Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Emperor's New Faith

Self deception
Premier Christianity is a broad church magazine; although it keeps within the moderate evangelical tradition it will, nevertheless, publish articles from gay-marriage endorsing Steve Chalk right through to the censorious charismatic fundamentalist R T Kendall. The May issue held a sympathetic interview with the non-evangelical Christian theologian Robert Beckford and the April edition held an interview with radical rebel Christian "Moby" (Richard Melville Hall). The magazine seldom carries the kind of spiritually superior editorial diatribes against "heretical" Christians or atheists that one sometimes sees in strictly orthodox evangelical publications; if anything Christianity's editorial staff endeavor to adopt an empathetic understanding of those who do not hold their views. And yet Christianity will also include guest articles by RT Kendall in its mix. There have been two recent articles by Kendall, one in August and another in April. As you would expect given Kendall's background, in both articles he severely censors the UK church. He would very likely condemn Steve Chalk and Moby as typifying the spiritually "dead" Christians who are the cause of Christianity's demise in the UK!* Such, then, is the diversity of opinion that Christianity magazine is prepared to showcase. For that I would give it full marks! things as they really are not what you think they are or would like them to be. 

But there's more. Every so often one of the contributors to Christianity magazine writes an article that is close to my own interests; in particular the mythos vs logos dichotomy which is superimposed on modern Western Christianity. One of those articles appeared several years ago, But the latest article which piqued my interest can be found in the April edition of Premier Christianity; the self same edition in which the gnostic Kendall lets rip. The article has been written by evangelical leader Krish Kandiah. Given the modern ethos among many Charismatically oriented Christians which expects (moreover demands) that a state-of-the-art spirituality should be a very existential affair of the heart involving deeply felt mystical epiphanies (or "encounters" or "touches of God") I was absolutely fascinated to read the following candid admissions from Kandiah:

I'm in the middle of a worship service. The band is in the zone, the song choice is perfect, the congregation are absorbed in worship. And yet I am surprisingly unmoved and underwhelmed. Sometimes I go to prayer meetings and while everyone else seems to be enjoying God's undivided attention I feel disconnected. 

Apparently this isn't just Kandiah's "problem" because (My emphases):

It turns out I'm not alone...others talk of an emotional distance from God, while others bemoan a practical  isolation from God.  We're embarrassed to admit it. but it is often as though there is a huge obstacle between us a God. and we don't know what to do about it [The big difference is that the true Gnostics, of course, know what to do - get an inner light initiation!- TVR]. We the estranged, struggle to admit it at church, because week in week out we are taught that God wants to be our friend, our confidante, our rock, our aide and has died to make that possible. But what if he is not that to us?

Frank admissions indeed! Well done Kandiah! I'm glad to hear that his next job is principle of London School of Theology (Although unfortunately Christian academics have a way of being ignored in favour of spiritual rabble rousers). Some parts of evangelicalism really need a dose of this kind of authenticity and realism. But unlike the popular old fable revelations like this are not echoed generally and no one else remarks that yes, the emperor is actually naked!

Kandiah goes on to say that the epistemic distance of God is a Biblical theme. None of this is to say that people don't have intimate encounters; of course they do. But his complaint, if I'm reading Kandiah right, is that these encounters have too often become the gold standard of Christianity, particularly Charismatic Christianity with its quasi-gnostic tendencies leading it to focus on inner-light experiences as a required initiation into the true fellowship. In today's gnostically influenced church music errs toward  a one-size-fits-all walk with God (my emphasis):

It can be disconcerting when our worship songs speak to eloquently about experiencing the presence of God. We sing of how we feel God near us, his comforting presence enfolding us. This language is there in the Bible but alongside that  there is also a lot about God's absence and distance

Kandiah then goes on to justify that statement. But he seems to be aware of the difficulty that this "emperor's new clothes" lesson will have in getting a purchase:

The problem is doubly compounded when everyone else gives the impression that they are permanently in touch with God. But the Bible does not promise us an uninterrupted experience of the glory and presence of God....

What if we're made to wrestle with God, rather than blindly accept what we've received?

Wrestling with God is certainly more in line with my own personal experience of Christianity!


I don't know whether an article in the May Premier Christianity magazine was intended as a follow up to Kandiah's article but in this latest issue we can read an article entitled "Mid-faith Crisis" by Nick Page. Here's how the article starts:

You're standing in church, singing a worship song and suddenly nothing makes sense. Admittedly that's often the case with worship songs, but this is a more powerful, more overwhelming avalanche of nothing makes senseness. 

Deep breaths, It's Ok. Don't panic. You're just having a mid-faith crisis. 

Page goes on to develop the thesis that this apparent faith crisis is more a metamorphosis toward higher things than a death of faith


Both articles are worth reading. They are candid admissions that being an "in-the-spirit-Christian" isn't quite such a spiritual quick-fix  that some make out. As Nick Page says:

The thing is that church is really built for the early stages [of faith]. It's good at delivering certainty and security in the early years of your faith but for this bit [i.e. the mid-faith crises] you are on your own.

