Friday, 30 September 2016

Let's extinguish the flames of the god of the gaps

".... so how can you explain X, then?!"

And so concludes the unthinking Christian apologist. He thinks he is cleverly guiding folk toward an inevitable fact, that God is the cause of X because no-one can come close to explaining X in his day and age. Approaching the question from the faith perspective seems to make X just so blindingly obvious. X is a Gap in knowledge. Let's hold on to that word "blind" word for a moment. If it were so blindingly obvious, then we can see why the only reason very intelligent - and let's grant them some reasonable moral standing too - people could NOT see that self-evident divine explanation, is that must have been spiritually blinded, right? Here not only does the faith provide a dangerous logic loop (you could literally prove whatever you fancied), but it has  other poisonous side-effects.

All those Christians who are cheering along this methodology are in fact, without realising it, welcoming the highly toxic GOD OF THE GAPS into Christianity. Let's call him GG. GG only **really** acts when he does so directly, working through agents or over colossal expanses of time really is not so cool to be an impressive god. The Bible has stacks of counter examples to that claim, however - thus the apologist appeals to his rubbish logic over and against the far more profound shape of the inspired book he seems to have forgotten about. He blinds believers, and any converts to his perspective, to a god who is God of the Whole, of the Bible and of the cosmos, without whom everything would just collapse. Since the apologist is in the business of blinding, he goes a step further. He unwittingly has an infuriating tendency to label anything coincidental "miraculous". Finally, he unwittingly sows potentially catastrophic seeds of future **doubt** into his listeners, because once scientific consensus affects majority opinion to actually provide credible explanations on a certain point, church stances on those issues inevitably, albeit awkwardly, tend to negotiate their way towards it. I am amazed to see even in the generation transition I have witnessed just how many more Christians do not want to bury their heads in the fossil-filled sand and ignore evolution theory any more. It's not going away.

Multiverse options are also increasing their presence in mainstream consciousness at what seems to be to be an exponential rate. A majority of scientists agree that a theory of this type is correct. The most open and cutting-edge Christian media I listen to is engaging with these ideas, I am glad to hear. But given that GG has yet to be put into extinction, we cannot expect any real openness to how TG (True God) might have gone about his work, proven by some still shamefully brandish their 6000 year-old universe theories, and many more simply wishing this issue doesn't concern their Christian faith.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Phenomenal Podcast week

Hi everyone.
For the last couple of days I have just been marvelling at the quality of some podcasts out there that overlap with the theme of this blog, Faith and Scripture. This week in particular has just been phenomenal. So good, in fact I'd like to share some summaries here and provide you with the links.

* Unbelievable: Live! in California: Ryan Bell & Sean McDowell on ‘Why I am an atheist / Why I am a Christian’. Particularly high-level, well-mannered and good-humoured even by Unbelievable standards, raising many interesting questions.

* Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig): Questions on the Moral Argument and Animal Suffering. See below.

* The Robcast (Rob Bell): Wisdom part 3: You the Steward. This is phenomenal. If you can only listen to one, listen to this one.

* Trinities: both part 1 and part 2 of the Larry Hurtado interview on his latest book, Destroyer of the gods. I'm a massive Larry Hurtado fan, so I was always going to be lapping this up. He is typically excellent at reconstructing the early societal dynamics affecting and affected by this new aggressively evangelistic religion we now call "Christianity".

Let's start with the second one. As I listened to Craig, I found myself disagreeing with a few of the things that he shared, which is rare.

In this short podcast, Craig answers two questioners (although it amounts to considerably more than two questions). The first question pertains to the distinction between how we acquire moral values & duties, and the fact that there appear to be moral absolutes, whatever our path to discovering those truths. Craig's moral argument on which others lean too (including CS Lewis) is that even the presence of evil in the world points toward the polar opposite, good, which has to be anchored to an unshakable source, God himself.

