Friday, April 29, 2005

Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds? (Nature)

You have, no doubt, heard of the Intelligent Design movement which has resurrected the design argument and dressed it up in new clothes. Here's an interesting article from Nature magazine which reports on the popularity of this movement and reactions from various perspectives. You can read it here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Does morality require God?

One view of morality held by many (most?) Christians is that, without God, anything goes. The argument is that if God did not exist then we have no moral absolutes to guide us in our everyday decisions about how we act. Julian Baggini, in his article for Guardian Unlimited entitled Grey Matters, takes one of the new Pope Benedict XVI's last speeches as a cardinal to examine this issue. Baggini refers to Ratzinger's argument that '[a]bsolute moral values had to be defended ... against the "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires".' Baggini criticises what he sees as an erroneous simplistic black and white approach to morality when, in actual fact, shades of grey exist. Baggini writes:

We have known for a long time that orthodox religion has a preference for black-and-white certainties, but this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic. Yet perhaps we should thank Pope Benedict for bringing the issue to a head, for that might mean that at last it will be possible to confront and slay the myth that without God anything is permitted.

This issue is something I have thought a lot about. I have to admit that, when I look at the way the atheists I know behave, they have a moral sensibility even without a belief in God. They are not moral anarchists. There may be some (or many) atheists who are also moral anarchists. However, identifying examples of atheists who are immoral or amoral does not help to answer the question as to whether or not one needs God (or a god) to determine moral values. We can find plenty examples of Christians who, despite theire belief in God, behave in immoral ways. The question is If God doesn't exist does that mean, by necessity, that there can't be any moral values? After discussing this issue with many people who are atheist (or agnostic or, even Christian) I have come to conclude that one does not need God to have a legitimate moral value system. There are other reasons for developing a mutually acceptable set of moral guidelines for individuals and society to follow: philosophical reasons, pragmatic reasons, and so on.

This is not to say that God does not exist. I believe that God does exist. But if we tie the legitimation of our values exclusively to the existence of God then we have no reason to argue for their acceptance to a society, culture, or group that does not believe in God's existence. I once asked my students in a critical thinking class to imagine they were Christians (it was a mixed group of students at a University) who believed that abortion was immoral. They were asked to imagine being invited to a society of atheists to speak to them on why abortion should be made illegal -- what arguments would they present? One of the students (who happened to be a Christian) said he would say that God was against it. I asked him for the evidence for that claim and he said that the Bible said that God was against it.

I suggested to the student that his presentation would be entirely ineffective if he went to a group of atheists and argued his point of view from this basis. What good would it do to invoke God or the Bible when atheists didn't believe in the authority of either, let alone the existence of God? This student needed to think about the necessity of finding other reasons for his morality if he was going to communicate with a world that did not believe in God. As a result of the exercise, this student realised that there were other ways of arguing for morality other than appealing to God. If this is true, then there can be morals without God's existence and anything is not permissible.

Here's my challenge: Read Baggini's article and then consider how you would respond from a Christian point of view. Is it possible to agree with his essential point without giving up a belief in God? Do shades of grey really exist? Is it true to say that, if God did not exist, anything is permissible?

Baggini concludes his article with a challenge for each person to take responsiblity for ethics:

In the absence of a single moral authority, ethics is something we all have to take responsibility for. If we don't, then either anything really will go, or people will go back to the comfort Benedict XVI's certainty provides.

In the multicultural world of the 21st century we effectively live in a society without a single moral authority. Christians can no longer expect the rest of society to arbitrarily (from their point of view) base ethics in the existence of God. Rather than retreating into a Christian conclave shut away from the world, we will need to be involved by taking our place alongside others with the responsibility of developing a mutually agreed moral framework where the authority of God may be part of the Christian basis for moral thinking but which can no longer be imposed on the everyone else.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Book Review: 'Christianity at the Religious Roundtable'

