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Posts from the ‘scientism’ Category


Deep (?but not stuck) in the frozen wastes of winter faith: Brueggemann on Beck on Freud & James

Q regulars will be aware that issues related to depression come up here from time to time. One or two have encouraged me to be a bit more open about such things and to pick up a few things that others might find helpful, or at least a resonance.

So here are a couple of extended quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s most recent book, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. These paragraphs jumped out at me from his middle section on the need for prophetic grief in the face of contemporary suffering, In this he echoes the mourning of Jeremiah and Lamentations in particular. Read more »


The humiliation of incarnation… Iain Banks somehow, surprisingly, gets it… sort of

Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.

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The Rebellious Privacy of God: Rowan Williams on Narnia in “The Lion’s World”

I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).

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60-second adventures in religion

I can’t remember who told me about these, but they’re fab. The Open University Religious Studies is obviously plugging its wares – but fair enough. The results are wonderful and very useable in all kinds of places I suspect – wryly humoured animation with the added bonus is the wonderfully-suited satirical voice of David Mitchell. Read more »


Cynicism or Criticism? Developing an integrated mind at University

This is an update of a talk I gave nearly 15 years ago to some students back in Sheffield. My aim was to help them avoid the classic polar mistakes of either avoiding the intellectual challenges of university or being swamped by them altogether. There are all kinds of other joys, opportunities and challenges when people first go to uni, and so intellectual development is only one aspect of what needs thinking about. But I fear it is often overlooked altogether.

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Dawkins, ‘Pragmamorphism’ and the scientific vandalism of executing Saddam

When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant). Read more »


Fun Friday 4: If it’s all random…

The fatal flaw in the claims to a random universe…? Read more »


Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »


Where the ghost in the machine? Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace

Fritz Kahn was a remarkable man – a scientist, gynaecologist, artist, polymath – and eventually a Jewish refugee to the USA from Nazi Germany. He produced a series of extraordinary images in which he portrayed the human body as a machine.

This is his most celebrated picture, Man as an Industrial Palace (from 1927). Its details are stunning in their intricacy and accuracy. This is a work of true genius. I just love it.

But I’m provoked by it too. For it illustrates, whether intentionally or not (and I don’t know enough about Kahn to say which), a prevailing modernist view that we are skinfulls of chemicals, preprogrammed to perform certain biological functions as the consequence of some overarching but closed evolutionary process. This fits with an enlightenment agenda which Os Guinness brilliantly summed up:

The goal of modernity is ‘to know everything in order to predict everything in order to control everything.’

But the reality is that there are so many things about us that don’t make sense or that don’t fit into our categories. Now, please note. This is not an anti-science rant. Science is a noble quest – seeking to understand and explain. At its best, it is able to perform wonders of healing, and restoration. But is it really simply a matter of time before we understand everything about ourselves? Or are there aspects of our humanity that just don’t fall into scientific categories? Is there not a ghost in the machine?

I suspect that this was something of what Churchill was getting at in a House of Commons speech in 1950:

Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before. He has it in his power to solve quite easily the problems of natural power to solve quite easily the problems of natural existence. He has conquered the wild beasts, and he has conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy – himself.

Or as controversial but influential philosopher Martin Heidegger put it:

No age knows so much and so many things about man as does ours and yet no age knows less than ours of what man is.

Enter not the ‘God of the gaps’ but the God of the cosmos – the one ultimate cause and sustainer of every aspect of the universe. As Martin Luther King put it when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

I refuse to believe the notion that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life… unable to respond to the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.

This is what underpinned Luther King’s political philosophy – and in fact, being made in God’s image was the backbone of his conviction that we have equal value as human beings, regardless of race, social standing or any other division (as Tim Keller explores in his recent, excellent Generous Justice pp86ff).

But it’s pretty difficult to draw that. It’s also impossible to categorise that in a laboratory-friendly pigeon-hole.

