Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Formulating a Rationally Acceptable Christian Worldview

A model of Creation, God's love and interaction with us, and the Gospel, and responses to questions

In reply to a very kind blogger, who is looking into some of the ideas of Christianity's and other worldviews, I decided to respond to a few of the questions seen on the variety of issues that they have been discussing. This includes giving a little of my view on God as Creator, the meaning of Genesis and the 'image of God', and the idea of God using evolution as a tool, as well as God's love and the idea of why God's seeking of worship and prayer are expressions of altruistic love for humanity. In addition, a possible understanding of God's overall plan for reality is presented, together with its relation to the Gospel and the Atonement, before presenting a brief case for the rationality of the Christian worldview. As such, this post discusses a variety of issues.

Doing this is not meant to be in any way dogmatic: I am not asking readers to agree with everything that I have written below. Instead, I seek to provide a possible work-in-progress, non-exhaustive model, which is open to amendments and additions as necessary, for some of the basic truths about the Christian worldview, in order to present it as a rationally acceptable option. The word 'model' is used in a similar sense to the way it is in physics, biology or chemistry; it is a systematic formulation of some (not all) of the basic truths of a Christian worldview, which is designed be a good explanation for the data available. The word 'model' does not imply that what I have given below is somehow exemplary; the word model is being used in the sense of a possible systematic formulation, not in the sense of being an ideal. This systematic formulation is then designed to give a brief coherent Christian worldview which is (after any necessary modifications are made) reasonable, well-evidenced and thus rationally acceptable.

First of all, and this is very important, I must emphasise that we, as Christians, are all imperfect, and often portray a very bad image of what God is actually like; I would like to apologise, as I am often just another bad example, on behalf of us all. Thankfully, however, the actual truth of God's nature does not depend on what Christians believe about Him – no solely human theologian has grasped much more than a glimpse of God's love and compassion – which I, for one, am very relieved about indeed!

God the Creator, Genesis, and the 'image of God' using the mechanism of evolution

My understanding is that God is, in essence, analogous to a non-physical Mind, i.e. a Mind (an entity which is able to think and reason) which is independent of everything physical. As such, God is not some 'old man sitting on the clouds' figure somewhere in the sky; instead, being the Creator of everything physical (from the Earth to the Solar System to the Milky Way to every single entity within this universe, and any other universes that may exist) He transcends everything physical. The meaning of being the Creator is not having to adhere rigidly to the first few chapters of Genesis as though they are meant to be a scientific textbook; instead, the meaning (in my view) of God as Creator is that everything exists is dependent on Him, and would not exist without His conscious choice that it would exist.

As such, since time is an entity, God created time itself – the very 'space-time continuum' itself – and, as such, He is also independent of the influence of time. This does not imply that He cannot interact with time-bound agents such as humankind, but does mean that He is able to view the past, present and future all at once, with the wholeness of everything, every second, every inch, every person, under His supervision.

As for Genesis, my understanding is that its primary purpose, as with all biblical literature, is to present truths about God. It is not meant to be a literal mechanism of how the universe was created, which is left open to be explored by scientists and astronomers, but a revelation of significant truths about God and His relationship to humanity. As such, I consider it largely of the genre of poetry; many aspects of it may correspond to historical events, but its main function (in my view) is as a sort-of parable (like Jesus' parables, e.g. the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15), which may not have ever literally happened, but rather presented theological truth) conveying truths about God. Rather than being a history or scientific textbook, which misunderstands its purpose, it is a means by which God reveals truth, through its poetic genre. Such truths would include the idea that the entirety of the universe was created at the will of God and God alone (as a deliberate polemic against other cultures' polytheistic creation parables), the idea that God created humankind in His 'image', that God relates to humankind and desires that they live at peace with one another, among many other concepts, which would not necessarily be known if they were not demonstrated in the Genesis parables.

As such, my view is that Genesis leaves relatively open the mechanism by which God created the universe, allowing human scientists to hypothesise about and discover this area. I agree with the essence of the scientific consensus on this matter: my view, and many Christians would agree with me on this point, is that God created the universe using processes such as the Big Bang, about 13.75 billion years ago. I also believe that God created life through chemical processes on the early Earth, and then used evolution by natural selection to move from the first simple cells to organisms such as ourselves (this idea is called 'theistic evolution', one example being at the 'Biologos' website). He created our cognitive makeup and endowed His 'image' to us by such a mechanism as this, guided by His foreknowledge and providence, in my view.

