Sunday, 19 February 2017

Moral Arguments

I feel finally inspired to write something down after an informed but friendly debate held by Unbelievable on Christian Premier Radio on the legitimacy of the moral argument - or at least a certain form of it. You can listen to the episode here, and watch Craig's fun animated video presentation of it here. I'm not convinced by either Cranman or Craig's versions. I do agree, however, absolutely that discussing premise 2 first makes more sense.

It seemed to me that there was at least one more voice that needed to be heard, that of Christian - and why not, atheist - evolutionists and also a specialist in anthropology and sociology wouldn't have gone amiss either! I guess I'm aiming a bit high asking for a whole panel, but yet it is an important topic, so why not state the ideal conditions? :)

The keyword for my own response and argument is going to be "cluster". I think it can and should be argued that there is a phenomenon of clustering that takes place with regard to moral behaviour choices.

So we can observe that most people believe that it is "wrong" to kill but also, sadly, that war is sometimes necessary and will almost certainly involve killing. In the same way, a police officer might have to kill a crazed gunman. Even though killing is wrong, there is some kind of justifying principle at work: the greater good (or the least harm). I note how this word "greater" operates. It presupposes that degrees of goodness and wrong can be identified in order to make the moral decision possible and indeed to make the moral decision itself.

Here is a question that made an alternative argument seem necessary for Christians (like myself, who don't think you can easily get to the Christian God by apologetic argumentation) to have another way into the debate: Can a theist imagine a functional intelligent society in which individuals, groups and the species as a whole could thrive without "God"? What would the minimum contents be of that God?

It's difficult to imagine, but this may depend on our definitions of God.

We accept that consciousness is a spectrum. Awareness varies according to the complexity of the life-form, and even self-awareness in humans can vary from non-existence to heightened (and back again, e.g. in a fit of rage). The moral code that says don't harm my own species is necessarily built into every species for it to advance.

Could we imagine a mass-mutation of a species away from that moral law? Yes! Unfortunately, it would also involve the self-destruction of the species.

As the species that is human, our accumulated knowledge continues to increase and our legal systems inevitably complexify in accordance with that knowledge, and the clustering process continues in new moral scenarios either hitherto unforeseen (e.g. medical ethics) or better understood (e.g. LGBQT).

So it is probably pretty clear that I find the presentation of John Cranman's (and WL Craig's) moral argument untenable in its current format. But I also don't think it shouldn't be abandoned altogether either, despite my previous doubts. It is simply that some tighter and also some looser definitions must be properly integrated. I also think it is useful to break the argumentation into two halves, as I have attempted below, to cater for intelligent and less intelligent species.

Here we go:

1. For a species to thrive at any level of intelligence requires ingrained knowledge of the behavioural norms necessary for the survival of any given individual's offspring, of the individual itself and of the individual's group.

2. Human beings are a species.

3. For humans to thrive requires their ingrained knowledge of the behavioural norms necessary for the survival of their offspring, themselves and of their group.

4. Such ingrained knowledge in humans can be aptly described as moral values and duties.

5. Although not strictly universal, moral values and duties can be observed to cluster around certain norms that transcend a given human social group.

6. That which transcends can be aptly described by an observer from within that species as equivalent to objective reality.

7. Moral values and duties are at least equivalent to an objective reality.

And so, at last, we arrive, as in the podcast episode, at the second premise first. Note that thus far an appeal to God has not seemed to be necessary for the flow of this argument.

H O W E V E R

8. Moral decisions can be complex, such as those involving conflicting moral values, and in such cases require more knowledge about likely outcomes in order to imagine and assess the "greater good" (or benefit) and the "greater harm".

9. Such an increased need of knowledge vastly exceeds the speed at which humans can evolve, and may even require total knowledge, letting us then assert such decisions require perfect knowledge on the part of the moral navigator in order to be made safely.

10. Only "God" has perfect knowledge (be he real or imagined).

11. Therefore God or an unrealised ideal knowledge is necessarily sought for complex moral choices to truly enhance the human race.

12. The Christian God is a perfectly legitimate solution to complex moral problems.

13. Non-theistic models of improving knowledge are also perfectly legitimate solutions to making better complex moral choices.

