December 24, 2013

O Holy Night


O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

(Yes I know that verse 2 isn't in the video. The video is still beautiful)

December 16, 2013

15 Things Christians Should Not Say to Atheists

I saw this video a couple of months ago: 15 things to NEVER say to an atheist by TheAtheistVoice (whom I will call AV from here on) on YouTube. I wanted to do a post about it because, A) lists are easy things to make posts about and B) I liked the tone within which the video was done. Some of these 15 things the guy has a point about, while others I think he misunderstands. So for each of the 15, I will include a reference in terms of when he starts talking about it. I recommend you listen to his comments on each, and then read my comments in turn. Here is the video:

  1. Where do you get your morality? (4 seconds) Here I think he clearly misunderstands the question. Perhaps this is due to some Christians framing it poorly (on YouTube this is highly possible), but ethically speaking this is a very reasonable question. Yes, of course atheists aren't evil, but atheism cannot account logically for the morality that they have.
    To understand this question properly, you have to not take it pragmatically, as AV seems to. Christians acknowledge that atheists have morals. But the more philosophical question is what are those morals based on. To some degree morality is instinctual but if as humans we have the ability to rise above our mere instincts and in doing so we have to ask these higher philosophical questions about the justification for those instincts. This is especially true since the exact codification of morality varies from civilization to civilization.
    Also, as a point of clarification, Christians don't define morality off of the biblical law, but off of the character of Christ and the holiness of humanity. But this is worth its own post.
  2. Your life must be so empty!(22 seconds) This is a really interesting one IMO. First of all, I agree with him that Christians shouldn't say this, at least not in this way. The kind of fulfillment that we find in Christ is usually not something that we can speculate on or feel is lacking if we haven't experienced it before. So to expect a non-Christian to miss something that they have not experienced is a major mistake, and likely to be misunderstood.
    This doesn't mean that the question of purpose is a irresponsible question to ask. As a philosophical question, it is incredibly relevant to point out that all of our works (if atheism were true) would come to naught. Take all of the things that he lists. All of those things will cease to be. While it may give him present gratification, it isn't the same thing as seeing that his life has true meaning. But if we fail to carefully separate the question of purpose from the question of personal satisfaction in life, we will come off as arrogant and out of touch.
  3. Why are you mad at God?(55 seconds) Though the unicorn bit is over the top, he certainly has a point here. This is an issue of stereotyping, and is something that us Christians shouldn't be doing. Different people become atheists for different reasons. Some are raised atheist; some became convinced for apparently logical reasons; some are angry at religious people; and some are angry at God for not coming through for them at some point. While it is reasonable to ask the question to the last person, it is unreasonable to ask it to the other three.
    And even then, let us consider that fourth option for a second. It is still unreasonable to ask this question unless they are expressing that anger in that moment. Remember we are not trying to win an argument, but win a soul. It is an entirely different thing.
  4. You can't disprove God.(1:10) Christians absolutely shouldn't say this. This is a retreat and empowers atheist argumentation (as you see here). What exactly is the value in believing in something that is unfalsifiable? I don't see that as productive in the slightest. What is more important is that we take the time to establish what is and is not good evidence for God, and yes we should demand evidence from the atheist as well.
    Writing this something occurred to me. Perhaps a Christian will say this as a polite way to end a conversation. Kind of saying, "You won't convince me, so back off". Even here, this isn't very wise. Instead of ending the conversation, you'll merely be starting a new one. So there is still no advantage to a Christian ever saying this.
  5. What if you're wrong?(1:58) This can be seen as a straw man of Pascal's Wager, and is therefore handled quite poorly. Pascal's wager is worthy of it's own post as well, and requires more serious reflection than this video gives it. Additionally, his answer is merely a straw man of how salvation really works within Christianity. God will not condemn someone for asking honest questions, but He is concerned with how you select those questions, and the attitudes that you hold.
  6. You just have to have faith.(2:53) Again I am in agreement with him here. This is a retreat, and there is no need for us to retreat. If you don't know an answer, than admit that, and point out that you are human and simply don't have all of the answers.
    A proper definition of faith is also in order here. Faith is trusting in God. Trusting in someone when you don't have sufficient answers is not only reasonable, but also necessary. No scientist redoes every single experiment to see for themselves if the conclusions that others reached were legitimate. There just isn't enough hours in your life. To some degree you have faith in others' research, and that's OK. But it is important to explain why that is, and frame it properly.