As for the meaning of this 'image' of God, my understanding is that God based the design and working of the mind of humans to be similar to His own mind; as such, humans are created to be moral agents, conscious, with free will, designed for freedom, intelligent, inquisitive, able to be loving and caring. This is not a limitation of God, but a demonstration of His humility in, despite the relatively minuscule size of Earth and individual people compared to the entirety of Creation, choosing to create human beings in such a way that they can benefit from a mind that is created in the image of God, being able to love, care and have compassion on one another.

God's love, worship and prayer, and plan for Creation

My view is that one of God's highest moral attributes is agape love, which refers to love that disregards and sacrifices the self for the sake of the other, love which is unconditional. In fact, God's very essence consists of love; as the writer of 1 John states, 'God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.' (1 John 4:16b) God's justice is in harmony with His love: He is just because He is loving, and is loving because He is just. Even what is spoken of as 'God's wrath', in my view, is analogous to that of a father or mother's concerned anger at a child, or analogous to what we feel when we see a bully abusing a helpless individual; it is a passionate expression of active love, which may be painful to experience and is avoidable, but ultimately has a perfectly good purpose.

In fact, God does everything for a loving purpose; it seems to me that God's very reason for the creation of the universe is in order to love. God is not self-seeking or negatively egocentric; to the contrary, the very idea of the coming of Jesus portrays the opposite. God is a fountain of self-sacrificial love. My view is that God seeks worship not in some need of His own, but instead on behalf of those who worship, that they may be joyfully transformed in love and compassion as is God's will; this idea follows neurological research (such as that presented in 'How God Changes Your Brain', written by two agnostic neuroscientists) that meditation and contemplative practices have a beneficial effect on developing the brain (to such an extent that the differences are recognisable in scans).

Similarly, God seeks prayer in order for individuals to deepen their relationship with Him (which is a product, once again, of His love – it would be odd if God, desiring a relationship with humankind, did not desire them to communicate with Him), and, again, it can have measurable and visible neurological benefit. In my view, it is not meant to be thought of as 'changing God's mind' about an issue; instead, as God is timeless and views all past, present and future events, He can order the world in such as way that it takes into account the free choices of those who choose to pray. As such, God can pre-plan the future to take into account all the prayers of individuals, answering each with a long-term view and knowledge of what is best for the individual, whether the answer be immediately in this present life or in the future. No heartfelt prayer is ever ignored; God will always make the best out of it, choosing the best course of action to take, whether that be immediate intervention, or, if it is, in the long-term, more loving, in the future.

In my view, God's relational character involves intervening in reality, hence the reason why He didn't just choose to create the universe and then let it move along on its own; intervention does not imply an imperfection, but simply part of the fulfilling of a perfect, personal (rather than impersonal) plan. A major component of the Christian view is that this present life is not the entirety of human existence, that God has wonderful plans for individuals that surpasses their physical deaths. It is not a case of a person surviving their own death, but rather the case that God preserves a person's mind (rather like a computer program) in spite of their physical death, so that the 'program' of a person's mind can be run elsewhere.

One of God's deepest desires is that humankind will live in a society with harmony and love and compassion with one another; however, as He has created humanity in His 'image', with a true potential for freedom, with significant free will, giving the potential for moral failure, such a society cannot be created immediately. As long as human will is selfish (and I acknowledge that I, for one, so often am), such a society is impossible. As such, this present life can act as a form of 'training ground' whereby human wills can be moved to freely choose to open up to God's love and hence be transformed by His work. This preserves the incredible value of free will, since, if God merely transformed individual minds without considering their free will, then any significant free will that these minds had would be destroyed. God is the one who does the transforming work, not human effort, but He takes into account human choice. By doing this transformation, humankind will be able to, while preserving free will, live and flourish in the perfect society that God always planned them to live in. This society, because of the necessity of this present life, may only truly be realised after the end of this present life (and could be referred to, in everyday terms, 'Heaven'), being similar in nature to the present world, except transformed to be free of all the forms of suffering and addiction and downright horrendous evil. For further discussion about responding to the Problem of Evil, this blog has a post here, giving one possible Christian reply.

Given this ultimate plan and destination for reality, God intervenes within the world on an individual basis as much as is best (according to His omniscience) before the fulfilment of this final hope of the creation of a finally perfect, and eternally existent, society; in other words, certain matters are best dealt with immediate, obvious intervention (such as that which is seen recorded in biblical texts), whereas others are best dealt with at a later point. My view is that no person is forgotten by God, and a major feature of Jesus' teaching is that the poor, oppressed and forgotten are ultimately those who are the most blessed in the future.