On the basis of the moral argument alone, we cannot state which offers the best explanation.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Allegory of a Triune model

Is this a poem? I'll let you judge, but I have a feeling it might be... :)

God makes everything excellently.

God decides to share ownership of his people with his Son.

They want to transform the world back to where love and justice are the authoritative principles in all matters.

Their tools for the job, the owned people, are ineffective, running on empty and they know it. They want and need sharpening to be their agents of love and justice.

The Father sends his Son and makes of his dearly beloved the greatest agent - where the Son is, there the Father is also by the constant partnership through the Love-Justicer Spirit.

Finally, the beloved Son aligns his will to that of his Father and abandons himself to him, in desperate trust, in the face of the greatest horror, intended for the greatest victory of God's love-justice Rule.

The Son dies. The Father weeps. The people weep.

The Father powerfully raises the Son back to life in the power of the Spirit, gives him his own Name and all his own authority - an authority so great, the Son is even permitted to further grant that authority to his people, and all that great goal of restoring his cosmos starts to become a reality through an incredible partnership. But the people need the love-justicer.

So the Son sends his Father's love-justicer to his people, those who pledge their allegience to him and his kingdom, and the people are truly loved and "justiced" in and through the Holy Spirit Love-Justicer, so the exact same love and justice can be advanced in the people's spheres of life to the glory of their owners. 

Although he is at the heart of the whole operation, the Son still operates in loving obedience to his Dad, and guarantees him final glory when we get to the last of the first hurrahs.

Monday, 6 February 2017

My Proposal

The book project I have been working recently reached sufficient shape for me to want to bounce the idea off potential publishers. So far I have only contacted a couple, using the text below. Both have since responded with some interest and want more content. So now I have a lot of work to do, which is daunting for me as I am finding looking at screens for too long really tires me out. So, in the meantime before my big day, whenever that'll be, here's the proposal (please feel free as a reader to my blog to recommend contacts and offer any support you might feel prompted to give).


For the last couple of years a book has been taking shape that started as something of a major career risk, and concerns someone really quite special: the Christian God.

This book should weigh in at around the 90000 word-mark and tracks a remarkable theological journey that took me to the brink of my career, my faith, my church, to interact with specialist materials that I had no idea existed, and to finally assert and lobby for a full-scale allegiance to a threefold religious centre to the Christian life and vocation: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Christian market – predominantly evangelical – is worth $1.2 billion, approximately 10% of the wider US publishing market, with Christians spending more money on books than the average reader. While evangelical Christians are indeed the intended audience for this work, we can, however, also identify a number of sub-groups who will identify with various chapters to varying degrees:

-          Disenchanted Christians who are dissatisfied with the chasm they may be experiencing between what they receive in church and what they read in their bibles.
-          Professional Christian organisations, particularly HR departments.
-          Biblical teachers and apologists for the Christian faith.
-          Unitarian believers who strongly deny that “God is three persons”.
-          Some scholars and historians of early Christianity.
-          Those involved in the Evangelical/Charismatic “worship scene”: worship-leaders, religious songwriters, pastors.
-          Also, unaffiliated atheistic or agnostic readers who are curious about religion may be interested to see the unique nature of this exploration and any controversy that it could generate (see the large amount of media attention on Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins).

Reason for the book’s existence: Part by part

The unique selling point of this three-part book is its element of risk to be seen as a worthy price for Truth. Tantalisingly, the framework of Part 1 reflects closely the content of a paper I submitted to my employer in 2015 in which I basically state the reasons (contemporary, historical and biblical) that compelled me to no longer “sign off” on my organisation’s Statement of Faith. An interlude between Parts 1 and 2 will relate in nail-biting detail the “What-Happened-Next”, as I (bravely? foolishly?) dismissed for the last time the opportunity to just let the whole thing blow over and get on with my career and my life. As readers follow the journey, which was incomplete in 2015 and is still ongoing in 2017, some should start to question themselves about their own beliefs and that for which they too are willing to stand up and take a risk. Doing so is scary, but can make a big difference: by end 2015, my organisation, present internationally wherever Christians are persecuted, refined their Statement of Faith. This outcome was beyond my wildest expectations.

