Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman Slips Into the Darkness...

I will never forget the chess match with death in Ingmar Bergman's movie The Seventh Seal. I watched it many years ago, and then again just a year ago. It's bleak, nihilistic atmosphere proved a foil for my theistic worldview. I remember thinking, if there is no God, then life looks like a Bergman movie, and religious people are "heroic" quixotic individuals sparring with windmills. (Watch the chess match here.)

Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89.

One report today writes: "When the news broke that Ingmar Bergman had died on the lonely and windswept island of Faro, off the coast of Sweden, it seemed like an appropriately tragic spot. Bergman spent a lifetime creating lonely and windswept movies: a cinema of inner life in which man was tormented by his relationship with women and with God."

In his autobiography Bergman wrote, re. God: "I have struggled all my life with a tormented and joyless relationship with God. Faith and lack of faith, punishment, grace and rejection, all were real to me, all were imperative. My prayers stank of anguish, entreaty, trust, loathing and despair. God spoke, God said nothing. Do not turn from Thy face. The lost hours of that operation provided me with a calming message. You were born without purpose, you live without meaning, living is its own meaning. When you die, you are extinguished. From being you will be transformed to non-being. A god does not necessarily dwell among our capricious atoms. This insight has brought with it a certain security that has resolutely eliminated anguish and tumult, though on the other hand I have never denied my second (or first) life, that of the spirit."

Bergman was married five times and had many sexual liaisons with the leading actresses in his films. He is considered to be one of the greatest, if not even the greatest, film-maker of all time. When I read of his death today I experienced a sense of loss, like the loss of an old friend. I found, in his films, an authentic representation of his experience of the non-response of God to his searching and prayers. I don't personally affirm his conclusions, but I do find his work valuable, especially when I hear "atheists" joyfully declare God's non-existence.

Friday, July 27, 2007

How Modernity & Postmodernity Distort the Gospel

One of my favorite websites is New Testament scholar Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed.
Scot put up a post today applauding Jon Wilson's book Why Church Matters. Chapter 7 of Wilson's book answers the question: "How have modernity and postmodernity distorted how we understand the gospel?"

Some quotes from Wilson:

“At these times, the church behaves as if the real mission of the church is to get people to a onetime event that ‘converts’ them to faith, erases their guilt, and guarantees their salvation for eternity.” “But everything in that sentence — converting to Christ, erasing guilt, and eternal salvation — is wrong, devastatingly wrong, when it is disconnected from the telos that gives it proper meaning and direction.”

McKnight writes: "Here’s one of my ideas about evangelism today: the single-most influential mistake made in evangelism is basing one’s appeal on the “advantage” or “benefit” or “reward” one gets if one believes. Not to deny that there are rewards, but watch Jesus preach. It is that we start there and work back to a reasonable, evocative, compelling set of steps that will allow someone to get that reward. It has to do with emphasis, and it has to do with how to shape disciple-focused evangelism."

That's good stuff! To read more see McKnight's Jesus Creed review of Wilson here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pinker's Dangerous Ideas and Meta-ethical Theories

Several years ago I read Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. Pinker is a brilliant person and a very good writer. And, he has really cool hair (I mean it). I was especially interested in his views on human free will given his atheistic materialistic philosophical assumptions. I remember finding his thoughts re. these things as the least persuasive and even incoherent logically. This (to me) logical incoherence is displayed in a recent article of his.

In the 7/16/07 Chicago Sun-Times Pinker writes "In defense of dangerous ideas: In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them."

What, specifically, are the religious "dangerous ideas" we need to talk about? They include:

Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Pinker lists about fifteen other "dangerous questions," such as:

a. Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?
b. Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

c. Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

If, a la Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology), all human behavior can be explained in terms of genetics, then the answer to (a) is yes, the answer to (b) is no, and the answer to (c) is yes.

He then adds: "Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas -- ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order."

