Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers - The God Debate (Part 1)

Soldier, from Arc de Triomphe

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
-"ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS" by Sabine Baring-Gould,

It is a wonderful thing to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are, of course, many different sides to it and it never quite looks the way you’d expect. It’s better than that. But I’ve recently been thrilled by a series of recent Christian and Theist victories in the battlefield of ideas. It is at times like this that the church can truly be seen “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” [1]. The old Catholic phrase “The Church Militant,” technically describing the Christians alive today, seems to be an apropos metaphor.

Now before we begin, I’ll need to take care of another bit of metaphor housekeeping. I will be using martial metaphors throughout this essay. I think that when it comes to ideas, we are all in a battle (and if you disagree with me on this point, I’ll fight you :). Thought it is a battle, I think it ought to be a knightly battle, where both sides gain honor when they fight nobly. My celebration of Christian victories does not mean that I hate Atheists any more than my celebrating a Dodgers’ victory means I actually hate the Giants. I love a good game, or as the case is here, a good debate. Of course, I think these matters more serious than ballgames, but the mutual respect of ballplayers for each other captures a bit of the chivalry that I think we need to bring to all our differences of opinion, trivial or grave.

There have been a number of developments recently that bode well for Theists and Christians in the field of ideas. Over the next few posts, I’d like to explore a few of them. I hope you’ll join me! The first part is the story of a debate.

The Showdown
Recently, the world’s leading Atheist champion was challenged by the world’s leading Christian champion to a debate at Oxford, the Atheist’s home institution. A battle to end all battles! I wish I could describe their meeting. I wish I had the words to tell a modern day epic, one that would be remembered for decades or centuries to come. I wish I had the wisdom to understand and discuss it with theist and atheist alike, and to present my opinions here on this blog. But I can do none of these things. I cannot tell you what happened, because the Atheist never showed up. Citing the immorality of the otherwise well-respected Christian, he declined. A chair was left empty for him should he change his mind. But he never did. The Christian dismantled the Atheist’s written arguments with efficiency, and spent a few minutes discussing how groundless the accusations of his immorality were [lecture video].

Over the past few years, the self-titled “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennot and Christopher Hitchens) had been gaining fame by beating some of the smartest Theists, pastors, scientists and philosophers. They believed that Atheism was more rational, and so accepted debates with most anyone in the spirit of free thinking. Their books were New York Times bestsellers (most notably “The God Delusion” by Dawkins ~2.5 million copies and “God is not Great” by Hitchens). And then a Christian champion arose, William Lane Craig [2]. He debated dozens of atheists before getting noticed by the Four Horsemen. Of them, he first he challenged Hitchens to debate in 2009. And, though there’s no official judge in these debates, it is clear that he won (Hitchens conceded his closing statement; debate video). Then he challenged Harris and won (rarely are you ever able to show that your opponent’s view is not just wrong in its premises, but is logically false; debate video). Most recently, he planned a trip to Oxford, and everybody was waiting with nervous anticipation: how would he do against Dawkins? But the question was never answered. On October 25, 2011, Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig. On October 25, 2011, we entered a new phase of the debate on God’s existence. Up until that day, there was some question as to which side was winning.

If Dawkins showed up and lost, I would say that it was just one debate. The question as to “who’s winning?” would still be open. Both Atheism and Theism are contending valiantly in the arena of ideas, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. But Dawkins didn’t lose. He fled [3]. And, to be sure, many other brave Atheists in Britain did debate Craig, showing that the debate has not been finally settled. But their leader left the field. And so we enter a new era where Atheists now have to explain to Theists that, unlike their leader, they really are intellectually serious.

This is one battle in the war of ideas. It is important in itself, but in part is part of a larger movement in higher thought back to God. Next post, I'll talk about the most important discipline and it's return to God.

