Stephen Fry and the disease of Life

Stephen Fry is almost an honorary member of our family. It’s rather unlikely that he knows of his esteemed position, but he’s been an integral part of parenthood & childhood (via Harry Potter audio books) and, more lately a source of fun and education on QI, and in the rediscovery of classics like A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder. [Hugh Laurie is another honorary member].

Stephen Fry’s given us all much fun and joy, for which I am hugely grateful. We ain’t going to throw him out of the family just yet. You are welcome to dinner anytime Stephen!

Stephen FryIn his most recent interview yesterday he says he is glad that what he said has got people talking. And how.

I’ve had a browse of (an admittedly tiny) selection of Christian responses. Tiny because, as Stephen Fry says, this life is short and we’ve got to make the best of the time we’ve got 😉 – and that probably doesn’t include hours reading people trading insults in the comments section of the Guardian (of more below).

One of the most gracious and moving was by someone called Chris Stead. His story of faith, hope and love in the midst of watching powerlessly the daily traumatic suffering of his daughter, gives the lie to superficial stereotypes of Christians blindly and unreflectively following a ‘stupid and capricious God’. Christians can and do rejoice at the utter goodness of God even in the midst of great suffering. Facing suffering with dignity and hope and strength is woven into the fabric of Christian faith. It is Christianity which has inspired countless millions to give their lives caring for others  – and to continue to fight injustice and to alleviate suffering often at great personal cost.

One of the most unpersuasive was by Canon Giles Fraser in the Guardian. He got an awful bashing in the comments section from atheists and others quite rightly rather vexed that his ‘defence’ of God led to the conclusion that

For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives.

I’m sorry but this is liberal twaddle at its worst. ‘God’ is exempt from the charge of being responsible for evil and suffering because … he doesn’t exist outside our imaginations. Well, that’s things solved then. God is ‘love’ in the abstract. To be honest I’m at a loss how someone who holds such a view can continue to work as a paid cleric in the Church of England. Would not the local humanist association be more fitting?

In a very good piece, Krish Kandiah, the newly appointed President of London School of Theology, highlights the parallels between Fry’s moral outrage and how C S Lewis moved from atheism to Christian belief. He also says this

At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.

Closer to home, Aberdonian exile Kevin Hargaden at Creideamh, points out the irony in Stephen Fry’s moral outrage – from whence comes the morality? He also rightly argues we need to move beyond philosophical speculation to specifics of the Christian God incarnate in Jesus Christ. And when we do this we see that

There are many problematic things about Christianity. There are weak points where opponents can score points. Suffering isn’t one of them. The God that the Christians declare is one who revealed his divinity in momentous suffering … no human has ever been more human than when the Godman suffocated under his own weight. The new-atheists never try to kill that God. He’s already died. He sides with the suffering and the broken, the oppressed and the downtrodden.

I find myself saying “Yes … But” to both Krish and Kevin.

Yes Krish’s first three sentences are I think indisputably accurate description. But it’s the last line that isn’t fully convincing. The atheist sceptic will reply, “OK, even if I accept that man is directly responsible for the vast amount of suffering that goes on in the world, God is still ultimately responsible. He created the world in the first place and made this world of natural disasters, suffering and injustice possible.” In other words, while the Fall introduces death and sin and all the horrors that follow, including a twisting of creation itself, presumably God could have chosen not to create.

Yes, Kevin puts it so well: it is often in suffering that goodness and love and grace are poured out in profound ways. God is no deist; he is a God of utter love and compassion; he is on the side of the poor and oppressed; he has even entered our world of suffering and embraced death in Christ. The heart of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus’ grave-side indignation is at the way death ruptures the way things should be. His raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection to come when death will be done away with. But a focus on God’s response to evil and suffering, however loving and self-sacrificial, still does not answer the objection that an omnipotent God made this post-Fall world possible.

Put it another way. Forget for a moment Fry’s examples of eye-burrowing worms (which might not  actually exist apparently) or bone-cancer in children. These are emotive and awful diseases, but ultimately a distraction in the argument. The much bigger ‘complaint’ Stephen Fry really has is the ‘disease’ of Life itself.

While he says that life is to be celebrated, shared, enjoyed and lived to the full (Amen), it is a simple fact that the very possibility of life as we know it means the inevitability of death. For life is terminal, one way or another. We are fairly fragile carbon-based life forms which, sooner or later, start to malfunction and then die. And most of the time death involves suffering. Getting old, as my 90 year old father says, is ‘not for wimps’. So Fry is really blaming God for designing a world in which death and suffering were possible.