Relating this to the Gospel and the Atonement

The distinctly Christian message is that of reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus Christ; this is the most significant intervention in reality by God. As mentioned above, my view is that the purpose of this present life is to present the opportunity for people to open their heart to the work of God; in the Christian understanding, this is not by putting effort into trying to be perfect, but, instead, by putting trust in God to 'sort out' our own moral character. The biblical metaphor of Jesus 'knocking at the door' to our hearts may be used; He is not going to force His way in to do the deep cleaning, but instead takes into account our own free choice. It is not by our own effort, it is, to use theological language, 'by grace alone', i.e. all by God's work and not by our own work; all we have to do is open up our hearts to it. Since it is all God's work, no-one can boast in it being due to their own effort.

My view is that, since humanity becomes estranged from God, who is by nature self-giving love, as it engages in the atrocities such as those seen in the last century, and because a relationship requires both parties to be willing, God transforming a human soul can also be described in terms of reconciliation. If God sees that a person reaches out to Him, He joyfully transforms them and restores their relationship with Him, which beforehand God had been unwilling to force onto a person. It is, as such, analogous to accepting an offer to be adopted. In this understanding, the message has two parts, both the restoration of a relationship with God, which is reconciliation, and the consequent opening up of a person's heart to be transformed by God, so that the perfect, free society planned by God to exist may be possible. God takes into account the free choice of the individual and does not impose these actions upon them. As such, God is always reaching out to humanity waiting for humanity to reach out to God to be reconciled; Jesus' parable of the Lost Son is a wonderful metaphor of this process (found in Luke 15).

In my view, the Atonement is, at heart, the 'at-ONE-ment' of humankind and God; it is the mechanism of this reconciliation. It, in some way, involves the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, but opinions vary as to how exactly God works through these events; it may have a component of God in Jesus paying humankind's debt and thus working for their reconciliation, another component of God visually demonstrating His love through Jesus' sacrifice, another component of victory of Jesus' life over death, another component of the shunning of the violence of those who crucified Jesus, and another component of providing evidence for the Christian message. Hence, even if a person has moral objections to one proposed mechanism of the Atonement, this is no reason why the 'general gist' of it as being reconciled to God by Jesus' death and resurrection ought to be rejected. As C. S. Lewis argued, holding a particular view of the Atonement apart from the idea that the idea that it is by Jesus' death and Resurrection that we are reconciled to God (by whatever mechanism may have been used), is not essential for a Christian.

As mentioned above, my view was that individuals are saved by God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, i.e. opening one's heart to God. Now, I would like to emphasise that it seems to me that the meaning of 'faith' is often misunderstood: it is certainly not the call to 'believe without evidence', or synonymous with 'blind faith'. Faith is, at heart, the decision to trust a person, whether it be a friend or a college or a shopkeeper. It is a decision rather than a statement about the evidence available. Someone may trust ('put faith in') a very untrustworthy person on the basis of very little evidence, or someone may trust ('put faith in') a very virtuous and trustworthy person on the basis of a large amount of evidence. Christianity is certainly not about believing without evidence; to the contrary, in my view, it is well-evidenced, and the exhortation to 'put faith' in Jesus Christ is an exhortation to decide to trust the person of Jesus Christ.

The Christian worldview as a rational, well-evidenced option

The very area that seeks to make a case that Christianity is rationally acceptable is often referred to as 'apologetics' (from the Greek 'to make a defense'), which is one of my major interest areas. Christians acquainted with apologetics tend to be more open to questions, and it is my view that we should welcome questions about what we believe and why; although many perceive Christians as 'shying away' from difficult questions, I think that it's much better to welcome and try to compassionately answer honest questions, and, as such, anyone exploring for truth can be really positive in my view.

One method of doing this is to make a case first for the existence of God (i.e. an intelligent Mind who is responsible for the existence of the universe) by, for example, examining the intricacy of the laws of physics (e.g. the presence of any such force as 'gravity' at all, without which no planets would exist, and the fact that all the physics of the universe is able to be expressed in neat, coherent mathematical equations) and suggesting that they point to an intelligent Being responsible for the universe. The idea is here that the hypothesis that the universe is the result of an intelligent Being, given these facts about the mathematical, intelligible to humankind, life-sustaining fundamental principles of physics, is more plausible than the hypothesis that the universe is due to no form of intelligence whatsoever.

