Saturday, April 5, 2014

How the Gospel changes everything

The gospel is more than a ticket for the ferryman across the styx. It's really more like popping the red pill in The Matrix, and realising what's really going on.  Virginia Owens in And the Trees Clap their Hands: Faith Perception and the New Physics says when we know God we become like spies, secret agents in a world where every clue matters.

The Bible is not just a religious document, it's ideological one, and in it God expresses an opinion about everything. 2 Peter 1:3 "His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life." and 2 Timothy 3:17 "... so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." You don't being stop being  godly or cease being responsible for doing good works while drinking coffee, interrogating a suspect or making love.

Now it's true that the Scripture doesn't include detailed instructions on about how to travel between the planets or how to bake nice fluffy scones. You could say that Jesus didn't say anything about cars, but does that preclude God having an opinion about if we should make them, what we should do in them and what their place is in our lives? God has an opinion about everything and the Bible speaks to everything in these seven ways.

  1. Ethics
  2. Purpose
  3. Patterns
  4. Pictures
  5. Boundaries
  6. Occasional details
  7. The meta-narrative


Mike Westerman said...

Of course we can agree on one thing: that the bible was written by humans, humans with language, culture and relationships. It doesn't read like it was written by zombies logged into an extraterrestrial with their own minds in hibernate mode. It reads more like people writing about their own understanding and perception of god and the godly (or ungodly) life.

It may be open to challenge to suggest that human experience has changed so radically that no knowledge, no wisdom, from earlier eras is relevant to our lives now: we all still laugh and love, cry and hate. But what sort of model of knowledge and understanding of the world privileges ancient understandings simply because they form the basis of school of thought that has established a place in history, even if so many its premises are now known to be discredited? If we have to struggle to reinterpret in the light of new knowledge to resolve those contradictions, to make hollow claims of the need to have "faith" in things that in other aspects of our lives we would never embrace, why wouldn't we reach the conclusion that the very model of knowledge itself on which religious faith rests is misguided?

Wouldn't we instead realise that if there is a god he is unknowable in any specific way, but that being human means being certain there is a better way for us to live, and search for the wisdom that might make it possible. Losing scepticism in our knowledge and clinging to dogma, privileging ancient or modern rather than testing them against evidence, leads only the sort of strife that prevents such a better way impossible. The gospel has had its turn and failed, changing nothing, leaving only a vision that we can always find something noble in the human spirit, even in the cruel narrative of the state killing someone who spoke out. And christianity has no franchise on that!

Luke Isham said...

Hi Uncle Mike,

Thanks for stopping by. Firstly points of agreement, yes the Bible is also entirely human. Which will be the focus when I get to the post about occasional details. Perhaps the more exciting point of agreement, yes what I'm arguing for is how Christians arrive at a body of knowledge.

Points of disagreement include wondering why you adopt a naturalistic starting point instead of a supernatural one? Healthy skepticism, knowledge and inquiry all presuppose meaning and truth that are external to us and consistent across time and space. Although I think you try to head off this objection when you write that if God did exist he'd be unknowable. I think you can arrive at a knowledge of God who communicates, rationally, spiritually or evidentially. Finally although this doesn't advance my argument or prove yours, I have to point out it's a logical fallacy when you arbitrarily privilege modern knowledge over ancient knowledge.

andrew westerman said...

Luke, even if I suppose the Matrix, "meaning and truth external to us", what then?

The honest man would admit that what is unknown IS unknown, not secretly known by some, 'the faithful', the privileged pill takers.

The honest man would also call most of that which is alleged to be a 'sign' of this supernatural to be simple fantasy, since so many sign pointing in so many directions is cacophony characteristic of fantasy, not a coherent supernatural space.

In accessing the supernatural, any mumbo-jumbo will do, so long as you exercise blind faith. In accessing the natural, you, along with those of us who reject the supernatural, apply consistent principles and processes to knowledge.

When you can show the God who communicates "evidentially", then likely we skeptics will take notice. It is that singular lack of a good reason to make the supernatural a starting point that rather erodes the credibility of theism.