...and whilst swathes of the charismatically oriented church err toward a gnostic existential fix paradigm of faith, mid-faith Christians with a mid-faith crises will remain on their own.  Trouble is, if other articles I've seen like this are anything to go by their lessons will be ignored because they simply don't mesh with the ingrained false dichotomies of contemporary Western Christian gnosticism; Viz: Spirit vs Word, head vs heart, mythos vs logos, supernaturalism vs. naturalism, fideism vs reason. 

In my experience gnostic Christianity has an inner logic which brings about an all but inevitable sequence of events: When Christian gnostics see a church where intimate encounters with the divine are not formally promoted as an initiation rite into gnosis, gnostics  will  sometimes wheel in a "high-priest" from a Gnostic church in the hope of trying to force the pace of spiritual change. In the process valuable spiritual work is ignored and marginalized, perhaps even looked down on as "not-in-the-spirit". Because Christian gnosticism's one-size-fits-all paradigm is actually false church's will often fail to graft the new initiation into inner-light. If the church doesn't respond to the opportunity for initiation gnostics will find themselves deeply frustrated by an apparent lack of progress toward their spiritual aspirations and may then loudly blame the church for resisting the Spirit. I have seen this scenario played out more than once. If only these gnostics would take a more complementarian view that different Christians have very different pilgrimages, then we might have a church that is comfortable with both "encounters" and "mid-faith" crises and knows how to cope with both.

* For Kendall the solution is a new Pentecost. Viz, in his April article he writes: "It is when the word and spirit ultimately come together as on the day of Pentecost. This simultaneous combination of the Word and the Spirit resulted in spontaneous combustion" (In this article Kendall then goes on to prophesy a huge world wide revival involving millions of conversions, a revival which he says is "coming soon") That Kendall, from the outset, conceives a "Word" vs. "Spirit" dichotomy is symptomatic of Western dualism. Go to a black church and they simply won't make sense of this dichotomy. For them there is no such thing as a difference between a Christian of the Word and the superior gnostic Christian who is "moving in the Spirit". For them there is only a spectrum of power and not a fundamental distinction.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mythos versus Logos

 Exactly 20 years ago to the month I wrote the essay included in this document. It was a response to my reading of the book Surprised By the Power of the Spirit by Jack Deere. Deere started out as a reformed evangelical but as a result of contact with John Wimber (and also I think the notorious Paul Cain) he converted to charismatic evangelicalism; so, in some ways he is representative of both sides of the  logos vs mythos dichotomy, a dichotomy I explore further in the essay referenced here.

This essay really focuses on the contemporary vulnerability for what in the jargon of today is an “encounter” expression of Christianity. Here’s a recent and very typical example I came across:

“Pray for the Encountering God for all of us. How we need so much more of the Holy Spirit and to truly encounter God to be totally transformed”

Notice the implicit valued judgement here; Viz that without these mystical encounters  Christians are unlikely to be transformed. This version of Christianity places a premium on deep intuitive and indescribable experiences of the divine. Sometimes this includes what appear to be altered states of consciousness: Viz Swoonings, trances and ecstasies. When these experiences are formalized and articulated using doctrinal formulae such as “Baptism of the Spirit” or “in the Spirit” and then used as identifying markers for a kind of elite spirituality the whole thing starts to look very like Gnosticism.

By 1997 evangelicalism, especially in its fundamentalist Reformed and Charismatic manifestations, had lost a lot of my goodwill; as various evangelical sects engaged in very human looking mutual slagging-off matches I was left wondering what really identified Christianity as authentic. Adding fuel to my fire was the rampant anti-science doctrines found amongst Christian fundamentalists in both the reformed and charismatic traditions. If these Christian fundamentalists could be so wrong about science what credit could be given to their highly affected devotional language and their loud claims to be anointed into the Truth? Such claims had become dubious. And it remains so today. As far as I’m concerned these Christian subcultures have lost the right to be taken seriously and must re-earn that right, although I don’t hold out much hope of that. In the final analysis I will probably just have to accept that beyond the Open Gospel partisan and naive expressions of Christianity are very much the natural state of human affairs.  

Reading through my essay of 20 years ago I feel that I’d be much more hard-cop if I wrote it today: The Christian community Deere represents have learnt very little about reciprocity; but then neither have the reformists.

T. V. Reeves April 2017

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Holy Bad Mouthing

Most Christian colleges, even in America, don’t subscribe to the philosophy of Young Earthism – this is confirmed even by a fundamentalist as fanatical as Answers in Genesis theme park boss, Ken Ham. See here and here as evidence of this. For good measure here’s another more recent affirmation by Ham along these lines (My emphasis):

With the increasing erosion of biblical authority even within most Christian colleges, it’s never been more important for your student to attend a college that stands firmly on the Word of God. (See Ham’s post at this address for the above quote)

By “erosion of biblical authority” Ham is most likely to have in mind those Christians who do not interpret Genesis 1-10 using a Young Earthist world view, a view upon which the rationale of the AiG theme park is based.

