Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Did Jesus exist?

I commented on Stephen Law's blog that "To deny that [Jesus] was a solid historical figure is to my mind a certain indication that standards of rationality have been left behind." He disagrees, and I have commented further as follows:

Amazing. Now where to begin?

First, a distinction between believing that Jesus was a historical figure and believing, eg, in the resurrection or other miracles. The latter is, obviously, much more open to debate and that _isn't_ what I'm asserting here.

My assertion is that nobody sane doubts that Jesus was an historical figure, ie that there was an itinerant Jewish teacher called Jesus who lived and was crucified in Palestine 2000 years ago. To deny this is good prima facie evidence that non-rational factors are at play in forming a judgement, the same sorts of non-rational factors that Stephen criticises as being parallel to believing in fairies. Denying that Jesus was an historical figure, is, I contend, an equally egregious intellectual error.

So, that's the assertion, and bringing in red herrings like Bert flying around the room is just muddying the water - effective rhetoric but nothing more substantial. Biblical criticism has historically spent a lot of time discriminating between the (supposed) "legendary" bits (= 'flying around the room', miracles generally) and a more robust historical core. Dismissing _all_ of the historical evidence on the basis of a philosophical disagreement about what is humanly possible plays to prejudices nothing more.

Why am I so blunt on this? Well, a bit of autobiography first - I have studied this subject at undergrad and postgrad level - indeed you could say I have a professional interest in it - and I suspect that's something not widely shared amongst this readership. But is this just special pleading from biased sources? (Stephen: "I know lot's of Biblical scholars think there's good evidence for Jesus' historicity. Trouble is, they tend to be true believers! That's I'm not too impressed by arguments from authority in this context.") No, for the simple reason that the formative tutor for me in NT studies was himself an atheist who was quite prepared to see the miracle stories as largely made up. He isn't an exception, there are lots of Biblical scholars and scholars in related disciplines (Ancient Near Eastern history) who share the consensus that Jesus was an historical figure. I repeat - point to someone with expertise in the subject matter who disagrees!

But in a more mind-boggling comment Stephen goes on to say "I wouldn't, and don't, rely on Biblical scholarship either way here" - so how and why is your position fundamentally distinct from that of a Creationist vis-a-vis evolution? Creationists display no regard for the consensus of opinion within the relevantly qualified community, you're displaying no regard for the consensus of opinion in this relevantly qualified community (an opinion, I repeat, shared across Christian, agnostic, atheist etc).

Now that is why I believe that to assert "I just don't know whether the historical figure Jesus existed" is at best disingenuous. It is not the product of a dispassionate search for the truth, and it is not, I believe, a viewpoint that any reasonably informed and neutral observer would ever hold. I repeat - it simply shows, as with creationist argumentation, that common standards of rationality and respect for truth have been left behind.


Postscript on the minor points - a) oral cultures, contra to Anticant's point, were very good at preserving the fundamental integrity of testimonies; b) the references to Jesus aren't just the four gospels, there are also the various epistles, especially Paul's, written within 20 years of the crucifixion; c) the "received wisdom" being quoted here (eg from wiki sources) tends to reflect the state of Biblical scholarship at least one generation ago, and nearer three; d) the idea that the gospels are fundamentally eye-witness perspectives is, if not quite a consensus at the moment, certainly a defensible and respectable position to hold (see, eg, Bauckham's book, 'Jesus and the Eye-witnesses').

On the Socrates analogy, I'd need to check, but I'm pretty sure that the gospels stand up well in comparison (eg how do we know that Plato i) wrote what is attributed to him and ii) wrote down what Socrates actually said, as opposed to putting words into his mouth? compare the different presentations of Socrates across the different authors); the distinction between an oral and a literary culture is also relevant (let alone the different linguistic paradigms).

Now there are lots of people in the blogosphere who know much more about these things than me, so I'm going to link to several of them, and ask if they want to join in the conversation!


How to hug a baby.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What he said

Why am I still unmoved by the seeming soundness of your mocking?

pneuma has blown away my resistance.
agape has enfolded me in its harmony.
koinonia has broken through my isolation.
logos has spoken the final word.

While reason and religion rage, my heart sings to God.

Christianity for sailors

A couple of months ago Scott (Gray) challenged me with a comment: "how might you more effectively (like watts and pirsig) say the right words, paint the right picture, so we get it?" I've been pondering about this for a while, and it's something that I hope will prove to be a goad for me to continue providing images and analogies. It was also on my mind during my recent sailing course, which provoked me to think of ways in which imagery from sailing could be used to describe the nature of Christianity. So here goes.... (click full post for text)

Where are we going?
There are all sorts of destinations that a sailor might wish to aim for - including a simple round trip into the water before returning home - but let us take as our beginning image the desire to find a safe harbour. So we begin on the water, in the middle of things - and our aim is to find a safe place to rest up and gain refreshment. In order to gain this safe harbour we need to know where we are, we need to know information about the environment we are in, and we need to know how to get from where we are to where we want to get to. This is navigation.

This imagery of the safe harbour can be used as a rough proxy for some inter-related Christian terms: heaven, the Kingdom, resurrection. The differences between the Christian terms can be unpicked another time, let us for now take it that the 'safe harbour' can correspond to the end-point, the 'telos' of the Christian life. Christians also use the word 'vocation' - which means both the end point of the journey, but also the path itself, leading to the end-point.

On my course one high point came on the last night, when I navigated at night up the River Orwell to Ipswich (which is when the idea for this post came to me). In order to prepare for the journey properly I used a chart and noted down all the significant features of the journey, the most important of which were the marker buoys, which had coloured lights that flashed in particular sequences, in order to readily identify them. Often these lights marked out the channel through which we had to sail, the limits of safe water. If we went beyond the buoys then were at great risk of running aground.