This last sentence creates, for me, odd philosophical thoughts, like: If morality is only a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality," then what does it mean to say a "dangerous idea" is dangerous because it is "thought to corrode the prevailing moral order?" And who could care? It's very hard for me not to smell something going on with this kind of "thinking" that is logically incoherent. The options now seem to me to me: 1) it's not logically incoherent, thus I am wrong; 2) I only think it is logically incoherent because I am genetically predisposed to think so; 3) Pinker writes this way because he is genetically predisposed to do so; 4) and so on.

My point is: I need Pinker to develop a theory of morality. Because he writes something like this: "Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don't have the power to shape their children's personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one's children."

It would be "wrong on grounds of simple human decency...?" What the heck does that mean? And isn't it circular or, logically, if it forms an argument, question-begging? Is "right" and "wrong" grounded on "simple human decency?" But whose idea of SHD? Should I be expected to accept Pinker's ideas here?

"Morality" is all over Pinker's essay. He says that human clustering in coalitions is a "nasty habit"; it is "better" to be aware of the "truth" than be ignorant of it; "We know that the world is full of malevolent and callous people who will use any pretext to justify their bigotry or destructiveness"; and so on.

And look at this: "The moral order did not collapse when the Earth was shown not to be at the center of the solar system, and so it will survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works." So, please tell me about the "moral order," what it is and why I should accept it. Especially if "morality is just a product of the evolution of our brains." Isn't some kind of meta-ethical reasoning here necessary, one that precisely cannot be explained in terms of the material activity of our brains? And if my particular brain (and the brains of William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, et. al) is hard-wired to ask such things, then how is Pinker's brain exempt from genetic determinism?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ratzinger on the Kingdom of God

There's a helpful article in today's Christian Science Monitor on Pope Benedict's recent regress to pre-Vatican II days. (Thanks Bill for sending this my way!) Especially interesting to me is his take on the meaning of the "kingdom of heaven." Here's a quote from the article about this.

"Many theologians say the shifts under Pope Benedict aren't simply a small matter of rules, rituals, clarifications, and a tidying up of doctrine. Perhaps one of the most significant, though little noticed, changes has to do with the changing concept of the meaning of the kingdom of heaven. The current pope has a different vision of time and eschatology. Under Vatican II, it was accepted that the coming of the kingdom is possible to experience on Earth and not simply in the afterlife. Vatican II stressed concepts like "becoming," "change," and "newness," and championed social justice and liberty as linked to ideas of grace.

Pope Benedict has begun to roll back such ideas, says Mr. Flinn, the Catholic theologian at Washington University in St. Louis, and his theology is "pessimistic, in the sense that heaven and earth are separate concepts, and that Christ's kingdom can't be experienced here."

"It is the old vertical eschatology," Flinn says. "Liberal Catholics read the scriptures as saying the kingdom is already here, but not yet. The Vatican seems to be saying the kingdom is not yet, not yet, until the end of time, when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, the church is in charge, the pope is the vicar of Christ, and the church has the full truth.""

What's this about? What's going on here? Here's what I think.

  • The Pope does not have an adequate understanding of the term "kingdom of heaven" (aka "kingdom of God").

  • "Kingdom" does not here mean a place, but is best understood as the "rule" or "reign" of God.

  • If the kingdom is a place then of course "it can't be experienced here."

  • But viewing "kingdom" as a "place" does not serve to make sense of the kingdom ideas of Jesus.

  • The kingdom of heaven can be understood to be both now and future if by "kingdom" we mean the rule or reign of God.

  • To begin to study this see George Ladd's The Gospel of the Kingdom.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Most Important Biblical Archaeological Find in 100 Years?

Jeremiah 29:3 says: "Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon."

Now a clay tablet with cuneiform written on it that records a business transaction by Nergal-Sarsekim has been found. The tablet reads:

"(Regarding) 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon."

How important is this? The London Times says: "The British Museum [Wednesday] hailed a discovery within a modest clay tablet in its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archaeology—dramatic proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament."

The Telegraph says: "Michael Jursa … made what has been called the most important find in Biblical archaeology for 100 years, a discovery that supports the view that the historical books of the Old Testament are based on fact."

Christianity Today reports on it here.

Herod the Great's Tomb Discovered?

Check it out here in the July/August 2007 issue of Archaeology.