Well, so much for these ramblings. They’re all an excuse to post this phenomenal, recent animation of Kahn’s image. It manages to bring the picture to life brilliantly and faithfully, with some fab sound effects. Enjoy!


Weird. Steve Turner doesn’t believe in air

Having posted on Friday about the importance of the insensible, I came across this great number from Steve Turner. Subverts perfectly the prevailing mood of scepticism…


I don’t believe in air.
No one has ever seen it.
No one has ever felt it
between finger and thumb.
Converts talk about
tasting the air
and smelling the air,
but there’s always another explanation;
the nearby sea, a factory’s pipes,
a pile of fresh manure.
It’s not the so-called air
that smells.

Scientists have complete faith
in this air.
They say it upholds
and sustains our world.
Take away the air, they argue,
and we’d go too.
Meteorologists attribute
signs and wonders to the air;
people thrown to the ground,
trees uprooted, the landscape rearranged.
It sounds like superstition to me.
If there is air,
who made it?
Where does it all go?
Why doesn’t it show itself
just one time for proof?

Friends ask me why windows rattle
and hair goes awry,
but I don’t believe in air.
I don’t believe in air.
Air is just another word
for something that’s not there.

(Poems, p138)

Exchange the word ‘air’ with the word ‘God’, and you’ll get the point. Remember Jesus’ chat with Nicodemus


Richard Dawkins’ Faith-Free School – spot the inconsistency…

The UK’s new Coalition government has recently announced plans to allow for so-called Free Schools. This means that charities and faith groups will be allowed to set up schools within the state sector and funded by the Dept of Education, but which will be free from certain state controls. Of course, there have been faith schools for decades (and of course, until the 2nd World War, the vast majority of schools in this country were set up by the Church of England). But this is certainly a new departure, but consistent with the government’s policy of decentralisation and their philosophy of the state.

So up pops the country’s favourite atheist, Richard Dawkins. He had this to say in an interview with Mumsnet (as reported in yesterday’s Telegraph):

Thank you for suggesting that I should start an atheist free school. I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school.

I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded.

If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.

I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.”

In reply to another questioner, Prof Dawkins said: “The Bible should be taught, but emphatically not as reality. It is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality. As such it needs to be taught because it underlies so much of our literature and our culture.”

He also disclosed that he plans to make a documentary about “the present education system and the role faith plays within it”.

Well, well, well. He’s actually advocating a Faith-Free school. I wonder if you can spot the glaring inconsistencies in what he’s said.

On a separate note, it’s interesting that he still wants people to be taught the bible, for similar reasons to Andrew Motion (as mentioned yesterday).


The infectiousness of wonder: Richard Holmes and the romance of science

Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).

It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.

Giants of the Royal Society

The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.

A young Joseph Banks returned from Tahiti, by Reynolds (1773)

Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.

There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:

It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)

That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.

Herschel's 40ft Telescope

The Challenge from the Heavens

Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.

So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:

At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)

I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.

Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)

But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:

For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design,’ there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)

Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.

The Wonder of Science

Faraday's Christmas Lectures of 1856

But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.

My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:

Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.

  1. First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
  2. Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
  3. Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)

Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.

I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:

The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)


Avatar hoo-haa – a sledgehammer to crack Pandora’s box

When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).

Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!

  • The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
  • Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.

But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:

  • ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
    • crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
    • military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
    • determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
    • feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
  • derivative plot
  • ham-fisted moralising.

In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point

  • Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
  • Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!

Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.

So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).

And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…


John Wyatt’s Matters of Life and Death (2nd edition now out)

With impeccable timing (i.e. the week we had our Christians Facing Issues service on Assisted Suicide), one of the key people involved in the service (you can see him introducing the whole issue very helpfully in the first youtube clip I posted) has a book out. Prof John Wyatt originally wrote his Matters of Life and Death in 1998 (based on his 1997 London Lectures of the same name). This has been fully revised and updated to include a number of recent developments in start and end of life debates. It is an excellent book and he really knows what he’s talking about (he is Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College, London).

