Monday, April 30, 2012

The criminal arrogance of religion

Perhaps Karl Barth is the only theologian who could come up with such a stunning phrase.
In his commentary on "salvation" in Romans 1:16, Barth says
...our desire to comprehend the world in its relation to God, must proceed either from the criminal arrogance of religion or from that final apprehension of truth which lies beyond birth and death - the perception in other words, which proceeds from God outwards. When the problem is formulated thus, it is evident that, just as genuine coins are open to suspicion so long as false coins are in circulation, so the perception which proceeds outwards from God cannot have free course until the arrogance of religion be done away. 
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, page 37

Religion is man seeking to find God and earn favour with God through his own efforts and wisdom. The Gospel is God reaching out to wretched humans who have nothing to be proud of.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A common fallacy in arguments about the existence of God

Arguments for or against the existence of God seem to suffer from a common logical fallacy. It is important to remember that if A implies B then it does not follow that B implies A. It does follow that if B is not true then A cannot be true. But, if we disprove A we have not necessarily disproved B.
In different words, one must distinguish between the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be true.
Let me illustrate with a concrete example.
All German Shepherds are dogs. But not all dogs are German shepherds.
If we establish an animal is not a German shepherd we have not established that it is not a dog.

How does this play out in current debates about the existence of God?

Richard Dawkins destroys the argument from design which claims to establish the existence of God. Hence, he and many of his followers claim that he has shown that God does not exist. But, let us check the logic.
If the argument from design is valid then it follows that God exists.
Equivalently, if God does not exist then the argument cannot be valid.
However, the converse does not follow, i.e. if the argument is not valid it does not follow that God does not exist. All we can conclude is that the argument is not valid. This does NOT preclude the existence of God.

Now, let us look at some Christian responses to Dawkins.
If Dawkins is correct then God does not exist. Hence, if God exists Dawkins cannot be correct. Many flaws in Dawkins arguments have been pointed out. However, this does NOT establish that God exists. It just establishes that Dawkins arguments are weak.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where does God dwell, speak, and reconcile?

At church we have just started a sermon series on Romans and so I have been dipping into Karl Barth's great commentary. I have also been reading through Exodus which recounts construction of the Tabernacle, including the Mercy Seat.

Below is Barth's exegesis of Romans 3:25 [which he translates "Whom God set forth to be a covering of propitiation, through his faithfulness, by his blood"]. He notes that three things happened at the Mercy Seat:
  • God dwelt
  • God spoke
  • God reconciled people to himself
In the New Testament all of this happens in the person of Jesus.
"In the Old Testament cultus the covering of propitiation was the sheet of gold, overshadowed by the wings of the two-angel-figures (cherubim), which covered and marked the place where the contents of the ark, the oracles of God, were deposited (Exod. 25:17-21). In I Sam. 4:4, 2 Sam. 6:2, Ps. 80: 1, it is the place above which God himself dwells; in Exod. 25:22, Num. 7:89, it is the place from which God speaks to Moses; it is pre-eminently, however, the place, where, on the great Day of Atonement, the people were reconciled to God by the sprinkling of blood (Lev. 16:14-15). The analogy with Jesus is especially appropriate, because the mercy seat is no more than a particular, though very significant, place. By the express counsel of God, Jesus has been appointed from eternity as the place of reconciliation above which God dwells and from which he speaks; now, however, he occupies a position in time, in history, and in the presence of humanity"
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition, pp. 104-105.
As an aside I note that this passage illustrates just how "orthodox" and "conservative" Barth's theology was. He clearly saw atonement as central to theology.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A beautiful problem for atheism

The existence of evil and suffering present a problem for theism. How could a loving and benevolent God allow it? But, there is a flip side. Beauty presents a problem for atheism. Why do humans have such an affinity for and appreciation of beauty in both the natural world and human creations such as art and music?

John Horgan [best known as author of The End of Science] has an interesting blog post Can Science - Really Solve - the Problem of Beauty? on the Scientific American website. Aside: He has some amusing comments about Richard Dawkins' utilitarian view of these questions.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Barth on the righteousness of God

Karl Barth has the following commentary on Romans 1:17 which says that "in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God" is revealed":
In the Gospel is revealed the great, universal secret of the righteousness of God which presses upon every man of every rank.  In Christ the consistency of God with Himself—so grievously questioned throughout the whole world, among both Jews and Greeks—is brought to light and honored. 
This may be an allusion to Romans 3:26, "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
He then slams liberal theology:
What men on this side resurrection name ‘God’ is most characteristically not God.  Their ‘God’ does not redeem his creation, but allows free course to the unrighteousness of men; does not declare himself to be God, but is the complete affirmation of the course of the world and of men as it is.  This is intolerable, for, in spite of the highest honors we offer him for his adornment, he is, in fact, ‘No-God’.  The cry of revolt against such a god is nearer the truth than is the sophistry with which men attempt to justify him.  Only because they have nothing better, only because they lack the courage of despair, do the generality of men on this side resurrection avoid falling into blatant atheism. 
This is contrasted with the realism of the judgement and mercy found in Christ.
But in Christ God speaks as He is, and punishes the ‘No-God’ of all these falsehoods.  He affirms Himself by denying us as we are and the world as it is.  In Christ God offers Himself to be known as God beyond our trespasses, beyond time and things and men; to be known as the Redeemer of the prisoners, and consequently, as the meaning of all that is—in fact, as the Creator.  He acknowledges Himself to be our God by creating and maintaining the distance by which we are separated from Him; He displays His mercy by inaugurating His KRISIS [judgment] and bringing us under judgment.  He guarantees our salvation by willing to be God and to be known as God—in Christ; he justifies us by justifying Himself.
Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, page 40-41

