Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cargo Cults and the Jesus Myth



One of the arguments of the Jesus Myth people is that myths can develop rather quickly – within months if not just a few years.  So it is not at all impossible for a myth that came to be known as Christianity to have developed within the relatively few years between the events of Jesus’ life – whatever they might have been – and the development of the stories of Jesus’ life, the Gospels.  As proof they present the cargo cults of the South Pacific.


Cargo cults are religions that development when modern civilization encountered the primitive cultures of the isolated peoples of the South Sea islands in the late 19th  and  early 20th centuries.  The simplified description of the development of these cargo cult religions is that the primitive islanders saw the Western missionaries and other technologically advanced Western people - the Western military that occupied the islands in the Second World War - as so remarkable that they assumed them to be gods or emissaries from gods.  Then these primitive South Sea islanders noticed that when these emissaries asked for supplies (cargo) they arrived.  They reasoned It must have been sent by the gods.


That cargo was a wonder to these primitive people. It was a miracle; they had no conception of where it might have come from; they could not comprehend modern industrial societies. But it made life so much easier.  And possessing cargo made the possessor powerful in these primitive societies. So when the missionaries and the U.S. Army left, these primitive people continued to believe in gods who could supply the cargo if asked correctly.


Praying to these gods and rituals that resembled the way the missionaries and other Westerners lived developed with the hope that the gods could be persuaded to supply cargo.  Names were given to the gods. In one case John Frum and in another a variation of Roosevelt, the president during the time of the occupation of the islands by American troops in the Second World War,  became the names of these gods. (You can look up the Scientific American article about these cults Scientific American and a web page describing the John Frum cult John Frum  )


The point of all this is that the cargo cults have become what the Jesus Myth folk see as an example of rapid development of a myth and a type of myth  development which they claim happened in the Jesus myth.

However, they overlook something important in their hasty analogy: there was cargo delivered to the missionaries and to the American troops.  There was a real basis for the beliefs of these primitive people.   (Worsley in the Scientific American article wrote that their belief had a reasonable basis.) And it was a rather sustained experience;  that is, it was something  observed over a period of decades.

On the other hand, the Jesus Myth folk will deny that there was anything of real substance to the myth of Jesus.  Some will say that the origin of the Jesus myth is in the vision of  Paul rather than  a real person named Jesus.

 
Others will say that the origin of the Jesus myth was in one or another or a combination of the various messiah’s who populated the first century Palestine landscape, but who in no case that we know of truly produced anything more than the hope of independence from Rome or the king established by Rome, Herod. In other words, there was no cargo.  There certainly was no cargo that resembled the acts of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels.


The problem then is the development of a “cargo cult” when there was no cargo delivered. The "cargo," which in this case might be the miracles Jesus performed or the message he spoke or the resurrection, is imagined to be  themselves a part of the myth that developed. The result is a circular argument: some promised benefit resulted in the development of the Jesus myth, but the promised benefit is found only in the myth that developed. That is not the way the cargo cult myths developed.


That leaves the Jesus Myth folk with a myth that has no foundation. The cargo cults at least had the cargo delivered to Westerners and the obvious power of the Westerners as a hope. Both were real things. That a cargo cult could develop without those is not believable. It did not develop around any of the other messianic hopefuls of first century Palestine. Why? The simple answer is that they delivered no cargo. They died not having fulfilled in any way the promises they made. Who would create a cult around a failed messiah?  And the idea that a cargo cult developing with no benefit certainly is not supported in the scientific literature.

Jesus, on the other hand, delivered on his promise of life. He rose from the dead. He was seen by many. He spoke to them. He ate with them. He displayed the wound of crucifixion. They touched him. This was evidence, and dramatic evidence at that, that the promise of Jesus was real. This was a reality on which to build a faith.


Marching with guns is still a ritual of some cargo cults.
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There is another problem.  Modern societies do not develop myths. Moderns may create mythical stories, but they are recognized as fiction. Primitive societies do develop myths. They develop myths to explain the unexplainable and rituals to try to bridge the power gap between their society and the far more advanced society they have encountered. (See Cargo Cult, Wikipedia ) Primitive societies do this.  The key concept in the scientific literature is “primitive.”


