Reflections on Suffering & the Time I Could’ve Died

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. I thought I’d write this piece as a personal reflection on the value of suffering, rather than a philosophical piece. It was inspired by a question I was asked recently: rather than allow someone to go through suffering and then deliver them from it, wouldn’t it be better if God had kept them from the suffering in the first place? It made me think of the worst moment of my life.

About 20 years ago I was part of an adventure group on a “coastal walk” at the North coast of Northern Ireland. Don’t be deceived by that description. This was no leisurely stroll along the beach. This involved rock climbing, jumping off small cliffs into the sea, bouldering, and swimming. At one particular point in our journey we had to swim from one side of a bay to another. In the middle there was a small rocky island which we had to swim to first to get a short rest before continuing on.

Some rough weather had been stirring and as we were making our first swim we soon became aware that the conditions were much worse than we had thought. We had to get to safety pretty quickly, so we all made for the little rocky island. The sea had become so rough that the edges of the island were being pounded, so we had to wait until the last wave crashed and then swim in and climb up the rocks before the next wave hit. I timed my swim OK but as I attempted to climb up my foot caught on some seaweed and I slid. I was left half-lying and half-clinging to the rocks hoping that I might be able to bear the hit of the wave. I’ve never felt a force like it. Trying to hang onto the rocks was utterly futile (in fact the skin of my hands got badly torn in a few places). I was washed straight across the rocks and into a huge swell of water. Had I not been wearing a helmet my head would, in all probability, have been crushed. I was swept into a huge swell of water, unable to breathe, and too stunned to help myself. One of the others in my group was a trained lifeguard and I was fortunate enough that he was able to get me out and (with a huge effort on the part of the group) onto the island. I was in shock for some time afterwards and couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. I still remember the lifeguard’s words to me: “When things like that happen you realise just how fragile we are and that your life is really quite a precious thing.”

How easy it would have been for some small detail to have been different that would have left my family in mourning. If my helmet had been too loose. If the winds had been just a little bit different and sent me straight onto rock instead of into the sea. If we hadn’t had an experienced lifeguard with us. So many things could’ve been different, and had they been different my life may well have ended that day. Imagine two worlds: the current world and another possible world in which events conspired to kill me off that day. If we compare those worlds as they each look at 9am on 14th September 2017 there will be certain big differences. Consider all the people I have interacted with – for good or ill – in the last 20 years. Many of their lives would be quite different, some hugely so. My son wouldn’t exist. My wife would’ve married someone else and different children might exist who are missing from our actual world. Over time these children might have children, and so on. It’s mind-boggling how even one small event which could have so easily turned out differently can send a wave through time and have such massive consequences, and that’s before we think of the billions of events in billions of lives every single day. This fact is the main reason why I think arguments from suffering fail: they under-appreciate this feature of reality that even small events can have huge and unforeseen consequences that can radically change the future in ways we can barely comprehend.

But what about me? Why would God allow me to go through such an experience rather than prevent it in the first place? Admittedly, my experience on this day was (and remains) the worst experience of my life. At the time, I would’ve preferred that it didn’t happen at all. But on reflection it did change me a lot and taught me a few things I wouldn’t have learnt or appreciated except for having gone through the experience. And thus it seems to me that it might indeed make sense for God to sometimes save us from the midst suffering rather than spare us from it in the first place. In other words, whilst God might have good reason for causing or permitting suffering in the first place, He could also have good reason for saving a person from the midst of it.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 14: Prayer, Providence, and Natural Disasters

As hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean, Cuba, and the US, many religious people took to prayer. The typical internet atheist retort went something like: “Really? You’re praying to the God who didn’t see fit to stop the hurricane in the first place?” Or, “If hurricanes are part of God’s providential ordering of things, why bother to pray for those caught up in one?” The point appears to be that it’s stupid or pointless to pray for God to help people, since if God really wanted to He could easily have swept the hurricane from existence altogether.

To my mind there is little substance to this complaint. The atheist here appears to be operating under some assumption such as:

 

(A) If a being – S – causes some event – C – then S cannot rightly or rationally or justifiably be appealed to for help by those affected by C.

 

The problem with this assumption is that it is flat-out false and we can easily think of a whole host of cases where it fails to apply. For instance, suppose my son goes to school one day to join his class. When seated the teacher presents them with an incredibly difficult sheet of mathematics problems, invites them to work through it, and then sits at her desk reading some Bertrand Russell. In this scenario, would it be silly or pointless for one of the pupils to approach the teacher for assistance, despite the fact that the teacher is wholly responsible for the pupils’ predicament? Not only would it not be unjustifiable or silly, but it would make winsome sense to do so, and in fact might be part of the reason for the exercise in the first place. Perhaps the teacher is seeking to illustrate a more general lesson to the class beyond pure mathematics. Perhaps she is testing their ability to cope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. Or perhaps she wants to teach them the importance of seeking assistance from those who can offer it. It matters not what the purpose is – and I’m not trying to say God sends hurricanes to teach us things – I’m simply illustrating that just because S causes C doesn’t mean those affected by C cannot rightly appeal to S for assistance – in other words, that the hidden assumption in the atheist’s complaint does not hold.