The irony in this whole discussion is that both Stephen Fry and Christians desire and want a world without suffering, pain or death – and both feel the desperate ‘wrongness’ of this broken world. Stephen Fry blames God for allowing this world to exist. Christians believe that this broken world was not God’s original design. Death and suffering are alien intruders who will one day be evicted.

It seems to me then, that there are two big background questions lurking behind this discussion:

Why creation at all?

Where does evil (that led to the Fall) come from?

And it is here I think Christians need to be upfront and say there aren’t easy answers. For, as far as I can tell, Scripture does not ask those sort of philosophical questions (the book of Job gets nearest).

As to why creation itself, we can suggest answers such as the creative glory of God, the wonder of the cross, the necessity of human free will, the context for faith, love and hope to flourish, the mysterious purposes of God that are [unsurprisingly beyond our knowledge since he is God and we are not] – but that’s as far as we can go.

And when it comes to the origin of evil, the Bible simply does not tell us how it came to be. It does say that Satan rebels and becomes the enemy of God, the ‘prince of this world’ and the author of evil. But this is not quite the same thing as saying how evil entered a good creation.

We can, however, insist on the certainty of three things that shape our thinking about God and suffering.

1. God is absolutely and utterly Good. As Kevin and Chris Stead highlight, this goodness is revealed in his response to suffering. It is revealed in his ultimate end game which is blessing. It is supremely seen in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2. God is God: omnipotent creator of all and Lord of history. He is not to be explained away in order to excuse him from the responsibility of being God (Giles Fraser)

3. Evil exists and is opposed to God. Despite what Stephen Fry asserts, God is not the author of sin, suffering, disease, injustice, and death. God stands against these things deeply and passionately than any human can imagine. He overcomes them at infinite personal cost. It is at the cross where God’s absolute goodness, omnipotence meet head on with the forces of evil and defeat them utterly (Col. 2:15). That decisive victory is what gives hope of a world without bone cancer or holocausts or even death itself.

So while Stephen Fry sees ‘God’ as ultimate bad news, Christians will insist that the gospel of God is the ultimate good news: good news about who God is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Christianity as life-lite and other defeater beliefs

In Northern Ireland there is a phrase that someone is ‘good livin‘. I don’t think it exists south of the border* (I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else actually).

There’s a lot of meaning and history in that wee saying.

It’s shorthand to describe someone who is ‘born again’ or ‘religious’. What that means in practice is rather vague, God doesn’t really come into it – he is only there in the background. The good living person is perceived not to be into certain behaviour as they try to live a good life.

Some guys I spend time with sometimes apologise to me when they swear more profusely than usual because I am perceived to be ‘good livin’. It’s sort of assumed ‘good livin’ people are different in that they don’t swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, drink too much etc and might get offended or shocked by such behaviour.

This is Christianity as vaguely moralistic, mildly negative and mostly inoffensive. A bit of a boring normal life. Life-lite if you like.

And at the same time the good livin person is trying to be better than others who are aren’t good livin.

The motive to be ‘good livin’ is left unexamined. Being Northern Ireland, with its embedded evangelical history, there is enough familiarity with born again salvation stories to know that some people, for whatever reason,  ‘get religion’ and are not the same again.

Seeing Christianity as merely an attempt at ‘good livin’ is a peculiar Northern Irish version of what Tim Keller would call a ‘Defeater Belief’. A belief, once held, that means those who hold it are innoculated against authentic New Testament Christianity. There is an inbuilt resistance to the gospel because it has already been dismissed as implausible before being seriously considered.

For Christianity as merely a mixture of being nice, bland, yet vaguely superior to those who aren’t good livin, isn’t exactly very compelling or attractive is it?

 What are some defeater beliefs that you encounter?

* I guess there is a parallel to Catholic culture and talk of ‘the Religious’ – which refers to nuns and priests; the religious professionals in it for life at the expense of all worldly distractions like sex and marriage and making money. Religion here is for the really serious types who are willing to sacrifice all to God. Normal people are only religious amateurs who need to (or at least should) turn up to Mass on a reasonably regular basis. The phrase ‘the Religious’ reveals the gulf between laity and clergy in Irish (Catholic) Christendom. In the past of course this calling was admired and venerated. There was nothing more to be proud of than a son going into the priesthood. Now a religious life is (for most?) an incomprehensible waste of a life.

Ruse: Christianity and Science (4) the limits of science

Picking up on the last post about Michael Ruse’s book, Science and Spirituality: making room for faith in an Age of Science

Ruse contends that the machine metaphor, even though it has great explanatory power scientifically, does not, and cannot, answer or explain at least four significant questions of life.