Another question is: how much knowledge is required about Christ for salvation? Craig admits it's a very difficult question to resolve, which of course reminded me about Trinity reflections (e.g. could Philip have explained the doctrines of the two natures of Christ and the Trinity to the Ethiopian eunuch?). The examples here, however, turn around minor or major description variations of Jesus. Craig doesn't define what is a major or minor detail might be, but does cite Paul in Romans 10:9

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Another questioner really appealed to me. Here's his questions.
1) How can I know I know? Craig's reassurances about someone who is struggling and grappling does have faith, but needs to be sure of implementation of good spiritual practices. Also: looking at the positive evidence for bolstering faith (apologetics). I liked that response, although I don't think part 2 really applied to this guy.

2) Why are demons allowed to deceive us? Craig: demons also have free will, don't rob us of free will either, except in extreme cases.

3) There seems to be so much senseless suffering in the animal kingdom... couldn't God have made the nutrients we need from non-living things that can't feel pain? Craig now does two things, and doesn't do one other thing. The thing he doesn't do is point out the mega-obvious point that God does not seem to have made us dependent on "animal nutrients"! Of the two points he does make, one is justified. He differentiates the instinctive avoidance by low-level lifeforms, such as ants or amoebas, of harmful stimuli from other creatures, like dears and zebras. These more sophisticated creatures, he claims, do sense pain. Presumably, we have probably hooked up animals to neurological testing on this and compared it to human pain responses and seen a bunch of similarity. The difference, for Craig, is that humans are aware that they are suffering (i.e. they sense that they sense pain). Other animals don't have this developed sense of self-awareness.

In my view, this has to be an unacceptable simplification of the animal kingdom, of which we are most certainly a significant step removed from the rest with regard to general self-awareness - but does pain - or all types of pain - automatically fall into this category? First, it has to be a sliding scale. It cannot be amoeba, zebra, human. Especially bearing in mind that you have young human children and severely mentally disabled or brain-damaged people who probably don't have greater - maybe even less - self-awareness than the most intelligent elephants. Check out this incredible video of an elephant painting an elephant holding a flower! (Please note, however, that this is not pure creative genius)

Second, it is not at all clear to me that in a sudden response to pain, the human is responding in a distanced self-aware manner. In sudden pain, the person will generally emit a "aarrgh", and not a considered or internalised "gosh I am sensing pain right now". It is precisely in moments of severe duress like this that we are less distanced from other creatures.

Craig's "blind sight" illustration is very interesting, but still far too discrete. Unfortunately, he fails to point out that the condition does result from biological defections.

However, it's not clear that there would be no or less suffering if there were only herbivores. Here - and maybe I have only ever heard Craig on his subjects he is more specialist in - he seems to step into a realm of total and unconvincing unknowns. He now asserts that in this other world that God could-but-couldn't-have created, the herbivores would end up having to compete for the remaining vegetation, potentially killing each other. That is ludicrous. Of course God could create a world in which there were a sustainable level of vegetation for the herbivores! Either way, an ecosystem with herbivores only, or a mix with carnivores, if it has demographic expansion, could eventually reach its capacity on a limited planet. But that's an entirely separate point!

That might sound petty. But there is something deeper lurking in Craig's thinking that is worth bringing out: this is the only world that could  have existed. Take it a step further (as he indeed does): this is the only world that God could have created. Somehow, he connects this to the incredible expansion of Christian belief after terrible evils like Tsunamis as some kind of proof of the point he is obscurely making.

I have no comment on the far greater rate of growth of Christianity after natural evils (tsunamis, earthquakes), but it certainly didn't serve to save Craig's weak answer on the animal kingdom.

4) Why did God transmit his message to Moses one way, knowing that after Darwin a more convincing version would develop...
Here Craig is back to his usual excellent self. Is the Genesis narrative literal of figuratively? "There are indications in the text itself wholly apart from modern science that this is not supposed to be taken as a literal 24 hour-day creation week, and we don't know that the ancient Hebrew did understand it literally..."
He then provides fascinating evidence from an equivalent ancient Egyptian creation story, which said that each night the world reverted to the primordial ocean. Did no ancient Egyptian ever notice that actually that didn't literally happen every night?! Excellent point. I'd love to see the reference.
Literalistic reading of the creation timings could be a modern interpolation.
I loved the line: who knows what science will be saying 1000 years from now?! Doesn't that just blow your mind? What about 5000? Or 10000? The point here is though is to ask what is the point of this Genesis passage? It is to point out that the glorious creation - as beautiful as it is - is not to be worshiped, like the surrounding peoples do, for they are created like we are. This remains to be relevant.