Another, particularly stark in my view, piece of evidence that could be used in support of the existence of a Being interested in interacting with humanity would be the very interesting set of apparently miraculous events that have occurred in direct correlation with prayer; contrary to what may be presupposed, there are a wide variety of compelling, well-evidenced accounts. Some astounding examples for me were found while having a brief look at the chapters on examples in scholar Dr. Craig Keener's book, 'Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts', who holds a PhD in New Testament Studies and Christian Origins, one good example being the recovery of his sister-in-law. Although some accounts are (unsurprisingly) likely to contain inaccuracies, which Craig Keener is aware of, this is no grounds for dismissing every account, and it is highly reasonable to suggest that at least some of the testimonies are accurate. Many of these include multiply-attested accounts where people are immediately healed (or even revived from death) after direct prayer. In such cases, it seems to me to be highly reasonable to suggest that the best explanation for the data is the intervention of an external Being who is interested in prayer and is extremely powerful, and this, hence, provides (in my view) very strong evidence for the existence of the Christian concept of God.

This can be coupled with an argument for Jesus' Resurrection, by showing that it is the 'best explanation' for the data that we have for the first century around the time of Jesus' death. This does not require us to presuppose the truth, or inspiration, or even general reliability, of the Bible; instead, to begin with, the biblical documents can be treated just as historical documents of the 1st and 2nd centuries. The New Testament (the latter part of the Bible) is, fundamentally, an anthology of documents, which were written by a variety of different authors between around 53 AD and around 150 AD (perhaps earlier), after Jesus' death in around 30-36 AD. They were originally written in Greek, and, although the original documents are not available, there exist many copies (significantly more than the majority of ancient documents), where the discipline known as 'textual criticism' enables scholars to gain, with a very high degree of accuracy (where no major doctrine relies on the very few uncertain areas), access to what was written in the very early forms of these texts. Treating these documents, particular the 'Pauline Epistles' (the letters written by Paul of Tarsus, which begin after the 4 Gospels) as historical documents, a few facts can be established using historical investigation about the period around Jesus' death. These facts include the historical reality of the crucifixion, Jesus' death, the probable empty tomb, and the apparent appearances of Jesus to the disciples. The presence of this material, which is a much richer array of sources than for the vast majority of historical figures around that time, and which is backed up by non-Christian sources Tacitus and Josephus, firstly make any view that Jesus was just a myth very, very implausible indeed (hence why the consensus of scholars, including atheist and agnostic scholars, agree that Jesus was a literal historical figure), and also provide a goldmine of data about the end of Jesus' life. Then, it is argued, the best explanation of the data about the end of Jesus' life is that Jesus was raised from the dead, against implausible rival hypotheses. In case of interest, a fuller version of this argument can be found, for example at the blog 'In Defense of the Christian Faith'. (Or, the very brief version at this blog is here)

In my view, therefore, a good case can be made for Jesus' Resurrection. From this, if the Resurrection occurred and was brought about by God, it makes sense that God, in some way, approved of Jesus' teachings. Hence, establishing the truth of the Resurrection helps establish the truth of Jesus' teachings, including those of claims to being the Son of God. In such a way, Christianity can have a rational foundation; it does not require the suppression of the intellect in order to be believed, and has a real relevance with actual reality.


A few questions briefly considered

Now, in relation to a few specific, and very legitimate, questions that the blogger at 'Wanton Soul' brought up here:

1) Is Christianity based around forced subjugation, or some sort of mental slavery, of its followers?

Firstly, I would definitely agree with the comments made by others in reply to this objection, which give 'submission' as an alternative, and more representative word, than 'slavery'. In fact, it seems that we can go further than that; the New Testament teaching is, in fact, the idea that we are actually 'set free' by trusting in Jesus; John 8:32 would be a major example, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The idea is that we are set free in order to be able to love others, and grow to love the truth and love mercy and justice to such an extent that being kind and compassionate is what we naturally desire to do, and being selfish is alien to us. It's not a forced subjugation; instead, we are called to be free, and it is meant to be a joy and not a burden: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) We're released from burdens such as addiction, death, and bitterness, not burdened even further.

In Jesus' ministry there seems to be a major theme of turning expectations around. As such, He insists that the poor are the ones who will be blessed, rather than the rich. He offers a life filled with joy, not bound to the 'ups and downs' of circumstances, which, being based on finding joy in having compassion for others and being accepted by God, does not entail the associated suffering of others. The whole idea of it being 'Good News' is that it is, indeed, 'good' – better than anything we've heard in the past, better that even our best expectations of reality, but still well-evidenced.