Recently Ham’s outraged denunciations of his fellow Christians has reached a crescendo. Although he has always questioned the quality of the faith of those who don’t go along with Young Earthism there has been a recent spate of posts by Ham expressing his righteous indignation with those Christians who reject his Young Earthist philosophy. Rather than let this recent flurry of bad mouthing slip by I’m using this post to note it and store it for the record so that I can access it in one place for future reference. But why exactly this outburst of holy censoriousness has occurred of late I can only guess. Is it because regime change in the US has boosted his confidence? Does he now see a chance to screw down on those Christians of the academic establishment who are of a more liberal frame of mind than himself?

In the following quotes I underline the bits where Ham is engaged in the activity of accusing Christians of the most heinous of sins. As I have said before, fundamentalists tend to go for the spiritual "nuclear button" straight away probably because:
a) They are convinced of the divine authority of their opinions and believe those opinions are being willfully rejected. 
b) They believe they act in the name of the Almighty. 
Having studied fundamentalists for many years I find I am all too familiar with what follows. Ken Ham typifies the fundamentalist mental complex; an outcome of that complex is that in attempting to justify the security and certainty of their position they are forced to go out and lay charges of compromise and/or heresy on other christian communities. My experience tells me that as a general rule fundamentalists genuinely believe that the world around them is a nasty place of conniving hypocrites (Christian and non-Christian) who deserve every censure they (the fundamentalists) can hand out; a bad conscience is not one of their faults! More's the pity!

1.      Christians accused of attacking the Character of Christ
See for the following quotes:

Can Christians believe in millions of years? Yes, inconsistently. Christians who believe in molecules-to-man evolution and millions of years are undermining biblical authority and thus are undermining the Word of God. Of course, salvation is conditioned upon faith in Christ alone, so you can be a Christian without holding to a young earth. But an old earth undermines God’s Word!
Those Christians who say God used evolution are actually saying God calls death and disease (e.g., cancer as seen in fossils) as “very good.” Death is an intrusion because of our sin. God describes death as an “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). God didn’t use death to create—death is the judgment for sin.
Christians who believe evolution are really attacking the character of Christ by blaming Him for death, suffering, and disease! Sin is to blame, and our Creator Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin (death) by dying on the Cross, rising from the dead, and He now offers the free gift of salvation.

My comment:  I’m not going to answer Ham’s criticisms here: My purpose in this document is to expose and record Ham’s tendency to lay the most extreme charges at the door of other Christians. Like an interrogating inquisitor he does this by thrusting his straw man reasoning, his twisted logic and his words into the minds and mouths of other Christians. Ham is too suspicious an operator to accept that the case against his “logic” is anything other than deceitful pleading by those he is accusing.  He really seems to believe that Christians who reject his Young Earthist world view are secretly as persuaded by his logic as Ham is himself and they must therefore be covering up bad consciences. True to the fundamentalist personality Ham just can’t accept that other Christians (like for example Denis Alexander) can hold an intellectually sophisticated contrary position with a clear conscience. The fundamentalist mind can’t but help believe there are dubious motives lurking behind the scenes of the Christian academic establishment. Given this almost paranoid behaviour one can see why fundamentalists are such fertile ground for conspiracy theorism.

2.      Christians accused of attacking God’s word and undermining the Gospel.
See  for the following
God’s Word is under attack, not just by secularists and the media—many Christians (and particularly many church leaders and those in Christian academics) attack God’s Word when they compromise the clear teachings of the Bible with man’s ideas. We see this especially in regards to Genesis and issues such as the age of the earth, Creation, and the global Flood of Noah’s day.
Biblical creation is being rejected even within the evangelical church, and secular and atheistic philosophies about earth’s origins are taking its place. This is undermining the foundation of our doctrines—including the gospel—and opening the door for more compromise.

My Comment: Yes, many, many evangelical Christians are definitely undermining the foundation of the alleged divine authority of Ken’s opinions! But I don’t see these evangelicals having any less faith in God and his word than does Ken! To recycle a well-known saying: Same Biblical facts, different interpretation! What Ken thinks of as Biblical facts, are actually interpretations.

We can see from the second sentence in the above quote that “compromise” is a term Ken largely uses of those Christians who reject  his interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 to 10, an interpretation based as it is on a world view which posits the dichotomy God did it” vs. “natural forces did it. In particular notice also the reference to Christian leaders and academics who in the main reject the Young Earthist philosophy. Ken’s rejection of the Christian establishment has parallels with Donald Trump’s campaign against the political establishment, so perhaps, as I have already submitted, Ken’s recent focus on bad-mouthing Christians has been spurred on by Trump’s recent accession to the presidency. After all, it is quite likely that the more reasonable evangelicals, especially evangelical academics, would not be Trump supporters. So perhaps Ken is trying to hit them while they are down. What seems to have completely passed Ken is that his holy-than-thou censoriousness is not the way to win friends and influence people! But having said that Ken’s threatening spiritual language will be welcomed by his followers.  

