying Christianity, so I simply tried when and where I could to show them some of their false and exaggerated arguments. For instance, one of their favorite straw man arguments is to describe the Biblical God as blood thirsty, capricious and very angry. "Who would want to believe it that God?" is their point. Another one is the false comparison between the Christian Faith and belief in "imaginary friends" and "spaghetti monsters". "Jesus is just a figment of our imagination", is this point. But, to support this claim they have to make up a "belief" that Jesus was just a mythical figure. Of course, they are completely outside of mainstream scholarship when spouting that belief. Yet, it is finding remarkable popularity today. Another common atheist straw man is depicting the historic Christian Church as wicked, hypocritical and genocidal. "See, religion breeds evil people, not good people," is the point here. They don't ever, and I mean ever, cite one example of the benefits Christianity has brought to the world since Christ was born. I just thought it was not fair to let these exaggerations go unchecked. If they are going to make a stand against Christianity they ought to at least use arguments that are meaningful, instead of these spin doctor tactics.

When I read the synopsis by Groothius at DC I almost started shouting at my computer, YES! Finally, a scholar with more refinement and more verve than I could muster has been posted at DC addressing many of the same things I have been trying to say. But, then when I read the comments by the atheists I saw the same old false criticisms. No change! I wonder if the explanation for the problem has to do with what Paul said in Romans 1:18-23, where he describes the unbeliever as comitted to supressing the truth of God. What do you think?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Test Your Faith with the Outsider Test of Faith

Recently, I read a book entitled, “Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity”, by John W. Loftus. It’s a book designed to convince the Christian that Christianity is a fairy tale myth that is essentially no different than belief in, what Richard Dawkins calls, “Flying Spaghetti Monsters”. I must admit that Mr. Loftus’ book is a thorough and comprehensive critical look at Christianity. It’s better than the books by the Atheist Four Horseman, because he deals with what Christians actually believe, having been one himself. It’s hard core and will force you to justify your belief system.

Loftus has a chapter in the book that calls upon the Christian to test his own faith as if he were a dispassionate outsider looking at the claims of Christianity. He calls it the “Outsider Test of Faith”, or OTF. He is convinced that if the Christian will remove his God biased spectacles and adopt a position of skepticism the Christian will find his faith to be absurd. The Christian, he says, looks at faith claims from other religions as weird, stupid or even silly, such as: Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, or Mormonism. But, Loftus surmises, what if the Christian will but turn his critical eye to his own faith? He suggests that when he does he will find the same absurd and irrational claims in his own belief system that he finds in others. As a result, once he sees that his Christian Faith is absurd and irrational he must abandon it. This reminds me of what Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said while reflecting on aspects of Hinduism, “every religion has its absurdities”.

To help explain how to take the “Outsider Test of Faith” he uses the analogy of the prince in the Cinderella story who must question 45 people to find the girl with the glass slipper at the ball last night. The prince wants the “real” girl so he takes the search for her as seriously as a CSI investigator. This is how we should examine our own faith system, he suggests. After all, don’t we want what is “real”? He understands that presuppositions are next to impossible to shed when one examines his own faith, so Mr. Loftus suggests taking stringent measures such as: 1) Consciously remove all of your controlling beliefs and adopt skepticism as your controlling assumption. 2) Read books critical of Christianity to help you think critically, such as his own book. 3) Examine how you adopted your faith to determine if your faith was derived from social conditioning or rational choice (His assumption is that you will find that religion is merely an accident of geography and thus social conditioning. You are supposed to see that this is irrational and therefore unworthy of acceptance).

Mr. Loftus is convinced that if you will take this test you will find Christianity to be “silly”. He told me so himself on his internet forum, “Debunking Christianity.” I wrote to him and others on that forum that I took the test and I am still a Christian. I am an OTF graduate and I still believe that Christianity is a coherent, rational, and existentially satisfying religion. So, he wrote back to me and suggested that I probably did not properly understand the test if I am still a Christian! Well, I just reread the OTF chapter from his book, again. I don’t know what else I can do to convince him that I did understand the OTF and I did take the test using his “draconian measures”. In fact, I have been taking that darn test over and over for many years. Why, because I happen to be naturally skeptical and a natural doubting Thomas, like most people. Actually, I think some form of the OTF is taken by most Christians. At least the one’s I know. But you see, after taking the OTF every time, I come to the following conclusions: Christianity is unique among world religions in its historically accounted for resurrection of a savior, Christianity is a distinctively superior world view among other great religions, and Christianity has a compelling and incomparable gospel message among other world religions. Now, what about absurdities? I agree with Joseph Campbell that all religions have their absurdities, even Christianity. However, in Christianity I see the absurdities as “apparent” and not logical. Take for instance the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union of Jesus. These do seem absurd and incomprehensible. But, they are not illogical or irrational, however absurd they might be.