2) What about those Christians who protest violently against issues such as homosexuality? Is Christianity all about excluding others?

I really believe that the protesters in the classic pictures of Christians holding up banners with aggressive and hateful messages on have got the totally wrong idea – a basic Christian idea is that God's love is unconditional, and includes everybody, and is regardless of anything that any person may have done. Jesus spoke specifically about the sort of behaviour that condemns, excludes and shuns others, such as that of the Pharisees; much of His teaching is, in fact, directed against this form of self-righteousness and lack of inclusion.

Jesus ate with those who society looked down upon, such as the Tax Collectors, and welcomed prostitutes, as well as defending the weak who were being exploited by the rich, while speaking against those who assumed that they were superior to others. We are called as Christians, hence, clearly to show love to everybody, without exception. Christianity ought to be, at heart, radically inclusive, following Jesus' radically inclusive message, transcending everything that divides. Nothing earns God's love; it is poured out upon all people as a free gift; God loves people regardless of status, gender, sexual orientation, age, criminal record, profession and religion. As such, I apologise for the mistakes that we all make as Christians, for certainly none of us properly manage to live up to this incredibly radical message; thankfully, God's love does not depend on our misrepresentations of Him! :-)

3) Does Christianity require sacrificing one's intellectual sanity?

As I expressed with the brief overview of my view on apologetics above, it is my view (and the view of many others) that adopting Christian does not require any degree of abandonment of rational faculties. To the contrary, a verse such as part of 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts, 'Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,...' Based on philosophical and historical argument and other forms of evidence, it seems to me that a profoundly rational case can be built for a Christian worldview.

Indeed, in my experience, Christianity and an interest in Christian apologetics has ended up making me embark on more research about historical method, archaeology, philosophy, mathematical probability and logic than I ever probably would have done otherwise, because of the amazing scope and motive it provides for rational investigation from my perspective. I first began to get interested in more the more specific apologetics field through a very rich site called Apologetics 315 (where apparently '315' comes from the 1 Peter 3:15 verse). I have begun to realise the scope for creativity rational thinking provides, as individual ideas and arguments can be accepted or rejected and original versions formulated. It is wonderful! My view is hence that a Christian can place their trust in Jesus Christ without abandoning critical thinking; instead, in some cases, it can provide a motive to enhance logical thinking skills!

In such a way, it seems to me that a coherent formulation of some basic ideas of a Christian worldview can be made that fits smoothly with scientific observation of reality and history, and which can be accepted without abandoning one's critical thinking skills, without shunning and excluding others, and without being trapped in any form of mental slavery.

As such, I end on a joyful note, giving that the true message of Christianity should be one of joy, peace, inclusion, freedom and intellectual fulfillment.

“ Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” (Philippians 4:4-5)

2 comments:

  1. Your points seem valid and are not completely without logic although I don't necessarily agree with them all. I think that worshiping works more toward impeding free thinking rather than expand it. It teaches people to rely on an external source for hope and inspiration. If things go well then "It's part of God's Plan". If things go badly then "The Devil made me do it" etc. It's okay to have faith to a degree, but the most important faith that you can have is in yourself. If you are trying to recover from addiction, etc, you have to look within yourself for the answers and be be able to dig deep enough to find the strength to overcome it. True strength comes from within. Very interesting point of view. It gives me a few things to think about as well as some references to attach to my research. Thanks for the input.

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  2. Hi Nowhere Man,

    Thanks for taking the time to have a look, and for the very kind and generous comment - I did go a bit over the top in terms of length; often succinctness is not one of my strong points! I'm glad that at least some of it is of some interest... :-) Indeed, you make a good point about having good self-esteem; I think that many ultimately struggle (myself included) with this issue, and it contributes to much depression and loss of self-worth that leads so many to the terrors of addiction and even self-harm. Having faith in yourself, in a good way, is a truly wonderful asset! From my perspective, I find great joy and freedom in the idea of the provision of a rational hope external to myself, that is not dependent on my mind or my body, and so continues to be certain regardless of any mess that I may get into, which reforms and empowers the 'self' without destroying the 'self', working through my mind without replacing it. :-) Anyway, thank you for the wonderful comment! Keep up your blogging and I look forward to reading some more! :-)

    All best wishes,
    Elliot

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