Tag Archives: apologetics

Sympathy for atheists (part 1 of 2)

It’s probably fair to say that I spend a reasonable amount of my spare time questioning and investigating my faith. This involves not only my own critical thinking, but also reading both proponents and opponents of my faith. I won’t agree with all, but I think it’s better to be well-informed of as many relevant viewpoints as one can reasonably manage without being confuddled by the noise. Indeed, if you look through my fairly eclectic reading, I hope you’ll see a fair array of views present. The idea behind this is somewhat akin to “iron sharpens iron.” i.e. the better quality the opposition I engage with, the more refined my understanding will become. Of course, if anything is revealed to me which falsifies any idea I’ve had, and it stands up when scrutinised, tested, etc. then the most logical course of action is to change my mind.

It would be my hope that any other person who regards themselves as a rationalist would recognise this as being a fair description of their worldview. You might choose to word it slightly differently, but I think the essence of the idea is there.

So when it comes to christianity, there are two different sorts of opposition. One would be someone who at claims to be a christian (see here for a longer discussion on this) but who holds a very different viewpoint. An example of this would be Marcus Borg, who would say he is a christian, but who thinks that the history is less relevant than the “more than literal” meaning of the christian message. The other kind of opposition would be atheistic, whereby the claims of christianity are thought to be false.

This is where I come to the slightly provocative title of this post. I have lot of sympathy for atheists who, very rightly, would wish to counter a christian viewpoint. The reason I have this sympathy is the great variety of beliefs that are held by different christians. Not only that, but to those who don’t live and breathe christianity, it’s not always clear what is an essential belief held by christians and what might be incidental.

If one is to provide an incisive critique into christianity, then it helps to try to view things from a christian’s perspective. One of the attacks I read and hear most frequently is the attack on the idea of a God.  Yet I do not know of many christians for whom this is their starting point. Though it is true that without God, christianity would be a nonsense, it is not the start and end of christian belief. To say that God is the Alpha and Omega does not mean to say that a belief in God is all there is, it is a more poetic statement about the cosmos. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by a number of christian/atheist discussions, there is little agreement about what one might mean by ‘god’ – at one end you might come up with such a pithy definition that it lacks any depth or understanding; it is barely an outline, bearing little resemblance to the portrayals made of God in scripture, art, belief and apologetics throughout history. At the other end of the scale, one might try to come up with a highly detailed and nuanced view of God. One of the many dangers here, though, is that few other christians would wholly agree with the description given. In this case, one must go through every understanding of God and attempt to refute each in turn; a task which is surely too great for any one person to attempt.

There is a wider question of whether or not any description of God could ever be said to be accurate. I would argue, somewhat apophatically, that the answer to this must be ‘no’. However, before I lunge down the route of mysticism, I would give a kataphatic response that we can get a glimpse, a beginning of understanding. To me, that beginning is found in the person of Jesus.

Of course, and this may have occurred to you, that the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed is a statement expressing belief in the existence of God. This, I will admit, is a personal bugbear of mine as the authors of the creed seem to be trying to work somewhat chronologically through the bible rather than express what I would refer to as an ‘order of belief’ – an ordo fides, if you will. To my way of thinking, I go by Jesus’ sayings that “no one can come to the father except through me.” and “he who has seen me has seen the father” [John 14:5-14].

In practice, I don’t know of many people at all who are christians because they first believed in the existence of God and then somehow progressed on from there to christianity. So even though I am happy to describe myself as a theist, and have no issue with anyone describing me as such, it is secondary to my being a christian.

The bible and apologetics don’t always help

Another area of sympathy for atheists comes from the area of christian apologetics. Though there is some that I like and find quite stimulating, there is, quite frankly, a load of old guff out there. But why is apologetics needed? Surely the key source material for christian belief, the bible, has the answers?

Sadly, not. The question of the existence of God is barely addressed in the bible. Aside from a particularly unhelpful little quip in Psalm 14 and a less than convincing appeal to the argument from design at the start of Romans, there is very little in the 66 books which set out a case. Instead, God is very much a factor which is assumed. It was only much later that the question began to be posed and the idea of God doubted and disbelieved. Only then was there a need for apologetics.