5) What would disprove God?
I've heard this several times, yet I am not convinced that this has dawned on most involved in debates on this question, but Craig highlights that the classic "problem of Evil" is recognised to no longer hold sway by both theists and atheists (see here also). You cannot say that God and evil cannot co-exist.

6) If  God could create a world in which a maximum number of people come to him that has evil in it, why not create a world in which there is no evil but that same number come to him?
Apparently: it might not be feasible for God to create such a world (excluding a ridiculous example of a 2-minute universe that Craig gives, but that was hardly the maximum, more of a maximum percentage). Craig disappointed me on this question, for some of the same reasons as he did on the animal suffering question. He reinterprets the question to mean those same people somehow plucked from our world and inserted into another world. The questioner didn't say that.

Grace and peace :)

Monday, 12 September 2016

Beauty and science

Everyone doubts, I think. The strength for me is learning to doubt our doubts, or at least some of them, because they can be fuelled by new information from folk who are, just like us, searching for meaning and truth without having any perfect access to it all.

For a few years, I have also recognised what I often call a couple of "pillars" to help support my faith in times of doubt. The first is the incredible experience for me of the beauty in the world around us. The first words both my children heard as they were born were Welcome to God's world, or something like that. It's breathtakingly beautiful in places, really close up, medium range, and fully zoomed out too. My second pillar has been the experience of God's grace in my life through people who treat me much better than my behaviour or attitude merit. This "Agape" love is pretty indescribable when you experience it. But as much as I still value my two "pillars", we need to be careful, I think, to avoid theologies that go along the lines of "I can't explain something positive, so it's God", the famous God of the gaps problem.

We should remember that so much of what we see God do he chooses to do, according to the Bible, indirectly. Even in my agape love experience, it is unlikely that I could fathom how God loves me in this way without experiencing this same kind of love through others. And let's certainly not go down the "there is no such thing as coincidence" fallacy! But that's probably a post for another day.

For now, I need to think a bit more about the notion of beauty (it's been on my mind for quite some time), because it is obviously unthinkable that the scientific world have no explanation for why we might have evolved to perceive things as desirable even if the pleasure they elicit in us today is of no basic physiological benefit. This neuro-scientist, Anjan Chatterjee, has a good crack at it, and maybe sometime I'll get round to reading his book. I have now removed the embedded video as it was stuck on autoplay. Please enjoy it here.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The function of the kidneys

On my previous post we looked at the verses in the Old Testament that use the word for "kidneys" as a symbol to express a part of a person that is deep down and central to them. Thus far that might seem a little vague - surely just a synonym for "heart", why must we assume that the Hebrew authors meant anything else? Because we saw that the very word for heart is used in those same verses to mean another aspect of the person. In those instances we noticed two rather strange phenomena.

Firstly, the use of the translation "mind" in English. That is odd because the kidneys seem to be capable of holding strong emotion, which in English would be closer to the heart.

Secondly, the switching of the "heart" and "mind" in English to create (in my view) alignment with action of the Son of God in Revelation, especially if the Old Testament verse includes the action of searching.

So the Hebrew categories are probably different to ours. We still haven't got to the Hebrew word traditionally translated "soul", but let us try and get a better feeling for the heart and kidney categories by looking closer at the supporting language and actions.