My conclusion: I encourage every Christian to take the “Outsider Test of Faith”. John W. Loftus wants you to take it because he is convinced that you will lose your faith, so that you can become enlightened like him. But, I say you might strengthen your faith if you take it and become more convinced that Christianity is true. Go for it, Christian! By the way, Loftus says on page 71, “If after having investigated your religious faith with the presumption of skepticism it passes intellectual muster, then you can have your religious faith. It’s that simple.” Thanks for your permission, Mr. Loftus. I’ll do just that!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The 50 Milestone

I turned 50 in November, so I wanted to try to achieve a few things during this milestone year. I ran the Shamrock 15K run last week. Pam made a video of the event, which you can see here: My next goal is to hike the John Muir Trail this summer. It's a 220 mile trek through the High Sierras. When I was hiking in the Sierras 10 years ago with Pam, we came across a 50 year old woman who was hiking the John Muir Trail all alone! She said that she was hiking the trail as a 50th birthday present to herself. I admired that and decided right then and there to do the same. A great excuse to do something I always wanted to do anyway. So, I am closing in on that time. I have always wanted others to go with me on these kind of backpacking trips, but it is real hard to get people to join up. Or, if they do they tend to back out at the last minute. I understand. I have a 50 year old friend at work that is planning on going with me this summer and I fully expect him to back out due to some unforseen comittment that will come up. They always do. but if anyone else feels the urge to go, let me know. I figure that if I get four people to agree to come then one will actually follow through. It will take at least two weeks out of your summer. It seems like a big committment in the work-a-holic world we live in. But, if you are game, can see yourself hiking 20 miles a day, eating granola for two weeks, smelling like billy goat, and traversing some of the grandest mountain terrain in the Americas for two inspiring weeks, please contact me. Whether I go solo, or in a group, I am comitted to have the time of my life.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Watch Out! The Four Horsemen Are Here!

Did you know that the Four Horsemen have been galloping through our nation for the past several years? That’s right, only these aren’t the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who sweep the world to destroy the ungodly. On the contrary, these horsemen are out to destroy faith in God. I refer to the four popular atheist authors that have come to be known as the Four Horsemen: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Each has written popular books with the purpose of eradicating from the world the dangerous influence of faith in God. They found an ear in our society, due in part to the public disgust of Militant Islam and the Religious Right. The former brought terrorism to our country on 9/11 and the latter displayed intolerant hyposcrisy during the Bush years. A lot of people think that God is ready to be kicked out of society and the Four Horsemen are just the tool to make it happen. I have read their books, listened to their debates, and heard them interviewed. Their arguments are cogent and passionate. They can intimidate you with their intellectual authority. Their books offer powerful ammunition for those looking for reasons not to believe. And, for nominal Christians and Christians who don’t know Biblical theology these books can cut your faith to pieces. After digesting these books and their arguments, I want to offer a few observations:

First, these guys just don’t know the Bible in it’s historical, grammatical, cultural and theological context. Dawkins is a biologist. Harris is a philosopher. Hitchens is a satirical writer. And Dennet is a philosopher. None of these guys have a background in Biblical scholarship. And, it shows in their work. So, their picture of God is so characaturized that they wind up arguing against a god that does not exist. They build their own misinterpreted picture of what the God of the Bible is like and how he relates to the world and then they attack that picture. Well, in logical parlance, this is called a Straw Man argument. Sure, if God was all that they describe him to be, then who would want to believe in him?

Second, it is a fact that evidence cannot establish the existence of God. There either is not enough evidence, or there is only a preponderance of evidence. As Christians we accept this and understand that faith is required to believe in God, not evidence. If evidence were enough to establish the existence of God, then faith would not be necessary. The Bible is clear on this point. However, what the Atheists don’t tell you is that faith is also required of their position. A case in point is the question of origins: The origin of man, The origin of the universe, The origin of matter, The origin of logic and self-awareness. They are evident, but where did they come from? Even evolution cannot establish origins. The Atheist does not know where it all came from and all he can do is theorize without evidence, just like the believer. We are ultimately in the same boat!

Third, logic and reason are often used to persuade one from belief in God as though logic is on the side of Atheism. However, I have seen debate after debate where logic and reason are used to establish the veracity of “each” side of the argument. Logic and reason are just like facts, they can be used to support any hypothesis. The believer says, “God exists and here is why…” He then gives you his logical reasoning. The atheist says, “Here is why I don’t believe that God exists…” He then gives you his reasoned case for not believing in God. The formal debates that I have seen often come down to who best uses logic and reasoning skills, not which view is the truth.