Christians have been involved for centuries in evangelising other religions of the world. As Timothy Tennent points out in his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, however, things are not the same as they used to be. We live in a 'postmodern' world where pluralism is the dominant philosophical context. It is no longer acceptable that Christians approach other religions in the way we have previously done -- dogmatically asserting our rightness and exclusivity without genuine dialogue with other points of view. Tennant engages with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in conversations modeled on Luther's table talks where, instead of Christians taking a position at the head of the table, we are one member of a group at a round table. King Arthur is well known for his round table which equalised all those present. Tennant's round table is intended to be a symbol of the way we need to engage in conversation with others as we discuss the competing claims made by the major religions. Tennant is not suggesting, however, that those who come from a definite religious conviction need to water down that conviction. He is arguing for a dialogue where each party genuinely listens to the other in an attempt to come to a deep understanding of each other's points of view. This process is essential if Christians wish to be heard and understood by others. Tennant begins the book with an evangelical perspective on interreligious dialogue. After surveying the perspective of conservative and liberal Christians, he describes a spectrum of views regarding Christianity and non-Christian religions: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. He criticises the pluralist position whose God, he argues, 'is so vague it cannot be known' and 'ultimately based on the subjectivity of human experience, not on any objective truth claims.' Tennant acknowledges the 'strong affirmation of the centrality of Jesus Christ, the indispensable nature of his death and resurrection for salvation' and it's discernment of how 'God has worked in the lives of those outside the boundaries of the covenant such as Rahab and Naaman.' It also promotes a 'more positive view of the relationship between general and special revelation.' However, the inclusivists, according to Tennant, have attempted to 'drive a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ's work and the epistemological response of repentance and faith' which, he believes, cannot be sustained. He also suggests that the inclusivist position has shifted the emphasis away from Christ to the 'experience of faith regardless of its object.' The inclusivist also tends to describe Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists as 'anonymous Christians' -- a term that people in those religions find insulting and patronising. Finally, the exclusivist position is praised for its affirmation of 'the authority of Scripture, the unique centrality of Jesus Christ, and the indispensability of his death and resurrection.' Exclusivism also 'takes seriously the call to repentance and the need to turn to Jesus Christ as the object of explicity faith.' Tennant criticises the exclusivist position, however, for its failure to fully appreciate God's work of grace in the 'pre-Christian heart' and for claiming that the only revelation of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. He also suggests that the exclusivist frequently adopts a defensive posture with others who believe differently and been 'unwilling to honestly engage with the questions and objections of those from non-Christian religions. Tennant describes himself as belonging to an 'engaged exclusivist' position. After clarifying what that means for him, he turns to the main activity of the book -- Christian dialogue with other faiths. In the rest of the book, he engages in a fictitious dialogue (constructed from his wide experience) with a member of the religion under consideration. For each one he takes the doctrine of God and one other significant doctrine for that religion - Hinduism on creation, Buddhism on ethics, Islam on Christ and the incarnation - and constructs a dialogue that teases apart the respective understanding of the doctrine and the main Christian objections to them along with responses from an imagined representative of that religion. The book is finished with three case studies and conclusion. The three case studies are: Was Socrates a Christian before Christ? A Study of Justin Martyr's Use of Logos Spermatikos; Can the Hindu Upanishads Help Us Explain the Trinity? A Study of Brahmabandhav Upadhyay's Use of Saccidānanda; and Can Sola Fide be Understood Apart from the Specific, Historic Revelation of Jesus Christ? A Study of A. G. Hogg's Distinction between Faith and Faiths. As you can probably tell, by now, this is meaty stuff. But Tennant writes in a fairly simple and straightforward manner. There is a wealth of information about the faiths he explores and excellent advice about engaging in conversation with other belief systems. In his closing thoughts, Tennant states that '[t]he world we live in no longer allows us to isolate our faith from those who belong to the other major world religions.' This is so true. In my own city I cannot walk the streets or work without meeting people who are open believers in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or some other faith. For Tennant, there are three fundamental commitments Christians need to make in this world. Firstly, we need to say no to pluralism which, in his view, brings to the table a distorted version of Christianity and deliberately seeks to jettison distinctive Christian doctrines. Secondly, Christians need to see dialogue as 'persuasive witness'. We can no longer afford to see evangelism as a 'monologue of proclamation'. And, thirdly, we need to accept that dialogue 'stimulates our own understanding of truth'. Christians have much to learn about their own faith and dialogue can further that process. Rather than seeing postmodernism as a threat to Christian belief, Tennant describes it as 'the opportunity of the present'. It's an interesting book rich in ideas and insights. The reader may not agree with all of the author's characterisation of Christian doctrine. But that is not the purpose of the book. If it leads to more respectful dialogue of Christians with others then it will have, I believe, accomplished it's intentions. The one disappointing aspect of the book is that the dialogue did not take place with actual adherents of each of the religions. The dialogues are constructed from the experience of the author. This gave the dialogues an artifical feel. I would have liked to see an actual dialogue on these issues. That aside, it is an important and timely read. Related Topic Links (please note: the providing of a link does not imply endorsement of the contents)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Book Review: 'White: The Great Pursuit'

