Tag Archives: St Paul

Why bother with Apologetics? A short very personal answer

A few months ago a friend of mine asked a question I struggled to answer. The question was ‘Why bother with Apologetics?’ . My answer is in this post.

On Saturday morning I had an hour to kill in Guildford. So I spent it walking around Stoke Park and considering how to make Christian Apologetics real to my readers. I also spent time looking at the park, the trees, the people walking and running on the grass and the Cathedral on the hill in the distance. Then I thought about the way I see the world. Full of meaning and promise. Full of pattern and the joy of God’s creation around us. I love science so my view includes that too.

Then I thought – How would a true atheist see this scene? Very differently I think. In the pictures below I’ve tried to capture this.

Stoke park 1

Every year the BBC puts on a series of Christmas lectures aimed at young people interested in science. In one of these Richard Dawkins said the following:

The universe is nothing but a collection of atoms in motion, human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.

And that is it really. We live, apparently, in a world stripped of meaning. The grass, so carefully mowed to a huge lawn, is no more than self replicating small plants. The trees are just large plants which have a utility of keeping oxygen in our atmosphere. The cathedral is a completely pointless building built by delusional human beings who choose to believe in an imaginary ‘Sky God’.

And what about the young woman walking across the grass? I don’t know who she is or why she was there but Francis Crick (one of the discoverers of DNA) has something to say to her:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Which is pretty bleak. But I can hear my friend saying: ‘Does it really matter what a few academic scientists say?’. I’ll come back to that. But first I want to present the picture again.Stoke park 2

Its the same scene but understood completely differently. The trees are still using photosynthesis to survive and produce oxygen but they also create amazing patterns of light and colour, each one perfect and unique.

The young woman walking across the park still has DNA (which she may or may not use to replicate in other human beings), her brain is still made of nerve cells but she is able to grow and change and become so much more than just a human animal.

And the whole morning was so perfect: cool, bright and peaceful. There were quite a lot of people in the park: walking, running, chatting. It was as though God had packaged the whole thing up and offered it as a gift, perfect at that moment.

Before I get back to my friend’s question I want to talk about the Cathedral. I have to admit I knew very little about Guildford Cathedral before I wrote this post but I did a bit of research and discovered its remarkable history. The building was started in 1936 but was interrupted by the war. After the war there was very little money to complete it so a campaign was started to buy a brick. Each brick cost 2s 6d (12 1/2pence) and 200,000 of these were bought by all sorts of people, including the Queen but also including people who had very little to spare. The church was finally finished in 1961 and is a vibrant and living part of the community.

So, why does it matter when a group of Atheist academics declare that God doesn’t exist? It matters because it has become part of our culture here in the UK. Every culture has a source of information that people go to for their views on the world. In this country a large part of that role is taken up by TV stations but especially the BBC. I cannot remember ever seeing a program on the BBC that shows modern Christianity in a realistic, positive light. The only regular Christian program is ‘Songs of Praise’ which shows a soft focus, artificial image of Church which would certainly not tempt me to go. This leads to some curious ideas. Matthew Parris in the Times (25th June 2014) declared:

Most modern Christians and Jews, we surmised, don’t really believe their religions

As though this was the most self evident truth, not even worth discussing (this was especially unsettling as Matthew Parris is a writer I generally read and admire)

So we have a generation, with no church background, who are being told that faith in God is either an effect of belonging to a cultural minority or a kind of weak delusion that no sensible person should contemplate. Of course, thank God, there are some people, like myself and many of my family and friends, who manage to break through this barrier but many do not. And what are they left with? At best a faith in family and friends (which is not a bad thing, but can other human beings bear that weight alone?) or a muddled ideal of ‘self realisation’, or they are left with the first picture: that there is only matter, only ‘stuff’ and nothing else.