So let us round up what "the kidneys" do:
- faint/fail/are consumed (the exact verb used in Job 19:27, כּלוּ - ka lah is predominantly linked with eyes "failing" and smoke "vanishing"). NIV gave yearning. The word has to be closer to this consistent idea of being "finished up" and used more in this way elsewhere. Further, the context needs to allow for it - Job is not expressing his deepest love for his God (or redeemer), but rather that he is being persecuted to an unbearable point by God (verse 22) that goes beyond the physical sufferings.
- are tried/probed/examined (as is the heart) [Ps 7:9 and Jer 11:20, 20:12], although Jeremiah 17:10 has hoker H2713 (searching) for Yahweh's reserved action for hearts while He keeps trying/probing/examining bohen H974 for the kidneys.
- instruct/discipline/chastise (as opposed to Yahweh who counsels) [Ps 16:7]
- are a place in which the person can be pierced/pricked (as opposed to the heart being grieved) [Ps 73:21]
- the person's primitive beginning. I already gave some comments on Ps 139:13 on the previous point, and I remain quite convinced. The psalmist also appears to be using repetition by following up kilyotay with you knit me together in my mother's womb. To begin with when God made the most central parts of me, those parts were all there were of me. This would obviously need to be investigated much more fully, but it could be that this represented the biological developmental understanding of the day. In particular (as gruesome as this sounds), research could examine if any ancient texts use kidney language to refer to miscarriages or stillborn children.
- rejoice [Pr 23:16] (as can the heart, see Ps 28:7)
- an inner place in which Yahweh can or cannot be located, independently of Yahweh's presence on a  person's lips and His role in planting and establishing that person [Jer 12:2]. Compare with the similar formulation in Isaiah 29:13, where the heart (leb) is far from God (cited by Jesus).

How could we combine these kidney references?
For the Israelites, we could say, that the kidneys are the fundamental and primitive organs from which Yahweh creates humans, which He will continue to examine and in which He would like to be - within the human life source. Functionally speaking, my picture thus far of the Israelite perspective is that the kidneys can hurt in a way similar to how we see a human conscience functioning, punishing the person with some guilty feeling about a decision or behaviour, while also able to cause the person to sense triumph and rejoicing - either way, some sort of emotive response about a completed performance.

So there we have our kidneys - I hope it was helpful. Clearly there is overlap with heart and probably with "soul" too, although the preference of some translations for "mind" seems questionable to me as this is too closely tied in our modern understanding to brains. Hopefully I will be able to map the heart and soul too before long.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Hearts and souls... and kidneys!

Yesterday's talk by Rob Bell committed me to looking at the Hebrew underlying our "heart-talk". As I have been preparing my Psalms meditation (hopefully version 1.0 ready by Christmas, in English, French and Arabic), it has been increasingly apparent to me that there is a Biblical tradition that is dying in modern translations. They are tending to lose some of the nuances preserved in Hebrew that express the human condition and composition that is bourn out of a deep process of inner wrestling on the part of the psalmists. As I ran listening to Rob's heart talk (excellent heart talk), I was reminded of this need to look under the bonnet. So here we go, and it's all about kidneys!

kilyah (כִּלְיָה) H3629. This word literally means kidneys, but is used symbolically to mean something approximating the inner man, or some aspect of the inner human being in Job (once), in Psalms (five times), once in Proverbs and four times in Jeremiah. Total: 11. As we will see, there is another word used for heart, that is used much more frequently, so it is really worth trying to see what flavour these symbolic "kidneys" bring to the mix of the Hebrew perspective of who we are. As we go through the 11, we will see that it is probably not a helpful translation to use "heart", which is unfortunately how we will kick off:

Job 19:27 is translated by the NIV with "heart":

I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns [kidneys yearn] within me!

The next concordance entry (Psalm 7:9, but also 26:2, 73:21, Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, 20:12) of interest to us shows immediately how this kidney thing creates issues when trying to use "heart" to replace it, because kilyah is placed right alongside leb, the main Hebrew word for heart (99 [H3820] + 33 [H3824] = 132 occurrences in Psalms alone)!, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts.

The psalm actually says "... who probes hearts (leb) and kidneys (kilyah)". The issue here is that the same translators who wanted to translate kilyah with "heart" can't do that here, otherwise you end up with a God who probes hearts and hearts. Since the Job author has the kidneys yearning, it seems at first glance that either mind is not the most suitable translation here, that the "yearning" of Job is misleading, or that despite its limited symbolic use, kilyah somehow trumps leb here in Psalm 7:9. In this last scenario, the translators have allowed kilyah to be translated heart, and leb steps aside to become "mind". But that's highly unlikely. So why might translators invert the order if both the Hebrew and the subsequent LXX both have it in the order of hearts then kidneys? The answer, I suspect, is actually in Revelation 2:23 - translators wish to create extra alignment with the word order assigned to the function of the Son of God as expressed in the final book of the Bible. Regardless, Psalm 7:9 shows that both the kidneys and the heart are deep inner spaces into which the God Yahweh has and wants access.