There is something rather dishonest (and I know you will immediately raise the hackles at that suggestion) about objecting to someone privileging "modern knowledge over ancient knowledge", when in practice, that is what you do every moment of the day.

Yes, Christianity is an ideology. An ideology which chooses carefully what ancient knowledge it would like to make significant and what it will ignore. This is the nature of ideologies in general.

As Mike suggested, the gospel of supernatural magic is way past its use by date. It's time for the gospel of goodness to throw off the silly garbs of resurrectionism, biblicism, theism and sinfulism. They only ever made sense if you kept the door closed to other knowledge. I think the current Pope gets that.

Anonymous said...

Very refreshing to read these comments. "Christianity has no franchise on that" - spot on.

One hopes that one day Luke you might be able to take a step back from your circumscribed analyses and let much more of the depth and richness of _all_ human existence and history sink in for a while. Get some sense of how arbitrary and ordinary any one particular flavour of any one particular strand of any one particular religion among many actually is.

Ironically, for many of us the deepest experience of the sense of release, relief and rebirth proffered by Christianity has come through daring to let it go.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Anonymous,

Genuinely Interesting comments, but please at least use a pseudonym on this blog in future. So we can have at least the basics of a discussion!

Hi Uncle Andrew,

Thanks also for stopping by. It some ways I see your point, that I have a supernatural trump card that I play when there's no direct evidence for me to provide. For example God doesn't answer my prayer to turn a car into a dinosaur. It then seems dodgy when I claim that the supernatural works only in a particular Judeo-Christian way. I don't deny there's an irrationality about the Christian body of knowledge.

However, and this is probably territory that we've covered on previous debates on Facebook, your naturalistic (if I'm reading you right?) viewpoint isn't terribly rationalistic either. (Just to be clear I believe Christianity is *both* rationalistic and irrationalistic. This leaves me open to some fair criticism but it's no worse than the solutions you're offering!)

What do I mean that your arguments are ultimately just as irrational? You write as though external standards exist, as though the chaotic meaningless universe actually has patterns! Why should local coincidences like; smiles, grammar, truth, God and magic signify anything? Furthermore you write about honesty as though there was some moral value associated with it. Evidence, mumbo-jumbo, God, honesty and ideology are all meaningless words without a framework to make sense of them. How does a cold, empty meaningless world provide that? Why sould socially constructed meaning, signify anything more than chaos?

What's even more interesting is that I'm arguing for a meta-narrative and you're arguing against it as though there was some moral value in arguing against it and as though you had your own meta-narrative!

(I like your list of "ism's" and I agree the current Pope is an interesting fellow.)

andrew westerman said...


"You write as though external standards exist, as though the chaotic meaningless universe actually has patterns!"

I doubt you have a premise to say that. You were born and raised in a family where a meaningful framework was "currency" of negotiating the world. So was I.

There is no reason to suppose that either there is or that I use an external absolute framework. I simply bump up against the framework I inherited.

I call this tentative framework your narrative (I have mine, you have yours, your family have theirs etc) We recalibrate this framework as readily as we recalibrate all our experiences.

"Oh, I hadn't realised how far it was to Cairns." "Oh, I hadn't realised how silly salvation is" The point is that your recalibration has neither been as extensive nor intense as mine.

Smiles are meaningful as social symbols, granting me a social status. I mimic a smile because it seems to work, not because the 'grand smiler' gave me a special dispensation to smile.

We inherited these propensities from our ancestors and they from theirs, ad infinitum. Eventually, if we go back far enough we get to the Big Bang. We realise that this is how it falls out.

So where does this lead me? How can I be counselled on moral issues? Only through the reference you already have - society and the universe in which you live. When you have actually exhausted the meaning there, I guess you have cause to go behind the Matrix.

"Why should socially constructed meaning, signify anything more than chaos?" If the smile means nothing to you, then that only shows you have already made up your mind that smiles must have authenticity certificates from heaven.

I suggest you will wait a long time for such a certificate. Meanwhile, I'll accept mine and move on.