In the face of natural disasters, Christians (and presumably those of many other faiths) will resort to the spiritual discipline of prayer, despite knowing that such an event has occurred only within the providence of God who either directly caused it or permitted it to occur. However, I can’t see any reason to suppose that praying is therefore pointless, (though someone could think it is pointless on totally different grounds). The critic seems to understand God’s providence in fatalistic terms: God has ordained everything to happen as it does, therefore there is nothing we can do about it by prayer or any other means. This is a common understanding of providence at the popular level, but it’s wholly lacking in nuance, (not to mention involving an overly narrow view of prayer).

It isn’t my intention to explicate a doctrine of divine providence here, but rather to point out that since the assumption behind this complaint is false, the atheist owes us an argument as to why it’s unjustifiable or absurd to say that although God causes or permits some event He can still be appealed to by those affected by it. To put it another way: what reason is there for thinking that if God has some purpose in allowing C to occur then He cannot also have a purpose in assisting someone in C in response to prayer?

Stephen J. Graham

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Ten Prophetic Techniques to Amaze Your Friends

When it comes to so-called “prophetic people,” I’ve seen and heard pretty much everything. I used to believe in it myself and I know loads of incredibly intelligent people who still do. The problem is prophets are incredibly convincing people. They are in the same category as psychics, magicians, and mentalists. Not that I want to label all such people as frauds, of course. Magicians are playing make-believe with us: we all know that it’s an illusion but we are delighted at how the magician leaves us wondering “how the hell did they do that?!” Others – perhaps some psychics – are simply deluded, thinking they have some otherworldly power when in fact they’ve just picked up a few techniques. Many are, of course, frauds. I’ve witnessed “prophets” who (I think) genuinely believed in their ministry, and others who seemed quite clearly to be scam artists.

When I’m engaged in a debate about modern prophecy, I’m typically presented with some scenario in which the person witnessed a prophet give an uncannily accurate prophetic word, and then I’m challenged with “so, how do you explain that?!” The correct answer is always: “I don’t know because I never witnessed the phenomenon and I don’t know anything about the so-called prophet in question.” In fact, as a theist, I have no a priori commitment to the notion that God cannot give supernatural knowledge to a person. However, before we jump to the idea that some prophet has a hot line to heaven, we do well to remind ourselves of the many techniques and tricks that deluded and false prophets are known to use.

(1)    Hot Reading

Hot reading takes many different forms but fundamentally it involves the prophet finding out information beforehand or using information he or she already knows about someone and passing it off as prophetically bestowed. Sometimes the prophet will have a number of people travelling with them and during proceedings they will call them out in front of the gathering and “reveal” all manner of things about the person. To the congregation it looks like an amazing case of divinely bestowed knowledge. Others have used assistants who mingle with a congregation beforehand to glean information that can be used during the service. Sometimes it’s more blatant: people are asked to fill out a “prayer card” before the service which provides the prophet with a wealth of information that he or she can use to amaze. In these days of the internet people put a crazy amount of personal information online, such that if a prophet is going to some church it won’t be difficult to find out who the regular attenders are and what’s currently going on in their lives.

(2)    Warm Reading

A prophet who lacks information about a person beforehand can still engage in warm reading. Warm reading is when the prophet tailors their pronouncements to a person on the basis of the demographic to which that person belongs. One well-known charismatic author speaks of a prophecy in which he was told that he had issues with his father, and that he had unrealised athletic ability. Of course, these kinds of things would be pretty common amongst middle-aged men, and provide a good illustration of warm reading. Warm reading can also involve what psychologists refer to as “Barnum statements” – phrases that sound incredibly specific but could apply to loads of people. We might like to think we are unique, but in reality we are very much like others, and prophets can exploit that fact to deceive.

(3)    Cold Reading

Cold reading is a much subtler technique and involves a person being responsive to the prophet’s words by feeding information back to the prophet, often without even knowing. A prophet who has mastered this technique can make it look like the information was in fact supernaturally revealed. The information given to the prophet is often unnoticed by most other members of the congregation – a simple nod or shake of the head, for example.

(4)    Scattergunning

Churches tend to be medium-large gatherings of people. The chances of there being someone called John, or someone with arthritis, or someone who has recently experienced a bereavement, is high enough that a prophet can address a prophecy to the entire congregation and manage to get a hit. It looks impressive, especially to the average person who has little grasp of probability.

(5)    Vagueness

The more vague a prophecy the less chance of its being proven false. “God’s going to bless you this year with a wonderful gift,” could be interpreted to mean many different things. Being precise ties a prophet down. It’s really quite rare to hear a prophet give a future prophecy that is so specific it could be conclusively proven or falsified.