Psalm 16:7 states: "I will praise Yahweh, who counsels me; even at night my heart (kilyah) instructs me." No obvious emotion here, although note that this "instructing" that the kidneys are doing carries more critical, chastising overtones than Yahweh's counselling. If this self-instruction process integrates "feeling guilty" about something, then it could also overlap with what we call "conscience".

Let us now look at Psalm 73:21's use of this kidney word, kilyah:

When my heart [lebab] was grieved and my spirit [kilyah] embittered

Here the NIV may be interweaving the Greek translation of the Hebrew with the Hebrew itself, because this embittering, as far as I can tell is absent from the Hebrew, which has the kidneys being pierced. So what does the LXX say? Along with some of the other research I am doing in the Greek translation of the Psalms, this verse contributes to the sense of professional respect I feel for these translators (even though exegetically speaking, they should be maintained as rigorously as possible in a downstream position with regards to source meaning). In the LXX, it faithfully keeps the word "heart" with the familiar-looking kardia. It then borrows the symbolism from the second Hebrew segment and has this heart being "enflamed" (exekauthē-ἐξεκαύθη) rather going down the "grieved" route. Next, the kidneys are KEPT in the Greek (as nephroi-νεφροί) and their attached verb removes the piercing and replaces with the idea of alteration. There is certainly more going on here, but let us just note with some interest that the idea of kidneys being associated with a place where conscience can be at work is distinctly possible. Where is that place?

Psalm 139:13 is mega-famous, and rightly avoids the kidneys word being translated "heart":

For you created my inmost being [kilyah kilyah]; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Now that's interesting. This repetition has to be significant and reinforces the idea of the kidneys being symbolically stressed, but is it really "inner parts"? I think that's right. The psalmist here is kind of saying to Yahweh: you created that centre of centres (if - that is - we accept the movement of going in). Another plausible alternative to my mind would be the idea of depth. Note that the psalmist is not saying leb leb (the heart of my heart), he is saying kilyah kilyah. Biology in the first millennium BC would not have been amazing, but they knew what and where a heart was and they knew where the kidneys were.

Look where the heart is:

Now look where the kidneys are:

Not only lower than the heart, the kidneys are also deeper down the torso than even the stomach. In perspective of the rest of the body, not only are they more central, they are also lower. Ancient peoples would have had an idea about the role of the heart. But what on earth are those kidney things for? The context of this 139th psalm is Yahweh's greatness with respect to his wonderful creation in man, whom he brought fourth. That bringing fourth obviously happened in the mother's womb. We're left to imagine with the psalmist, looking at the very start of God's creation of the baby foetus, what that might look like, and guess what - kidney language is right there. It's speculation here, but could we not imagine that the kidneys are seen as central and even the source to human life?

Proverbs 23:16 also has a kilyah kilyah repetition (my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right), this time associated with the emotion of rejoicing and exultation.

OK our last port of call for symbolic kidneys is the prophetic book, Jeremiah. 11:20 reads: But you, Almighty Yahweh, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind. And so, yet again, we get the curious inversion of the Hebrew word order, which goes kilyah and leb (see comment above on Psalm 7:9).

Jeremiah 12:2, on the other hand, is really quite sad. You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts. That deep inner space represented by the kidneys has become a Yahweh-free zone.

Jeremiah 17:10 could provide further insight into the heart/kidney distinction, but it will probably have to wait until the next blog post: I, Yahweh, search the heart and examine the mind. Jeremiah has Yahweh doing one action to the heart (in Hebrew this searching-action is chaqar, H2713) and a different action to the kidneys (bachan, H974). Fortunately, the word order is respected on this occasion, which provides further evidence of my Revelation 2 alignment hypothesis I mentioned above. The final Old Testament kidneys reference of interest to us is Jeremiah 20:12, which is a copy-paste of Psalm 7:9 - the same comments above apply here too.