3.      Christians accused of attacking the Gospel and totally undermining scripture.
See  for the quote below:
One of the most attacked biblical figures of our day is the first man, Adam—the head of the human race. Increasingly secularists and, sadly, even many Christians (including seminary and Bible college professors), claim there never was a literal Adam. But a historical Adam is foundational to the gospel!
An attack on Adam is an attack on the gospel. You see, if there never were an Adam, there was no first sin and there was no original sinner. And if there were no first sin and original sinner, then why did Jesus have to come as a man and die to pay the penalty for our sin (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22)? After all, if man evolved over millions of years, death and bloodshed existed prior to sin, so why did Jesus die? Believing in millions of years of bloodshed and death before sin totally undermines the Scripture which says, “Without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22).
The gospel is grounded in literal history!

My comment: Notice once again how Ham, like an inquisitor, projects  his perverse  logic and thinking into the minds of Christians who disagree with him: He just can’t believe that Young Earthism is anything other than the plain teaching of scripture and therefore to his mind those Christians who disagree must be harbouring ulterior motives and/or bad consciences.  Ham questions the faith of those who question his world view.  But let me reassure him that from my observations the Gospel of Grace is quite safe in the hearts of those evangelicals who don’t view scripture through his Young Earthist lens.  They therefore don’t construct the logic in quite the same way that we see in Ham’s quotes!

4.      Christians accused of turning the Gospel into myths and lies
See for the following quote:
It’s becoming increasingly popular among many Christians to claim that Old Testament characters, especially Adam and Eve, and events such as the worldwide Flood weren’t literal people or historical events. They claim they were just figures or stories created to teach some kind of theological lesson. But does biblical revelation support this position?
Well, the writers of the New Testament, or those whose words are recorded in it, certainly wouldn’t agree with these Christians. Paul, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, clearly speaks against biological evolution and the idea of a nonliteral Adam and Eve when he states,
For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (1 Timothy 2:13)
In 1 Corinthians he again confirms the Genesis account of Eve being made from Adam:
For man is not from woman, but woman from man. (1 Corinthians 11:8)
The New Testament writer Jude, in his short epistle, lists Adam as an historical individual:
Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam. (Jude 14)
Others claim that the account of Noah and the Flood is not history but was borrowed from ancient Near Eastern cultures to teach a theological truth about God. But if that's true then the Apostle Peter, the author of Hebrews, and Jesus Christ—the Creator God in the flesh!—all lied because they taught that Noah was a historical individual and that the Flood really happened (Matthew 24:37; Hebrews 11:7; 2 Peter 3:5–7).
If Genesis is myth then the gospel—as it's foreshadowed in Genesis 3:15 and 21—is myth also. The gospel is founded in Genesis and grounded in a literal Adam who literally sinned and brought literal death into creation as the penalty for sin. If Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, such as Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and others. Genesis is literal history!
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.

My comment: Yet again Ken is slandering Christians by placing his quite outrageous logic in the heads of his Christian detractors: Viz …they are making the gospel writers liars and the gospel fiction!   In Ken’s illogical head it seems to follow quite logically that if Genesis is a myth then so are the NT gospel events! Ken’s coup-de-grace is his attempt to manoeuvre those who disagree with him into the position where they are saying the apostles all lied! This is a familiar fundamentalist tactic I’ve recorded before: Viz A certain Andrew Holland, a fundamentalist of whom I’ve quoted on this blog before,  tries to  make out that those who disagree with him are making God a liar:

….the historical parts of the Bible, such as Genesis, should be taken at face value, otherwise it is tantamount to calling God a liar! Thus the account of creation, Noah's flood and Jonah's adventures are accurate and can be completely trusted. They are all verified in the New Testament. (Andrew Holland, my emphasis)

5.      Christians accused of recommitting the original sin
See for the quote below:
The very first attack, what I call “the Genesis 3 Attack,” was on God’s Word: “And [Satan] said to the woman, ‘Has God indeed said?’” (Genesis 3:1). Satan used the ploy to get Eve to question God’s Word, thus creating doubt that ultimately led to unbelief. That same attack on God’s Word has never let up and continues each day.
Sadly, many Christians accept evolution and millions of years, the foundation of the secular religion. This evolutionary religion attacks the Word of God by undermining what God plainly told us. It’s like Satan is whispering in our ears once again: “Has God indeed said . . . ?”
Compromising Genesis with evolution and millions of years undermines the authority of the Word, because this involves taking ideas from outside of Scripture and forcing those ideas into Scripture. When they do this, Christians are making themselves (fallible man) the authority over God’s (infallible) Word! Basically we’re saying that we know more than God and that we can reinterpret and edit His Word to adjust it to man’s ideas. But a Christian should never knowingly compromise God’s Word.
How should Christians view God’s Word?
Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven.” (Psalm 119:89)
For I trust in Your word. (Psalm 119:42)
I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word. (Psalm 119:16)
Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word. (Psalm 119:67)
And remember how important it is to preach the Word with authority:
So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)
You see, man’s word (like evolutionary ideas) changes nearly every day, but God’s Word never changes. We need to choose to trust God’s Word and ignore the lie of “Has God indeed said . . . ?”
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.