I've finally reached the end of Ted Dekker's The Circle trilogy with the last book in the series entitled White: The Great Pursuit. I have previously reviewed the first two books, Black and Red, both of which are gripping page-turners which mix fantasy, action, and thriller along with deep themes of redemption. White is no different. Thomas Hunter has only days left if he is going to survive two realities. The future of these two worlds hinges on Hunter's ability to be able to shift between the two realities through his dreams. I won't say much about this book in case you haven't yet read the first two except to say that, if you have, you won't want to miss this final instalment. If you haven't, then you must start now! Overall, the trilogy has been deeply satisfying to read. From the Cover In this final installment of Ted Dekker's groundbreaking Circle trilogy, Thomas Hunter has only days to survive two separate realms of danger, deceit, and destruction. The fate of the both worlds now rests on his unique ability to shift realities through his dreams, the charge given to a small ragtag group known as The Circle, and the forbidden love of a most unlikely woman. Enter the great pursuit, where Thomas and a small band of followers must decide quickly who they can trust-both with their own lives and the fate of millions. Dreams and reality quickly bleed into each other as time runs out. And neither the terror of Black nor the treachery of Red can prepare Thomas for the forces aligned against The Circle in White.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Resource for Papal Encyclicals

Here's a useful resource: Papal Encyclicals Online gives you access to a host of official documents of the Catholic Church including photographs of medieval papal and church documents.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Movie Review: 'Robots'

There is no doubt that the movie Robots pushes animation even further than anything yet. Made by 20th Century Fox, who also brought us Ice Age, Robots is much richer in detail, longer, and has a more complex plot than Ice Age. And along with the stunning animation there are some famous actors contributing to the voices -- Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, and Robin Williams amongst others. Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) is a little robot that dreams big about being an inventor -- spurred on by his reputation in his home town for being a genius. He wants to make the world a better place and meet his idol Bigweld who is a master inventor. When it looks like big business is going to make it impossible for his family and friends to buy upgrades and, therefore, face becoming obsolete, he decides to journey to Bigweld's factory to confront the evil business men and save the day. On the way he meets various characters good and not-so-good and opposition to his plan. The movie is visually stunning with intricate detail and awesome animation. Unfortunately, the plot is pretty thin -- sure, it has a nice, cute message but compared to recent movies such as The Incredibles I found it a little boring, superficial and predictable. No amount of special effects can compensate for a thin plot. Still, the kids will love it and it is a visual feast. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5 - the 1/2 a star is for the visuals!) Best Review 'Full of wit, charm and wonder. It's so hilarious, you might blow a gasket.' - Baltimore Sun/Michael Sragow Worst Review 'The video-game sequences are impressive, but you know that a 'toon is in big trouble when its most powerful theme is planned obsolescence.' - Wall Street Journal/Joe Morgenstern Content Warnings Some brief language and suggestive humor

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Movie Review: 'My House in Umbria'

Loneliness and the deep yearning for love are at the heart of this beautiful, gentle movie originally made for HBO cable TV. Mrs Emily Delahunty (Maggie Smith), a romance novelist, lives in Italy and survives a terrorist bombing of the train she is traveling in on her way to a shopping trip in Milan. Most of the people in the carriage die but three of her traveling companions survive - a German journalist, a British general, and a traumatised orphan girl who become mute as a result of the accident. Each of these people continue to suffer as a result of their traumatic experience and, in a spontaneous act of generosity, Mrs Delahunty invites them back to her tranquil home to recuperate. All goes well until the orphaned girl's American uncle turns up to collect her and who despises the relaxed, untroubled lifestyle that Mrs Delahunty has surrounded her charges with. Then things start to get a little rocky. Maggie Smith is delightful in her role as the caring "mother" who dotingly nurtures her residents back to physical and emotional health. A fine, entertaining film with a gentle heart. My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Sunday, April 10, 2005

'A Wave of Hot Air: After the deluge, the God talk' (Reason Magazine)

There has been an incredible proliferation of articles on the internet examining religion and its relationship to the last December's tsunami disaster. Here is a provocative article that should make us Christians do some deep thinking.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Pope's Contradictions (SPIEGEL ONLINE)

Here's an interesting article by Hans Kung, one of the Catholic Church's leading theologians who has been engaged in a feud with his denomination for years. In Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Pope's Contradictions he criticises the current Pope for nine contradictions which have led Catholicism into a crisis.