Was the society of first century Palestine primitive? I suggest it was not. It was far more like a modern society than a primitive South Sea island society. It was a highly educated and literate society. The average Jew in Judea may not have been literate, but he knew by experience about the larger literate and advanced society of the Roman Empire. He had daily contact with that society. He imagined no magic that enabled Romans to be more powerful than themselves. And then there were people like Paul.


Paul was educated in the literature, philosophy, history, and the religions of the Greeks. He was a citizen of Rome and came from a major city. As a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and a Pharisee, he was especially literate and knowledgeable in the Old Testament. He was not primitive. If he was, as many of the Jesus Myth people suggest, the original conveyer of this “myth,” it would be exceptionally remarkable. He in no way fits the model of “primitive” which the scientific literature indicates is the seedbed for the development of a cargo cult.


Most who have actually studied the cargo cults and the myths and rituals that developed in these societies do not use them as illustrations for how Christianity developed. But I still encounter in the popular literature of the Jesus Myth people reference to John Frum and the cargo cults. Many times those who are impressed by this phenomenon don’t dig deeper to understand the cargo cults. My objective is simply to suggest that the Jesus Myth people are mistaken. To suggest that the cargo cults provide an example of how a myth may develop quickly - if it is used to support the Jesus Myth proposition - is too simplistic. The analogy is not there. The differences are too great.

But the attack of the Jesus Myth people on the historicity of the Gospels is nevertheless serious. Christians, too, seldom dig deeper and think critically about what we read in the news magazines and see on TV.  And there are an increasing number of these articles. (I noted earlier the piece in the December 18 edition of the Washington Post in which Raphael Lataster argues for the non-existence of a historical Jesus.)  Christians need to be prepared with good information.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Matthew

I've been reading in the past weeks about the Gospels. I suppose my interest has been rekindled because of the ideas I encountered in the book I recently read, Zealot. The idea of that author, Reza Aslan, is that the Gospels were all written in the later part of the first century or early second century and were not the accounts of eyewitnesses or even those acquainted with the eyewitnesses to Jesus.

My own research leads me to another conclusion, especially related to the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, I was so exercised by Aslan's analysis that I felt led to publish a piece out of my book I Walked With Jesus in which I address the question. It follows.

Profile of Matthew

Who was Matthew? In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater meaning.

 
Who was this Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongues is that he is the disciple of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the inner group of twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.

Who was Matthew? If we were to ask him, he would tell us, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.

But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle, a man sent with a message to his people, and the author of the book called by his name.


But was he the author? There are two lines of evidence for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel. They both lead us back to what the church has for nineteen centuries accepted as true.

The first is the words of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the Apostle Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To Papias, Matthew was more than a name from history. He was a real person, a respected Apostle. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.

The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered by the early church to be the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the Matthew’s gospel and the formula used for baptizing - "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" - found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many briefer phrases and words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7, words not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of Matthew’s gospel, as well as the gospel's importance to the early church.

However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.


Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quoted extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the family clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the Scriptures of Israel.

Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he is not in the temple. He is working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for Herod and the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?

Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.
Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have personally seen the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terribly disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up pouring drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the promised Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully drew in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message. For Isaiah, the Messiah is the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. Isaiah pictured these people as an “afflicted city” ( Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.
Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was here. It was now. And Jesus demonstrated it with the power of his words and his acts. The Messiah Isaiah had spoken of had come, and Matthew had become convinced deep down and without question that Jesus was the hope of Israel. This man was Messiah! It must have sent a chill down his back when Matthew first came to that realization.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is telling that Matthew alone uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi when he tells of his own calling to follow Jesus. The other two gospel writers call him Levi. But the name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear. Forever after he would call himself simply a man named Matthew.

It is also telling that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the tax collector.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah:

Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” ( Isaiah59:10).
Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flowed the words of the book we know as the Gospel of Matthew.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Under Attack

Christians and their faith are under attack. If there were any question of that a quick google search for persecuted Christians will provide more than enough evidence. But that is not new? That has been going on for 2000 years. What is new in the last 50 years is the attack on Christians in America.

No, Christians are not being crucified or beheaded as they are in the Middle East. But they are under attack, and the attack is becoming increasingly sophisticated. An example is a Washington Post opinion piece published on December 18. The article written by Raphael Lataster is entitled "Did the historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn't add up."