  7. Just open your heart to God.(3:34) This is a problem of Christianese, and yes, Christians shouldn't say this. As a Christian, you cannot assume that an atheist understands your terminology, or frames his life in the same way that we do. Yes, I would say that if someone is a committed atheist then they have in some manner closed off their heart. However, I do not know how, nor do I expect the atheist to simply fix the problem because I told him to. And frankly, why would you? It is your job as a Christian to instead build a relationship with the person, and participate in this examination. This strikes me more as a Christian being lazy than anything else.
  8. You were never really religious.(4:06) Seriously. How would you really know this? This demonstrates an evangelistic problem with OSAS, which is something I reject anyway. You will never get anywhere by explaining somebody's life to them. They are the ones who lived it, not you.
  9. What happened in your childhood?(5:12) Another that Christians really shouldn't say. Again, it is hubris to assume things about someone else's life, and when you do so, you destroy your credibility, and the credibility of other Christians after you.
  10. Have you read the Bible?(5:42) This one is interesting for a few different reasons:
    1. Asking if an Atheist has read the Bible only makes sense if you are checking to see if they understand Christianity. It doesn't make sense to say this if you are talking about their Atheist beliefs
    2. More interestingly, do we really want Atheists just reading the Bible? Do they have the appropriate hermeneutics training to read what it really is saying? Do they understand how to put things into historical context? Do they understand how different books relate to one another? Let's face it, if you tell an atheist who has never read the Bible to read it, they aren't starting in Matthew, but Genesis, Exodus and then Leviticus. Not really a good place to be to understand Christianity
    Overall, we have to be careful about non-believers reading the Bible. Remember what the eunuch said to Philip, "How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?"
  11. I'll pray for you(6:40)There are a few things to comment on here. Yes, instead of just saying that we will pray for him, we should also do something! Absolutely. But I disagree with him that saying that we will pray for him is something we shouldn't say. That said, we should be conscious of how we say it. We should recognize that they don't believe in prayer, and we can't use prayer as an argument or something. But seriously, us saying that we will pray is nothing more than an affirmation that we believe it, and it does mean more than simply saying, "you are in our thoughts." While I get what he is saying, I think it is completely fine to tell someone that you are praying for them, as long as you are not hitting them over the head with it, and you are prepared to basically deal with this kind of reaction.
  12. Do you worship the devil?(7:34) Sigh...
  13. You must be Agnostic(8:01) Flying Spaghetti Monster: something atheists should really stop saying to Christians. Truly a dumb argument.
    Anyway, I wrote a post on this issue a couple of weeks ago. The problem is that the line between agnostic and atheist is generally drawn on an individual level. For instance even here is he says, "To me, an agnostic is..." Well that's sort of the problem. That is not how the term was originally defined, and you can't just decide what a word means on your own. That said, there is a time and place for this conversation, and many make this point at inappropriate times. But this is legit if it is properly contextualized and actually serves a rhetorical purpose.
  14. Isn't Atheism a religion?(9:02)Ugh. This is annoying because he gets a lot of things wrong here, and so does the Christian who asks this. So just everyone is wrong here.
    First of all, let's look at his definition of religion: a belief in a higher power. The problem is that there are a lot of spiritualists who believe in higher powers and that can't really be termed a religion. Also, classic Buddhism is a religion and yet it doesn't believe in a higher power.
    Religion is a systematized worldview which is upheld corporately through ritual. Atheism isn't a religion because it doesn't naturally lend itself to corporate gathering and isn't ritualistic. (And being a Cubs fan isn't a worldview, so fails for other reasons).
    However, when Christians say this, what they are really saying is that Atheism is a worldview. It is not a non-position. It is not as simple as simply being "off" or whatever. There are certain epistemological and cosmological assertions which form the foundation of being atheist. It is a philosophy. It is a worldview. But no, it is not a religion.
  15. Why are you so angry?(9:40) Actually I think this is a good question if asked honestly. And this is the answer. To be honest, it is for the same reason why Christians get mad at atheists. Both of us address the public sphere and others based off of what we believe to be true, and when other obstruct that vision, it is frustrating because we care about truth and other people.
    What bothers me in the video on this last one is that he cannot see that his frustration is mutual, and his statement that he cares about truth and rights and we don't is simply hubris, and makes him guilty of the very thing he is complaining against.

