Monday, August 31, 2009

Is God Really Good?

As I said when I started this blog, I hope to address some of the common objections to Christianity. Today I will be talking about the Book of Job and about the problem of evil. I don't claim to have an answer to this age-old dilemma. I'm simply going to present what the bible has to say about the matter.

"Is God Really Good?" is the central question raised by the book of Job. This book presents us with a situation that seems completely unreasonable. From the beginning of the story we know that Job is an upright and blameless man, entirely devoted to God. As the story progresses Job faces a series of incredibly harsh trials. First he losses all that he has, including his servants and children, and then he is afflicted with a terrible disease. For those who believe in God's goodness, the story is completely outrageous and it forces us to face our doubts.

In the story we see how Job's friends respond to Job's suffering. When Job complains that his situation is miserable and that God is being unfair, they respond by telling Job that it must be his fault. They believe that God is just, and they know that Job is suffering terribly, therefore they conclude that Job must have committed some secret sin that warrants the punishment he is receiving. Their understanding of God does not allow for someone who is as righteous as Job is to suffer as horribly as Job has.

Job's friends are very reasonable people with a very reasonable kind of faith. The problem is that when they are confronted with an unreasonable situation, they behave very unreasonably.

I'd like to compare Job's response to his suffering, with the response of Job's friends to Job's suffering. Job's friends say that God is righteous, so they accuse Job. Job maintains that he is righteous, so he accuses God. I think Job's response is the better of the two. Job's response offends God, but the response of Job's friends offends both God and Job.

There is one character who speaks in the Book of Job whom God does not rebuke in the end and that is the character of Elihu. Elihu rebukes Job for making accusations against God and he reminds Job of God's glory, power and righteousness. He doesn't claim that God's punishment of Job is just, but he does say that God is just.

I don't think that Elihu's response is perfect. I certainly wouldn't use it as a model for grief counseling, but I think he does show us a better way to respond.

When we see suffering in the world, there is a temptation to provide an explanation. When we give in to this temptation we become caught on the horns of a dilemma: either these people who are suffering are evil, or God is evil. We become caught in this trap because we are trying to provide a reasonable explanation to an unreasonable situation.

This is why I think that the book of Job is helpful. By presenting us with an unreasonable situation, the book of Job forces us to confront our doubts about God's goodness. And in the end, the only way we can believe in anything is by confronting, and answering, our doubts. Reading Job's story gives us an opportunity to be open about our doubts and see if God will answer them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Eschatology Defined

One thing that I plan to do with this blog is to write a series of posts defining significant philosophical or theological concepts. In addition to giving the definition, I hope to explain these ideas and try to relate them to everyday life. Today I would like to start that series by writing about eschatology.

Eschatology is a branch of theology concerned with the final events of human history and the ultimate destiny of the world. Christian eschatology is concerned with the second coming of Christ, the ressurection of the dead and the final judgement. Perhaps the best known example of Christian eschatology is, sadly, the version presented in the Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I'm not a fan of that view, but that will have to be a topic for a future post.

Though it might seem a bit esoteric, eschatology is actually an important area of study because what we believe will happen in the future affects how we live our lives now. Especially because, as Christians, we believe that we will live to see that future. So, while eschatology is primarily a theological term, I think one can see how the term might be applied to other belief systems. After all, many people have beliefs about the future of the world that affect the way they live their lives now. To illustrate this point I'd like to give a few examples.

The most obvious example that I can think of is the widely held belief that carbon dioxide causes global warming. The concern is that unless we quickly reduce our CO2 production we will face global climate change, which would lead to disastrous consequences. Industry leaders and policy makers are starting to make choices that don't make sense unless you believe this is a real possibility. This is just one example where beliefs about future events can impact the way we live now.

An historical example of a belief system with an eschatological component is Marxism. Karl Marx, the founder of modern communism, didn't just believe that communism was a good idea. He believed that the fall of capitalism was historically inevitable and he believed that it would eventually give way to a utopian, classless society. By providing this vision of the future, Karl Marx gave his followers something to strive for, which may help explain why his beliefs have had such an impact upon history.

For my final example I would like to talk about the technological singularity. The belief is that one day humans will be able to acheive greater-than-human intelligence through artificial means. Once this happens those intelligences will be able to develop even greater intelligences. This will cause all technology to advance in ways we cannot possibly predict. The interesting thing about this belief is that, while many assume that the singularity will be a good thing, others have pointed out that it could just as easily be a disaster. Since the core concept is that these changes will be unpredictable there isn't really any way to know for sure.

I hope I've given you an understanding of why it's important to analyze our beliefs about the future. For anyone, whatever their worldview may be, beliefs about the likely course of future events can have a big impact on the way they act now. Even if we believe that those events are far off they still color the decisions we make on a day to day basis. For that reason alone we should think carefully about what beliefs we hold about the future and where those beliefs come from.