Mr. Lataster is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. His bio lists Bayesian reasoning as one of his interests, and that is where the sophistication (or false sophistication) comes in. Lataster along with many of the other antagonists of Christianity have attempted to raise the bar for knowing so high that no one, including themselves, are able to say with any certainty that they know anything, and if it cannot be known, then it cannot be real or true or reliable. That is why I like what one good old fashioned American said: "common sense is very uncommon."  It certainly is becoming uncommon in academic circles.

Epistemology.That is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowledge: What is knowledge, and how much can we know? (See Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Increasingly people whom you would otherwise think were trained to know have assumed a skeptical position on just about everything. My professor for a course I took this summer over the Internet from Emory University is a case in point. The course title was The Bible's Prehistory, History, and Political Future.

Dr. Wright basically was floating his theory about the Bible's origins and purpose. There was so little hard evidence and so many baseless assumptions in the course that it should have been labeled an opinion piece rather than a history course. And that is my point. That is what history in the universities and in the books written by "historians"  has become.

So we come to the question of Jesus. Lataster's strategy is to quote the most extreme skeptics as if they were mainstream and the mainstream scholars as if they were marginal. He emphasizes what we cannot know rather than what we can know. So it is not surprising that he ends up with the conclusion: "Were they [the gospels] intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions? Ehrman and Casey [mainstream scholars] can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar. Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable."


So, we can't know what the gospels are, but we can say what they are not. They are not historical. What?! Mr. Lataster, you can be skeptical about everything else, why not your own conclusion? Well, to be precisely accurate, you do qualify that with "improbable."

This was all published in the Washington Post, understand. That gives it credibility for those who read uncritically. But a closer look reveals a lack of scholarship and a uncritical dependence on one author, whom Lataster describes as an "independent historian," Dr. Richard Carrier.  Yes. I know. The Washington Post is not a professional journal and cannot be expected to maintain the same standards. But why Carrier?

Carrier's theories regarding almost everything historical are regarded by almost all actual historians as garbage. His application of Bayesian reasoning to history is one good example. No bona fide historian uses Bayesian reasoning to analyze history. Yet this marginal and biased author is Lataster's one source. Stop. I don't even let freshmen in my high school English courses get away with that.

Still the Washington Post published the piece. Why? Because it sells papers? That would have been my guess a few years ago. But then there were an equal number of articles written from the other point of view. Not so today. So my guess is because it feeds into the growing antagonism toward Christians and their faith. And of more concern, it builds support for such antagonism.

My hope is that Americans somehow are able to apply common sense to the question and are not swayed by the impressive credentials of those who admit they can't really know anything. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Scriptures

Every year as I get to the history of Christianity in the first and second century in class  I run onto those who object to the books that are the New Testament. They point out that there were other books written, other gospels. And they ask why were these not included. I find that an interesting but easily answered question.

Yes. There were other books and other gospels. Early historians of the church such as Irenaeus and Eusebius  both remark about them and quote from them at times. But both are clear that the books which we have now and have had for 1700 years in the canon of the New Testament are the books chosen almost from the beginning, certainly from the second century.

So, what of the others?  Did Constantine choose the books of the New Testament selecting those that would agree with the theology affirmed in the Council of Nicaea, the theology that declares that Jesus is equal in essence in every way to God the Father?  Did he have the others destroyed? Those are the rumors drifting around the Internet. The answer is no.

The churches collected and sifted through the writing of the first and second centuries. And they agreed in time - certainly by the end of the second century - on the writings that were genuine and inspired.

It was not hard to do. You can read many of these "other" writings for yourself. Early Christian Writings  has them nicely collected, at least those for which there are copies or fragments left. I've done that. I've even had high school students do that. And even they can tell the difference.

The most obvious difference is that the writings, especially the gospels, in the New Testament have a sober, realistic tone. Yes, some of the things reported are incredible, walking on water, for example. Yet they are reported as actual events. They are not fantasy. They are not myth. Even high school students can see the difference when they are placed side by side with any myth.

 They are also clear. There is no "secret messages" only the initiated can understand. Yes. Jesus used parables, but those are different from the secret knowledge spoken of in the Gospel of James or the Gospel of Thomas. Parables are stories intended to teach simple truths. The secret knowledge of the other writings is intended to separate the so called spiritually wise from the ignorant. That is never Jesus' objective in the canonical gospels.