(6)    Infallible Questions

 This technique involves asking questions of people in such a way that no matter how they respond it can be presented as supernatural knowledge on the part of the prophet. Suppose he or she says “I don’t suppose you’re interested in mission trips?” No matter what the reply is the prophet can pass it off as supernatural knowledge: “no, because I felt God saying you had a heart for your local community,” or “yes, the Spirit was testifying to me that you have a heart to win the lost in distant places.”

(7)    Ambiguous Pictures

Here the prophet presents a person – or group of people – with a picture, maybe even an incredibly surreal one. Such pictures invite the listener to run all manner of searches through their past experiences to see if they can find a match for the picture that the prophet has presented. I once heard a prophet claim to have been given the picture of a racing car going gradually faster round and round a track. The picture was then interpreted to mean the church and it’s four elders. Just as the car needs its 4 tires, so this church would need its 4 elders working together to help it drive forward on its mission. But, really, with a bit of imagination we could interpret it to mean 101 other things if we wanted it to.

(8)    Punt to the Future

Often a prophet gets it wrong. Sometimes he addresses the wrong person with information meant for someone else. Sometimes he misreads someone entirely, perhaps taking them for being wealthy when they are in fact poor, and gives a prophetic word to them that seems a million miles away from where they are. No problem here: just say something like, “This sounds crazy to you now, but God will bring this about in your life. Nothing is impossible with God. Just keep trusting him.” It’s fool-proof.

(9)    Stories of Past Glories

Here the prophet spends a considerable amount of time telling stories of amazing feats that God worked in their ministry somewhere else in the world. If he or she tells enough of these stories then people will talk about the events as if they actually witnessed them first-hand. It all helps to build the reputation of the prophet, and of course encourages people to dig deep in their pockets to support such a God-anointed global ministry.

(10) Thees and Thous

At a certain Pentecostal church I used to attend there was a point in the services when a prophet would stand up and deliver a message directly from God – in the first person: “And I, your God, sayest unto thee…” Speaking directly from God is a risky business, but it can lend a certain gravitas and authority to your words, such that even if you say something way off people are less likely to question it because “God said.”

So, next time you hear a charismatic prophet in full swing, keep in mind that it might well be little more than smoke and mirrors.

 Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 13: Can God Change His Mind?

In Christendom God has typically been regarded as “immutable.” Sometimes this is defined as “unchangeable,” other times as “unchanging.” The former conception is a much stronger one than the latter, for the former means that God cannot change in some respect, not just that he simply doesn’t change. Of course, those who adhere to the stronger conception of immutability are careful to nuance the definition. They don’t think God is frozen into immobility and unable to act in the world. Instead, they typically mean that God doesn’t change in a number of crucial ways. For example, God’s existence doesn’t change: he has always and will always exist (“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” as the Biblical writer puts it). Further, God is considered to be unchangeable with respect to His character. His moral character of loving-kindness, grace, faithfulness and mercy never changes, and thus He can be relied upon by all who trust Him.

In a recent Twitter poll I asked “Can God Change His Mind?” 53% of respondents said “No, and I think they are right.

Many Christians might be tempted to think God does indeed change His mind, since salvation history includes a number of episodes in which it seems that God does precisely that. In fact, He is even said to “repent” of some action and change his course. If we are to take these passages at face value then it seems that we must affirm that God changes His mind.

However, I think we have good grounds for resisting that conclusion. One of the best-attested attributes of God through the Bible is His omniscience, and it is this attribute that should give pause for thought with respect to how we think of God’s immutability. God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing. He has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future. There isn’t a true proposition He fails to believe, and He believes no false proposition. Now, think of what happens when we change our mind about something. We change our mind whenever we come to be in some new epistemic situation. Perhaps we come to learn some new fact. Or perhaps upon reflecting on the things we do know we come to see certain connections between them that we didn’t see before. Further, our depth of moral insight might develop in such a way that we come see some action as wrong or not as good as some other action. This is fairly typical for beings such as we are, limited in intelligence, depth of insight, and moral development. However, it seems to me that an omniscient being wouldn’t have any cause to change His mind. He already knows all the facts. He already knows how things will pan out in the future. There’s nothing lacking in His cognitive situation that could bring about a change of mind. If a being knows that X is going to happen, then the being will have taken X into account already.

