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 :)

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