However, the field is cursed by a problem. That is, those who are christians already (in most cases) accept the conclusions before they hear the argument. This creates a predisposition to agreeing with the argument, regardless of its validity. Thus, many a well-meaning christian has parroted a line of bad reasoning. Though before my fellow christians accuse me of being an infidel, I would point out that the same is true of many an atheist. If you read the Amazon reviews of something like God is not Great or The God Delusion, you will find a great many reviews there are from atheists who have read those books to reinforce their confirmation bias. So no one group is entirely free from what I think is a very natural tendency to seek out the like-minded.

That’s it, for now

I do have a few more points to make, but I shall leave for those for later, as this is getting quite long. In case those points address concerns you may have now, I’ve not opened comments on this piece; you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part next week.

Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

@GSpellchecker
“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@cheesymondo
@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@martarama
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@DanielWalker319
@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@stuhowling
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@glenn37smyth
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@ogoffan
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@JosianeGrignon
@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?

Some theological/metaphysical musings

Last week, a friend of mine sent me part of a written conversation he’d been having with another friend of his, as they were discussing some big questions of life, the universe and everything. He asked me how I would reply to some of the points and queries. I think this lays out quite well my thinking on a few issues and how I tackle such problems on metaphysics.

I don’t know how that conversation is progressing, but I hope it’s positive. I hope you find this helpful too. The original message is in red and my responses are those in black. Any hyperlinks have been added for this blog post only and were not included in the original correspondence.

Sorry for not getting back sooner. I’ve been a bit busy. No need to apologise for the length of your reply. I’d much rather that than a pithy response. I can appreciate that it must be a difficult question to try and answer.

I have to admit that as I read through your message there were a couple of things that stood out to me as confusing. There first being the notion of “trusting in the unknown”.  I find that a difficult concept to comprehend. For me, it makes much more sense to put trust in things you know. In fact, I would go so far to say that putting trust in the unknowable seems logically paradoxical. But that right there might be where I struggle with understanding a person’s faith. Or rather their leap of faith.

I would rather put it as trust in that which we not 100% sure about. To my thinking, the word “unknowable” means we can’t even start to know anything about it. Rather, I would say that God cannot be completely understood; we can’t give a neat definition of God that encapsulates every idea we have about it and which allows for a dissection. To put trust in God then is not a leap into the dark. It is a step onto ground where we don’t know if the footing is good.

To extend the metaphor (which, by nature is flawed), my view is that God is more like a foreign country to be explored. We may all have started at different points and explored a locality, but no one has had the time to cover all the ground, some of which is smooth, some of which is rocky. So for me, the idea of faith is being willing to poke around in this strange land.

The other bit that stood out to me as a difficult thing to get my head around is this bit, “and feel I know to be true”. I really don’t understand how feeling something is related to knowing it it’s true or not. For me, the only way I can make a judgement on whether something is true or not is by reviewing what evidence is available. Whilst I think that having a feeling, or a hunch or even a belief is important it shouldn’t influence the outcome of whether something is true or not. Again all I might be highlighting here is my inability to accept a leap of faith.

I would agree with you here. Subjective feelings are not the best basis for one’s worldview. It raises an interesting question as to whether someone can believe something that is true for wrong reasons. I would suggest that the answer is ‘yes’ and that this is such an example.

I know people who have been lost their faith because of the way they have been treated by other people in churches. Does the fact they’ve been treated badly show the non-existence of God? I don’t think so. All it shows is that christians can be just as capricious as anyone else. Likewise, someone may believe in God because of a coincidence that saved their life. Some friends of my sister were due for a tour of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 but stayed at the hotel because one of them had a cold. Does that prove God’s existence? No. Not least because it would be an insult to the families of those who died.

For my part, the reasons for my belief have changed in the years since I became a christian. Like you, I favour an evidenced-based approach over a subjective one. For all the clever arguments both for and against the existence of God, as interesting and as persuasive as they may be, I am not convinced that either side has ever given conclusive proof of their point of view. It’s like two people on either side of a brick wall trying to push it over.

While belief in God is a very important question that must be addressed, I am no longer convinced it is the best way to approach the claims of various world religions. Instead, I prefer the historical approach – what can we reasonably know about their origins? So for me, as a christian, I would start not with the idea of the creator God in Genesis, but with the man: Jesus of Nazareth.

Likewise, if you are to look at Islam, I don’t think it’s best to look at the ideas that are (and aren’t!) preached by Muslims, but by looking at Muhammad.