Passages describing God as changing His mind are anthropomorphic: human ways of describing relations to God and attempts to make sense of what He is doing. These passages are not theological treatises and we shouldn’t expect rigorous philosophical precision from them. They are stories of people as they wrestle with and attempt to understand their experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As such the stories simply give a human perspective on what God is doing. Take, for example, the classic case of Hezekiah, in which it seems on the face of it that God changed His mind in response to prayer to allow Hezekiah to live for a while longer. It only seems this way from our point of view. God always knew Hezekiah would pray for his life to be extended, and already knew what He was going to do. From God’s point of view there isn’t any change at all, though from Hezekiah’s standpoint it seems that God relents and give him 15 more years.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with my saying that such passages do not mean to describe God literally. However, God is regularly described (particularly in the Old Testament) in ways that clearly aren’t meant to be taken at face value. He doesn’t really have eyes, ears, legs; nor does He breathe out smoke while riding on clouds. Biblical literalism would lead us to an incredibly distorted concept of God indeed, and we should resist it where necessary (and it’s often necessary!).

In this case, literalism should be resisted, unless we are prepared to sacrifice God’s omniscience.

Stephen J. Graham

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Ludwig Feuerbach versus Apophatic Theologians

Every so often I stumble upon a piece of writing that says exactly what I want to say only a million times better than I could ever say it. I would never have guessed that Ludwig Feuerbach – a 19th century German atheist philosopher – would have been one such person, but I recently read some of his work and came across a passage that is exactly what I want to say to a certain breed of apophatic theologian – the kind that thinks we can’t know or say anything about God.  We can’t, they claim, say anything meaningful about the nature of God, or we can only speak of God in terms of what He is not. I always found this sort of talk to be the height of theological tomfoolery (or perhaps a close second to those poor souls who say with the straight face that Jesus was in fact an atheist). It seems to me that the God of such theologians would be a non-entity. After all, if something exists then it has a nature or attributes of some kind that make it the kind of thing it is. I much prefer an honest atheist to such types of theologian.

Anyway, I’ll let Feuerback take it from here:

“A being without qualities is one which cannot become an object to the mind; and such a being is virtually non-existent. Where man deprives God of all qualities, God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being. To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities, because to him he is a positive, real being. The theory that God cannot be defined, and consequently cannot be known by man, is therefore the offspring of recent times, a product of modern unbelief. . . . On the ground that God is unknowable, man excuses himself to what is yet remaining of his religious conscience for his forgetfulness of God, his absorption in the world: he denies God practically by his conduct, – the world has possession of all his thoughts and inclinations, – but he does not deny him theoretically, he does not attack his existence; he lets that rest. But this existence does not affect or incommode him; it is a merely negative existence, an existence without existence, a self-contradictory existence, – a state of being, which, as to its effects, is not distinguishable from non-being. . . . The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind”

Stephen J. Graham

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Reflections on Faith & Unbelief in “Far from the Tree”

Reflections on Faith & Unbelief
Far from the Tree: A Review
Directed by John Wright

A sign in my local pub encourages the patrons to put down their mobile devices and actually converse face to face. There’s only one rule: “NO RELIGION!” It’s easy to see why there’s a perceived need for such a rule: religion is divisive. When religion rears its head the pinching and eye poking often swiftly follows. Religious-themed message boards and online discussion forums have become the Mos Eisley of the internet: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Friends have parted over religious differences, and sometimes families have been torn asunder. Wright’s film thus fittingly asks: “Does a preacher lose his son when his son loses faith?” And it addresses it in the context of a wonderfully compelling personal story.

Tony Campolo – “one of the most important Christian evangelical preachers in the last 50 years,” according to the New York Times – is well-known, massively influential, and often controversial. His son Bart Campolo was for years a partner in his father’s ministry until announcing one Thanksgiving that he no longer believed. He’s now a Humanist chaplain. This film tells the story, doing what sadly is rare for movies these days: touching your heart and making you think. This engaging personal exchange raises questions of relationship, culture, sociology, philosophy, theology, and humanity. Wright – himself the son of a Presbyterian minister – has created space to allow all these issues to be addressed, but always in the context of this personal interaction that is funny, engaging, and deeply poignant. The audience in my screening laughed heartily and shed a few tears.

The film opens with a clever sequence showing a mash-up of the many occasions on which Tony told his famous “Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” story, giving a sense of just how massive this one time spiritual adviser to President Clinton is. We can only imagine what it must have been like for Bart to grow up in this world. In his own words, Bart tells us that even at the age of 52 “father looms large for me.” When we first see them side by side in conversation the rapport between them is fantastic. This is where the strength of this movie lies. Whilst many filmmakers would’ve found the temptation of turning the camera on themselves in a presenter role too much to resist, Wright has stayed largely out of the way, cleverly creating the impression that we’re eavesdropping on this moving and meaningful exchange between father and son, who might just be sitting next to us in our local pub, or at least one that doesn’t ban religious chat.

Many of us know the sad reality of how conversations between atheists and Christians often go: generating more heat than light, riddled with personal insults, and creating little to no real meeting of minds. That’s not the case here. Tony and Bart talk through their differences all the while smiling at fond reminiscences, sharing jokes, and even singing together! In asking Bart “do you think I’m stupid, lying or deluded?” Tony perhaps fears that Bart views him in a way that’s been quite typical of those inspired by the so-called “new atheists.” Bart assures him that he simply sees things differently and, interestingly, remarks that he and his Dad are still on the same team; not just that they are “two bald guys with bad posture,” but given the nature of the work they both have a heart for: helping people in the gritty reality of life. It’s a theme Tony will echo as the conversation progresses.