What do you think? Are you thinking of an eschatological-type belief that I missed? Do you want to offer your thoughts on the ones I mentioned? If so, please leave a comment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Omnipotent Deceiver

In this post I will begin to touch on the difficult subject of how to reconcile faith and science, and I'd like to begin by talking about 17th century philosophy. I know it seems a bit strange, but please bear with me.

Specifically I would like to talk about the concept of an omnipotent deceiver as it is presented in Rene Descartes' famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy, written in 1641. Even if you've never read anything by Descartes I'm guessing you are probably familiar with the concept. The omnipotent deceiver is a hypothetical person who is supremely powerful and intelligent. They are able to confuse a person's senses and thoughts so that that person can no longer be certain of anything. Anyone who has seen the film, “The Matrix” has a good idea of how that might work.

When Descartes tells the tale, however, the deception is perfect. There is no Morpheus to tell you you're dreaming and no blue pill to wake you up. There is no way for the subject to know that what he experiences isn't actually real. It is an intriguing idea and it forms the basis of Descartes' arguments in “Meditations.”

I want to talk about where I believe Descartes may have gotten this strange idea, assuming that he didn't have access to twentieth century science-fiction blockbusters of course. In “Meditations” he brings up this concept as a device to push skepticism as far as it will go. It might just be a contrived thought experiment used to advance the argument, but I believe that this concept is drawn from the life experience of Descartes himself.

Before “Meditations” was published Descartes had been working on a scientific text that, among other things, argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Descartes decided not to publish this text when, in 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for publishing a work that argued that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.

At the time of Galileo's trial, Descartes was a Catholic living in a protestant country. He had enough faith in Catholicism not to convert despite the persecution he faced. At the same time he was intelligent enough to know that the evidence supported the idea that the earth goes around the sun. Given that the ruling caused Descartes to set aside four years worth of work I think it's fair to say that it had some affect on him.

What if Descartes had stopped to consider the possibility that the church was right, that despite all evidence to the contrary the earth holds still and the sun revolves around it? Descartes might have considered that God was actually a mighty deceiver who is able to provide false visions that lead men to false conclusions, not only about the heavens, but also about the very ground they stand upon.

In “Meditations” Descartes struggles with the idea that God Himself might be an evil deceiver. When we read the book in this light, the omnipotent deceiver is more than just an unusual thought experiment. It illustrates the core problem of believing that God conceals the truth from us instead of revealing it to us. The problem is that no knowledge is certain, so it is impossible to truly believe anything.

Descartes argues that because God is good we can trust that he will not deceive us. For Descartes belief in God forms the basis for a rational, scientific investigation of the universe instead of acting as an obstacle to such investigations. I, for one, think it's a belief that the church should embrace. You can let me know what you think in the comments below.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mission Statement

This is a blog that deals primarily with the subjects of science, philosophy and the Christian religion. My goal is to show that Christianity, both as a religion and as a way of life, is a valid choice for intelligent, well educated people. I hope to provide a rebuttal to the view that people convert to Christianity because of stupidity, ignorance or a lapse in judgment. I also plan to carefully examine Christian beliefs and address many of the common doubts, questions or objections that people have concerning Christianity. Along the way, I plan to talk about the nature of logic and reason, the roles of science and religion in the public sphere and many other related topics.

Before I begin, however, I would like to take some time to talk about myself. My name is Jimmy Bennett. Since I was little I have had a love of both science and science-fiction. In high school I became interested in philosophy. During college I studied computer science. I converted to Christianity late in my college career after I recovered miraculously from a nearly fatal car crash. Currently I attend a Vineyard church in San Diego. Recently I completed a two year leadership training program offered by the Vineyard. This program is meant to be a kind of seminary lite for Vineyard leaders.

Now I'll try to briefly summarize my beliefs so that you can know where I'm coming from when I write. First and foremost I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus died and was raised again to restore our relationship with God. I have an orthodox view of the trinity, believing that the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all equally divine and totally united. I believe that the books in the protestant canon are all inspired by God. Lastly, I believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world just as it was during the time of Acts. Later on I will talk more about each of these things in depth.

Having said that, I don't believe that such a faith is fundamentally opposed to science. Scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, give us valuable insights into how the created universe works. I consider it a tragedy that so many people, both Christian and non-Christian, believe that the Christian faith and science are fundamentally incompatible, so you can expect that this topic will receive a lot of attention in this blog.

Last of all, I'm a bit of a geek. I enjoy playing video games and role playing games. My intention with this blog is to focus on more intellectual concerns, but along the way I might touch on my other hobbies and interests.

So thank you for reading this. If there's anything I've written above that interests you, or if there are any topics you want me to write about, please leave a comment below. I'd like to write about the things that people are most interested in, and I'd like to facilitate some dialog on these issues. But I can't do that without your help, so please leave a comment and let me know what you think.