These 15 things Christians shouldn't say to Atheists pretty much fall into two categories: Good arguments that are often presented poorly, and retreat statements designed to protect the Christian from criticism. For those of the first category, I encourage my fellow Christians to be aware that what we intend to say is not always what is heard, and therefore be sure you are communicating, not simply talking.

For those of the second category, don't say those things. We have no reason to retreat, and presenting Christianity as an amorphous belief that cannot be defeated makes it look fake. Don't do that. Admit when you don't know things, and focus on why you believe it. And lean on your fellow Christians to relieve some of the burden if you feel like you are being constantly attacked. God designed the church to be a body: a living organism that works together for the kingdom.

And yes, buy apologetics books, but also buy atheist books, and compare. Never trust someone who says to only read their side's work, but let the other side define themselves. I love William Lane Craig, but I trust his work because he defines atheism based on what other atheists say and have said. It is important that we do this, and not simply judge the other side based on what our side has said. But we shouldn't just read that side, and ignore the criticism that comes from our side. In other words, it takes work, and there are no short cuts.

But I would like to end on a more irenic note. One of the last things he says is that it is ok to say these things in good faith. I think that this is fundamentally my point throughout this: what these comments mean when said in good faith. There are of course many Christians who make these comments without trying to understand where the Atheist is coming from, and also without fully understanding the arguments that the they are based on. While it is also legitimate to ask questions, especially of friends and acquaintances, but when it comes to engagement in public or on the internet, make sure you were well-versed in the subject. Otherwise, you do more harm than good.

December 9, 2013

A Problem With Time

I've been dealing with a bit of an intellectual dilemma, and I want to get it out there. But this has to do with the technical ideas, so I have define some terms first.

First of all, there are considered to be two basic theories in regards to the nature of time: A-theory and B-theory. A-theory understands the past and the future to not truly exist. All that exists is the present moment which is a transition from the past moment to the future moment. B-theory views time as a dimension of space. Thus reality exists as a 4 dimensional block of space-time. 

Which theory of time one holds is important when understanding the nature of God's foreknowledge. First instance, if you have an A-theory of time, then how does God know the future, since the future does not exist? That would be like God knowing the anatomy of a unicorn. This is the fundamental reason why I have always held to a B-theory of time, visualizing God is basically existing apart from time, and being able to be in both the past and the future simultaneously.

Indeed, I have always seen God as omnitemporal. Seeing time as a dimension of space, His relationship to time would be the same as His relationship to space. Thus omnitemporality is nothing more than an extension of omnipresence. 

Now, I have been reading The Cosmological Argument by Dr. William Lane Craig. One of the consistent points that is made in the various forms cosmological argument is that a quantitative infinity cannot exist for it causes logical inconsistencies. This is the fundamental reason that philosophers have often given when arguing that the universe requires a beginning, since an infinite past is impossible since the past should be measurable. 