The centre of the story is, of course, Bart’s deconversion. As we listen to conversion and deconversion stories we quickly begin to see common themes, and Bart is no exception. His doubts are not spectacular or atypical: why doesn’t God, the omnipotent & omnibenevolent creator of the cosmos, do something to help impoverished kids? When we look at the world can we really say there’s such a being in charge of things? Can’t we just get the Bible to say what we want? And isn’t it just fundamentally a very human document? Are our gay friends really going to hell? Why does God never seem to intervene when we pray about important things? In a wonderful little touch Wright illustrates Bart’s faith as a Jenga tower: as each brick comes out the whole thing get more unstable, until…………

Crash. And that’s just what happened to Bart: he suffered a near fatal bicycle accident and in his recovery, he no longer felt the same. Bart seemed struck with a strong sense of mortality: feeling that had he died he would have ceased to exist. He found that he simply no longer believed and had better start living accordingly. I’ve read similar stories of people surviving such things to the opposite effect: believing they’ve been given a second chance, that Someone-Up-There still wants them around for some purpose, that they’ve been given a gift of life. Surprisingly, Bart tells us that he feels as if he has been given a gift: a gift of perspective. Whereas a popular apologetic argument tells us that life without God and immortality would be meaningless and purposeless, Bart will have none of it. He feels more awake to life given that it’s all we have. As he and Tony share a chorus of “This world is not my home,” Bart points out that he feels that this world matters – perhaps precisely because we’re doomed – and expresses the desire that, “I’d like to live until I die.”

Bart’s story illustrates beautifully the muddled reality of both faith and doubt. Neither is the purely intellectual exercise that certain philosophical rationalists would make out. Our life experiences are crucial. In fact, Tony appeals to sociological factors – rather than some of the more intellectual problems Bart points to – in explaining Bart’s loss of faith. Wright himself also enquires as to whether there might be deep psychological factors at play. Noticing that Bart moved to the other side of the country, Wright asks if perhaps Bart is trying to distance himself from his father, with one manifestation of this desire being his rejection of his father’s faith. Here’s the truth: they’re all hinting in the right direction. We simply aren’t the wholly rational agents we like to portray ourselves as. When we read The Gospel According to St Modern Atheist, to be religious is to be stupid or deluded. On the flip-side, St Big Bucks Christian Apologist’s Epistle to the faithful would have us believe that a fair hearing of the evidence should lead to conversion, and that arguments often don’t work because atheists deep down wickedly reject God. What this film does it force us to look at how all this plays out at a very human level far from the ivory tower. And we find that the reality is messier. It always is. Over 100 years ago the American Philosopher William James spoke of the importance of the will in belief formation. More recently we’ve come to appreciate the range of influences on our believing. Whilst we seek to rationally reflect on our beliefs and life experiences we must do so with emotional, psychological, sociological, and cultural baggage. We simply see things differently, as Bart says. That’s human. And it’s not due to deficiencies of intellect or to wickedness. Clearly Tony isn’t stupid, and Bart obviously isn’t just a bad guy.

As Bart and Tony recall that Thanksgiving Day when Bart first told his Dad of his deconversion the mood becomes more sombre immediately – the pain etched on Tony’s face lets us see that undoubtedly this still affects him deeply. There was real fear for their relationship. A lesser man might have rejected his son, but Tony sees a much bigger picture. Bart is still his beloved son; he’s still a good man. In fact, for Tony, Bart is “an anonymous Christian,” which I’m sure will be labelled by some evangelicals as nonsense, or at best a case of denial. But it gives us an insight into Tony’s faith. Tony Campolo was a trailblazer of the “evangelical left,” and helped to awaken a sense that the gospel of Christ is more than a preached messaged. There are social obligations too: to help the poor and oppressed. In his role as a Humanist chaplain, Bart fights for social justice and cares for the poor, and as Tony reminds us, “that’s Kingdom work.”

And with that Tony echoes Bart’s sentiments from earlier in the film and we end up marvelling at how different Tony’s and Bart’s worldviews are and yet how similar they remain. Bart is still Tony’s beloved son doing Kingdom business. Tony admits to having the occasional doubt. In this there is a real meeting of minds. Bart’s attitude is the foil to the kind of aggressive atheism that’s become all too familiar. Tony is the foil to an evangelical complacency about the social obligations of the gospel, as well as to a kind of dogmatic evangelical certainty.