In Jesus, there is a huge swing in the belief that sprung up in his wake. He was raised as a Jew, and lived in a Jewish community under Roman occupation. Yet what he said and did clearly rattled the cages of both the Jewish and Roman authorities at the time. Some of those who followed him thought he was a Messiah – a special kind of prophet who would end the occupation. But he was by no means the only one of that time (c.f. Monty Python: “You are the Messiah. I should know; I’ve followed a few!”).

But what distinguished Jesus from the others was that the movement didn’t die after he did, it erupted. The rapid growth of christianity (as a radically reformed form of Judaism) was unlike any other religious movement, as was the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Comparing to other post-mortem ideas in the cultures of the time, this was a variation on the Jewish idea, but was still markedly different.

So the question then has to be asked: why did this belief arise and why was it so potent? The answer I have come to is that something significant must have happened on that Easter weekend. It is from that conclusion that the rest of my christianity begins.

There are, of course, lots of questions that can be raised about the texts – such as textual criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. Not all of those questions can be answered here, but I’d be happy to expand if you wanted me to.

You said you’d be interested to hear my thoughts, well I’ll try and convey them as best as I can. I have a deep interest and admiration for nature. For reality. It would be fair to say that I am in awe of it. That is why I think of myself as a pantheist as opposed to an atheist. Whilst I have no belief in a supernatural being, I am uncomfortable with the term atheist as I’m really not that interested in things I don’t believe. There are plenty of things I don’t believe in, and therefore I don’t see the point of defining myself by something that I don’t believe in.

As a pantheist, I would suggest that I often find myself thinking about the same big existential questions that people of faith must think. How and why are we here? etc. It also makes me marvel at the undeniable beauty that exists in reality. This is probably the closest thing I have to having a belief. Throughout nature there appears to be an aesthetic that is governed by principles of symmetry, structure and pattern. However, this does not in any way lead me to think of a creator though, but does lead to believe that whatever the process is that has created everything we can observe, at the very least, it is a process that has involved maths.

Take the Fibonacci sequence for example. This simple mathematical formula brings up a sequence of numbers that appears so frequently throughout nature that you could pretty much get rid of any other mathematical formula in history and still have trouble denying that maths has not played a part in creation.

I’ve read a quote before that “God is a mathematician.” Having done a maths degree, I was astonished to see how much of the universe can be described by maths. The “higher” I got in my education, the more physics and maths merged into one, so that even though I was on a maths degree, I still studied subjects such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, electrodynamics and fluid dynamics. Not that I remember much of the detail now, though!

I would be hesitant to say that appearance of design implies a designer. Such was the thinking of William Paley, but I think this was adequately countered by, say, Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker (though, of course, I don’t agree with him on all fronts; you will not be surprised to hear).

The trouble I have with the pantheistic view of appealing to aesthetic and the beauty of nature is that it seems to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. If I have understood you correctly, which I may well not have done, then your statement of pantheism implies that “nature is god” – no need for a supernatural being, because ‘god’ is a label that we use to describe the whole of reality. But then that would entail the violence we see in nature: the sickness, the death, etc. How does the cancer cell, the parasite and the volcano fit in with “the undeniable beauty that exists in reality” – is that ‘god’ too or is that something else? If so, what?

So there are my thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested to find out what your response to it would be? I’m glad you take no offence to me asking you frank questions. My only intention is to have an engaging discussion on the matter. In the past I have found that some theists react in a way that suggests I have offended them by even questioning their faith. A reaction which always frustrates me, especially as I have no intention of offending anyone.

There is no offence taken. How many answers were ever given when no question was ever asked? I think the reason some theists take offence is because they haven’t asked themselves the right questions first. There ought to be no shame in saying “I don’t know,” “Let me look that up,” or “Can I phone a friend?” – in writing this I’ve used the backspace key and rephrased things a few times; something I can’t do when I’m speaking, which is why and many other theists like may say stupid things sometimes. That’s not to say my writing is perfect either…

So back with the faith stuff (and I know I am replying before you managed to have a full ramble, so I hope you don’t mind)…

The first point I would take issue with is that the observation of pattern and order (such as the Fibonacci sequence) in the natural world, does not logically lead to the evidence of a designer or creator. In fact if anything, it is contrary evidence to that claim, as it shows how very simple rules can create massively complex outcomes. In other words, when we observe beauty within subjects through properties of pattern, symmetry and structure, we are simply observing the end result of simple rules repeated over and over again, rather than something that owes it’s aesthetic qualities to a grand plan from a designer or creator. Unless you are attributing this actual process as ‘God’. In which case I would say that this definition of God is more aligned to a Pantheist’s interpretation and has no correlation to a supernatural being.