[1] Lewis, CS. “The Screwtape Letters”

[2] Technically, he’s been “arising” for a few decades. But he really started to get notoriety more recently.
[3] Of course, he has plenty of reasons why he wasn’t there, ranging from “I’m busy” to “This Christian 'philosopher' is an apologist for genocide.” In his UK Guardian article he writes, “Would you shake hands with a man who could write stuff like that? Would you share a platform with him? I wouldn't, and I won't.” By one count, Dawkins has given 12 different excuses as to why he won't debate with Craig. 

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Theism in Philosophy and Science
Part 3 - Onward!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dialogue on Suffering

[Begin full fiction mode. This was based on nothing but my imagination. To pretend to be not totally arrogant, I’m going to put my arguments in the mouth of the character Paul. But even that’s pretty presumptuous. I suppose that’s an inherent problem with dialogue. It’s like playing chess with yourself. Of course you’re going to win. So watch as one figment of my imagination totally works another. So here goes another attempt at this medium:]

I was walking with my good friend Paul (he’s from a place called Tarsus, right off I-5, if you know where that is). We were enjoying the crisp January air when we saw our mutual friend, Job.

“Good day, Job!” said I.

“What is good about it?” he asked.

“Light and life and breath, to begin with,” said Paul. “We live in a wonderfully ordered world under an astonishing heaven ruled by a Good God.”

“Good God?” asked Job sarcastically. “How can you dare to say that? And to me, of all people? Don’t you know that He killed my ten children? Don’t you know that this has been my daily torture for these long years?”

“Dear Job,” said Paul, “I have wept with you about your children. And I have walked with you through those valleys. But this attitude is unbecoming. What alchemy has transmuted your sadness into anger? What has made the pure cold gold of mourning into the boiling lead of rage?”

“It is only rational,” Job retorted. “Rage is the only proper response to so blatant an offense. What have I done to deserve this? What possible good is it accomplishing? And even if there is some good, could it not be accomplished with less suffering?”

“These are all excellent questions,” said Paul. “To answer them, I will need to tell a story and you will need to do a bit of imagining. Would you like me to answer your questions?”

“Though I know it is a dangerous thing to do with you, I will play your game.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Paul. “Imagine a woman is pregnant. The pregnancy is complicated and the woman dies in childbirth. The woman’s husband and now father of the child names him Jamal. Jamal’s doctors notice that he looks blue. He is worked up and diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a birth defect of the heart. Untreated, Jamal has slightly better than even odds that he’ll make it to his fourth birthday and almost no chance of seeing adulthood. The doctors tell Jamal’s father that there is a cure, but it will require multiple, painful heart surgeries. What should Jamal’s father do?”

“He should get the surgeries.”

“But wait,” said Paul. “He is causing terrible pain to his own son. He’ll have to spend countless days in a nightmarish hospital, away from the sounds and sights and smells of home. It will involve a hundred needle sticks that Jamal will not understand, tape and tubes, beeping and buzzing. For his first few years of life, Jamal will several times be thrown into a whirlpool of confusion and pain.”

“Yes. But it will be for his own good. Several short years of pain will lead to a tenfold longer life.”

“Alright. But shouldn’t we get the consent of someone before performing a procedure on them?” asked Paul.

“If it is possible. But here, it’s not possible.”

“Why not?”

“Because Jamal cannot understand,” said Job. “He doesn’t understand about the genetic inheritance patterns, ventral septal defects, the failure to adequately oxygenate blood. He can’t even know about adequate hydration and the need for a needle stick and IV fluids, let alone the complexities of cardiothoracic surgery. ‘Informed consent,’ requires that a person understand at least the very basics of their condition and the procedure. Jamal, being a newborn, cannot understand these things. His father must make the decision for him.”

“So you think that when someone cannot give informed consent, the decision should fall to another?”

“Yes. In this case, the father is clearly the one who has the responsibility to care for him and to make decisions on his behalf until he is old enough to make his own decisions.”