The relationship between a father and a son is always a special one (just ask Jesus!). Our conversations with other people will rarely be as engaging and emotionally charged as this one. But whether you’re a Christian or an atheist and you’re looking for a primer as to how to conduct religious conversations, this is a great example to follow. Show it in your youth group. Take your humanist friends to see it. Better still – invite humanists to your church group and watch it together! Maybe some of the respectful honesty of this exchange will rub off and, who knows, maybe we might even convince my local pub finally to take down its prohibition.

Stephen J. Graham

You can find out more about the release of this film and where you can see it at:

https://campolofilm.com/

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Abortion & Scripture

I’m not particularly surprised, but I’ve recently discovered a number of religious organisations and individuals who offer arguments in favour of abortion explicitly on religious grounds. Take, for example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They point out that the Bible says nothing about abortion, and surely if it considered the issue of prime importance it would have done so. Roy Bowen Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’” He advises pro-life Christians and Jews to therefore be silent where the Bible itself is silent. Or take the words of the Reverend Mark Bigelow: “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”

Now, let’s grant the claim that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention abortion. Let’s ignore also – for the sake of argument – the many passages which appear to regard the unborn as fully human. What follows from this? Does the alleged silence of scripture mean women have a God-sanctioned right to abort? I hardly see how that is the case. Why should we suppose that just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn some practice or other that it must therefore approve of it? That strikes me as a terrible piece of reasoning. The Bible is silent about a great many things. It doesn’t tell us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people of other races. It doesn’t condemn the lynching of homosexuals. It never tells us that torturing animals for kicks and giggles is not a-OK. Are we to suppose such actions are therefore morally justified? Not so long ago it was a popular line of racist argumentation to claim that because the Bible was silent on the humanity of blacks that blacks were not fully human.

Firstly, the Christian can regard many things as prohibited by scripture by inference from the sorts of principles it lays down as to how he or she should live in the world. Thus, scripture does indeed – by inference – condemn many things that it doesn’t explicitly mention. While it’s therefore true that the Bible never speaks of individual races it does tell us that all human beings are created in the image of God and are of utmost value as a result. Secondly, why should we suppose that the only moral injunctions the Christian should pay attention to are those explicitly cited in holy writ? Human have (I believe) a moral sense and an ability to engage in moral reasoning. Whilst the Bible provides the primary authority for Christians there is no reason to suppose that it should be the Christian’s sole authority. There are many things that might be right or wrong despite the (alleged) silence of scripture.

Furthermore, there might well be an explanation for the silence of the Bible on abortion. As mentioned above, the Bible is not a complete moral code. It’s a record of the life of, firstly, the Israelites, and, secondly, the early church. It concerns their life and religion, and their experiences with God and with each other. As such it primarily addresses issues of relevance to those communities. Seemingly neither the Hebrews nor the early Christians were inclined to practice abortion, and thus it shouldn’t surprise us that their writings are silent about the matter. It just wasn’t an issue. This itself is telling, particularly in light of the fact that abortion was widely practiced by the surrounding cultures. The Hebrew worldview was very different. Humans were regarded as possessing intrinsic value as a result of being made in the image of God. Children were regarded as a great blessing, a gift from God; they were not an unwanted nuisance getting in the way of life. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the Psalmist. In fact, early on in the national psyche of the early Hebrews immortality itself was expressed through one’s descendants. In this light, barrenness was regarded as a curse. In this culture, therefore, abortion was largely unthinkable; hence the Bible’s silence. The same goes for a practice like female infanticide. Despite being widespread in the surrounding cultures it is never mentioned in the Bible, but the reason is because it wasn’t an issue for the early Hebrews, not that female infanticide is therefore morally permitted.

When we come to the New Testament and the early church a similar point can be made. The early church – and almost all the NT authors – were Jewish Christians. As such they inherited a Jewish morality. Whatever the Jews believed about abortion was almost certainly what the early Jewish Christians also believed. When we look at the Judaism of the period we find that it was staunchly opposed to abortion. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides states: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.” Or take Josephus: “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” It is therefore reasonable to assume – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – that this opinion was shared by the early church of the NT period. Much of the NT was written to particular churches to address particular issues. Abortion simply wasn’t an issue. The silence of the NT is thus far more likely because of how common place moral prohibitions against abortion were, and because it simply wasn’t an issue that needed to be further addressed. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest the writers of the NT deviated from the established morality here.

If we wish to apply biblical principles to the abortion debate then it seems we must return to the most fundamental question of all: is the unborn a human being? If such is the case – and the science of embryology appears to tells us that it is – then the onus is on pro-choice Christians to show why the general biblical prohibitions against the unjust taking of a human life do not also apply to the unborn.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article 12 – Is “best explanation” a good enough apologetic for the resurrection?

In the run up to Easter I nearly posted an article on how to weigh the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. I abandoned it because I had a few others that seemed to me more interesting. In the article I suggested that in order to weigh the evidence we need to first find out what the evidence actually is, and we can do that by asking ourselves a series of questions, some of the most important being:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?
2. Was Jesus buried in a known tomb?
3. Was Jesus’ tomb found empty a short time after his death and burial?
4. Did his followers claim to have experienced the risen Christ?
5. Did these experiences radically alter the lives of those who claimed them?