My comment: Ham continues to stuff his perverse logic into the heads and mouths of other Christians thereby justifying to himself why he can dish out the utmost censor on them. In his attempt to avoid looking like a common-or-garden Christian cultist Ham is often at pains to stress that he’s not saying that belief in Young Earthism is a salvation condition. But I think this is just a piece of lip service; in the final analysis he’s certainly making Young Earthism a very stringent faith test and goes as far as he possibly can in rubbishing the faith of other Christians who fail it; so much so, in fact, that the question of whether he actually considers them to be Christian is academic. For example, in the quote above we find Ham going as far as to suggest that those who contradict him are listening to Satan and repeating the devastating sins of the fall! As usual he more than hints that he believes these Christians to be knowingly compromising God’s word. This is the language of character defamation and is exactly the kind of thing one gets from the Jehovah’s witnesses  when they are talking about ex-witnesses. So in my books Answers in Genesis, unless it should be headed up by a less bullying leader, classifies as all but cultic in ethos. As I have said before I don’t recommend Christians have contact with fundamentalists; they are spiritual empire builders who do not shy away from using spiritual pressures to build their social network. See also his comments I've recorded in this post where Ham makes it clear that he regards anything other than young earthism to be an "attack on the cross" and effectively preaching a "Jesus different from the Jesus of the Bible"

The Bible is “God’s word” in as much as it is a conduit for information about God’s personality and salvation; it is part of the divinely managed signalling medium through which revelatory information passes to the recipient and takes root in his/her psyche. As I have pointed out before natural language, such as we find employed in the Bible, doesn’t contain meanings; rather it delivers meaning by way of connotation. That is, it triggers meaning in the neural association complex of the reader, an association complex that is a function of its cognitive traits, culture, and history. Thus the whole process, if it is to deliver theological truth, only has a chance of doing so if it is under immanent divine management from start to finish. Unfortunately as a rule Western fundamentalists often have a “natural forces” vs “divine interventions” view of God’s relation to his world. They therefore find the immanence of God difficult to take on board. Because of God’s intimacy with his created order the Bible is organically jointed to the rest of creation and transmits and delivers information like any other signalling medium in God’s world.

Of course, the process of Biblical information delivery can, and clearly does, go wrong (as does any other signalling system) at any stage along the transmission line especially at the destination where interpretations are generated. Therefore the Bible doesn’t deliver certainty. Trouble is, the insecure conspiracy theory touting fundamentalist mentality is liable to feel that anything less than 100% truth equates 100% uncertainty – a position which we know to be untrue. Information carrying signals need not return the statistics of certainty to convey information; e.g. we can’t be absolutely certain when we board an aircraft that it won’t be involved in a major crash, but nevertheless we consider the safety statistics of air travel to convey information about high reliability, and this we regard as useful information.

We can see that Ken Ham is light-years away from understanding just how natural language works when he says this (See above):

Compromising Genesis with evolution and millions of years undermines the authority of the Word, because this involves taking ideas from outside of Scripture and forcing those ideas into Scripture. When they do this, Christians are making themselves (fallible man) the authority over God’s (infallible) Word! Basically we’re saying that we know more than God and that we can reinterpret and edit His Word to adjust it to man’s ideas. But a Christian should never knowingly compromise God’s Word.

What Ken fails to see is that meaning is ultimately sourced in the recipient. i.e. the reader.  Meaning doesn’t exist inside the symbols of the transmitted Biblical text: Meaning is an extrinsic rather than intrinsic property of the Word. As such the Word is a trigger of meaning and therefore it is fallible (wo)man that assigns meaning – but it is an infallible God who manages this highly complex process of meaning delivery. The irony for Ken Ham is that in a sense meaning always comes from the reader, the reader who must be correctly initiated in order to make the right interpretation. Of course I don’t expect someone as lacking in subtlety as Ken Ham to ever understand this.  Ken Ham doesn’t live by faith; he lives by what he estimates to be certainty.

Some links on the nature of language:

It's worth reading this AiG article by Ham:
Ham's righteous anger at Christian acdemia is plain to see in this article. In many ways it's encouraging that he paints such a bleak picture of what to his recriminating mind is rampart "compromise" among Christian academics. Obviously Ham's futile fulminations aren't going to hold much weight with Christian academics. But they will have weight with other fundamentalists, who are assured by Ham that they will be on the  receiving end of divine displeasure should they be tempted by "compromise". Ham is almost shaping up to be classified as a cult leader; compare the Watchtower who control their publishers, like Ham, using character defamation and the threat of divine displeasure to intimidate their followers. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Chaoskampf and The Problem of Suffering and Evil

Premier Christianity magazine contained a very moving article about a couple whose son died of a brain tumour. Inevitably, given the Christian context, the problem of suffering (and evil) reared its enigmatic head. The following quote from the article tells us how the boy's mother, Jessica, coped with the challenge to her faith:

For most of her life, Jessica had been taught what she calls the “blueprint view” of why God allows suffering. According to this understanding, God wills everything that happens, history is a working out of his meticulous divine blueprint and there’s a specific good behind even the most extreme suffering. She says this theology is expressed in clich├ęs such as ‘everything happens for a reason'.