As the book moves into Part 2, its second unique selling point becomes more obvious: an allegiance to the Truth trumps any theological partisanship. While Trinitarian evangelicals may find some of the contents of Part 1 quite scandalous, Unitarians may find the flow of Part 2 to be even more alarming as I home in on the key theological offering of this book, namely that the church of the first century was utterly trinitarian in focus. This “Trinity”, however, is not, at least according to first century Judaeo-Christian paradigms, not a “trinity of essence” but a “trinity of design” – God’s design. Various scholars of Christianity in antiquity have adopted the language of “mutation” to describe how it was possible that the Christian faith was birthed from within the Jewish faith, and not in opposition to it. Once I have documented those key offerings (taken from Larry Hurtado, the mutation of dyadic worship; from N. T. Wright, the mutation of an inaugurated, two-stage eschatology through Christ’s surprisingly early resurrection; and from John Dominic Crossan, the mutation of a “participative eschatology”, which I slightly correct to necessarily require the Holy Spirit’s central status), I am ready to make my core theological claim, which stands squarely on top of these accepted mutations. 

This book’s fundamental theological offering – laid out in Part 2 – is that the ultimate first century mutation now requires the new Judeo-Christian faith to hold at its core a threefold “hub”. All else must turn around and is expressed through those three. If electronic books could have animated covers, this book cover would attract potential readers’ eyes with a solar system in which the centre was occupied by three suns, themselves rotating around one another, and around which all the dependent planets also rotated. The word “mutate” is thus crucial to this book, so much so that it would be fitting to assign a title like “Mutated Faith”. This title plays on the parallel between my own faith’s fragile process of mutation and that of the early Jewish Christians. Finally before heading for the more hands-on applicability of Part 3, Part 2’s allegiance to Truth seems to have had a substantial payoff: nearly all of the conflicting criteria examined under the two lenses in Part 1 are now largely satisfied under the lens of the Triune Hub model. In other words, the Triune Hub provides a much more harmonious reading of the New Testament texts once liberated from more interpolative approaches.

Part 3 of Mutated Faith now asks the question: so what? What does this mean for the Church? Here, my own previous role as a worship leader helps to “land the theological plane” in the “Fields of Worship”. It is plainly evident that the state of charismatic Christian song-writing is in a state of confusion and discrepancy with respect to the Triune Hub model developed in Part 2. The point is that human beings don’t learn so much through theoretical exposition (to which the book can be associated), but through their experience (research for this chapter is primarily along the lines of James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies), Baker Academic). Song writing thus becomes a crucial component because it is precisely at that point of religious, sacramental and spiritual surrender and practice that our core beliefs are truly formed. The preacher can heartily preach the Trinity from the pulpit and yet if the songs with which the congregation actually relate to God are fundamentally modalistic in nature, he will constantly be under the impression of being a poor communicator. Thus, while worship launches the landing sequence of Mutated Faith, the book has two last ports of call down here on terra firma: personal application of the Triune Hub, and applying the Hub to the church’s vocation to advance the loving and just rule of God’s Son – the kingdom of God – in the power of his Spirit.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Response to Unblievable! debate this week on mystery religions

On this week's show of Unbelievable, Justin Brierley held a difficult debate between Richard Carrier vs David Marshall. Quite frankly, I don't think Brierley will be uniting these two again. Here was my response:

Having just finished listening to this episode, I have to agree with Carrier's summary of the apologist vs scholar. The flying sparks were quite frankly off-putting to the actual arguments being made (I am still unclear as to what the grounds are for peripheral or central features of mystery religions, although why not follow up Carrier's invitation to check out his book?)

I agree with Carrier that Marshall - from what I could make out in this debate - does not seem to have properly engaged and his personal history with Carrier seemed to favour what quite frankly seemed like embarrassing blunders (e.g. fables of Aesop). Remember, his book his based on Carrier's, he should know it really, really well. He really doesn't seem to. Sorry Marshall, you didn't sell it to me and I am in theory on your side. But presenting one side of the debate with too much emotion and not enough research I found embarrassing.

Thanks Justin for the usual excellent hosting in a difficult interview.