The answers we give to such questions go into an “evidential pot” – the set of things that any proposed hypothesis must explain. I don’t think such an evidential experiment is either necessary or sufficient for believing in the resurrection of Christ, but I actually do think it’s possible to do it and for the results to be favourable to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.

However, over Easter I have been frustrated by the efforts of numerous Christian apologists in their arguments in favour of the resurrection. It seems that the most common strategy is to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of some body of facts. But often the issue is left hanging there as if that settles it. Sadly, it doesn’t and I want to explain why.

There are several different hypotheses which are commonly discussed in resurrection debates, besides the resurrection hypothesis itself: swoon hypotheses, hallucination hypotheses, wrong tomb hypotheses, and so on. Moreover, there are numerous criteria which are used to assess these rivals. Let’s assume that the traditional apologetic line is correct: the resurrection hypothesis is indeed the best. What follows from this? Not much. I’ll explain by way of an analogy. Suppose I regularly here noises coming from my attic. Between myself and my friends we come up with a bunch of different hypotheses. As it’s happened before I suspect it’s nesting birds. Another friend – sceptical of my cleanliness – suspects it might be mice or rats. A third reckons it’s a faulty water pipe. A fourth thinks it’s a noisy neighbour. A fifth thinks it’s a ghost. So, we have 5 rival hypotheses here. Now let’s say after making sufficient checks I can rule out the presence of birds or rodents. Suppose also my plumber assures me that the water pipes are in tiptop shape. I also discover that my neighbours haven’t been around for a few weeks. It seems therefore that I’m left with the ghost hypothesis as the best available. But does this fact make me rationally obliged to accept it? Surely not. The reason is simple: the existence of ghosts strikes me as utterly implausible, and even if ghosts did exist would they not have something better to do than bang around in my attic? Since the existence of ghosts is not a live intellectual option for me I cannot accept that hypothesis.

Something similar could very easily be the case with respect to the resurrection hypothesis. An atheist could grant that it is the best hypothesis available, and yet remain well within her intellectual rights is rejecting it. As with all such matters there is always a secret option: suspend judgment until more evidence comes to light. Christian apologists should not therefore think their case for the resurrection can be based purely on it being the best explanation of some body of evidence, at least not if they seek to convince non-Christians rather than simply show that their own worldview is consistent with the evidence. In many (most?) cases there needs to be an examination of a wider scope of evidence – such as the existence of God. If someone is not convinced of the existence of God then no matter how much greater the resurrection hypothesis is in comparison to its rivals, it simply won’t be a live option for such a person. In fact, what we end up having to do is a much bigger and far more messy task: of comparing entire metaphysical systems across a broad range of evaluative criteria. Just how difficult this task is will have to wait for a different article.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 11 – The Resurrection as Myth

Imagine a debate in which an orthodox(ish) Christian says that the resurrection narratives aren’t very good stories, whilst the atheist insists they are charged full of meaning and significance. That’s the position I found myself in during an exchange with fellow Tweep Shane McKee, a self-described Christian Atheist.

To my mind the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s the sun around which everything else orbits. However, I say this only insofar as the story is true. Shane, on the other hand, insists that the story is false – utterly mythical – but that it’s none the worse for that, speaking to us about human life, death, hope, and many other issues. So much does it resonate with Shane that he sees fit to add the description “Christian” to his “Atheist.”

I want to explain – in more than 140 characters – why that strikes me as rather absurd.

Firstly, take the resurrection narrative purely as a story, the kind of thing that someone might make up around the campfire on a cold night, perhaps. Is it a good story? It might come as a surprise, particularly to my Christian friends, that I don’t regard the resurrection story – considered purely as fiction – to be particularly interesting. There are certainly some interesting moments in the run up to the resurrection, such as the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends who subsequently has such regret that he kills himself, or that most poignant moment on the cross when Christ cries out those haunting words of Psalm 22: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?.” But the actual resurrection narratives – again, taken purely as fiction – don’t amount to a literary hill of beans. They are a combination of the mundane with the surreal, lacking the power and pathos of the crucifixion account. Considered purely as literature the narratives are of minor interest. Of course, if the event really happened then the story is suddenly far more interesting. There’s now a wonder and a significance that was lacking previously. The only reason the Easter story has such a grip on even the non-Christian imagination is because it has been passed on and preached as true by centuries of Christians. Had it never been preached as true the story would today be of only minor interest to a handful of classicists, if indeed it was remembered at all.