I would agree with you here. The ‘argument from design’ or teleological argument is certainly interesting, but I wouldn’t like to let my faith live or die by it. A great example of simple rules leading to complexity was demonstrated by John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ – a little computer programme you can download off the web. It uses simple rules to decide if a square on a grid is black or white, depending on the colour of its neighbouring squares. Then, you decide the starting set up and let the programme run. It’s fascinating!

The interesting thing is that the rules still needed to be determined by a computer programmer. The analogy being that God designed the rules of physics, maths, chemistry and biology. Now I would say this reflects how I think God acts in the universe, but I would be hesitant to use it as an argument *for* God. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse.

But it does raise one further interesting point: Which is greater? The God who created the universe in six literal days, fully formed and teeming with life or the God who created the rules which allowed the universe to create itself? I’m not saying I have a definite answer or that either side is a great reflection of different worldviews, but I do think it’s interesting.

I don’t think I have come across Louis Giglio, but I’d certainly be open to seeing any of his videos that you fancy linking me up with. However, the second point I’d like to expand on is (I know I might be accidentally misinterpreting what you meant btw) the misleading response to aspects of scientific knowledge. I got a sense from what you said above that Louis Giglio is referring to bits of science which seems to incredibly ‘lucky’ or ‘unbelievably find tuned’ that it would suggest it must have been specially created. If tiny, minute details had been ever so slightly different then the outcome would mean that we could never exist. Whilst that might be true, it holds no logical ground for defending the existence of a God. If the conditions had been different then the universe would not have been able to spawn creatures of conscience and intelligence. In other words, any being capable of observing the universe is bound to marvel at how finely tuned it appears to be for their existence. If the universe wasn’t like that then they would not be there to observe it. It is more a case of being inevitable rather than incredible chance.

I’m not sure if you’ve read the term, but what you’ve just described is known as the ‘anthropic principle’. In the past I’ve used this as an argument for God, but I don’t anymore. I now think that it’s another appeal to the ‘God of the gaps’ hypothesis.

As I said earlier, there are bad reasons for belief, and I now think this is one of them. What takes care, though, is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As various ‘proofs of God’ have been put-forward by various well-meaning (and maybe some not so well-meaning) people and have been refuted, to my way of thinking this only shows that that particular reason is faulty, but not the idea of God itself. To do that, I think, would need a more proactive theory on the part of atheists. Will either side ever come up with a convincing argument? I don’t think they will, at least not in my lifetime. But then I believe that on the balance of the evidence I’ve seen so far, but lacking the certainty that comes with mathematical proof; or as I call it, faith.

I hope you’re enjoying this exchange? I certainly am. I enjoy thinking about these things and I am genuinely interested in how a theist interprets the world around them. If you are interested, I would be happy to point you towards some videos that explain some of my views more articulately and in more detail?

It would be unfair for me to refuse to view any videos or read any books, if I am to suggest any to you (as I am about to)! So by all means, send anything my way. I would not suggest Louis Giglio; as interesting as he is, I think some of the arguments he used, not least about a crucifix-shaped protein, are rather lacking in substance. Instead, I would suggest checking out the Veritas Forum. If you’ve come across TED talks, these are in the same vein, but with a more religious/philosophical/metaphysical bent than TED. There are quite a few videos on there, the most of watched are those by NT (Tom) Wright – a former bishop of Durham and an excellent communicator.

If you want to follow up with any writers more eloquent than I, I would suggest a book called ‘Belief: readings on the reasons for faith’ – which is a compilation of various writings from well known figures such as C.S. Lewis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc. and some lesser known figures.

You’re more than welcome to borrow my copy if you want – but only if you suggest reading for me!

Can a christian be non-religious?

I started writing this post at the start of June and have been struggling with it for some time. What I’ve had to do is re-write from scratch as I have just run into too many problems which I shall elucidate upon below.

My initial aim was to ask whether or not it was possible for a christian to be non-religious. My Facebook profile, under the heading of “religion” states that I am a religionless christian. This, however, is highly dependent upon my particular interpretation of the word “religion. So my intention was to look at the different ways in which religion was defined (by the dictionary, by the majority of people in our westernised society and by what the bible had to say) and compare them to see if and how christianity really fitted the criteria.