UPDATE: Got a reply from David Marshall!
How can you make such a claim about a 300 page book chock full of evidence, by listening to a few minutes of Carrier's on-air attacks? Sorry, but you are being gullible. Carrier simply fails to understand my argument, or what it is based upon. And I tried to be polite, but his notion of scholarship is badly defective. See point 6, in particular:
http://christthetao.blogspot.c...

Back to me: I am not going to get drawn into a debate with David Marshall on this, he's way too loose with his tongue and life is too short.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Article 200!



Wow, it certainly has been quite a journey since I began this blog in 2014. Thanks to those who have shown some interest and dropped by - the most prestigious to date is probably Science Mike!

I feel this has been a very broad platform on which to explore theological questions while hopefully remaining faithful to the relationship of faith to scripture (and scripture to faith).

It took me a long while to realise where my key focus lay. I began with some deep questions about what Christianity means when it says Christ is God when the New Testament is so loaded with Christ and God statements. For a time I was also most perplexed by the question of modalism, and declared myself something of an antimodalist, especially with regard to worship, which I have discovered to be the time of deepest spiritual formation.

At some point I became quite fascinated by the question of Greek articles - realising that they were much more significant than I had previously imagined. The kickstarter for that was to see how different the Greek looked in John 1:1 to the English (except perhaps the NET version). Reading a blog post by Larry Hurtado set me on an altogether new quest, to investigate the relevance of the article preceding kyrios, the Greek word for Lord specifically when translating the Hebrew tetragrammaton, a.k.a. Yahweh. I still feel excitement about the future relevance of this research for New Testament translations, especially to passages like 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ("the Lord is the Spirit").

Plus a whole bunch more besides!

While I am happy with how it's gone (sorry it's not always been ultra-polished), I now recognise the need to reduce my output a bit and focus on completing the book I mentioned on the previous post.

Thanks so much for your interest, and I promise to increase output soon as the book nears completion.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Book update: Mutated Faith and the Triune Hub

Happy New Year!
May it bring more bowing of the knee to Christ to the glory of God the Father, in the power and revelation of the indwelling Spirit.

Please take a look at the following picture - it presents a pictorial representation of the proposal I will be making in my book (hopefully 2017 will see it completed):


This is a very amateurish sketch, and there is absolutely no significance about the planets being the planets of our own tiny solar system, or of Venus being circled! That said - this is the kind of idea I would like to convey on the cover. My working title keeps evolving, but I hope it won't move too far from "Trinitarian Interpretations: Mutated Faith and the Triune Hub". Cryptic, huh?

While it represents a long, sometimes painful and unfinished journey for me, it might be a slightly upsetting book for some. In fact - for those who have theological commitments, my historical analysis of first century Christianity is likely to displease most, and seems to fit into no common categories that I am currently aware of. That said, I still need to interact more with Samuel Clarke who I suspect had an early version of the Triune Hub model included in this book.

Trinitarians want to assert that - because Christianity is birthed out of monotheistic Judaism - God himself is the hub around which everything else is in orbit. He is the centre. And then the Son and the Spirit into the mix, ushering a whole host of attempted explanations frequently failing to satisfy. Me? Not just me - even within the Triune-God camp, because they all seem to disagree with one another (that's the second chapter of the book). Another group, also not monolithic, is the Unitarians. They assert strongly that Christ cannot be God, because only the Father is God, and they will also frequently assert that the Spirit is not really something that is separate from the Father. Another group of Unitarians exist - albeit only implicitly, and covers some biblically distant and popular charismatic expressions, whom Richard Rohr describes as Jesusism movements. In these you frequently see the Father and Spirit as just shadows of the One that really matters, Jesus. Believe it or not, that too is Unitarianism - it just doesn't know it.

So what does the first century have to say theologically, with respect to the Old Testament heritage? A lot. A later chapter in the book is going to outline the different contours of the "mutations" of the Jewish faith that permitted early Christianity to still be Jewish, leaning especially on doctors NT Wright and Larry Hurtado. Baptism into the "name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is a first century diaspora Jewish historical fact. The mutation that I am basically offering is that the Trinity makes a lot more sense when we understand it as a Trinity of design and not a Trinity of essence. If we understand that it is first century Christian faith that is now articulated in Trinitarian language rather than the being of God himself, then suddenly the apparently chaotic chopping and changing between most of the Unitarian and Trinitarian readings of the texts suddenly become still and at peace with one another.