1) In terms of origins, life as mechanism does not speak to the question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ (Ruse includes a detailed philosophical discussion on the legitimacy of this question).

2) In terms of morality, the way things are cannot tell us about the way things should be or why should I be good? Despite machine-metaphor scientific explanations for how we think and act morally, Ruse points out that science cannot give any grounding for morality – why should I be good? – since morality ‘cannot be derived from the physical facts of the matter.’ 133.

3) In asking ‘What is consciousness?, he has a pop at Daniel Dennet’s contention that once you have identified the functions that the various parts of the brain play in consciousness then you have explained things.

‘Even a friendly reader might wonder if this is an argument, and if it is an argument, how is it making its case.’ 137. The whole point is that ‘the brain firing away in certain ways is not the same as feeling lovesick or delighting at the beauty of a Haydn quartet.’

4) In regard to purpose, (‘What is the point of it all?’) Ruse concludes that there is no place in science for ‘end talk’. Science does not address these sorts of questions. 147

What Ruse is saying here is nothing new. He’s a lover of science – he’s just pointing out that ‘scientism’ is a move beyond science to a faith system that claims all questions of life can be explained by understanding of the physical world.

Comments, as ever, welcome

Ruse: Science and Christianity (3) the triumph of the machine metaphor

A large chunk of Michael Ruse’s book Science and Spirituality: making room for faith in an Age of Science is taken up by the story of a metaphor – the metaphor of the world as a machine.

In contrast to Aristotle’s impersonal ‘unmoved mover’ and Plato’s ‘demiurge’, Christians during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards developed a scientific view of the cosmos as divine artifact – a machine perfectly designed by its maker.

Ruse traces the story through Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton to a point where a firm causal basis was proposed for understanding the world as one ‘of particles – atoms, corpuscles – endlessly moving in space – mindlessly, as one might say.’ And it was Descartes in particular who, reflecting on this new science, talked of the physical world as pure material substance which functions like a blind, unthinking machine (even if one made by God).

And from then the machine metaphor has continued as the dominant way of seeing both the physical and life sciences.

A chapter on ‘Organisms as Machines’ explores how for Darwin, the fundamental root metaphor was that of the world of organisms as if designed machines. Everything is embedded within this metaphor. Hands, eyes, teeth, noses, leaves, bark, roots are all as if designed, appearing so because of natural selection.

And this metaphor of mechanisms operating according to natural processes continues to be a defining characteristic of Darwinism. Ruse discusses Huxley, the mechanistic language underpinning modern genetic theory and evolutionary biology (Dawkins sees all life forms as ‘survival machines’).

And the metaphor has been extended into mankind as a ‘thinking machine’ – through Darwin and his diverse heirs (people like Freud, Skinner, Pavlov, Edward O. Wilson (evolutionary psychology), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ethicist Peter Singer and cognitive scientists who see the brain-mind as a computer and so on.

So you can see where this leads – it’s a short step to autonomous machine – the ”machine’ of the natural world works very well on its own, thank you.  So the ‘jump’ to the confident assertion that since we can increasingly understand how the machine works,  God is superfluous.

And it’s that jump that Ruse questions.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ruse: Science and Christianity (2)

Continuing an ad hoc discussion of some of Michael Ruse’s claims in Science and Spirituality: making room for Faith in an Age of Science.

Ruse makes an interesting and persausive point about the late Stephen Jay Gould’s (here appearing in the Simpsons) famous metaphor of the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ of faith and science.

This phrase is often taken to mean that Gould was happy to let science be science and faith be faith – the two operated in different spheres of meaning or something like that. [This actually is pretty close to what Ruse himself is arguing in this book, although he would not put it that way.]

Anyway, Ruse unpicks Gould’s image a bit to show that Gould, very much like Weinberg, Crick, Dawkins etc, had no time for the specific faith claims of Christianity.

Once Christianity trespasses into the realm of science you are into ‘unscientific’ claims about God, the Trinity, the Resurrection or ‘silly’ talk of miracles. The religious Magisteria Gould had in mind seems to have been more of a vague morality shorn of its theological roots than any acceptance of the supernatural.

To believe that God directs and creates through evolution is to invent a God who is “retooling himself in the spiffy langauge of modern science.” There is no higher reason why were are here apart from the fact that Homo Sapiens managed ‘to survive by hook or by crook.’ Our success as mammals is owed to the extinction of the dinosaurs, probably due to a comet hitting earth. So Gould quipped,

‘In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ruse: Christianity and science (1)

Over Christmas I had to prepare a review of a book for Evangelical Quarterly by philosopher of religion and author of numerous books on science, Michael Ruse. It’s called Science and Spirituality: making room for Faith in an Age of Science.