The trouble came when I tried to write up the definition from ‘society’s’ view that wasn’t either too narrow-minded so as exclude many valid viewpoints or too vague so as to lose any and all significant meaning. Eventually, I worked out what the problem was: it was a question over whether religion was something someone believes or something someone does. I asked the following question on Twitter:

“Do you view religion as something someone does or something they believe? Or are the 2 inseparable?”

These are the responses I received:

“Does”

“Some believe, some ‘do’. I’ve met Christians who are devout & passionate about faith, & some who do it for the social life.”

“depends on the person – “religion” is a belief, “Religion” is an act. In my experience, they don’t always go together.”

“depends on the person. I know some who believe, some who do and some that go hand in hand.”

“when my human was non-religious she thought it was a story people believed. She didn’t know it was something people “do”.”

“Both. Without belief, actions are just rituals and without action, beliefs are just empty words.”

Possibly the last of the responses comes closest to my own view. I think of religion as being typified by ritual. But christianity need not be. Of course, some denominations do define themselves by such rituals, whether it be by liturgical chanting, having communion in a very rigid, set format or marching a cross around town on Good Friday. But none of these are specified in the bible as being necessary. On the contrary, the hallmark of christianity is faith, not works. But then we have to bear in mind the book of James where we find the closest thing to a christian definition of “religion”:

“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet not biding his tongue, but deceiving his heart, this one’s religion is in vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

He goes on to say, famously:

“My brothers, what is the gain if anyone says he has faith but he does not have works? Is faith able to save him? But if a brother or sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace; be warmed and filled – but does not give them the things the body needs – what gain is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.

So can a christian be non-religious? Absolutely. You can turn christianity into a religion, if you so choose, but to let become christianity is a not the best idea. I finish with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“To be a christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.”

Priests: a nonconformist point of view

Carrying on from my recent posts on “a nonconformist point of view” I conclude with this look at the priesthood. The understanding I have, based on the different denominations I have been a part of over the years, is quite specific. Yet I have noticed that there is a rising trend to refer to members of the clergy as priests, which goes quite against my understanding. So here, once again, I am thinking out loud and giving the evidence and reasoning behind my thinking. You are welcome to disagree either in comments or, if you write a response and let me know, I’ll be happy to include a link.

The traditionalist viewpoint

The idea of a christian priest stems back to christian origins, where this new belief was regarded by outside observers as a sect within Judaism which eventually grew into its own separate identity. In the Judaic system, the priests were the link between ordinary people and God. Effectively, they were a go-between. There were very stringent rules about who could and who could not be a priest. It’s worth noting that the concept of a priest most probably predated Judaism as they are introduced in the Old Testament as figures already known, with no single text detailing the precise role they had, though there is plenty of detail you may find in Exodus, Leviticus & Numbers.

Today, it is often used another synonym for minister, pastor or vicar. In catholicism, the common picture that is summoned up is that of the confessional box where a member of the church steps into a small, ornately carved, wooden cubicle and tells the priest all the things they’ve done wrong. The priest then tells them to serve some penance (e.g. say 3 ‘Hail Mary’s) and then declares, en loco deus, that that person is forgiven.

What does the bible say?

There are a few key passages in the New Testament which radically reform who can and who cannot be a priest. Interestingly, I don’t see a real sea-change in the role of a priest, as I think that it pretty much the same as it was in the Old Testament. However, if you glance at a concordance (I use Strong’s Strongest as my reference) you will note a dramatic fall off in the number of uses. The OT is replete with references (over 750) whereas the NT has only just over 150. Most of these references are in the gospels and Acts as references to the Jewish authorities.

Where the theology of christian priesthood is found, we have references almost exclusively one book: Hebrews. There are 3 references in Revelation and 2 in 1 Peter which probably ought to be dealt with first. The Revelation references may be found in 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6.

What these reveal is that John thoughts that priests were synonymous with saints. It was a category that included all believers. Assuming an orthodox belief that Jesus died for all, then 5:10 states that the saints (i.e. all believers) were “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God”. Of course, if one is of the presupposition that “kingdom” means institutional church then this could be misconstrued. But this particular nonconformist believes that the notion of kingdom is that of being all the people of God, subject to the one God as our king.

The 1 Peter references may be found in 2:5-9

“Like living stones yourselves, you are being built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices that will be well pleasing to god through Jesus the Messiah. That’s why it stands in scripture: ‘Look! I’m setting up in Zion a chosen, precious cornerstone; believe in him! You’ll not be ashamed.’ He is indeed precious for you believers. But when people don’t believe, ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone’, and ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence’. But you are a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood’; a holy nation; a people for God’s possession. Your purpose is to announce the virtuous deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.”