There is a lot more to be said in defense of the existence of the Christian God. I just list a few things to keep in mind. If you are going to read these books, do not put your “faith” in the Four Horsemen. Come with skepticism to their assertion that God does not exist, just as they come with skepticism about God’s existence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Journey or Destination?

My motto is that life is about the journey. That certainly doesn’t say everything about my life, but it is an attempt to focus my life on the present process of life, rather than the future destination. This is not to say that the destination is unimportant. Rather, the destination is important, especially for the Christian. It is good that we live in the light of our future heavenly union with Jesus. The Apostle Paul, for example, tells us to keep our minds on heavenly things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:1ff). The writer of Hebrews told us to fix our eyes on Jesus as we go though this life (Hebews 12:1,2). We are to keep the destination in mind because it helps us to be faithful through the thick and thin of life. And, it provides us with present joy to know that a divine union awaits us. However, the future does not exist, but the only thing that does exist on the time scale is the present. If we keep our attention on a future that does not yet exist we will miss the present which is all that does exist. This is hard for some of us to accept. I tend to be future oriented, or I tend to want to be somewhere other than where I am at the moment. Usually some idealized fantasy world that doesn’t include pain, struggles, and problems. So, my blog theme is an attempt to help me to focus on what I am doing right now. Jesus told us to not worry about the future, but to give our attention to one day at a time and one thing at a time. The future will take care of itself and it will come to us without any of our expectations or anxieties. Furthermore, the future will come to us as something far different than we plan or expect. This is the irony of being destination focused. It can be a wasteful exercise. We plan, worry, fret, play the future over in our mind as we want it to be, but it never unfolds as we plan. This does not mean we don’t prepare, plan, and set goals for the future, but it means that planning is “very” limited and overrated. We can have our heads so focused on the future that we miss the fullness of the moment and so not fully alive in the present. Recently, I listened to an interview on NPR of a neurosurgeon who had a stroke. The stroke took away her ability to think about the future or the past, but it left her with complete awareness of the present. She wrote a book about this and described how the present became a wonderful experience once she lost her ability to think about the past and the future. She was “completely” present. She described it as euphoric. She was able to fully engage and experience things that she missed before the stroke. Gradually, her perception of past and future returned, but she wanted to teach people through this book to embrace the present more fully. Our experience of the life that God has given us will more fully be enjoyed and useful once we become fully present.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Birth of Pax

We had our first llama birth of the season today. Click on the link below so that I can introduce you to her.

In Defense of Seekers

About 8 years ago a fellow track coach complained to me about one of his athletes. It seems that this athlete was missing some practices, doing poorly in school, and was generally too much of a free spirit to be coachable. Since I was a pastor at the time, my coaching colleague came to me to see if I could help control the boy. After telling me his problem with coaching the lad he vented his final criticism with disgust in his voice, “he’s always looking for something!” I knew exactly what he meant and he wasn’t referring to the boy looking for his missing running spikes. This boy was one of those “lost soul” types. They go by various names and descriptions: Browsers, Seekers, Lost Souls, Restless Souls. The problem with them is that they usually never change. How do I know? I am one of them. I have always been a Seeker and at the age of 50 I have resigned myself to the “mission” and “pleasure” of seeking. God knows I have tried to stop it, but it’s like trying to change a physical characteristic. Have you ever tried changing your hair color? You can dye your hair, but your true color will always come back. So it is with Seekers. My motto now is, “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

But, is there anything actually wrong with being a seeker? Well, to those who are the Certainty types, which I will call Certaintees, there is a lot that’s wrong with Seekers. Certaintees, the opposite of the Seeker, are sure of most everything and don’t like to question authority from which they derive their certainty. And, they certainly don’t want others questioning their certainty. They want loyal and dutiful followers who conform to the certainty of the Certaintee. Certaintees are not bad people, but just like Seekers they are hard wired to be what they are. It’s hard for Seekers to live in the realm of the Certaintee because they are seen as lightening rods of doubt, skepticism and antiauthoritarianism. There is a fear that the Seeker will eventually upset the apple cart. And, they often will! Can Seekers and Certaintees cohabitate in peace? I believe they can, but an ethic of grace and peace must be at the heart of both types of individuals. The Seeker, for all his desire to know the truth, can deform his restless heart in to a dragnet that would take everyone around him in to his neurotic pool of doubt. The Certaintee also has his issues. He can become corrupt with a power-wielding narcissim; crushing and demoralizing all who oppose him. But don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing for a permanent rift between Seekers and Certaintees. One of the beautiful reasons that Seekers and Certaintees ought to cohabitate is that they can bring their strengths in to a common arena for the benefit of each other. The Seeker can help the Certaintee to look outside his box of certainty to see the prisim of truth. The Certaintee can help the Seeker by bringing him down to earth, out of the cloud of unknowing, by showing him that he can rest in the truth that can be known. Jesus spoke important words for both the Seeker and the Certaintee, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” Both the Seeker and the Certaintee need the focal point of God in place of the Seekers skepticism and the Certaintees Absolutism.



Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review: "A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam", By Karen Armstrong

I would prefer the subtitle, Man’s Quest to Interpret God. But then, that assumes there is an objective God that one can interpret, which is a God Armstrong does not acknowledge. It is not clear from the book what Armstrong even believes about God, but it is clear that she is steeped in God. What Armstrong does in this sweeping account of the 4000 year history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is unfold the countless conceptions that people have had about God over the course of 4000 years. This is the best “bare bones” historical read on religion I have enjoyed since reading Kenneth Lattourette’s, "History of Christianity". Armstrong is clearly a monkish scholar, having layed out a 4000 year history with such comprehensive, yet intimate knowledge of the subject, that you can imagine her sitting at her desk year after lonely year preparing this work. Her account of Man’s quest to understand and know God appears at first to be remarkably dispassionate and unbiased. She is careful and faithful to the task of unfolding all the relevant data. She doesn’t take sides, but gives fair and equal time to the development of all the known ideas about God within these three religions. Her impartial cause is likely aided by the fact that she was once a cloistered nun who gave up her habit and Catholic Faith for the equally austere but detached world of the historical writer. She seems to understand the God of Man, but she is mindful to keep a scholar's distance from Him. However, for all her impartiality, no one is completely unbiased when writing history. So it is with Armstrong that you find her developing interpretive “themes” of the historical data.

One such thematic interpretation is her recurring interest in showing the interaction between the Zeitgeist (“Spirit of the Age”) and one’s conception of God. We all know that people are influenced by the times in which they live and Armstrong does a fabulous job showing these influences upon humankind's understanding of God. A case in point is the influence of Greek philosophy upon the early Christian writers and subsequent development of the organized Church. She displays that in history there isn’t any conception of God apart from the historical, cultural and social setting of the time. Her message is that God, therefore, is a product of the times; a human creation.

A second theme is her interest in showing us the startling relationship between contemporaneous religions at each critical point in history. For example, she makes an insightful observation that Jesus and Buddhism brought about a like-minded kind of faith at the same period of history, yet in different and independent regions of the world. The Buddhist bodhisattvas was similar to the Christian devotion to Jesus in that both were a movement for the masses without distinction to socio-economic class. This was something new. She is adept at showing these developing ideas of God. In more recent times, such as in the period of the 18th century Enlightenment, Christianity became extremely individualized and pietistic, which was described as the “Great Awakening”. What Christians today may not know is that while Christians then were experiencing the Great Awakening, Judaism was enjoying its own “awakening” with the inception of Hasidism. As she draws these parallels between contemporaneous religions the reader’s take away is that the human quest to know God follows mankind's evolutionary path.

A third theme is the biggest take away of them all; God is evolving and we need to create a God suitable for our Zeitgeist. She writes on page 84, “All religions change and develop. If they do not, they will become obsolete.” If anything is clear about Armstrong’s message in this book, it is that man’s understanding of God has evolved through time in such a way that God has grown with man. And, God will necessarily continue to evolve as does humankind. In her last chapter, entitled, “Does God Have A Future?” she seeks to bring our thinking to a place where we can both understand religion’s potential for good and bad upon society and our need for a God suitable to the times in which we live. The question is, what will God look like in the 21st century? She closes the book with these final words, “…if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.” This interpretation of God in relationship to our Zeitgeist contrasts with the New Atheists, such as Hitchens and Harris, who advocate for Atheism as the only solution for mankind in this age. But, Armstong insightfully disagrees. She writes on page 362, "Like sexuality, religion is a human need that affects life at every level. If suppressed, the results are likely to be as explosive and destructive as any severe sexual repression." My own prediction is that in this shrinking world, God will thrive. But He will do so in a theological climate of reconciliation, ecumenicism, and universalism.

In general, I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in a great overall history of religion. In particular, I would recommend that Christians read this book for no other reason than seeing the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and especially Islam. While the book is comprehensive it is not superficial. You will come away with a solid understanding of the origin and development of each of these religions.


Joe Staub