So when I  get to the place in history where the modern scholars find some kind of conspiracy afoot, I find myself smiling -wryly.  It is true what Jesus said about revealing these things to children and hiding them from the self-proclaimed wise and learned.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Sort of God is This?

Scientific evidence including the necessity of a cause outside the universe, the fact of the incredible
complexity and apparent  fine-tuning of the universe for life like ourselves, and the wonderful complexity of the human DNA information system recommends to us the high probability that there is a God. But what sort of God is this?

I recently read Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Nonmoral Nature." Now, Gould is one of my favorite science writers, so I was interested in his conclusion as well as his observations on nature. What can it tell us about the God who made it?  His conclusion was that we cannot derive from nature any indication about the moral character of God. His observations were all related to the pain and suffering that is fundamental to the natural world and which would be, if one chose to make the case, evidence for a immoral God. Gould does not make that case, however. His final position was that nature just is. To consider the death and pain evident in the natural world in an anthropomorphic way is to read into nature something that is not there. It just is.

Others who have written about the essay, however,  have derived more from the same evidence Gould presents. Their conclusions are that God, if there be such, is not moral. Indeed he is immoral by the standards of morality of the authors. So if God created nature and nature is vicious, would not this God be vicious also?

I lean toward Gould's position rather than the latter, but I would like to suggest that there is more we can derive about God than Gould allows. (To be fair, Gould's argument has to do with the somewhat common attempt to derive the goodness of God from nature and, at that, only a small slice of nature. It is a limited argument.)

I begin with the observation that the universe had a cause and that cause is possibly if not probably the being we call God. First, the cause had to be able to produce the universe. That would require great power or authority. Even if the cause of the universe was an impersonal quantum or energy fluctuation in a prior universe, the cause would have to be powerful. It would have to be on the scale of the Big Bang itself.

Secondly, we observe that the universe functions according to rather finely tuned and universal physical laws. In addition, these laws work together to produce a complex, well balanced, long lasting universe that has existed for as much as 14 Billion years and, we project, will continue to exist in a functioning state for at least as long. As an example, gravity, one of those universal laws, has to be quite precisely the strength it is for the universe to expand as it has over 

time. A very little stronger and the universe would have collapsed early on. A very little weaker and the universe would not develop galaxies and stars. Neither universe would be anything like ours. So, we can derive that this God who caused the universe has to have great knowledge and wisdom. 

Next, we observe that this earth of ours is a remarkable place. The conditions that obtain here are not only many and interrelated but necessary in almost every case for there to life at all like ourselves. That is called the anthropic principle. However, that alone does not make God necessary. Some scientists conclude that we are just lucky and that, in any event, if those conditions did not prevail we would not be here to observe it. Others see more going on.

About fifteen years ago biologist Michael J. Denton wrote a book with the title Nature's Destiny. His argument, well supported by factual evidence, was that there was a destiny built into the universe. That destiny would produce eventually life something like ourselves on some world much like ours. Denton was not a theist. But he was convinced that the universe by its makeup displayed some purpose. If that is so, then we can derive from nature that God, if there is such, would have to be both highly intelligent and ingenious in the design he created in the universe, a design that inevitably leads to sentient life.

As an aside, it would be interesting to speculate whether there are other worlds on which sentient life might be found. There is no reason to reject that possibility since the very nature of nature is productive of life.

But back to our task. What of the that sentient and wonderfully imaginative life? It would seem reasonable to assume that the effect of a cause cannot be greater than the cause. If we think, if we are imaginative, if we have a sense of right and wrong, if we have a will, it suggests that this God who is our cause also has volition, is moral, creative, and obviously sentient. All that is to say that he is a person, for those are the characteristics that define a person.They define us.

Now, what of Gould's observations about the cruelty of nature? Does nature argue that God is cruel? Gould would not take the argument that far. But he took it far enough. Nature is not immoral; it is nonmoral. The natural world other than ourselves cannot tell us about the nature of God. We, however, are moral. Does anyone doubt that? Virtually everyone makes judgments daily about the morality of the acts of others and their own. We may not agree on what is moral or immoral, though there are some basic agreements, but there is plenty of evidence for our moral nature. God, then, must be moral also if we his creations are moral.