Here, Peter harks back to Exodus 19:3-6 but reinterprets it. Instead of a priestly kingdom to mean a nation which contains and is governed by priests (I think pertinently of the welcome signs to County Durham ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’) we are now under the kingdom of heaven, where God is our king and we all are priests. Peter has no hint that some are to be priests and some are not.

In Paul’s writing, we find a complete absence of priesthood. Instead we find apostles, prophets, teachers and leaders (1 Cor 12:28).

Given the large number of references in Hebrews, it’s hard to do the subject justice without an exegesis. So I shall attempt to just pick out the key passages, whilst encouraging you to read the whole book.

They key introduction may be found in 4:14-16:

“Since, then, we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Who is the “us” that the writer to the Hebrews is referring to? Are the apostles some kind of new priestly order, whereby they are the ones who can approach this metaphorical throne? It seems highly unlikely to me. What the author is driving at is that the actions of Jesus have opened up a whole new wealth freedoms, unbounded by the rigidity of the Torah. To approach God is no longer something we do through an intermediary. The revelation of Jesus as God has lifted the restriction on who can and who cannot be a priest.

The Argument

Given the above, my line of thinking on the matter is as follows:

During Jesus’ lifetime, there was no great intention to reform the priesthood. This is, admittedly, an argument from the absence of evidence, but while his message was subversive it wasn’t so in this way. Instead, Jesus’ concern was more about the symbolism embodied in the Temple.

One of the contentious roles of the priesthood is whether they have an ability to forgive sins. That is, more than on an individual level (“I forgive you for stepping on my foot”) but rather than they act en loco deus to confer on people the forgiveness of God. On this point, I disagree with N.T. Wright who says (in Jesus and the Victory of God) “In first-century jewish reality, the way YHWH forgave sins…was ultimately through the officially established and authorized channels of Temple and priesthood.” He says this in relation to the incident in Mark 2 where Jesus forgives a cripple before healing him. My opinion is that the “legal experts” in verses 6 & 7 were correct in declaring that only God can forgive sins. So Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness was a direct claim to be God, though Wright apparently denies this.

When the curtain in the Temple was torn at the moment of Jesus’ death, the symbolism of the separation of God and mankind that the curtain represented was removed. For more on that, see this recent piece. The high priest had been the only person able to pass through that curtain, but now Jesus was taking the role of high priest. There was to be no more earthly go-between between God and mankind.

Now, we have access to God, since anyone who has “seen” Jesus has seen the Father (John 14:9). What this instigated is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Instead of a few individuals who can trace their family history back to the tribe of Levi, all of us are priests. We can all boldly approach God who, through the new covenant instigated by Jesus’ death, has restored us to fellowship with him.

Conclusion

The notion of a priest is an important one in both Judaism and christianity. How the latter differed from the former was one piece in understanding the importance of the work of Jesus, accomplished on the cross and interpreted by the first generation of evangelists.

While it might be comforting, from a psychological point of view, to have aural confirmation that you are forgiven, the act of a member of a clergy making such a declaration in no way enacts the forgiveness of God. To turn this around, imagine that you did not have access to the priest. To whom would you make your confession? Would you go unforgiven? I don’t think so.

In accordance with 1 John 1:9, my opinion is that we are free to confess our sins to God. There is no more need for an intermediary since Jesus became the one high priest.

I think the theology in most churches kind of runs along these lines, but the terminology still exists in some churches, even if the authority to forgive sins and act as a go-between is no longer used. These are the reasons why I don’t refer to clergy as priests. I may not be ordained, but I am no less a priest – neither are you. This may seem like nit-picking, but I think the terminology we use (and the connotations that come with it) make important statements about what we believe and practice. So by reserving the term ‘priest’ for certain individuals, we deny this rich vein of christian teaching that was evidently considered important for the early church and which is still relevant today.

What’s your take on this?

  • Do you agree with this analysis, or would you make significant revisions to it?

I hope it has provided you food for thought.

Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

At last, I return to Christian Origins and the Question of God. For those of you who don’t know, this is a series of books by N.T. (Tom) Wright which is he is still in the process of writing. I began in late 2010 by jumping straight to volume 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). At the time, I wasn’t aware it was a series, but stuck with it at the time. I have since gone back to volume 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). Now, as I write this review, the next volume, with the tentative title Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG), is due to be completed this summer and should be published in the summer of 2013.