I’ve quoted a lot of people who don’t believe in Jesus but I want to wrap up with the immortal (well they have lasted almost 2,000 years without loosing any of their potency) words of St Paul:

 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

1 Corinthians 13: 12-13

In a world without God there is not a lot of trust in anything. The faith my parents had in progress and technology has proved a dead end. Nothing has sprung up to take its place.

Hope is too often replaced with the contents of a bottle or a packet of pills. Hope dies early in many people’s lives, once the first dream bubble has burst.

And love. We all, Christians and non-Christians, need to love and be loved. But the difference is that we know we are loved by God and that makes it easier to love other people. We can love them as the frail, imperfect human beings that they (and we) are, without expecting them to make our own life perfect.

So: Why bother with Apologetics? The Greek word ‘Apologia’ means defence and we need to learn to defend our faith against the attacks on it. We are not alone and, in academic circles, it seems the tide is turning against the New Atheist thinking. But it is a battle that will not be won until ordinary people know they are truly free to come and learn about Jesus.

Sources:

The atheist quotes are taken from:

God’s Undertaker. Has science buried God? by John C Lennox. This is a brilliant book defending Christianity against the New Atheist, scientific thinking.

The Bible quote is from ‘The Message’ version translated by Eugene H. Peterson

If you are interested in a more theological defence against New Atheism then I would recommend:

The Dawkins letters – by David Robertson. He explains why he wrote this book in this short video

 

 

Mind and Cosmos – Thomas Nagel – Part 1

I do not often feel sorry for the authors of books I read. Indeed, to have a book published is a fine thing. And Thomas Nagel is a Professor at the University of New York, while I’m just a humble blogger. But, as I read it, I did feel sorry for him. Because to challenge the current scientific view without straying into theology is hard,  very hard. He makes a good effort but it doesn’t altogether come off.

Because Professor Nagel has one serious problem and that is a lack of faith. Obviously, as an atheist, he lacks faith in God. Early on in the book he states:

…theism – which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence.

But he also lacks a faith in science. Now, faith in God and faith in science are very different things. What I mean by faith in science is an understanding that, even if we don’t understand how things work now, this doesn’t mean that we won’t in the future. Early on in the 20th century the prevailing view was that almost everything scientific was known, or soon would be. More than a century later we wouldn’t dream of thinking such a thing. This is especially true in the study of the brain. Until fairly late on in the 20th century the only way to see inside the brain was to cut it open. Now we have imaging techniques which allow us to see what the brain is doing in a general way but these are far from perfect. Nagel’s view is, because we have no scientific explanation for how the physical workings of the brain translate into actual thoughts, ideas and awareness (consciousness) it is not possible that there can be one.

I don’t agree. You are reading this page on a screen made of millions of individual points of light. The information is held on a database on a huge server somewhere in the world. Yet it (hopefully) makes sense to you. This is called emergence. The ideas and words emerge, not just from the technology but also from our understanding of language. So, out of this strange collection of squiggles on the screen your mind can make sense of what I am trying to say. In a way that we don’t yet understand the collection of nerves, electrical and chemical impulses that happen inside our brain organize themselves and emerge into what we call consciousness. But let’s start with something simpler…

sandcastleImagine you walk onto a beach. You see this sandcastle. Now the sandcastle has clearly emerged from the sand around it. It is made of the same stuff. You don’t think: ‘Oh someone brought it from their car and put it there’. But neither could you think: ‘This is something that happened by chance’. It is fairly obvious that an external force, probably in the form of a child with a bucket and spade, came and forced the emergence of the sandcastle from the beach. Even a natural sandy object, such as a dune, is formed by wind and sea. So there has to be external influence for emergence to happen.

In the human mind we start with the genetic code. This amazing blueprint starts us off and lays the outline of who we are. But then, of course we have our nine senses. Now, until just over a year ago, I thought we only had 5 and I’m forever in the debt of The Rev. Shaun Lambert for pointing out the extra four. Altogether, they are:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Smell
  6. The awareness of inside our own body.
  7. The awareness of our own thoughts
  8. The awareness of the awareness of our own thoughts
  9. The sense of the presence of God.