The last sentence is looking again toward Romans 3:26, "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Work without a sabbath is slavery

When does work become idolatrous slavery? It is not just when one is not paid. It becomes slavery when there is no freedom to rest and to worship God. 

John Grisham's novels paint a brutal picture of young associates "slaving away" in large law firms and getting paid $300,000 per year. 

The passage below from Exodus 5 illustrates how the powerful can use work as a means to control "the masses". Don't let them rest! They might think for themselves. Worse, they may worship God!

But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!”The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labour at it and pay no regard to lying words.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Science and theology in Sri Lanka

In August I will be spending a week at Lanka Bible College (Colombo, Sri Lanka) teaching an intensive course on Science and Theology. I welcome any comments on my draft course outline.

Frivolous legalism

I just finished reading John Grisham's latest novel The Litigators. I am a big fan of his earlier novels but do think he is not really producing the quality he once did. This novel is an interesting story with amusing characters. As usual Grisham paints the legal profession and Corporate America in a very poor light. It is no wonder the US economy is in such a mess. So many resources (particularly highly gifted motivated and hard working people) are being wasted on frivolous legal activities rather than actually producing useful products and services.

I am currently reading through Exodus so here are a few relevant verses:

  “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.  Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.  And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

Exodus 23

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Barth and Rationality

I was honoured to be asked to write an endorsement for a forthcoming book, Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in theology by Paul La Montagne, to be published by Wipf and Stock. It is based on his doctoral dissertation from Princeton Theological Seminary. I read this a decade ago and it got me started on exploring the interaction of Barth's theology with the natural sciences.
Here is what I wrote. 
Karl Barth is a towering intellect of the twentieth century. This ground-breaking book is further evidence that Barth is important to academic disciplines beyond theology. Paul La Montagne’s work convinced me that Barth’s theology is particularly relevant to the dialogue between theology and the natural sciences. His work helped me to see significant similarities (and differences) between the epistemological issues raised by Barth’ theology and by quantum physics and by the limits of reductionism.
Ross McKenzie, Professor of Physics, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Plundering the Egyptians?

For the next meeting of the fortnightly theology reading group ("the Volfians") we are reading an article "Christian Poetics, Past and Present" by Donald T. Williams. It is reprinted in a volume, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Learning.

I am still reading and digesting the article, but I found interesting the quote below from Augustine, who seems to have had ambivalent views towards literature.
 Any statements made by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them. Like the treasures of the ancient Egyptians, who possessed not only idols and heavy burdens. . .but also vessels and ornaments of silver and gold, and clothes, which on leaving Egypt the people of Israel, in order to make better use of them, surreptitiously claim for themselves (they did this not on their own authority but at God’s command).... - similarly the branches of pagan learning contain not only false and superstitious fantasies... but also studies for liberated minds which are more appropriated for the service of the truth, and some very useful moral instruction... The treasures.. which were wickedly and harmfully in the service of demons must be removed by Christians... and applied to their true function, that of preaching the gospel.
Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Contrasting Joseph and Judah

I have just finished reading through Genesis. A striking issue is how to interpret the fact that Chapter 38 (recounting the incest of Judah with with his daughter leading to the birth of Perez) seems to be a break in the narrative of the life of Judah.
Is this editorial sloppiness or actually brilliance?

I go with the latter. Inserting this account there forces the reader to compare Judah's infidelity, incest, and involvement with a cult prostitute with the fidelity of his younger brother Joseph's. Although under pressure from Potiphar's wife to commit adultery Joseph did not and suffered for it.

Yet in spite of Judah's failings the line of Christ runs through Judah and Perez. YHWH is a God of mercy and grace who accepts and uses even the worst of men.

The top 5 regrets of the dying

The Guardian has an interesting article The top 5 regrets of the dying. Perhaps they are not surprising, but they are good reminders about some important things. I was also struck of the strong desire for forgiveness, again illustrating people have an innate sense of right and wrong.
I thank my wife for bringing the article to my attention.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Questions for Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins in currently in Australia for the Global Atheist Convention, and so attracting some media attention. Last night he was on a popular public television (ABC) show, Q & A, where he debated the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. There is a new website which asks some questions to Dawkins. It includes a video interview with me.