I won’t replicate the review here, but want to focus on some of the more provocative ideas Ruse suggests: provocative for both atheists and Christians that is. His argument is for the coexistence of Christianity (not spirituality as the title implies) and science – that they can exist together with integrity. So he draws fire from both ends of the spectrum

So here are a couple of starters for ten:

1) Science is utterly incompatible with creationism

= 6 day creation,  a young earth a few thousand years old. Such claims do not belong to traditional Christianity which has always said truth cannot be opposed to truth.

And here’s a pretty good put down:

‘Creationism, so-called, is an idiosyncratic legacy of nineteenth-century, American evangelical Protestantism.’ (8).

2) The dismissals of religion by many heavyweights of modern science (examples below) are ill founded.

Science has limits and these thinkers have transgressed them in their confident dismissals of the silliness, backwardness and unreasonableness of ‘religion’ – as well as often placing unwarrented faith in the ability of science to explain everything.

Ruse quotes among others major scientists: Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Steven Weinberg (‘Religion is an insult to human dignity’) and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix  (‘If revealed religions have revealed anything it is that they are usually wrong’).

And how about this for another put down?

These are the heavyweights of science. Their populizers have no such claims to great achievement, but in their way they are even more important in forming the public’s opinion about science [and religion].

The underachieving populizers include Richard Dawkins (‘faith is one of the world’s great evils’) and Daniel Dennett (‘If religion isn’t the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress, what is?’).

I reckon Ruse is not on either Ken Ham’s or Dawkins’ or Dennett’s Christmas card lists.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

Alister McGrath on theological education (1)

Last week I was over with a colleague at the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference near London. It had over 80 representatives from (I think) over 50 theological colleges all over Europe. Fascinating hearing what is going on in different contexts and encouraging to build relationships.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker. He gave 3 lectures over Thursday / Friday looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. We could only get to the two on Friday. The lectures will eventually be published (probably here), but here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the first lecture (I’ll do a second post for the second lecture).

These are my notes and personal impressions – NOT verbatim quotes!

As Christianity becomes more marginalised culturally, a significant challenge for theological educators is how to equip and help students think apologetically. The New Atheism, for example, provides such a challenge and needs a thought out response – not just from college professors and academics but from church leaders who can  provide a moral, theological, and rational argument and vision for Christianity.

If  the church chooses simply not to engage in such apologetics, then the Christian faith will be seen as for those with no mind or vision for life.  McGrath is deeply concerned about evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism in this respect.

So theological training has to be more than just giving students information with a few skills added. It has to be about character, thinking, engaging – to shape people and help them to think biblically and theologically about all of life …

At the heart of good theological training is personal transformation. And this takes time.  It is about developing wisdom. And such wisdom develops in relationships. Students need mentors and coaches not just teachers to impart information.

In later Q&A he had a few comments here on parallels with medical training. How there is increasing awareness and dissatisfaction with the highly functional form of medical training that equips a scientifically to treat disease, but may leave him/her useless in dealing with real people. Solid research is now pointing to the connections of spirituality and health. And therefore how medicine needs to be holistic as the treatment of the whole person, not just a heart valve (for example). And this has obvious implications for medical training.

Theology not just a way of thinking but a fundamental vision for reality – a wonderful vision. The task of the teacher is to communicate this big bible story in a way that excites, energises and thrills. To help students see the big picture of life and where they fit in with the wider purposes of God.

This is theology as inspiration not just education.

I was encouraged by this. We don’t have it all sorted by a long shot, but this ‘fits’ with the heart and vision of theological training at IBI. It is applied theology – applied personally, and to the Irish context. It seeks to be holistic, not just information transfer. It builds in reflective practice and tries to connect ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’.  It has a compulsory track for mentoring and apprenticeship within actual ministry practice. We have specific modules on engaging with thinking and trends in Irish culture.

And I think there is an increasing tension at play here. Prof McGrath talked of the need for time and development of wisdom. For some this will lead to the traditional full-time residential 3-4 years away in college. But pressures in the wider culture are making this more and more difficult. Students want control over their own learning. Many university courses are becoming fully modularised. You take bits and pieces when you can. Many cannot afford to take several years out from work. Training sits alongside work and ministry.  There are also significant advantages of studying while in ministry, without being removed from a ‘real life’ context.

The challenge is to have mentoring, coaching aspect built into whatever model is used – and for the student to keep and develop such relationships after training when they become even more important.

Comments, as ever, welcome.