For some bizarre reason, IVP asked me to write an endorsement – quite why, I don’t fully understand for I am by no means an ethicist nor at all medical (though perhaps being married to a nurse-midwife is some sort of qualification – a stretch I realise) – but John is a faithful and long-standing member of All Souls, so here it is anyway!

The experience of shrill headlines and some scientists’ over-reaching claims can be bewildering at the best of times. But when that feeling is coupled with the vague unease that ethical boundaries have been crossed, it is a great relief to know that wise guides like John Wyatt are at hand. I am immensely grateful for the new edition of this book. Skilfully combining  the insights of a scholar, the compassion of a practising doctor and the nuanced convictions of a mature Christian, Wyatt is uniquely qualified to write it. His style is readable and fluent, but never superficial or sloganeering.

Because he takes care to tackle difficult ethical questions head-on, applying biblical wisdom and drawing on a wide range of case studies (some of which derive from his own professional experience), I cannot recommend this book enough, to medical professional and concerned onlooker alike.

So all I can say is check it out! Matters of Life and Death is the simply best thing I’ve read on these difficult issues and will certainly help to get you thinking.


This time, I’m with Dawkins

One of the RSS feeds I follow is from a provocative little site called – and they never fail to come up with the most irritating and wretched examples of religious people doing really stupid things. Occasionally the site unfairly lays into religious people doing pretty sensible and reasonable things – but that doesn’t make much of a story for them, as one can probably imagine. Anyway, the site is reporting from the sharp end of the (mainly) American culture wars.

I wasn’t expecting great things from this little encounter – after all, Bill O’Reilly does have a certain reputation… But look at this and take notes… on how NOT to do it.

On this one, I was with Dawkins all the way… I mean honestly – it has it all: name-calling, preventing rational discussion, interruption, absurd and incoherent arguments… I’m impressed at how Dawkins managed (mostly) to keep his cool.

Far better, if you’re interested is the DVD of The God Delusion Debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, both Oxford professors. Intelligent, respectful and challenging (despite the frustrations of the format). You can get it through the Ravi Zacharias Trust store for only £9.


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 13 (October 2009)

EN72damngoodworkswebSacred Treasure

Quentin Blake Cambridge

Topical Treasure

  • 70 years on from the start of the 2WW – here are some remarkable photos of Normandy then and now.
  • Interesting effect of photo-editing: NYTimes & Cheney in the kitchen.
  • The irrepressible and ingenious Quentin Blake has done a panoramic cartoon history of Cambridge University, in celebration of its 800th anniversary; and it’s now on display at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Click the image and watch the slideshow…

Quirky Treasure

  • This is scary: a map of every McDonalds in the USA:

  • Love this: Inflatable street art from New York (inevitably)

UK’s 1st Atheist camp begins: a bastion of rigourous thinking?

Well, having had a well-plugged launch a few weeks back, the Camp Quest atheist camp has started. They’re having a ball, it seems.

Sam Klein, organiser (c/o Daily Mail)

Well of course they are – kids’ activity holidays have to work hard not to be. Camping and canoeing etc – a right laugh. And the UK Camp Quest is a spin-off from an American equivalent that’s been running for a few years already. According to the camp director, Sam Klein (right) they are:

trying to get the kids involved in philosophical thinking but in a way they don’t realise they’re doing it

Hmmm. They do all the things you’d have on a Christian camp (singing – Lennon’s Imagine instead of Kendrick) games, activities talks and discussion groups, etc. The main difference is that it’s designed to get people thinking.

One parent said:

Anything that can teach the children ways of thinking critically, ways of examining arguments, and recognising logical fallacies and trying to determine for themselves what they believe is true, then I think that’s a positive thing.