And here.

Ben Witherington comments on it here.

The Roman Catholic Church = the "True Church?"

The Vatican has put out a statement re. the Roman Catholic Church as "the true church," and other "churches" as "defective."

Here's the document.

Here's what I think is a very good non-Catholic response by Albert Mohler. I agree with Mohler that, when I heard about this, I was not at all surprised.

Here's, to me, the heart of the issue. The RC Church emphasizes historic documents coming out of their tradition more than they emphasize the New Testament teachings. Of course they believe such documents interpret the New Testament. But that, to me, is precisely the point.

Look how the Vatican document uses historic credal documents and official Vatican documents to support its reasoning. I, and many others like me, e.g., appreciate historical interpretations of Christianity, but look in the first place to Scripture. For me the footnotes would be Scriptures from the Bible, and supporting intepretations of those Scriptures.

The Vatican document has 20 footnotes, not one of them citing something from the New Testament, but all referencing RC documents. That is the issue.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Historical Existence of Jesus of Nazareth

I just pre-ordered Greg Boyd's forthcoming book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. The current pop-idea that Jesus never actually existed gets defeated here.

Here's's book description:

"Even mature Christians have trouble defending the person and divinity of Christ. The Jesus Legend builds a convincing interdisciplinary case for the unique and plausible position of Jesus in human history. He was real and his presence on the planet has been well-documented. The authors of the New Testament didn’t plant evidence, though each writer did tell the truth from a unique perspective. This book carefully investigates the Gospel portraits of Jesus—particularly the Synoptic Gospels—assessing what is reliable history and fictional legend. The authors contend that a cumulative case for the general reliability of the Synoptic Gospels can be made and boldly challenge those who question the veracity of the Jesus found there."

Listen to these reviews already being given Greg's book (co-written with Paul Eddy).

“This is one of the most important books on methodological issues in the study of Jesus and the Gospels to have appeared for a long time. It deserves to be widely read.” —Richard Bauckham, University of St. Andrews

“The Jesus Legend is the best book in its class. Eddy and Boyd demonstrate mastery of the disciplines essential for critical assessment of the Gospels and competent investigation of the historical Jesus. I recommend this book in the highest terms.” —Craig A. Evans, Acadia Divinity College; author of Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels “

A clearly written, carefully researched, and powerfully argued defense of the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels. What makes this book noteworthy is the careful treatment of underlying issues in historical methodology and philosophy. A pleasure to read and a wonderful resource for those who have encountered troubling skeptical claims about the Gospels.” —C. Stephen Evans, Baylor University

“I am gratified that my friends and colleagues Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd have taken my work as seriously as they have in this comprehensively researched book. I urge any reader of my books to read this one alongside them!” —Robert M. Price, Center for Inquiry Institute and fellow of the Jesus Seminar

“Eddy and Boyd have provided a thoroughly compelling cumulative argument—one of the very best available—for the reliability of the Synoptic Jesus tradition. Their book constitutes a superb treatment of the various issues, involving both fresh research and a brilliant synthesis of material from a variety of relevant disciplines.” —Craig S. Keener, Palmer Seminary

“Eddy and Boyd have surveyed technical and popular writing alike, in meticulous detail, and present what can be concluded responsibly about the trustworthiness of the Synoptic Gospels and the portraits of Jesus they contain. They compile a detailed and erudite case that supports Christian faith. Highly recommended!” —Craig L. Blomberg, Denver Seminary

“Well-written and organized, containing a masterful command of the literature. Eddy and Boyd show the difference between an open historical investigation of the life of Jesus and much of today’s fictional writing that claims to be historical research concerning the origin of Christianity. A very useful introduction for college and seminary students.” —Robert H. Stein, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Monday, July 09, 2007

The God Delusion #27: David Sloan Wilson's Critique of Dawkins

As we have seen, Dawkins's GD is woefully inadequate when it comes to understanding and critiqueing the philosophical arguments for the existence of God.

David Sloan Wilson, himself an atheist and evolutionary theorist, shows how Dawkins is also woefully inadequate when it come to religion and when it comes to an evolutionary understanding of religion. Here's the essay "Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About Religion in the current issue of Skeptic.