Note that there is thus-far no confusion or parallelism with the key word, soul, nephesh in Hebrew. We will see at some future point that this word is much more loaded with feeling and emotion and movement than the metaphysical "soul"-language came to mean in recent times.

Please also note: all NIV citations today, unless otherwise stated, are from the modern revised NIV usually copyrighted 2011, with my substitutions of Yahweh for "the LORD".

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Hearts and souls

I was off running today - gently and off-road in some light-weight shoes. I wound my way through the burnt out remains of a hillside recently gutted by fire. It was quite a liberating experience as with a lot of that destruction, there is also a lot of space to move around in that normally would require runners and walkers to stay closer to paths. It was also liberating because I was listening to Rob Bell talk about the heart, which you can (read: should) check here: Welcome to your heart

Part way through, this triggered this response from me, where I basically feel a need to do some Hebrew-checking on the words underlying "heart" (featured heavily in Bell's teaching) and "soul" (not mentioned once). It's only a couple of a minutes, totally unrehearsed and unprepared, but it's while running, and I love diversity!

Here's a couple of other piccies from the same sortie:

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Another opportunity to push Ehrman on John

Another opportunity has arisen to quiz Bart Ehrman on his confusing presentation of John's Christology. My previous efforts, to which he did not respond, you could read here, but were echoed and encouraged elsewhere. See also another correspondence with him here. You can't help but feel he is dodging the issue a bit. Here's the latest, from his post concerning the plurality of theological perspective in the New Testament, entitled: Different Ways of Describing the Theology of the New Testament (I agree with him that it differs internally more than systematic theologians like to permit, but that's not the point) (sorry, part of his post will not be visible if you are not a subscriber to his blog).

Bart wrote, typically, that for John: "Christ is a divine figure who is equal with God who has come from God to reveal the truth that can bring eternal life". Ehrman likes to contrast John's Christology with a radically different perspective from Mark or Luke, make John's a huge leap toward 4th century doctrinal solutions.

I responded: Dr Ehrman, do you not think it is actually possible that John is addressing a real or potential **misconception** within his community that Christ was equal with God, when he has Jesus saying that he is going to the Father, because he (the Father) is greater than him (Jesus)?

Bart responded: I think instead that it’s very complicated, that John incorporated traditions that emerged at different periods in his community’s history, and these traditions are sometimes at odds, christologically.

I responded: In which case (still thinking about your original statement), would it be more accurate (and wordy) to say that John incorporates a plurality of traditions, some of which affirm Christ’s equality with God and others that refute it? Personally, I would see this as too detached and inconsistent for John whose views I think you would agree are omnipresent.

From my experience, I'd say it is unlikely that he will continue the conversation further. But hopefully you get the point I keep trying to expose. What I meant by this final sentence that is not adequate to retreat back from the initial assertion about John see's Jesus as equal with God (and on previous occasions, Bart has just flat out declared that for John, "Jesus is God", something that even some relatively conservative evangelical scholars are hesitant to express in these terms) with talk of John just incorporating multiple traditions. John is not simply gathering diverse materials about Jesus. Unlike the synoptics that are based on textual sources (or at least Matthew and Luke), John is totally fresh and the content shaped by its strong theological message. Unlike what Ehrman says about the author of John (he knows nothing of the local context and was not at all an eyewitness or connected to any eye-witnesses), I would say some of the specific details in John's gospel show that this is either who it is traditionally connected with (son of Zebedee), or more likely, someone intimately connected with that resulting circle (I actually have a pet theory/speculation that John had recently died at the point of the writing of John's gospel, for the exact and perhaps commissioned purpose of not losing this teaching).

The point is that the author cannot be saying just that Christ is equal with God if he explicitly has Jesus saying that he is not equal with the Father. Logically then it is either

a) Jesus is both equal and not equal (somehow)
b) Jesus is not equal.

The author is not writing a compendium of different traditions. He's going for it and even explicitly writes down why it was written down this way John 20:31.

Let's see if Bart does answer though, maybe he can give the further clarification I and others have found he has often lacked on John.