What particularly stuck me was the so-called centrepiece of the camp, namely the:

search for two invisible unicorns. The unicorns cannot be seen or heard, tasted, smelt or touched, they cannot escape from the camp and they eat nothing. The only proof of their existence is contained in an ancient book handed down over “countless generations”. A prize – a £10 note signed by Professor Richard Dawkins – is offered to any child who can disprove the existence of the unicorns.

Of course, there are important critical thinking skills to be learned from that. And I’m certainly not advocating an anti-rationalist approach; merely uncomfortable with the atheistic reductionist-rationalist approach. But it’s not hard at all to see where that little game is heading. Unicorns… God… Flying Spaghetti Monster… Hmmm… all as spurious, irrational and ridiculous as each other. Because obviously, if only the theist gave it some SERIOUS thought, he or she would reject such an absurd notion immediately.

Now, it’s a nice line on Sam’s t-shirt – and I have to confess that hers is a phrase that I use more often than not. The funny thing is that I find myself wanting to say it to proponents of scientific materialism. As a result of their rampant reductionism, I have to reply, “yes, but…”. Ironic, really.

The interesting thing is to see what happened to the son of the founder of Camp Quest in the USA. Not that anyone’s into point-scoring or anything. It’s just that it’s hard to kick against the goads.

But hey – I’m just quoting journalistic accounts and so may well have completely misunderstood and unnecessarily maligned them…


What if God disappeared…? A satirical blast…

I post this satirical blast for a number of reasons.

  • it makes me cringe – because it could so easily have been made by a Christian in earnest… (in fact, there were awful moments when I really thought that it had been – I wouldn’t put it past someone out there…)
  • it illustrates what many people assume – and shows the absurdity of many of the assumptions made by Christians about those who themselves make assumptions
  • it is clever and well produced – but so full of logical leaps and flaws that it sent my brain into worldview overdrive.

Watch and learn!


St Augustine on Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’? Read on…

Botticelli - St AugustineAlister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.

Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of  Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.

So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.

On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.

We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.

What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.

Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine


Resurrection Bullets – a few thoughts for Easter 09

To coincide with EA’s Slipstream co-ordinated blogathon for Easter, here are a few random bullets on Jesus’ Resurrection. And because i feel in the mood for some alliteration, here is some alliteration…

The attractions of accepting it

One could mention a zillion things – but here a few of the big ones:

  • JESUS: Jesus is who he claimed to be – it’s one thing to claim to be sent from God (anyone can do that, as history has proved); it’s quite another to predict the circumstances of one’s death AND then resurrection (cf. Mark 8:34-38, 9:31, 10:32-34). By the same token, it endorses his fulfilment of OT expectation (cf. 1 Cor 15:4)
  • DEATH: Death is not the end – he has beaten death at its own game. Therefore he goes through death in order, for example, to prepare a place in the Father’s house for his people. (John 14:1-6)
  • FALL: The serpent will be crushed (cf. Gen 3:15, Rom 16:20, Rev 20:10) so that the effects of the fall are completely reversed. That is why Rev 21-22 speaks of a heavenly garden city in Jerusalem where there will be eternal access to the Tree of Life (Rev 22:1-5)
  • RELIGION: Because of the resurrection, we discover that physical temples and religious shrines are no longer necessary. Jesus IS the Temple – i.e. the meeting place with God. The resurrection endorses his credentials as the greatest mediating point between God and humanity. (cf. John 2:19 & Acts 17:24-25)
  • JUSTICE: The world is not hopeless because evil doesn’t get away with murder. There will be a reckoning, and that is profoundly GOOD news. See Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, where he argues that the resurrection demonstrates ultimate authority and right to be the judge. (cf. Acts 17:31)
  • TRAILS BLAZED: Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, a metaphor from the world of farming and harvests. The firstfruits indicates the quality of the rest of the year’s crop – and would be dedicated to God. Jesus is the first, the trailblazer, the pioneer – and all who follow and trust in him, will revel in the fact of being part of the great resurrection harvest. (1 Cor 15:20, 23)
  • GRIEF: The resurrection doesn’t remove human grief – it is only the super-spiritual who pretend that it does. Paul for one would have been deeply affected had his dear friend, the Philippian Epaphroditus, have died (cf. Phil 2:27). But what the resurrection does do is profoundly to CHANGE grief for those who have died in the Lord – hence his encouragements to the Thessalonian Christians (cf. 1 Thes 4:13).