Long before Henry’s diagnosis, Jessica began to question this traditional view of God’s role in suffering. As she listened to podcasts of Greg Boyd’s (Senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota) sermons, she heard another view expressed which she calls the ‘warfare view’. This theory posits that God is not the only force in the universe and all evil originates in wills other than God. Suffering is therefore ultimately caused by Satan, and not God.

Jessica spent many months listening to and considering both of these positions. After a two year period of wrestling with these opposing ideas and looking at relevant biblical verses, she landed on the warfare view, explaining it made her mind and heart line up with each other.

As Jessica explains, “To think God isn’t designing my pain but rather doing everything possible to maximise good and minimise evil within the constraints of the world he created – that’s exciting!”

Jessica had already adopted this warfare view before Henry’s health deteriorated. She says it made a tremendous difference. It may have even saved her faith.

“It was unbelievably freeing to walk through this nightmare and not say, ‘Am I being tested, taught a lesson or punished?’ I didn’t have to think this person we love and trust would cause a nightmare in our lives. I didn’t have to feel betrayed by God in the midst of this horrible event. So my crisis wasn’t compounded by a crisis of faith.

“It was incredibly freeing to know when we saw beautiful things happen, when people were coming to the house with casseroles and gifts – we could say, ‘This is from God. God is doing everything possible to maximise good.’ And when we saw our son suffer and the pain and death, I could say ‘this is not from God'. That meant I could maintain a passionate faith in the midst of such terrible loss.”

As I read through this for the first time it looked to me as if it was going in the wrong direction; for at first it seemed as if Jessica was taking on board the old gnosto-dualist solution to the problem of pain. This solution envisages good and evil as opposite forces fighting it out, sometimes evenly matched. In classical Gnosticism evil is believed to be rooted in the material world from which an initiation into "gnosis" (that is, a kind of "inner light" experience) allows the believer to rise above this evil world and find salvation. In fact in classical Gnosticism the material world is thought to be the work of a dimiurge rather than God. Gnosticism of this kind side steps the difficult questions which arise if God is postulated to be a loving sovereign creator; for if God is sovereign creator why did he create a world with the propensity for suffering and evil in the first place? Why did he create sentient beings with the propensity to fall?  But if as gnosticism maintains God didn't create the world He cannot then be held responsible for the imperfection which generates suffering and moral falleness; all of this can be blamed on the "free will" (sic) of demons and humans. 

However, what saves the day for the above quote is that Jessica is reported as saying that God will "minimise evil within the constraints of the world he created ". That sounds like an acknowledgement of God's position as sovereign creator; but it leaves open the question of the inscrutable Divine purposes behind the perverse logic of this world (=constraints?) which, for unknown reasons, has been given divine permission to play out. At one level Jessica's solution may help: God is seen as a contender for good in a battle of good vs evil and where God has tied his hands behind his back. In effect God is playing by rules he has ordained in advance. One of those rules, presumably, is that God has chosen to create a world of personal agents with the propensity to defy divine morality and "fall".  But as God is responsible for creating beings with this flawed propensity  then on the higher level the problem of suffering and evil remains untouched; why did He create beings that so easily succumb to the temptations of sin? Surely omniscient omnipotence could do better?

As a rule I don't comment on the problem of suffering and evil - after all there have been many hundreds of years of deliberation on this subject and I don't think I'm going to make much impact on the problem. However, I will risk airing the following thoughts, thoughts which have been on my mind for many years.

Let us assume that a model cosmos can be represented as a string of characters; of course for any significant cosmos this string will be of enormous length, a length which we will quantify by L. If the string employs a character set of C characters then the number of possible strings which can be constructed will be CL. The quantity CL is enormous but finite. If we think of this string as a book, then the Cpossibilities will contain all the books there can be of size L; that is, among the Cpossibilities we will find the story of every possible cosmos. But as it stands these CL cosmic narratives don't exist outside the unreality of platonic space, a space of possibility and potential but not of reality. By far and away most of these unreal cosmoses will be random nonsense but many will tell of significant things. These significant, but materially non-existent cosmic stories, can only be reified by an omnipotent sovereign deity, perhaps in some corner of His infinite mind. But which cosmos will it be that comes up for reification? 

In one sense the platonic existence of the CL worlds gives them a kind of independence from God. Those worlds are to God as the story in a book is to its author; the author of a book is bringing forth something that has always existed in the platonic realm and the author is sovereign over all that appears in the book. God, like an author, is a sovereign facilitator whose job entails reifying the particular cosmos which emerges from platonic space into material reality. This cosmos, in having an an independent platonic existence may well have its own logic which has features contrary to the nature of God himself, just as a human author may introduce features and characters in his story which do not reflect his nature. We perhaps can glimpse in this something of that good vs evil contention which Jessica is talking of: God has chosen to be contender in one of these cosmic stories. 