So why did that model get ditched in the fourth century, in favour of a Triune God model? This is quite a complex question. My proposal is not to replace other explanations offered, but to add another angle. Ousia (Greek) and substantia (Latin) afforded the institutionalising Greek-empire-based church the language it needed to ensure that none of the Trinity were dissociated on the most fundamental level possible, which is precisely what some of the intervening heresies would have promoted (or at least allowed for). Although the result is becoming problematic in my view, this enterprise is commendable and has stood the faith very well for centuries. It is most certainly not what Anthony Buzzard describes as "Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound".

Instead of "consubstantial", which I see as distinctly secondary in light of this research, I therefore propose "co-central". I am also very fond of the orthodox term "co-essential", although again, with reference to the faith. There is so much more to say, and some of which will indeed be said in the book, but I thought it might interest blog readers where this key chapter will go. In light of that, let's just notice something from the picture that I think could really appeal to the Triune-God advocates - the planets orbiting these Three, have a single orbit, experience one main gravitational pull, have a single centre comprising three Stars. I can only hope this contribution will lead to fruitful discussion in the ongoing Trinitarian conversation and not fresh Star Wars ;)

Blessings.
John

Friday, 16 December 2016

The Death of Christ - part 3

There are a couple more details I'd like to set straight. When I first saw Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, I thought that he had overdone the bloody whipping scene, which is horrendous. Flesh literally flies off Jesus' back. As it turns out, Jesus may really have suffered like this. Think for a moment - why would Jesus die so quickly on the cross? Sometimes it took people days to die once crucified, for Jesus, it only took a few hours - even Pilate was surprised. Notice how in the whipping scene there are a gruesome variety of whips that the Roman soldiers could use. It was their job to mess up the convict, but absolutely not to kill the person. Doing that removes all the benefits for the Roman regime (and in this case, the Jewish opponents as well) of the humiliating death and body disposal that awaited Jesus.

Remember as well how the evangelists were keen to point out how the soldiers were keen to grab and keep his clothes, which could be traced back prophetically in the Jewish Scriptures. This implies that Jesus was probably doing ok physically up until this point. He had clothes that were worth inheriting - so this also is a confirmation of just how brutal Jesus' beating before the cross would probably have been, placing fresh emphasis on the fact that he not only died for his people, but suffered and died.

This is not always immediately apparent. If we were to only remember the event according to Luke or John, we might think that Jesus went pretty calmly to the cross, maintaining some sense of transcendental peace and divine authority throughout (see my point about Luke 22:43-44 and the bloody sweat). Mark especially, however, does not spare us the desperateness of Jesus' situation.

Let's return to the issue of Jesus' dead body. Here is Luke 23:55:
The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.

And Mark 15:47:
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

And Matthew 27:61
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

And John 19:42
Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they [Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus] laid Jesus there.

I have two major gripes with Bart Ehrman. The biggest one is about the inconsistent way in which he describes John's gospel's Jesus. I have tried to question him over this, although as yet to no avail. However, a close second gripe with his historical reasoning is quite how he sees Crossan's proposal for a criminal treatment of Jesus' body. Somehow, he has managed to come around to the common historical view that the women and the disciples did indeed find an empty tomb, the same empty tomb in which they knew Jesus to have been laid - without giving up his former view. I simply cannot see how he can hold on to both these views. All four evangelists demonstrate continuity of the body's location, some of them even to the point of saying that Joseph of Arimathea actually took the body down, although I have no idea how he would have done that.

For there to truly be an empty tomb, one that certainly set the scene for Jesus apparition visions, how are we to believe that Jesus' closest followers (making up a testimony of multiple witnesses) to have made it up, when they are supposedly so convinced his body had been laid there?  The tomb has a central role to play in this event and it is very difficult for me to see how it could possibly be a sheer fabrication. Christianity developed on the foundation of God raising Jesus back to life. The empty tomb does not directly bear witness to that, skeptics are indeed correct to point this out, however, it does directly set the scene for the witnessed encounters with the resurrected Christ because of the continuity of location of Christ's body from cross to tomb.

I'm quite enjoying this rare moment of apologetics, so I may continue on to do a part 4!