Secondly, whilst it’s true that the resurrection story contains certain “big themes” of human life, there are literally thousands of other such stories doing a much better job. Take a story like The Plague by Albert Camus, for example. Hell, even take the graphic novel I read last week – Thor: Gods & Men! It tells the story of Asgard crashing into New York City. Thor, the god of thunder and now ruler of Asgard, proceeds to take over earth and make life as brilliant and easy as possible for humankind. However, the more he tries the more human beings resent him for it and begin to fight back. The story touches on themes of power, freedom, divine-human relations, and repentance; it’s full of intrigue, double-dealing, sacrifice, and love. Other stories – such as many ancient Greek, Celtic or Norse myths – are full of such notions also. However, no matter how much these stories resonate with us, no matter how much they raise our spirits, warm our hearts, or make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end, it seems bizarre in excelsis to define our identity in terms of any of them. It would be like me calling myself a “Grimmian Christian” because not only am I a Christian but the Brothers Grimm stories give me the warm fuzzies.

Thirdly, the power of any myth lies in its use of images to portray a truth beyond itself, typically a metaphysical truth. So, for instance, the Genesis myth isn’t just a cutesy story about a magician God who poofs the world into existence in 6 days and makes a nice garden with a talking snake. It’s saying much more than that. It’s pointing to the absolute power and supremacy of Israel’s God. “You worship the sun? Pah! Our God made that almost as an afterthought!” Theological points are crammed into these few chapters. What though of the resurrection if it never happened? What’s its mythological point? It doesn’t actually have one. The authors wrote the story as true. There isn’t any bigger point under it all, which is why – considered as myth – it’s incredibly bland. If it didn’t happen we are left with a rather sad story of a man unjustly killed by the state, and a bit of make believe tacked onto the end. That’s hardly great material out of which to create something of religious significance, or personal identity.

The resurrection story is therefore significant – existentially, religiously, cosmically – only if it’s true.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 10 – The Importance of the Resurrection

This week the BBC reported the results of a religious belief poll, with the headline proclaiming that one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39153121). My response to this was a simple “Psssst…they’re not Christians.” I was promptly taken to task by a few Twitter followers for the comment, which was described as “harsh” by one, while another chastised me for not taking into account other important features of religious faith besides belief (such as practice). Many of my fellow Christians seemed to agree with me, however.

Why should I adopt such a stance on a single doctrinal position? Isn’t Christianity much bigger than a single belief? Well, of course it is. However, there are several pretty major beliefs the rejection of which leaves people outside of historic orthodox Christianity. The resurrection is one such belief, and those who reject it surely know – if they are remotely reflective – that they are placing themselves outside of orthodoxy here. Resurrection was the founding belief of the entire Christian movement; without it there would have been no Christianity. It appears in virtually all Christian creeds which are accepted universally across denominational boundaries. Contrary to one accusation, therefore, this isn’t an arbitrary move on my part.

The fact of the matter is that all faiths have distinctives. Whilst religions are obviously more than just belief systems, they do at least include a cognitive element which is essential to their being the sort of thing they are. Could I one day wake up and just decide to be “Muslim” despite not believing the Qu’ran is the final Word of God, or that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets? Of course not. When it comes to religious faith we can’t believe or live as we like and still reasonably apply some label to ourselves. Words such as “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” actually mean something, despite how difficult it might be to provide an exhaustive definition of what they are. And there are clear cases when such labels do not apply. “Muslim,” for instance, clearly does not apply to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But – so I was challenged – who decides?! Well, in this case we all must make our own minds up as to what we are willing to accept as being “Christian.” It seems to me to be eminently reasonable, however, to use belief in the resurrection as a marker of orthodoxy here. It always has been in a way that certain other doctrines – such as the eternal mode of God’s existence – never have been. Someone might not agree with the boundaries that I draw, but that person will still have some boundaries, however vague. Without such boundaries the word “Christian” would be literally meaningless.

It may be true that Christianity – like all religions – has evolved somewhat with time. However, churches today still largely accept historic creeds from centuries ago. These creeds embody some of the earliest Christian beliefs and they are still distinctives of Christianity today. In that regard the core of Christianity remains the same. It was founded on faith in a risen Christ and it continues to be so. There are some who would reject certain quintessential Christian beliefs as the resurrection and attempt to salvage something from the remains. They might reduce Christian faith to a collection of false but meaningful stories. But that’s hardly enough for religious significance. After all the Brothers Grimm also have a collection of false but meaningful stories but it would be a tad silly to construct a religious faith out of them. There might be other such attempts to construct a quasi-Christian alternative, but any such a system is no longer historic Christianity. It’s an aberration. A Big Mac without the meat.

And so, what do we make of the report than one quarter of Christians do not believe in the resurrection? I suspect it’s a simple case of nominal Christianity. My dad still puts his religion down on forms as “Church of Ireland,” despite the fact that he doesn’t believe a word of Church of Ireland doctrine – he’s not religious at all. Which means that a quarter of “Christians” don’t believe in the resurrection, perhaps, but not a quarter of Christians. Rejection of the resurrection is a rejection of historic Christianity.

Stephen J. Graham

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