But in spite of all that, at the highest level the question of suffering and evil remains intact: Why would divine omnipotence translate suffering and evil from the platonic world to material reality?  If we are theists who believe in the absolute creative sovereignty of a loving God this remains a mystery. We may even feel that mysterious divine motives for reifying our particular world could never justify some of the suffering and evil we see. After all, it is one thing to write a book of pure symbols about a wayward world, as does a human author. but it is yet another thing to "write" this book using the qualia of real actors, actors who have a conscious experience of this world; best leave it in the unrealized spaces of the platonic realm, it may be felt.

Do we say "Yes" or "No" to our cosmic story given the suffering and evil we see (and experience) around us? I'm personally left with a dilemma. My existence is organically and inseparably joined to the cosmic story; if this world of suffering and evil didn't exist then neither would I. So, do I consider my existence worthwhile in spite of the pain and evil of this world? Because of this dilemma I bulk at the thought of saying "No" to life; I'd rather exist than not exist, pain or no pain. But it easy for me to say that: My life, by all accounts, has been comfortable and privileged, so I'm hardly a qualified person to say "Yes" to a cosmos of suffering and evil on the basis of this dilemma alone; all I can do is leave it as a mouth stopping dilemma. Hence, I avoid pronouncing on the subject. 

There are two types of suffering: Firstly there is suffering which may be the a result of impersonal forces such as natural disasters and instabilities in socio-economic systems over which no one has full control. Secondly, there is suffering brought about by intentional sentient beings whose willful and culpable actions cause suffering. Frequently, fundamentalist Christians ignore the serpent of Genesis 3 and trace back all suffering, whether of personal and impersonal forces, as consequences of the culpability of Adam and Eve. In fact, sometimes this Adamic culpability is proposed as a theodicy: "Suffering is due to man and not God"*. This solution not only fails because it ignores the serpent but also ignores the question of why a loving sovereign God should permit the emergence from the platonic realm of beings with the propensity to sin; for He is no doubt capable of bringing out of those huge platonic spaces responsible beings who do not choose to sin; but this He hasn't done.

One of my favorite quips is "Sin is the word with the 'I' in the middle"; that is, sin is a state of being which puts priority on self at the expense of other sentient beings; serve self first and hang the consequences to others. That's sin in a nutshell and we all indulge in it from time to time. Rebellion against God is a consequence of sin - see Genesis 3; man predicated himself first and then in order to maintain this predication necessarily rebelled. Many fundamentalists see sin expressing itself as highly organised covert conspiracies of many agents (i.e. Conspiracy theorism - e.g. Tim LaHaye). I suggest that in maintaining such ideas they don't really understand the disrupting effects of sin: Sin decentralizes and disconnects desire and motive from its surroundings. In consequence it leads not to highly organised movements of agents (which would requite too much selfless morality) but exactly the opposite - it leads to chaos and randomness. A universal perception of this understanding may perhaps be found in the chaoskampf mythology. This mythology depicts the fight with evil as a struggle with chaos (or chaoskampf), often symbolised by the leviathan from the deep; it is a mythology that is hinted at in both the Bible and other cultures. Evil degrades cooperation in favor of self and thereby leads to chaos, randomness and ultimately meaninglessness. So in the final analysis the problem of evil boils down to a struggle with the void of meaninglessness and emptiness. It is the war with the chaos beast which is the most general form of the struggle between good and evil. (I discuss this matter further in the introduction and epilogue of my book on randomness)

The search for meaning in darkness. Who would have anticipated the 
incarnation? See Philippians 2:6-11

God has an inside experience of suffering


Further study.  
The following links, which I have yet to study closely, look as though they might contain some useful material.

* The fundamentalist over-statement of the consequences of the fall is probably down to a confluence of causes: Viz: Fundamentalism selects for personalities which favour a paranoiac perspective of an elite religious remnant locked into an embattled and belligerent sectarianism. This perspective may in part be down to the social marginalization of fundamentalists; they seek a satisfying rationale to engage in forthright condemnation of the world that has rejected them and which they therefore hate with deep hatred. Their spiritual pride is such that they identify the slight against them as a slight against the Almighty. They therefore have little trouble in seeing the world which has rejected their message as utterly evil and wicked. They also have a small minded view of the cosmos and its profound mystery of purpose; simplification of the cosmic narrative in gnosto-dualist terms suits the anti-intellectual culture of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism's obsession with hell as the destination for the wicked world actually exacerbates the problem of suffering and evil; it also renders void any attempt to use Romans 8:18 as the basis of a theodicy. In the fundamentalist view suffering this side of the grave  (unless you're one of them - i.e a small remnant) is just a prelude to something even worse - the eternal suffering of hell. Since fundamentalist communities are small it follows that in their view the overwhelming majority of people are destined for hell (even Christians such as myself!). This view makes the creation seem even more pointless than ever: For, according to fundamentalists, the life of the large majority of the world's inhabitants has been reified by the Almighty only to have them eventually sent into eternal suffering; their sin?; rejection of the highly proprietary doctrines of the minority fundamentalist sect! Of course, this is no problem to the vindictive fundamentalist mind because it hates the world and sees its rejection of their message of salvation as evidence of a world that is utterly evil, full of wickedness and therefore deserving of eternal punishment. That's the fundamentalist mindset for you!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Path to Radicalisation