I'm mostly making this post as a way of referencing the DSW essay. But here's a few Wilson quotes to whet your appetite.

"The problem with Dawkins’ analysis, however, is that if he doesn’t get the facts about religion right, his diagnosis of the problems and proffered solutions won’t be right either. If the bump on the shark’s nose is an organ, you won’t get very far by thinking of it as a wart. That is why Dawkins’ diatribe against religion, however well-intentioned, is so deeply misinformed." (Emphasis mine)

"As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection."

"[E]conomist Samuel Bowles estimated that between-group selection was strong enough to promote the genetic evolution of altruism in our own species, exactly as envisioned by Darwin. These and many other examples, summarized by Edward O. Wilson and myself in a forthcoming review article, are ignored entirely by Dawkins, who continues to recite his mantra that the selective disadvantage of altruism within groups poses an insuperable problem for between-group selection."

"When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake."

To be fair, Wilson indicates areas where he agrees with Dawkins. But his critique is so devastating, striking at the core of an understanding of evolutionary theory and its application to the phenomenon of religion, that one wants now to ignore Dawkins on his "specialty"; viz., evolutionary theory. Whereas it is fairly easy to show how Dawkins is sophomoric when it comes to philosophical thinking about God, it appears he is the same on religion and misguided and even deceptive when it comes to evolution.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The American Prosperity Gospel Invades Africa

There is an excellent article at Christianity Today on the invasion of the American prosperity gospel in the African continent. Read it and be both informed and concerned.

It's fairly balanced. For example:

"David Oginde, senior pastor of the 10,000-member Nairobi Pentecostal Church, believes he could triple his membership by promising wealth. "But if that is all I am teaching, then I have lost the message," he says. "The kingdom of God is built on the Cross, not on bread and butter."

Oginde sometimes counsels Christians burned by health-and-wealth preachers. One student "planted" his school money as a seed offering, then was thrown out of college for not paying tuition. "I gave my money to God, but it has not come back," the student said. Oginde replied, gently, "You did not give your money to God."

Oginde warns that unethical preachers turn God's provision into "a sweepstakes," "distorting a good thing."

Still, both he and Ojo admit that many prosperity teachers do much good. Ojo says such pastors often inspire members to aim high, work hard, and avoid vices—and he sees Nigerians' standard of living improving. "God has been gracious to this country," he says. Oginde credits prosperity ministries for humanitarian work such as building schools and colleges, supplying food and medicine to the poor, and supporting HIV/AIDS prevention programs."

C.S. Lewis & the Myth of the Dying God

Some critique the Jesus story by saying there are historically antecedent stories of a dying and rising god.

Re. this, here's a thought from C.S. Lewis:

“In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. . . . The old myth of the Dying God . . . comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens— at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ [in other religions] . . . : they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Great Debate - God or Blind Nature?

I am interested in and excited about Internet Infidels' "Great Debate": "God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence."

The online debate-book has four sections. And, it employs excellent thinkers.

Section One is called "Mind and Will," and has point-counterpoint essays by atheist philosopher Andrew Melnyk and theist philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro. (Note: Goetz, along with William Lane Craig, were my Campus Crusade for Christ leaders when I was an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University.)

Section Two - whoaaa... look at this! Paul Draper and Alvin Plantinga debate "Evil and Evolution." Now that should be very high-powered and a lot of fun!

Section Three - Quentin Smith and Robin Collins on "Science and the Cosmos."

Section Four - John Schellenberg and Jeffrey Jordan on "Faith and Uncertainty."

Readers are allowed to submit questions to the authors on-line and add to the discussion - cool.

Only Section One is posted at this time. Melnyk presents a physicalist case for the human mind. Goetz and Taliaferro give their objections.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Audio Interview with William Lane Craig

Here's a very nice, and long, audio interview with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. Especially interesting are his comments on the atheism of Sam Harris. Here's a picture of Bill and his wife Jan. Many years ago I sang in their wedding.