September 9, 2006

Premier Christian Radio have put up the audio of the Unbelievable discussion programme I was on. You can download the MP3 from archive.org.

Here’s my director’s commentary track (except I wasn’t a director, but you get the idea).

The first phone-in question from Steven Carr is a hard one for Christians. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks of God being like a shepherd who seeks each lost sheep. Steven said “a good shepherd is not one who says ‘I have given the lost sheep enough evidence to find its way home'”, provoking laughter in the studio because we all realised how Steven had struck home, I think. Some people (St Paul, for example) seem to get dramatic experiences, whereas some don’t. This is inconsistent with a God who we’re told seeks out everyone. The usual Christian defence is to say that God cannot over-ride our free-will and make us believe (C.S. Lewis says “he cannot rape; he must woo”). But God wasn’t so concerned with St Paul’s free-will and autonomy that he could not knock him off his horse on the way to Damascus, yet St Paul’s sort of experience is rare.

Marvin’s call was interesting, and all of us in the studio regretted that we didn’t get the chance to discuss all his points. His first point was that to accept the existence of evil one has to accept the existence of God who creates good and evil. I didn’t really follow that argument. The existence of evil seems to be merely a matter of people doing stuff I consider bad, and I don’t need to suppose that God made them do it. It’s possible he was arguing that without God we have no moral basis to call something evil, something which I’ve touched on before.

Marvin mentioned Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but Paul Clarke agreed that he’d concede that one.

Marvin’s second point was that we accept the truth of other classical writings, so why not the Bible? This argument fails because we’re not asked to live according to the teaching of those other classical writings. Something which we’re told to base our lives on should be held to a higher standard. But there are already many excellent arguments against Biblical inerrancy, so I’m not going to rehearse them all again here, but I will talk about the specific example I mentioned.

I don’t think that Paul Clarke’s response to my killer argument against inerrancy holds up. To say that the “we” of St Paul’s “we who are still alive” in 1 Thess 4 could encompass later Christians presupposes that St Paul knew he was writing to such people. My understanding of inerrancy was always that it did not and should not require such an assumption. At the Square Church they taught that the beginning of biblical interpretation was to work out what a passage meant to those who originally heard it (in this case, the people in Thessalonica, as is clear from 1 Thess 5:27). The method of interpretation where you read something like an epistle as if it’s personally addressed to you was right out, in fact.

Secondly, Paul Clarke’s defence of the inerrancy of 1 Corinthians 7 relies on some ambiguity about what the “present crisis” (verse 26) is. Paul Clarke suggested its a some local trouble affecting the Corinthian Christians. But St Paul himself spells this out in verses 29-31, ending with “for this world in its present form is passing away”. Something more than local trouble is being spoken of.

As I said to triphicus, it’s perfectly acceptable to concede the point (as she sort of does) but then look for what a Christian might take from that passage anyway (in this case, that the glories of this world are fleeting, and that Jesus could be back at any time so Christians should look busy). But to maintain that this sort of interpretation is what Paul actually meant to say in the first place, as Paul Clarke seemed to, seems like making work for yourself. It’s only the extra-Biblical assumption of inerrancy that requires evangelicals to go through these contortions when faced with texts like these. Removing that assumption cuts the knot. I’m reminded of the Washington Post’s description of Bart Erhman’s tortured paper defending some passage in Mark, and of the revelation Ehrman had when his tutor wrote a note in the margin saying “Maybe Mark just made a mistake”.

I stumbled a bit when I mentioned Occam’s Razor because Paul Clarke rightly jumped on the fact that in some sense God’s miraculous healing of someone’s fibroids is a simpler explanation than them getting better naturally by some unknown mechanism. Edited to add: what I should have said was that this sense of simple isn’t the one Occam’s Razor applies to.

scribb1e points out that this doesn’t address those people who pray and don’t get better. She also says that unexpected stuff does happen in medicine but it’s not proof of anything very much more than the ignorance of doctors. If a Christian gets ill they will almost certainly pray about it, and some of the people who pray will get better (along with some of those who don’t). You can’t say it wasn’t God’s doing, but you have to wonder about his inconsistency. Edited to add: scribb1e elaborates in this comment.

nlj21 kindly batted off a question to both the Paul’s in the studio. Paul Clarke was right in saying that the fact that some people leave Christianity doesn’t prove it’s wrong, but it does make you wonder about CICCU and similar organisations, doesn’t it? cathedral_life‘s comments on this discussion (where she signs herself as “AR”) seem apposite.

I hope I gave a reasonable answer to nlj21‘s question to me, although I’m sure he’ll be along to disagree.

I loved the question about “a god that suits your lifestyle”, because lifestyle is a Christian code-word for “having sex in a way we don’t like”.

I was expecting someone to try the No True Scotsman argument about me leaving Christianity (“no True Christian leaves Christianity”) so Narna came up trumps and I delivered my prepared answer. Go me.

I found Paul Clarke’s summing up quite affecting, because it was clear that he genuinely was concerned about my welfare. In the end, though, as I said, you can only follow the truth as best you can.