The first thing I came back to after Chinese New Year was Lent! This year, for our Lent Bible Studies at my Church, we are looking at five more parables of Jesus to add to the five we studied last year. The first which we studied last week was the one about the tax-collector and the Pharisee (Luke ). Jesus told this parable Luke tells us to those who 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous'. The implication, of course, being that we can only be righteous by trusting in God. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a question I often find myself turning back to. It also raises the issue of the link between being righteous in God's eyes and how we live our lives.
As it happens, I also found myself last week back at Ming Hua, our theological college, teaching Christian Ethics. This is the second module where we consider specific issues: abortion, sex, euthanasia, war, etc, etc I intend to pick up on the blog where I left off a few months ago about this. But as far as I can see it is very hard to be as dogmatic as some would like us to be on these issues - as class discussion often illustrates.
I thought, however, that I would get back into posting here by posting today the first in a series of Lenten Studies I gave during my time in Banchory in the 1990s. They were on the 'Question of God'. I have to confess that I don't remember them exactly filling the pews, but reading them again at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, I am Pharisaical enough to think there is some merit in them! I must have done at the time as these are the only ones that I kept and only recently rediscovered them on my computer.
Indeed, the questions:
whether there is a God or not
how, if there is, we can know and be acceptable to him
and what happens when we die
have always seemed to me to be three of the most important questions in life. I don't think we always manage as Christians to give convincing answers to them. But that is another matter.
Anyway, it's good to be back in cyberspace! Thank you to all who keep visiting and reading.
1. The Question of God: Introduction
Today we begin a series on God. Am I alone in thinking that sermons and talks matter? Well, whatever we may think about sermons, there should be no doubting the importance of our subject. I have always found it strange that we do not worry about God. We are rather casual about God, and this irrespective of whether we are believers or not. I do worry about God, and have done for as long as I can remember. Surely the issue of whether there is a God, or not, is one that must have profound implications for us all?
Of course, for most of our history there has been no question about it. That there was a God was as obvious to people as was the sun, wind, and rain. It still is to many in other parts of our world. We forget the extent to which true atheism is a minority opinion. But the question of God is a very real one to us living in the West today. Nietzsche, at the turn of the century, said that God was dead. However, throughout the 20th century we have seen that rumours of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, for most people there is, at least, a question about it.
The question is expressed well in a book I was given to read over the summer. It is by Jill Paton Walsh and called, ‘Knowledge of Angels’. This was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, and some of you may know it. Now let me say I dislike the book and certainly would not recommend it to you. I refer to it only because it seems to sum up where many liberal intellectuals are when it comes to God and where they would like us to be.
The book is set in the 15th Century at a time when Christianity was undivided in the West and when people believed in God as a matter of course. A stranger is washed up on the shore of a Mediterranean island. The stranger, whose name is Palinor, declares that he has no religion and does not believe in God. The Cardinal responsible for religion on the island takes pity on him and arranges for him to discuss the claims of faith with Beneditx, one of the holiest and wisest men in Christendom. This is in the hope that Palinor will come to see the error of his ways and believe in God. The stranger turns out to be cultured, sensitive, wise, and accomplished. Instead of Beneditx convincing him with his arguments for the existence of God, Palinor succeeds in undermining Beneditx’s faith. Towards the end of their discussions, Palinor says:
‘For I think that it is in principle impossible to know whether there is a God or not. I know therefore with immovable certainty that I shall never know that God exists. Likewise I shall never know that he does not. Such knowledge is always, and in principle out of reach.’
So there you have it. Doubt as a religious principle! You cannot prove God one way or another. You cannot prove he does not exist, but you cannot prove he does either. So best not to worry about it. Celebrate, not divine intervention, but human achievement. Nowadays, in matters of faith, doubt has become the order of the day, both inside the church and out.
The father of modern philosophy - and in many people’s minds the father of doubt - is one René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. He was a contemporary of Oliver Cromwell and Charles 1. Descartes asked what it was possible to know for certain, beyond any doubt. If you were to doubt what you could not prove, what would you be left with? Many of us know the answer he came up with. Descartes concluded that we could be certain of our own existence. Why? ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. I think, therefore I am. Not much of which to be certain maybe, but something. What is not generally known, perhaps because it suits modern philosophers not to make it known, was that Descartes also believed it was possible to be certain of God’s existence.
But that was all. I can only be certain of my own existence and God’s. Now whatever you think of this, Descartes has a point. Modern thinking has tended to follow Descartes in demanding proof and doubting what cannot be proven. This is what lies behind what is believed to be science’s rejection of God. God cannot be proven in the laboratory, so we cannot believe in him. Yet Descartes reminds us that it is very hard to prove anything with absolute certainty. It does not lie in our power to be that sure. Given the way scientific theory changes so rapidly, you would have thought that people would have grasped that.
What we normally ask for is not proof in an absolute sense, but evidence. Reasonable evidence. We do not want life to be based on blind leaps in the dark. We can accept that an argument cannot be infallibly proven as long as there is sufficient evidence in its favour for us to believe that it is true. We want to be rational. We want what we believe to be reasonable: not mere superstition or wishful thinking. In this series of talks, I am going to disagree with the father of modern philosophy. I do not think God’s existence can be proven. But, as Descartes showed, in the sense people often use the word, very little can.
I do, however, think that belief in God’s existence is rational. There is sufficient evidence for God to make believing in him reasonable. If, however, this is the case, it follows that it is UN-reasonable to do nothing about it. If we can establish that there is good evidence for believing in God, then not to act, not to do something about it, can only be to do with either a determined, self-destructive rebellion or blind prejudice. What you cannot claim is that you are acting in a rational and reasonable way.
The question of whether God’s existence can be established by rational enquiry as opposed to simply having faith is one that has exercised some of the greatest minds in the church. In the next few weeks, I hope to introduce you to one or two of them. We should not turn our backs on the teachers of the past. They have much to teach us today. They demonstrate that it is possible to be a Christian without having to abandon your intellect.
Some believers have believed unbelievers’ propaganda. They are frightened to think too seriously about God in case it turns out that either he does not exist after all or that there is no evidence for his existence. They have believed people like Walsh’s Palinor that if you look at the arguments you have to surrender your faith. We have nothing to fear from honest enquiry. If it were the case that belief in God was not rational, then we would be wrong to persist in believing in him. As we shall see, however, the Psalmist is right in affirming that it is fools who say that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). It is atheism that is unreasonable.