It would be possibler to go further, but we can draw these conclusions about this God who is the ultimate cause. He is powerful. He is creative and imaginative. He is intelligent and wise. He is moral. He has volition. He is personal.

But of course, that picture may fit many different presuppositions. Allah, Yahweh, and possibly some of the gods of the Asian religions could fit those characteristics. So, is it possible to decide based on reasonable examination of the evidence which god is God? I think so, but that waits another blog.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Don't Believe




In a recent discussion with a variety of posters on the CNN website I heard over and over again that they do not believe in the existence of God because there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence. I find that particularly surprising because in my investigation over 20 years I have found that there is more than enough evidence.  

So I pondered why the evidence available was not considered evidence. 

One reason seems to be that they believe there is no direct evidence. By that they mean someone who  has seen God and whose testimony can be examined in depth for it reliability, though few of my atheist friends know what criteria to apply to a witness and to personal testimony. They are simply judging subjectively rather than applying rigorous criteria and are sure that this rebuttal would be sufficient: no one can see God, so his existence cannot be proved.

Most Christian theists would counter with the statement that Jesus, being God, was seen and we have the testimony of a quite a number of witnesses. I like that. But that begs the question: does God in fact exist. We must be convinced that there is a God before we can examine the witnesses of Jesus to determine if he is God.  So it is crucial to the argument to show that it is highly probable based on scientific evidence that God exists. 

That brings me to the second reason my atheist friends do not believe in the existence of God; they don’t believe the evidence is sufficient to prove God’s existence. I’d like to challenge that idea, but it must wait until we determine what “sufficient” evidence would be. 

In science there are few absolutes because all scientific conclusions, whether they are hypotheses, theories, or laws are based on observations and arrived at by inductive reasoning.  Because it is not possible to collect all the facts, it is also not possible to be 100% certain of the conclusions drawn from the facts observed. 

But that does not prevent scientists from creating hypotheses. They know that a collection of many facts may provide sufficient evidence for a conclusion that is highly probable, even if not absolute. In fact, a hypothesis is necessary because facts by themselves mean nothing. Meaning must be derived from facts via inference. They consider the facts they have as sufficient if the quantity of facts is large and the number of facts that might lead to a different conclusion is small. If that criterion is met, scientists conclude (or believe based on the facts) that their hypothesis is accurate. 

So, to answer my atheist friends, “sufficient” evidence for the existence of God would be facts which taken together and in a large enough number would provide a basis for the inference or hypothesis that God exists. That, of course, assumes that there are no or few scientific facts that could lead to the contrary conclusion that God does not exist or facts that could be reasonably explained by a different hypothesis. Reasonableness is, of course, the critical condition. 

So, what are the scientific facts? The first is that from observation and via inductive reasoning we are almost all convinced that everything that begins has a cause.  In fact, science would be impossible if that were not so. But we don’t need to be scientists to be convinced of that hypothesis. If we arrive home one evening to find a window broken, every one of us would look for the cause because we are absolutely convinced there has to be a cause. 

If we come upon a painted vase in the forest, we would never assume that it just appeared out of the sky with no cause. We would all ask how it got there. We would even go beyond that. We would never conclude that it exists without a cause. Every vase had a maker.  We would reasonably ask who made it. And we would expect that there is an answer. 

So too with the universe. If it is, and few would argue that it is not (and even they would have to agree that exists at the very least in our minds) then it is our expectation that there was a cause. The only exception to that is if we find the universe is eternal. (And that, by the way, is the only way to truly falsify the hypothesis that God exists.) 

The idea that the universe is eternal was, in fact, the conviction of many scientists a century ago. But then Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble and a host of others produced scientific and mathematical evidence that the universe was expanding. The reasonable conclusion, which virtually all now accept, is that if it is expanding there must have been a beginning.  Little evidence points to any other conclusion.

As a digression here, it once was suggested that the expanding universe would reach the end of expansion and collapse to start the cycle over again. That could mean the universe is eternal. But recent discoveries show that the rate of expansion is increasing rather than decreasing.  That means we are on a one-way trip to oblivion rather than on a round-trip to a new beginning.

If the universe had a beginning, there must be a cause. There have been a variety of causes proposed. Our universe might have been spawned through quantum fluctuations or from a prior universe. Or maybe God created it. With just these bare facts to work with those hypotheses have a low probability. But there are additional facts. What we all believe is that it had a cause.