This is a poem which Garry Williams quoted this week at New Word Alive 2 in his seminar on the English Puritan emigrant to America, Anne Bradstreet. (Tim Chester blogged the seminar). She wrote a number of remarkable poems. This one was written after her 3 year old granddaughter had died:

With troubled heart and trembling hand I write,
The Heavens have chang’d to sorrow my delight.
How oft with disappointment have I met,
When I on fading things my hopes have set?…
Farewel dear child, thou ne’re shall come to me,
But yet a while, and I shall go to thee;
Mean time my throbbing heart’s chear’d up with this
Thou with thy Saviour art in endless bliss.

The barriers to believing it

  • Scientific Materialism: the supernatural simply doesn’t exist. Remember Dawkins damning, patronising remarks at the close of his debate with John Lennox (after Lennox had hurriedly concluded with his confidence in God on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection):

Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.

  • Deism: there is a divine creator, but he’s moved on. He has little or nothing to do with his universe now, and certainly wouldn’t have any interest in intervening within it.
  • Presumption: dead people don’t rise therefore Jesus didn’t rise.
  • Platonism (of sorts): the material world is evil and the spiritual is, well, spiritual. So Jesus couldn’t have risen with a heavenly body because why would God want to have a body anyway? Though of course, that would probably have ruled out the Incarnation as well…

The consequences of the con

But just suppose that the resurrection DIDN’T happen. Suppose it’s all one big con. Where would we be without the resurrection of Jesus? Well, the interesting thing is that the Apostle Paul was himself acutely aware of the fall-out if the resurrection was not true. He was quite upfront about it – for the entire Christian gospel is at stake here. He spells out a number of consequences in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-18 (for fun, here adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message), namely:

  • Our message (of the resurrection) is essentially just a matter of smoke and mirrors
  • We (the messengers of that resurrection) are ourselves just groping in the dark, lost and hopeless.
  • We Christians are a pretty sorry lot because all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years but not for eternity. We might enjoy the delusion of being forgiven but we really are not.

But Paul didn’t think it was a con – and nor do I. At the very least, there is evidence the points in this direction.

The data beyond debate

Yes, I realise that was a pretty contrived heading – it’s pretty late as I write this. And indeed, loads of different folks spell out the evidence for the resurrection. It did happen in history. Here are the main bullet points. For detail, check out Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? And N T Wright’s Who Was Jesus?

  • The Cross: perhaps he didn’t die or just swooned? But then, crucifixion was pretty barbaric and Roman soldiers would be unlikely to make mistakes in doing their duty. What motive could they possibly have for letting him be substituted or endure only half-measures?
  • The Empty Tomb: otherwise, it would been a synch for the Roman/Jewish authorities to have produced the body. It was the very thing they most feared (hence what was probably the only guarded tomb in Jerusalem!) (cf. Matt 28:11-15). It couldn’t have been the wrong tomb (body would have been produced; right tomb would have been quickly identified) Why else was no tomb ever venerated by anybody?
  • The Appearances:  incl 500+ at one time (1Cor 15:6) – therefore, can’t be hallucinatory? If it had been, it would still require some sort of ‘supernatural’ explanation.
  • The Early Church: for the church to have come into existence out of the embers of the crushed and fearful faith of the first disciples (cf. John 20:19-23),  something must have happened! How else did they endure persecution? Why else change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?