cross examined

I’ve been listening to more of those CICCU talks.

Tues 13th Loving God, Broken World: Has God Lost Control?

Bloody theodicy, as some on my friends list might say. Simon Scott approaches the issue of suffering sensitively, as one who has experienced it himself (an illness 7 years ago, he says: I think I remember praying for him at church. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but his description of makes it sound awful).

His points are familiar to anyone who’s looked into Christian responses to the Problem of Evil. God created a good world, but human disobedience made it go wrong. God is absolved of blame for this, even natural disasters are somehow our fault (perhaps, like Mr Deity, God was worried it’d be too easy to believe in him otherwise). Perhaps intentionally, given Scott’s audience, it’s not clear whether he’s advocating creationism. It’s possible to read the Genesis story as applying to Everyman and Everywoman, but hard to see how that interpretation has the cosmological implications that Scott outlines: once the entire world was good, now it is fallen, even in the impersonal, non-human parts. I was a theistic evolutionist once, and it involved a lot of hand-waving.

So, the world has gone bad. But, says Scott, God will fix this (unfortunately, not for everyone, as some people will go to Hell). We might call that pie in the sky when you die and wish for a better world now, but we shouldn’t. After all, if God were to judge sin now, where would he stop? The implication is, as usual, that everyone is guilty, and we’d better be careful when we wish for divine intervention, as we may get it.

This argument fails because it assumes that God’s way of making the world better would be to obliterate everything that displeases him. I can think of more subtle ways of doing it than that. It’s odd that God apparently can’t.

Scott acknowledges that his explanation is incomplete, but implies it’s best not worry why that is, just ensure that you aren’t excluded from the perfect world which will be re-created at the end of time. He tells a parable of a cyclist hit by a bus (this is Cambridge, after all), and a passerby who gives a precise explanation of his body’s pain response rather than helping him to a hospital. There’s certainly a pragmatism to this, which echoes the Buddhist story of Malunkyaputta and the man shot by an arrow: it’s pointless to tell someone who is suffering about eternal verities rather than how to end their suffering. That said, there’s no suggestion in Malunkyaputta’s story that the world is watched by someone who could intervene, but chooses not to. In the meantime, Christians had better not pass by on the other side, but God is at liberty to do so.

Wed 14th Jesus Asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8v29)
The Profit Motive in Religion

After a good start in which he advises Christians to read The God Delusion and atheists to read Alister McGrath, Phillip Jensen plays religion’s trump card. You’re all going to die, he says, and what are you going to do then?

We’ve all woken at 4 am and realised we shall one day die (unless that’s just me and Larkin). Religion deals in the certainties we want when uncertainty is too terrible. Speaking of creationism, I often see Christians who pounce on any scientific uncertainty, eager to pull God out of the gap. This is a different degree of seriousness. We needn’t face where we came from, but we must all face where we’re going.

I’d call it a trick, except I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jensen’s pleas not to let worldly distractions keep us from eternal life. Still, again, how can they? Who would turn down such a thing, if they woke after their own death to find it on offer? The trick belongs to religions themselves, not consciously to their adherents. It is that we’re told we must act before death, and each religion claims that their way is the way to get there, other ways being uncertain at worst and a broad road to hell at worst. Even if we wanted to take up Pascal’s wager, where shall we place our stake? Again, it’s odd that Jensen’s God hasn’t thought of universalism, but rather, insists on the eternal torture or final obliteration of everyone who bet wrong.

This year’s CICCU convert-a-thon is called Cross Examined. Stalkerbook tells me it’s happening this week. The talks are available online (as Windows Media files, alas, CICCU having made a pact with the Beast). They are given by Simon Scott, who used to preach at my old church (and who marnanel will no doubt remember for his habit of starting sermons with quotations from pop songs), and by Phillip Jensen, perhaps best known for his views on the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Never being one to pass up an opportunity like this, I listened to some of talks they’ve given so far. Here are some brief notes on what they said:

Wed 07th Faith and Reason: Does God Want Me to Lose My Mind?

Scott gives a lunchtime talk on whether Christianity is reasonable.

He talks of reasonable assumptions, but leaps from assuming that a chair will hold you or that CICCU won’t poison you to the reasonableness of believing in supernatural stuff, bypassing considerations of the magnitude of Christianity’s claims.

Many atheists do not assert that God definitely does not exist. Quotes Dawkins but either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood the point of The God Delusion, namely that it’s about the balance of evidence.

Like many evangelicals, he asserts that there is sufficient evidence and that people don’t believe because they don’t want to, assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him.

He defines the coming of Jesus as an events which is unique, so that we should not expect to see God again today. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t address why God isn’t more obvious even if Jesus isn’t still around. Alongside his admission that you can’t see God today, he does say that there are intelligent people on both sides of the God debate, which seems to leave him open to the Argument from Reasonable Non-belief.

Thurs 08th Christianity: Intolerant, Arrogant . . . True?

Scott talks a lot of sense about the sort of cartoon relativism which only liberal arts academics seriously believe. It’s not clear why he thinks this is an argument in favour of Christianity. I think it’s the same sort of false dichotomy that Jensen also perpetrates (see below). Christianity or moral chaos! Choose now! Banzai!

Gently brings up the delicate subject of hell (evangelicals had more gumption in the good old days). Doesn’t quite address why the God who we can trust not want to hurt us is also the danger we face. I’ve written about Hell before: go read that.

Mon 12th Jesus Asked, “Are you so dull?” (Mark 7v18) The Source of Immorality and Corruption Exposed

Jensen does the Total Depravity Roadshow: I’m not OK, you’re not OK either.

False dichotomies all over the place: either accept that people are naturally good, or become a Christian. Accept moral chaos, or become a Christian.

Dawkins is, according to Jensen’s quote, naive about human nature, but Pinker (another atheist) isn’t. This is significant, somehow (unless all atheists agree, they’re wrong?)

When we disagree with the Bible, we disagree with God, apparently.

Roy Hattersley’s Grauniad article is his best point, but even this never actually addresses whether Christianity is true. Is it right to encourage people to believe it merely because it might make them better? Does it, in fact, make them better, I wonder? It probably gives them a certain kind of structure which is sadly lacking in many people today, it seems, but I bet if they became Humanists, Muslims or Buddhists, or merely had managed to get some sort of education from their parents or their school, they’d be nicer too.


Lots of contemporary relevance (Harry Potter is taking it a bit too far, I think). Reasonable explanation of what evangelicals think. It’ll be interesting to see where Jensen goes with it, but neither of them are very good at saying why one should believe something. Perhaps the approved technique in evangelism these days is just to lay out your stall and hope it clicks with where someone is at the moment.

More soon, no doubt 🙂