The universe is highly complex. That is a fact no one disputes. The particular level of complexity includes a set of many conditions which are particularly finely tuned. For example, gravity could vary in only the smallest degree from the strength we now observe or the universe would either have quickly collapsed or would not have formed stars and galaxies. Gravity along with the other conditions necessary for this universe to exist as it is are facts which demand an explanation for their existence.
In the case of the laws that govern the universe, which are among the facts in the list, those laws must have their cause in something other than the universe they caused. There have been a number of suggested causes for the laws of the universe which along with gravity include entropy, the weak and strong nuclear forces and others. One is that we are just lucky. There may be an infinite number of universes in which other laws prevail, and we happen to live in the one in which these laws prevail. It would be fair to ask then for evidence for these other universes. Or maybe a highly intelligent being designed and created the universe.

The third piece of scientific evidence is the extraordinary complexity of life on this planet. All living things have DNA (or RNA). In even the simplest of living things the complexity of the DNA that directs the cells how to develop is incredible. The DNA in humans is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. 

In addition, DNA is a kind of biological code very much like written language. In other words, it is information.  Information is known only to be the product of intelligence.  And information as complex and specific as the DNA/RNA in the simplest form of life we know of is unthinkable apart from an intelligence producing it. It is like taking a million individual letters, throwing them up in the air and hoping for them to fall into place as a Charles Dickens novel. It simply won’t happen no matter how many times they are thrown. 

But what if among some of those fallen letters there is a word, suppose the. Leaving that word intact we throw the letters again. And another word appears, suppose dirty. Can’t Great Expectations be created that way?  No. The analogy fails at that point because none of those words mean anything by themselves. There is no information. So in real life it would be at least necessary for a sentence to appear from the thrown letters. Only then is there information. But even given that, there is not enough time in the universe for a meaningful book to be created by this process. At the very best there would be a mass of random letters and a very few random words which were not connected in sentences and would mean nothing. Chance cannot create  meaningful  information.

So, it is reasonable to ask how DNA came to exist and how it could be as complex as it is. There are a variety of explanations. The one most often proposed is that DNA became more complex over time via the evolutionary process by which new features are added to existing ones. We’ve seen this fails even if there is a selection process. There is not enough time and the chance is far too small. But even if we were to accept that explanation (it requires acceptance without sufficient evidence) it begs the question where the first DNA/RNA came from. 

The proposals for the beginning of what would be life are many. None of them, however, have been scientifically demonstrated. So believing any of these proposals to be accurate requires a suspension of disbelief in any critical observer. (I should say that the stance of most scientists is skepticism. Otherwise we’d still believe flies spontaneously appear on rotting meat.)

The other possibility is that God designed and directed the existence of life and the complexity of the life we know.  

Is this scientific evidence? Obviously it is. It is the very same evidence scientists puzzle over and create experiments to analyze and which they use to test hypotheses. And there is more. I have simply stopped here because this is sufficient to make the point that there is scientific evidence from which we can infer with a high degree of probability that God exists. 

To recap, the God hypothesis is a possible explanation for all of the facts I have presented. There is no single other hypothesis that does that.  That would make the God hypothesis more probable  than the others. It is not absolute proof. But that is not what science produces. However, there are two other considerations.

The first is the inability to test the hypothesis as we usually can with a scientific hypothesis. However, there are many scientific theories that have been tested only by applying the test of probability to what we have observed. We generally accept those theories until the phenomena can be explained better another way. That is why the stance of science is always a bit tentative and never absolute.

Finally, there is the question of how God might have done this. What was the mechanism of creation?
The best answer to that is, I believe, an analogy. An author creates a world as he writes a novel. He creates characters to live in that world and he creates the events that happen in the story. Where do they come from? They come from mind. He wills them to be. They exist in the mind of the author before they are ever given a kind of life on the pages of a book. They exist in the mind of the author even if they never are written.

In a similar way, God can be conceived of as the author of this story that is our life and our universe. We and all that is are the result of his willing it to be. And that is what the Bible tells us. It says that God spoke and things came into being. 