Number 6 is fairly obvious. I’m sitting here thinking that I might want to go and visit the loo (that’s the bathroom to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic). If this feeling becomes strong enough I will get up and walk down the corridor. This sense is not always reliable. I can fool myself into thinking I’m hungry quite easily. Sportsmen and dancers develop this sense to an extraordinary degree.

Number 7 is also quite easy. We are aware of our own thoughts. Mostly we ‘hear’ them as a verbal stream. My best and most creative thoughts are usually pictures or diagrams and I can ‘see’  these ideas and reproduce them in the outside world. Each one of us can do this in different way because we can ‘sense’ our own thoughts.

Sense number 8 is an awareness of our awareness. This is a bit like listening in on a conversation. I’ll give you an example:

A few weeks ago I felt I had far too much to do at work. Then I had an e-mail asking (well telling) me to do some more things. At this point I got quite annoyed and started an internal stream of thought telling myself that I could not do any more and he needed to stop being so bossy. I was aware of all of this using sense 7. This went on for a while. Then sense number 8 began to become aware of this stream. It looked at these thoughts and found them childish and petty. This dampened down my annoyance enough to give me time to think that my manager was also under pressure and was generally a reasonable person and I needed to find a way to resolve this without making the problem worse.

This is clearly a good outcome but it can easily go the other way. Naturally, we tend to think our own thoughts are reasonable and our awareness of them will reinforce this. Sense 8 is not always good at distinguishing between healthy, positive thoughts and thoughts which will damage us. Which brings us to..

Sense 9: The awareness of the presence of God. I would say that almost all human beings have this sense, otherwise how would we know the difference between beauty and ugliness? Unless the ugliness threatened us in some way it would all be just the same. Just as there are people who lack the sense of sight or hearing there will be people who literally cannot sense God. But, I suspect, this is fairly rare. From time to time those of us who have faith have a pure sense of God, unconnected with anything else but He seems to work most effectively with Sense 8. St Paul puts in very well:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:5

Because, of course, God must be invited into our thoughts, just as we must open our eyes to see.

So, how does this work? How do we take captive our thoughts? I’ve drawn the diagram below to try and explain.

Thoughts

The black line is the outside of our mind. The gaps are where our senses meet the outside world. The coloured areas are the parts of our brain which interpret these experiences. The blue arrows represent the process going on in the everyday story earlier in this blog. I see (by reading e-mails)  and hear instructions to do certain tasks. These trigger certain thoughts which borrow the hearing interpretation area to become a verbal stream. I then become aware of these thoughts and invite God in by prayer to help me resolve the situation. The awareness of God influences this self awareness to bring me to a slightly different outcome from that which I would have reached on my own. This outcome is then sent back to the hearing interpretation area to become another verbal stream which becomes part of the conversation I have with my manager.

So consciousness emerges from the input of all these senses working on the substance of the brain. The only mystery in all of this is how we ‘hear’ God. Nagel suggests that matter, all matter has a protomental aspect. This is fairly close to Lewis’ idea that all matter is somewhere between the purely physical and the divine, that we are (to quote Lewis again) half Angel, half animal.

And these are not just philosophical ideas. Modern brain imaging techniques allow us to see different parts of the brain working as we think. And, as shown in ‘How God Changes your Brain’ (see previous blog post) faith in God really does change the structure of your brain, grows and shrinks different parts. And this awareness of God makes us aware of certain values outside our own needs and desires. Which brings us very neatly to the final part of Professor Nagel’s book. But I’m going finish this post now and leave that discussion for the next one.

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Some more useful reading:

A (fairly) easy book about how the brain works:

‘A Users Guide to the Brain’ – John Ratey

Still the best book about ordinary people’s experiences of God (unless you know better) is:

‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ – William James

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