However, what I have recently realized is that the same goes for the future given a B-theory of time. If the full stretch of time already exists, and it cannot exist infinitely in the past, than it would have to relate to the future as well for from God's perspective the past would be equally measurable. If one end of a block can't be infinite, the other end can't be either. While some might not have a problem with this, it would be the end of eternal life on earth. I cannot be resurrected from the dead and exist forever on this earth if the B-theory of time is accurate.

I don't know how to escape the conundrum. If this is correct, then the B-theory of time is simply wrong. But if it is wrong, that leaves us with the A-theory of time. But I really don't like that option, for the concept of omnitemporality would no longer make sense. God couldn't exist both in the past and the future simultaneous since they do not exist. Thus He only exists in the present. This leaves us with determinism, Molinism, or Open-theism, none of which are options that I am particularly fond of (though if forced, I would go with Molinism). 

I can only see one option in terms of saving B-theory. I would call this the temporary temporal dimension. It would have to be that when Adam and Eve fell, the universe shifted into a different mode of time that is a B-theory organization. However, when God created the new Heavens and Earth, it would shift into a more A-theory of time. The fundamental problem with this is that it feels so ad-hoc.

Let me know if any one of you have a different way of salvaging B-theory considering the need to affirm an infinite future. I really do not want to shift to an A-theory of time, but I have to go with where reason and Scripture lead me. 

December 2, 2013

Does God Lament?

Recently I watched this video by a Calvinist who clearly isn't the sort to engage in intellectual discourse. In order to show the incomprehensibility of Arminianism, he performs a scene which he believes typifies God's perspective towards the world if Arminianism was true. Here is how it went:

There are a couple of things here that I would immediately object to. First of all, he attempts to make God sound impotent, which is of course incorrect in Arminian theology. God is constantly active and involved in each person's life. Second, he makes God sound whiny, which is clearly off. The reference to Jesus knocking is somewhat interesting, since the idea that He knocks is a biblical reference, so I don't really know what he is trying to get at there.

But more to the point, I think he is criticizing the Arminian position for giving God cause to lament: to be sorrowful that things don't happen the way He wants them to happen. Now I can understand that such a thing is impossible within the Calvinist position, but I fail to understand what the actual problem is, either biblically or theologically.

Well I guess maybe they have a point. Can you imagine God saying something like, "How long will they reject me? Even after everything I have to done to show to them that I am here and will care for them?" or perhaps, "What more could I have done? Why is it when I worked to see my people do good, that they have done evil?" Except the first is a paraphrase from Numbers 14:11, and the second from Isaiah 5:4.

The Bible is actually full of divine laments, such as Matthew 23:37 or Jeremiah 7:31. This idea that God gets whatever He wants just isn't there. Therefore there seems to be good biblical grounds to merely except this "criticism" (that is that God would be able to lament) to be biblically accurate, which raises the question, why does the Calvinist reject it?

But then there is the theological question: why is this even a problem? Clearly, the Calvinist feels that it would make God weak. But this seems to be mostly a human concern. Even if God isn't as "strong" as a Calvinist wants, He is still stronger than anything else. Indeed, why would an omnipotent being be concerned that he is seen as strong? Doesn't that sound more like insecurity than true strength?

Of course, the assessment is also completely inaccurate. Arminianism still teaches that God is omnipotent, however it is certainly true that God doesn't use His full power. I mean, I certainly believe that God is gentle, but that doesn't necessarily lead to the idea that he is weak. When I lament that my son disobeys me, is it because I lack the power to force him to do what I ask? No of course not. It is because the level of force necessary for me to get my way will break him. He's delicate. Indeed it takes strength for me to be gentle with him.

Thus, I don't see God not getting His way as a sign of His weakness, but our delicacy. And I recognize that as a loving Father, He is gentle with us, even when we disobey. After all, which is more important? Affirming that God is strong, or that He is good? Sacrificing goodness for a clearer demonstration of strength feels more like a high school jock than a good shepherd.