The first casualty of war is truth

My son and I enjoyed watching the movie Fair Game, based on the true story of CIA Agent Valerie Plame. Her "cover" was blown by the White House, after her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote a New York Times article contesting some of the "evidence" that was claimed to provide justification for the Iraq war.

It does have a pro-marriage statement. Couples need to stand together and not let others divide them. "They have taken everything from me, but I am not going to let them take away my marriage."

I also like the line, "Does the fact that I am yelling louder than you right now make my argument right."

The speech below at the end of the movie is particularly stirring (even to a non-American).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Taking a swing at politics

This past weekend my family watched Swing Vote, starring Kevin Costner. It is a harmless feel good silly movie about a U.S presidential election being determined by the vote of a single voter. He is a "loser" who is a single dad with a 12-year old daughter with a strong sense of civic responsibility. On the other hand, in all its silliness, at times it is good biting satire of political ambition and the process. It also highlights the pain of children with negligent parents.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Nothing to the argument

The New York Times Sunday Book Review has an excellent review of the book A Universe from Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing by Lawrence Krauss.
He is a theoretical physicist who is an outspoken atheist, often claiming science and religion are incompatible. The book has a glowing afterword by Richard Dawkins claiming the argument in the book presents serious problems for religious belief.

The reviewer is David Albert, a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He is scathing about the book, particularly for its philosophical naiveté. The book does not really solve any of the problems it claims to. Here is an extract where he points out how Krauss' notion of "nothing" and "something" in quantum physics is simplistic.
Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing. 
But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
The end of the review is interesting for its perspective on the superficiality of the New Atheism:
When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter sunday sermon

Tomorrow at church I am giving a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15, with the title, "Faith and labour that is not in vain." Here is the current version of my notes and the powerpoint slides.
I welcome comments and suggestions.

The outline is below

Frustration and pain
Gospel and resurrection (v. 1-11)
A futile faith (v. 12-34)
Resurrected bodies are not earthly bodies (v. 35-44)
A new identity (v. 45-49)
A glorious victory (v. 50-57)
Work in the LORD is not in vain (v. 58)
Two applications

In a slightly different twist, I will not exposit verses 52-54 but rather just play a recording of them being sung from the Messiah.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter is not spring time

In North America Easter occurs in spring time and so one sometimes hears parallels drawn between the new life of Easter Sunday with the new life occuring in nature (e.g. cute little puppy dogs). But are such parallels helpful and appropriate? [Not just because in Australia it is Autumn!]

I am preparing a sermon for Easter sunday, based on 1 Corinthians 15. I was reading the relevant section of Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline and found the following passage particularly interesting and relevant.
Easter is the breaking in of a new time and world in the existence of the man Jesus, who now begins a new life as the conqueror, as the victorious bearer, as the destroyer of the burden of man’s sin, which had been laid upon him. In this altered existence of His the first community saw not only a supernatural continuation of His previous life, but an entirely new life, that of the exalted Jesus Christ, and simultaneously the beginning of a new world. 
(The efforts to relate Easter to certain renewals, such as occur in creaturely life, say in spring or even in man’s awakening in the morning, and so on, are without any strength. Upon spring there inexorably follows a winter and upon the awakening a falling asleep. We have to do here with a cyclic movement of becoming new and old. But the becoming new at Easter is a becoming new once for all.)
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, page 113

Thursday, April 5, 2012

5 types of argument for the existence of God II

The group discussion on this topic a week ago was helpful to me. Here are a few additional thoughts.

The moral argument.
People have an innate sense of right and wrong. Where does that come from?
Related to this is that people have a very strong sense of justice. Even atheists who deny an absolute sense of morality cry out about injustices, to them or to others, and demand that justice be done.
Where does this sense of justice come from?
Humans also have a strong desire for forgiveness and redemption. Sometimes this is only on the subconscious level, but it can be a strong force in many lives, featuring in many secular movies.

The argument from religious experience.
God exists because I have experienced him.
An alternative version is that many people have (or claim to have) experienced God in some way. What is the basis for those experiences? Could it be that God actually does exist?

A weakness and oversight of the 5 traditional arguments is that they do not consider and argument, that I actually consider to be the strongest argument for the exsitence of God.
This is the argument from history and the New Testament. It can be argued to contain reliable eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. But, did he really rise from the dead? Consider how the lives of his disciples were transformed: from confused cowards to bold and courageous preachers who were willing to die for their belief that he did rise. A lie, conspiracy, or delusion is unlikely to produce such passion and perseverance.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why can Christian students rest?

Today I attended a function for international students (many postgraduates) at our church. After lunch there was a short bible study and talk on the concept of rest in the Old and New Testaments. I then gave a short talk on the anxiety that keeps us from rest and some practical advice for postgraduate students.

Unfortunately, some international students face a significant cultural problem when they do not receive adequate supervision and attention from their supervisors. In many of their home cultures is not appropriate for them to ask for regular weekly meetings or for their supervisor to read material (e.g. draft thesis chapters) in a timely manner. I encouraged them to me more assertive in communicating with their supervisors.