Radicalisation: getting yourself thoroughly hot and cross is all part of it 

This post on PZ Myers blog has proved worthy of adding to the VNP record: Myers quotes various researchers who have studied the process of radicalization. Myers' post is, in fact, a very useful source of incisive commentary and well worth reading. Some quotes:

…he [Scott Atran] argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance

Sarah Lyons-Padilla writes:

Researchers have long studied the motivations of terrorists, with psychologist Arie Kruglanski proposing a particularly compelling theory: people become terrorists to restore a sense of significance in their lives, a feeling that they matter. Extremist organizations like Isis are experts at giving their recruits that sense of purpose, through status, recognition, and the promise of eternal rewards in the afterlife.
My own survey work supports Kruglanski’s theory. I find that American Muslims who feel a lack of significance in their lives are more likely to support fundamentalist groups and extreme ideologies.
What we really need to know now is, what sets people on this path? How do people lose their sense of purpose?
My research reveals one answer: the more my survey respondents felt they or other Muslims had been discriminated against, the more they reported feeling a lack of meaning in their lives. Respondents who felt culturally homeless – not really American, but also not really a part of their own cultural community – were particularly jarred by messages that they don’t belong. Yet Muslim Americans who felt well integrated in both their American and Muslim communities were more resilient in the face of discrimination.
My results are not surprising to many social scientists, who know that we humans derive a great deal of self-worth from the groups we belong to. Our groups tell us who we are and make us feel good about ourselves. But feeling like we don’t belong to any group can really rattle our sense of self.

Abi Wilkinson identifies the drift toward the extreme right as form of radicalisation:

No, not the bit you’re thinking of. Somewhere far worse. That loose network of blogs, forums, subreddits and alternative media publications colloquially known as the “manosphere”. An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly. It’s grimly fascinating and now troubling relevant.

In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.

None of the above is a surprise at VNP (See links below); the search for meaning, purpose, fulfillment, a feeling of worth and a tribal sense of belonging & community are all deep human motivations.  Add to this the hankering to replace flaky & "faith"** based epistemic heuristics with authoritarian certainties and you've got a mix of emotions which readily finds fulfillment in the group think of fundamentalist communities of one kind or another. Myers is unlikely to admit it, but atheism, although not necessarily a problem in and of itself, is part of the pyschological complex: As I've said before, atheism is less a world-view than it is an absence of a world view. So unless liberal atheism can somehow construct purposes and meanings sufficient to satisfy the yearnings of the human heart, atheism is liable to leave a nihilistic vacuum which may by slow degrees be filled with some form of fundamentalist certainty. 

PZ Myers himself gives an example of that nihilistic hole being filled with tribal certainties:

Speaking of introspection and examining ourselves, here’s someone else who was radicalized by a social movement — in this case, the dark side of atheism. Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, Thunderf00t, Christopher Hitchens…these guys are gateways to the normalization of hatred.

Myers goes on to quote Lyons-Padilla:

I was curious as to the motives of leave voters. Surely they were not all racist, bigoted or hateful? I watched some debates on YouTube. Obvious points of concern about terrorism were brought up. A leaver cited Sam Harris as a source. I looked him up: this “intellectual, free-thinker” was very critical of Islam. Naturally my liberal kneejerk reaction was to be shocked, but I listened to his concerns and some of his debates.

This, I think, is where YouTube’s “suggested videos” can lead you down a rabbit hole. Moving on from Harris, I unlocked the Pandora’s box of “It’s not racist to criticise Islam!” content. Eventually I was introduced, by YouTube algorithms, to Milo Yiannopoulos and various “anti-SJW” videos (SJW, or social justice warrior, is a pejorative directed at progressives). They were shocking at first, but always presented as innocuous criticism from people claiming to be liberals themselves, or centrists, sometimes “just a regular conservative” – but never, ever identifying as the dreaded “alt-right”.

For three months I watched this stuff grow steadily more fearful of Islam. “Not Muslims,” they would usually say, “individual Muslims are fine.” But Islam was presented as a “threat to western civilisation”. Fear-mongering content was presented in a compelling way by charismatic people who would distance themselves from the very movement of which they were a part.

Atheism has inherent problems in satiatiing the hunger for meaning: Within an atheist framework from whence comes that meaning? And who arbitrates it? If atheists try to fill in these gaps they are plagued by the same dilemma as religious fundamentalists; namely, the gap between practical heuristic epistemologies and the aspiration for authoritative, comprehensive and definitive answers.

Some relevant links:

** I understand "faith" in the very general sense of believing that our world has a basic epistemic integrity which means that by and large it's evidential signals are not misleading. e,g, The signals from distant objects in space and time, such as fossils and star light, are evidence of real objects.