“So now imagine,” said Paul, “that it’s four years down the road, and though he should be cured, Jamal’s case is complicated and he needs one final surgery. He’s now old enough to fear hospitals and hate doctors. Jamal’s father tells him, ‘Jamal, we need to go to the hospital again to get you healthy.’ This time Jamal pleads, ‘No! I won’t go! It hurts! Why are you hurting me, Daddy?’ What could the father reply? After the reply, what should he do?”

“There isn’t much he could say that would satisfy Jamal. He could say, ‘Jamal, I know it hurts, but it is what is best for you. Do not worry, because I will be there with you, and I will suffer with you.’ And then, whether Jamal likes this answer or not, he should still take him for the surgery.”

“So even in this case when Jamal has clearly against the idea, his father should do his best to explain it, promise to be with him, and do it anyways.”


“So,” said Paul, “We have established that because a child lacks understanding, certain decisions should be made on his behalf. Now what if Jamal asked, ‘Daddy, if I have to go, can you ask the doctors to make it hurt less?’”

“The father should reply, “Jamal, they are already doing everything they can to make it hurt less. The cure for your sickness requires a lot of pain. If there were a better cure, don’t you think I would have chosen it?’”

“So long as the father is minimizing pain in his attempt to reach a good end for his son, he is justified in causing it. Is Jamal capable of knowing if a given needle stick is a required part of his medical care?”

“Of course not,” said Job.

“What about the number of surgeries? Can he know by the apparently gratuitous number of his surgeries that his father is actually not loving?”

“It would be impossible. Such a question is difficult for health policy experts, let alone for four-year-old children.”

“It this is impossible, wouldn’t it also be impossible for him to then to know that his father loves him?” Paul asked.

“No. Jamal can see it. He can feel it. Most of all, when he sees his father suffer with him. When he cries at a prick, his father’s face looks as if it were hurt. The promise I put in the father’s mouth at the beginning, that he would always be with Jamal, is perhaps the greatest proof of love when it is fulfilled.”

“But can he prove that his father loves him?”

“Love is not the sort of thing that can be demonstrated by mathematical or scientific proof. It is something that is sensed on a deeper level. Jamal can know it, but he cannot prove it.”

“So,” said Paul, “We’ve established that the father should act in Jamal’s best interest, regardless of how painful it might be.”


“And we’ve agreed that Jamal would have no adequate understanding of his condition to make any judgments.”


“And finally, we’ve shown that even though he lacks understanding, he can still know that his father loves him through his pain.”


“Now allow me to tell the story in a different way,” said Paul. “What if instead of a newborn named ‘Jamal’ we were talking about an adult named ‘Job.’ And instead of an earthly father, we were talking about God. A physical birth defect in the heart becomes a spiritual one. Jamal suffers for four years to gain 70 of life; Job suffers for 80 years to gain a millennium of life and more. Job, how is your position any different from Jamal’s?”

Job was silent for several minutes. His eyes darted to and fro, searching for an escape but finding none. Finally, with a reluctant tone, Job said, “I see your point: I am Jamal. I will have to reflect on this.” 

The three of us walked along the road together, enjoying the warm sun and bright blue sky.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dialogue on God’s Hair Color

I was recently having a discussion with a friend about God and he objected, “But what about God being a man? Surely you don’t think he’s sitting on some throne up in the sky, do you?” The following is inspired by a real conversation, but as I have the personal memory of a goldfish, I’m going to kinda have to make up most of it. And in attempting to remember a real dialogue I’ll probably end up like Eric Cartman) and/or Plato in making my position sound totally awesome and my discussant a total fool. But this is not reality, and my apologies to my real-life discussant. I might try this style more often, especially as I have other real life events to inspire them.

So as I was saying, my friend asked me “But what about God being a man? Surely you don’t think he’s some bearded man sitting on a throne up in the sky, do you?”

