The structure of hope

Continuing musings on eschatology, this is my artistic 😉 reproduction with slight edits of a diagram on the structure of hope from a chapter by James K A Smith ‘Determined Hope: A Phenomenology of Christian Expectation’ in Volf and Katerberg’s The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity. Eerdmanns, 2004.

This structure could apply to hope for sunny day in Ireland tomorrow (doubtful), to Rory McIlroy’s winning of the US Masters in April (possible – here’s hoping), to Marx’s hope for a utopian society, to Daniel Dennett’s hope for a rational world free of religion, to Christian hope in a new creation.

Hope has a subject (the person who hopes). That person puts their hope in something (the ground of hope) – an act of faith. This hope is put into action, actively hoping for a desired future outcome.

That outcome is good – to hope is to hope that things get better. To expect things to get worse is not hope, it is fear and depression and angst.

There then comes a point when the hope is fulfilled. It reaches its ‘end’ – hence Christian eschatology.

Which raises an interesting question which I hope to come back to – What actually do Christians hope for? If you are a Christian, what are you hoping for regarding the future life beyond death? What is desirable about the new creation to come? What most excites and motivates you in the here and now?

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 (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.

Daniel Dennett: a very religious atheist

Last Thursday night I went with a couple of friends to listen to Daniel Dennett – one of the ‘4 Horsemen’ of the New Atheism – deliver a lecture on a post-religious world. [The other three riders being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens].

The big hotel ballroom was packed – maybe 400-500 there. Dennett outlined his ‘end of religion’ thesis and his vision of a (better) world free of its restrictions, guilt, irrationality, hypocrisy, and xenophobic hatreds. You get the drift.

He is an engaging speaker, and very good at Q&A which went on for most of an hour after the lecture.

This better world will take the ‘good’ bits of religion (for he graciously did concede some religion is OK in some respects) – stuff like





moral teamwork


love of neighbour


glory and awe


Yes praise. He even played a couple of secular gospel hymns, complete with lyrics like “Bowing to reason we stand together” and “We’ve turned the page, don’t be afraid of the world we’re creating, come on in …” [He said he played these in the States and the crowd was up singing and partying – not a person even twitched in Dublin. An atheist questioner afterwards pleaded with him to drop the ‘brutal’ music and try comedy as a route to joy].

Many criticisms have been made of the New Atheists the most brilliant and devastating by David Bentley Hart in his book Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.

One is the sheer intellectual vapidity and meaninglessness of talking of an abstract generalised thing called ‘Religion’ as if there is such a thing. Dennett did this all night. You may as well imagine the world without politics or without culture. It is a nonsense that should earn a Leaving Cert student an F in a Religion exam and becomes an embarrassing conceit by smart people like Dennett who should know better. He also kept saying that Christianity was dualistic in its idea of the immortal soul. Again if you are criticising something you should at least be able accurately to describe its beliefs – especially if you are publishing and speaking on the subject and placing great importance on being taken seriously.

Another is the pure assertion and naive hope that ‘somehow’  [and Dennett did use this word] profoundly moral values, like the ones above, embedded in long Christian tradition and theology, can and will continue to have depth, sustainability and coherence when stripped from their theological context. Dennett offered absolutely no reason why these particular values should be sought in a brave new atheist world. Nor why they would emerge instead of, for example, Nietzsche’s Superman and his ‘will to power’.

When asked about his benign hopes for the future, he said he was an optimist. Fair enough, but it’s hardly the basis for a new secular world order, especially given atheism’s brutal and genocidal 20th Century legacy.

But here’s the thing that was surreal and deeply incongruous about the whole night:

Daniel Dennett, while proclaiming with utter certainty the end of all religion,  is a very religious atheist indeed.

As the evening wore on, it felt more and more like  listening to a rather optimistic, naive, kind-hearted yet legalistic preacher in church.

Moral Behaviour: the entire thrust of his talk was an  exhortation to good and decent and moral behaviour. These are the sorts of values that should shape our behaviour and our world, let’s commit to and work for them.

Mission: he talked of the need to build a missionary movement. Let’s take the secular good news out to the world and make it a better place. His closing words were ‘Let’s do it’. The good news bit was negative – the end of all religion.

Worship: he wanted to inspire us with hymns and get us emotionally inspired, excited, joyful and happy.

Community: Dennett offered the vision of democratic networks emerging of people working towards a common vision of improving the world.  He even suggested that this new atheist movement might consider buying defunct churches in which to meet (he didn’t say what they would do there. Sing atheist songs?).

Eschatological Hope: his whole lecture was built around a narrative of hope – a future vision of a better world (without religion) to inspire us to work passionately in the here and now to bring it about.

Doctrine of Man: Dennett has great faith in humankind. He asserted (while also describing himself as an ‘objective engineer’ of the human consciousness) that ‘People just want to be good.’  Wow.

This is simply a particular religious discourse wrapped up in secular garb. It is all about purpose, identity, meaning beyond ourselves, morality and ethics.

Now of course Dennett would reject this. He does not believe in anything ‘supernatural’. But this is where his ill defined idea of ‘religion’ kicks in.  Christianity, to take one religion, isn’t just an abstract belief in God.  It is belief and action; faith and praxis; relationship with God worked out in kingdom of God living. It also is deeply concerned with “purpose, identity, meaning beyond ourselves, morality and ethics.”

At one point the impression of a genial avuncular uncle switched into bristling impatience with religious people who try to play the ‘faith card’ in public dialogue. To claps from the audience, Dennett exclaimed authoritatively that they have ‘no right’ to do so.

However, the problem with this is that he (and other New Atheists) seems locked into a hubristic modernist mindset, totally oblivious of the reality that he is not mysteriously elevated above the fray in some neutral faith-free zone, uniquely able, because of a supposedly ‘objective’ and impartial and scientific approach, to judge and determine what is ‘truth’. Reading some postmodern philosophy wouldn’t go amiss here.

The irony was that he played the ‘faith card’ all night.