In this volume, as the title suggests, Wright looks at Jesus. In his introduction, he takes issue with those who propose that we can know very little about Jesus himself and propose that there is a stark difference between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’. Instead of accepting this proposition at face value, Wright sets out to examine who the Jesus of history was and what his aims were. He proposes that many Christian theologians have, over the years, examined very closely the idea of why did Jesus die, but at the neglect of the question as to why he lived.

The introduction is almost as detailed as that of NTPG and runs on for well over 100 pages. So this is a book for the patient reader, yet it is well worth it. The one drawback to the book, which is highlighted early on, is that, for the most part, the testimony of John’s gospel is ignored. Instead, what we have is a study solely of the synoptic tradition. This may frustrate many readers as it seems as though, in acting as jury, Wright is dismissing one of the key witness statements. Part of the reason given for this was one of brevity, as the book is over 600 pages long (plus bibliography and index) on the basis of the 3 other gospel accounts.

However, hints are given that he will return to the John, along with the other gospels in a later volume in the series. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this hinders Wright’s analysis from the off. I think most readers of this blog are fairly theologically astute (probably more so than me) so will know what I mean if I say that John’s account is more christologically developed than the Synoptics. Yet Wright seems to want to disentangle Jesus from Christology and so, while he often criticises Bultmann and his ‘demythologisation’ Wright seems to be following Bultmann’s footsteps very closely indeed, even if he is looking in a slightly different direction whilst doing so. That said, Wright does outline, at the very end of the book a kind of ‘christology’ thought it is one that is very different from what most churches teach.

An example of this may be found when dealing with the problem any historian looking at Jesus must face: the miracles. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue and instead focuses purely on what the 1st century ‘audience’ would have interpreted by the signs. Yet dodging the historicity and moving straight onto the interpretation is the same approach that Marcus Borg takes to the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. If you see his 2006 book ‘Jesus’ (not published in the UK until 2011) he says of the resurrection: “Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality….If you believe the tomb was empty, fine…..And if you’re not sure, or even quite sure they didn’t happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?” Yet Wright spends a significant amount of space in volume 3 of this series (which was the first that I read) arguing very much for the historicity of the resurrection. Whether Wright went through a significant change of mind between his writing volumes 2 and 3 is unclear, but his approach certainly appears to have shifted.

Wright’s portrait of Jesus is that of a man who understood himself, and was understood by others, as being a prophet, using as his foundation passages such as Mark 8: 27-30 and its parallels. The key theme to the book is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of god” – a topic that I’ve often found glossed over in many different churches, presumably on the assumption that everyone knew and agreed what the referent was, even if it somewhat hazy.

After his “portrait of a prophet” Wright moves on to look at the aims and beliefs of Jesus. Much of this is tied in with what has gone before. It is here that Jesus moves onto the end of Jesus’ life.

In trying to understand Jesus in his historical context, Wright does seem to be missing a very big side of the story. He is keen to stress that in order to understand Christology you must first get “Jesusology” or else risk putting the cart before the horse. But I cannot feel that by focusing exclusively on Jesus’ reformation of the Jewish worldview and ignoring the impact on Gentiles and at any time and place other than 1st century Israel/Palestine, that Wright is painting a portrait of the horse and cart, only without legs and wheels, so that Jesus is so firmly rooted in his setting that he is static and has nothing of relevance to say to 21st century westernised christians. Only at the very end of the book is this problem acknowledged. The proposed solution is that everything changes with the resurrection, so the reader is referred onto the next volume.

This is not the only thing that may rattle those of us who hold to fairly orthodox (note the small ‘o’) beliefs. In in his discourse of Jesus in relation to “apocalyptic” Wright swims against the tide of 2,000 years of theology to deny that there will be a “second coming.” Though hints are dropped throughout the book, the core argument is given in Wright’s exegesis of Mark 13. Rather than consider this a new form of apocalyptic, Wright chooses to read this as a strictly Jewish apocalyptic in exactly the same vein as Daniel.

I realise that this review may sound quite negative, but that is not the impression I want to give. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to christians, jews, muslims and atheists. To understand christianity (and how it relates to Judaism) one has to study the figure of Jesus. And though this doesn’t cover all aspects of Jesus’ ministry and life, it certainly covers a lot and in a lot of depth. It is at once both enlightening and challenging, asking us to look at our worldview in a different light – just as Jesus did in his day.