That challenges the idea that reality is the material universe we are acquainted with. The characters in a story are not real, after all. They are only imagined. Taken a little further, it suggests that the only non-contingent reality is God. It is interesting that recently there have been theorists who have noticed the similarity between the universe and a digitally created game, a game in which the characters have no reality of their own, but that must wait another blog. 

As a conclusion to this discussion, the scientific evidence convinces me that the God hypothesis is the best and most probably.  But that leaves me with only the existence of God. It would be interesting to reason what sort of God might have created the universe and life within it. That will be the subject of a future discussion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Setting the Record Straight

How are Christians to respond to homosexuals? New legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is having an impact on many businesses run by Christians. Christians have been forced to think through that question to an answer that is both biblical and kind.

It is clear that God loves all regardless of who we are. He loves all regardless of our sin, and we all are sinners. If God loves all, then it is incumbent upon us to love all.  That includes heterosexuals, homosexuals, and those confused about their sexual identity. It includes murderers, child abusers, liars, the greedy, the sexually promiscuous, and, yes, sexually active homosexuals. We naturally discriminate between sins, making some more serious - and unforgivable - than  others. God does not. Paul writes,
"everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free." (GNT)
So the first rule we must follow is to love. But that still leaves us with the problem of how to deal with the sin.

If we have a neighbor who is a serial killer, love would lead us to call the police. It would be the loving thing to do both for our neighbor and everyone who might be in danger. If we have a neighbor who is a thief, we would do the same - out of love. But those are both recognized as crimes in our society. What about "sins" that are not crimes?

The truth is that Christians have a poor track record here. We overlook some sins and focus on others. We in America are inclined to consider divorce, for example, as regrettable, but not a sin. The Bible would say otherwise. We think of gossip and gluttony undesirable, but not sin. Yet they too are regarded as sin in the Bible. We overlook most lies, even excusing them in ourselves, yet lying is clearly a sin. Yet when it comes to homosexuals, we instantly call out their sin. If we overlook some sins in ourselves and call out sins in others, that is hypocritical.

We need our thinking corrected. But the solution is not to overlook sin, either in ourselves or others. It is to confront lovingly. But when and how?

My wife and I have both had friends and co-workers who were sexually active homosexuals. Neither of us felt it appropriate to confront them with that sin. There might be a time to do that, a time when we could lovingly do that, but we never felt it was the right time. There were bigger issues. None of these people were Christians. Their bigger need was to know that God loves them, and we decided that loving them was our role.

Of course, if they were to respond to God's love, the sin would need to be dealt with. It would stand in the way as every sin does of any relationship with God. That would be the time to speak. Sin needs to be repented of and forsaken if anyone is to walk with God, be that sin pornography, hate, stealing, lying, or homosexual relations.

Those are simple biblical principles: love and lead that person to the Savior and when it is time urge them to repent of their sin. The pressing issue because of the recent legislation requiring no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is HOW to love the sinner without approving of the sin.

Specifically, can I as a Christian photographer participate in a same-sex wedding? Would that be participating in what is a sin? Can I as a baker participate by providing the wedding cake? Can I as a pastor participate by performing the ceremony? Those all have been real issues for real people in the last few years.

The law says if you are providing a service to the public as a businessman, you cannot refuse to do so on the basis of sexual orientation. But what of our conscience?

Each Christian in those situations must decide. Many Christians have chosen to kindly and without intending any offense decline to participate in those ways. It has cost some of them long drawn-out lawsuits, fines, and the loss of their businesses. So be it. Jesus said that we would suffer persecution if we walk his path. He did. Why should we expect otherwise.  

The one thing that we should not do is retaliate in hate or seek to hurt. Jesus did not. We should not. He continued to love those who murdered him. We can do the same in our much less serious trials.

We do live in America, however. And like Paul who at times called upon his rights as a Roman citizen when he was mistreated or falsely accused of a crime we have rights. We can call upon our rights. We have the right to speak in opposition to the direction our society is taking. We have the right to exercise our faith as we see fit. We have the right to challenge the legality of legislation that forces us to violate our conscience and biblical principles.

If we do, however, we must do so without vitriol or violence.  Martin Luther King Jr. provided a model for us of non-violent protest. He was willing to take the abuse and go to jail for the principle of freedom. And it is our privilege to do the same. And it may come to that. Being careful to let love be always at the forefront of every response.