I thought about it for a minute, noting how my discussant intentionally tried to make it sound as ridiculous an idea as possible. And I said with confidence, “Yes. As a matter of fact, I do.”

And then there was a wonderful silence. I’m beginning to see why Jesus said shocking things all the time. It really bothered me at one point. I used to think, “Why don’t you just answer them straight? Really, Jesus? I could have given a clearer answer in line with Christian Orthodoxy than you just did.” And perhaps I could have. But what I’m beginning to realize is that it’s not all about true information. Presentation matters.

After the silence, he asked a real question. Or rather, he asked a question whose answer he was going to pay attention to: “Why?”

I asked him, “Do you think the idea of God is something easy or hard to understand?”

“It’s very hard. Maybe even impossible.”

“Harder than physics?”

“Much harder.”

“I agree,” I said. “When we try to understand physics, we have to use symbols and metaphors. Gravity works like a bowling ball resting on a rubber sheet; a marble will ‘fall’ into its divot. Relativity can be understood by imagining twin astronauts. And so on.”

“OK. But what does that have to do with God?”

“Because,” I said, “If we think God is harder to understand than physics, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to try to understand what we can of Him using similar tools?”


“So could I say, ‘Imagine God has a white beard’?”

“Yes, but he or she or it doesn’t. It’s above that.”

“And gravity isn’t a rubber sheet. I said, ‘imagine’.”

“OK. God has a white beard.”

“What does a white beard mean?”

“Male. Unshaven.”

“Think literary. What attributes might an author be communicating if he gives a character a white beard, as opposed to, say, a black beard, or a clean chin?”

“Age. Maybe wisdom.”

“Good,” I said, “So the visual image communicates something about Him.”

“And that’s another thing. Why do you keep saying ‘Him’. The concept is above such crude biological concepts. God is not a man.”

“Isn’t He?” I asked. “Does manhood communicate anything? Would the image be different if it were a woman sitting on the throne?”

“Well, I suppose.”

“What if it were not a man or a woman, but energy. Would that image be more or less relatable?”


“So,” I said, “The image of God as a white-haired old man sitting on a throne says to the reader, ‘God is like a wise old king,’ which we can imagine, even if God’s true nature is unimaginable.”

“I envision God genderless. Why does God have to be a man?”

“He doesn’t have to be anything.” I said, “The hero of a story could have black hair or brown hair. It’s a story. The writer may give him black hair to go along with his mysterious nature, or brown hair to match his boots and ground him. God doesn’t have to be white-haired. But in Daniel 7, He is. It’s less useful to complain, “Why does he have to be white-haired?” and more useful to ask, “Why is he white-haired?” Perhaps we need to think of God less like grown-ups arguing theology and more like kids reading a story. And a kid reading that God is a man might think, ‘God is a man like Dad! He must be strong and smart and brave, and good at keeping the bad guys away and making sure there’s no monsters under the bed.’ In fact, on this attribute, God was not just pictured as a man, but took on the flesh of a first-century Jewish man.”

“But it seems so provincial! How can God just pick one race? Isn’t he more universal?”

“It’s a suit. We can’t see God in heaven, so he ‘clothes’ Himself with humanity. He puts on a suit so that we can better understand him, so that we can talk to Him face-to-face.”

“But why can’t it be another color?”

“Which would you prefer?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you think it’s a little arbitrary?”

“Definitely,” I said. “But He just as well might have picked another color suit and you could justly ask why He hadn’t put on the one He did. Keeping on the suit analogy, if He chose to mix all dyes, it would be a black suit; if He left it undyed, it would be a white suit. Even if we could understand “every color” or “no color,” black and white are both still colors. Perhaps He could’ve picked a transparent suit, but then we’re back where we started: an incomprehensible, invisible God. He’s gotta wear something. And He happened to wear the First-Century-Jewish-Man-In-Palestine suit.”

“So you’re saying that we can learn something from a first century Jewish man in Palestine?”

“Yes. Yes I do.”