Inviting Jesus into your heart?

Prayer is the language

Preamble

This is just intended to be a short post as a precursor to a forthcoming article on what I mean when I talk about priests and also why I don’t refer to members of the clergy as such. That post is getting quite long, so I wanted to use this to clear a little ground first. So with that in mind, you might want to revisit this after the priest post has been published.

The argument

I have occasionally heard/read some criticism by the use of (predominantly) evangelical christians using the phrase “invite Jesus into your heart” as the means by which one becomes a christian. Much of this criticism is fair, I think, but there’s a little more to it than meets the eye.

The main arguments against its use are as follows:

1) Such a phrase is never used in the bible.

2) It is highly simplistic.

While both of these are true, I would argue that they are not the whole truth of the matter. Rather, the phrase is a summary of a much more sophisticated theology, which I shall attempt to enunciate: When Jesus was crucified, Matthew’s gospel records that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. This is highly symbolic as the curtain was an emblem of the separation of God and mankind. So its destruction, in symbolic terms, said that Jesus’ crucifixion was the act that meant God and mankind were to be reconciled.

Prior to this, Jesus had caused a rumpus in the temple by overturning the tables and throwing out the money-changers. Some regard this as a cleansing of the temple, though others regard it as a parable acted out denoting the destruction of the temple. If we are to accept the second theory (c.f. Mark 13:1,2) then the implication is that the temple was no longer needed. It was more than a prediction of its historical destruction in A.D. 70; it was a declaration that the purpose for which it stood was now redundant.

What was that purpose? It was the symbolic home of God on earth. It was never a literal dwelling (c.f. 1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 2:6, 6:18, Acts 7:48, 17:24) so it shouldn’t be taken as anything remotely mystical. So if the temple was now redundant, what replaced it?

The short answer is us. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2: 1-13) filled each person individually with the spirit. They were now the figurative dwelling places of God on earth. So instead of one temple situated in Jerusalem, there would now be a multitude of temples walking across the earth. Or rather, to be less individualistic, there are multiple parts of the temple wandering the planet.

This is expanded upon by Paul in some of his writings. Take, for example, Ephesians 2:19-22. Here, he uses the image of the church to be the new temple. In 1 Corinthians 3:16,17 the same metaphor is used. Though, it seems clear that the message here is for the whole church. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, however, seems much more aimed at the individual, which was a topic I touched on recently, so as to not have the discussion on individualism here.

Most christians I think would agree with me when I say that salvation (note, I have not defined precisely what this means, for now, I confess to being a little fuzzy in my terminology) comes about through faith in Jesus as Lord. Now, there may be many aspects to this which are worth exploring and indeed, as stated recently, I am pursuing one of these lines of enquiry at the moment. This is why there is an emphasis on the person of Jesus, whose action is history is more readily grasped (if not with complete ease) than discussions of the more tricky notion of ‘God’.

Conclusion

So by stating that we are “inviting Jesus into our hearts” we are making a declaration that we wish to become a part of the new temple, filled with the Holy Spirit. We are trusting that Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all substitutionary sacrifice for our ‘sins’ (or perhaps, for being ‘sinners’). This step of faith is very much an inward action. The follow up to this is much more public where, as an act of obedience, we are to be baptised, which in itself is a highly symbolic act, which is why in the majority of churches, it is accompanied with a testimony of how that person came to be a christian, though I admit that this latter part is not a biblical imperative; it is merely helpful for the person being baptised and for those in attendance.

Of course, there is an obvious weakness to my argument, which I freely admit. That is, how much of this is necessarily understood by the person making the step of faith? I would argue that the basic tenets of christianity need not be over-complicated. Acts 2:39 makes it clear that from the outset, the gospel was to be accessible to all. You don’t have to have a full grasp of all the details before setting out. That can, and should, come later. For example, you don’t have to know all the details about an internal combustion engine before learning to drive. Later on, some understanding of mechanics may help when the car starts spluttering.

I know that I have used a lot of terms here that I have not defined well and may appear rather religious. This is probably a by-product from having, for the most part, grown up in church, surrounded by the terminology. In due course, I may try and hone some of these terms to make them less religious, thus making them more accessible. But I hope I have been reasonably clear. Let me know if you agree or disagree; this could be a fascinating discussion.