Jesus summarised the law and the prophets (ie the life of faith) as 'love God with everything, love your neighbour as yourself'. I think these two elements correspond to the two sides of the channel, that is, when we start to leave these commands to one side, then we start to run the risk of going aground. These two commandments represent the green and red buoys marking out the safe channel. If we keep within those two commands then we stay in the safe water.

On the course, the boat that we were using had a great number of advanced technical features, including GPS - the global positioning system using satellite information relayed electronically. However, there were times when this GPS information conflicted with what we could see using our main compass, at which point our instructor said 'trust the compass!' It is a remarkable feature of the earth that there is such a thing as 'true north' which draws everything magnetic to itself. This allows for a reliable indication of direction, which means that making a journey is much more reliable. Of course, as expertise in sailing develops, there are ways in which this bearing needs to be adjusted in practice, eg the difference between magnetic north and true north, the impact that other metal objects (including the boat itself) might have on the compass and so on. Yet even with these caveats, magnetic north is an essential part of navigation. When sailing at night, and when there is a reasonably cloud-free sky, it is also possible to navigate using the stars. In particular the pole star corresponds to North, and can be used with the compass to confirm the bearing being undertaken.

In Christian terms, North corresponds to Jesus - a fixed bearing against which we can judge our own manoeuvres. One quirk of this extended analogy is that the safe harbour is due North - because that is the bearing which will lead us to Christ - and Christ is, in a very real sense, the harbour master of our destination. As for things which may mislead or distort the message of true north, well, I think that's quite a good image of pride.

Charts record the information obtained by people who have sailed in these waters before. They have an immense richness, especially in the detail, and take a long time to master. Different waters require different charts; indeed, some areas have incompatible systems of representation. Robert Pirsig, in his book set on a yacht 'Lila', talks about the 'Cleveland Harbour effect', when he was so convinced from his chart readings that he was in Cleveland Harbour that he neglected to pay attention to the information available to his own senses, especially his eyes, that would have told him that he was in a different stretch of water entirely. So charts are incredibly useful, but they should never be allowed to obscure the reality of the waters themselves.

For Christians, the relevant Charts are the Bible, our sacred Scriptures. In other areas there are different charts, more or less compatible with ours. The great mistake that many Christians make is to confuse a detailed knowledge of charts with the practice of sailing - to fail to take into account, eg, magnetic variation between chart and compass - and to end up in 'Cleveland Harbour'. This is a mistake that is called 'idolatry' by Christians; idolatry always represents a failure to engage fully with reality.

In order to sail effectively, there are many standard maintenance tasks which need to be carried out on a regular basis - making sure that the lines are clear, attending to the state of the sails, cleaning the boat, learning the knots etc etc. These are basic and routine. They are not the point of sailing, they are what allow the sailing to take place; in other words, where they are neglected then, given enough time, something seriously severe could go wrong.

These correspond in the Christian life to the spiritual disciplines: prayer, reading the Bible, attending church and so on. In the same way, whilst there are satisfactions to be gained in the mastery of the tasks, they are ultimately not ends in themselves. The end is to gain the safe harbour. Travelling to the harbour in a flotilla, and drawing on the friendship and expertise of the other sailors, is both a pleasure and a practical benefit.

Obviously the wind is tremendously important to the sailor and, whilst on my course, I was impressed by the detailed and sophisticated awareness of the weather - and the implications for our sailing - displayed by our instructor. The wind is one of the major factors determining the direction in which sailing can take place; it also determines how the boat should be set up. In very strong winds the sails should be at least reefed, or a special storm sail put up; when sailing against a head wind lots of tacking is needed; with the wind behind then all the sails can be opened up - and more added - to take advantage. A knowledge of the wind is essential for any sailor.

The wind corresponds to the cultural influences that a Christian experiences in their life - it is 'the world'. The wind may not blow where we want it to, it can be experienced as incredibly hostile to our purposes, yet it is still possible to sail in almost any weather, and to sail towards our destination.

Tides and depths
As well as the wind bearing on the boat, the impact of the movement of the water itself must be taken into consideration. Tidal streams can make a mockery of the best laid navigational plans and, if this leads into the shallows, catastrophes can result.

The water corresponds to the spiritual realm, all that happens beneath the surface. Sailors know that the safest water is not in the shallows but in the deeps, where there is no risk of running aground. They are also aware of how to be blessed by the movements of the Spirit, in order to be carried towards their destination all the more swiftly.

"There is no sea"
There isn't a real-world correspondence for this, I just wanted to share an image of atheism with you. I see two sorts of atheism - humourless and sophisticated - and I want to pursue the imagery with respect to those two sorts. The humourless sort says 'there is no sea'. They are on the boat, but they recognise nothing other than the boat itself, and when they hear talk about the sea they want to know which bit of the boat is being referred to (and when there is a general hand-waving in response they start talking about unacceptable vagueness).

Some varieties of humourless atheist don't engage even in this level of conversation. They are occupied below decks consuming the rum and having a great party. They're not aware that the rum will soon run out, and they are certainly not prepared for the subsequent hangover.

Sophisticated atheists are a little different in that they recognise the existence of the sea, and therefore have a understanding of what sailing involves - what they fail to recognise, on the whole, is the value of other sailors' expertise. In particular they take pride in being able to sail without charts and instruments. This is possible for as long as the weather is favourable and there is no concern about the eventual destination. However, the attainment of a safe harbour through this method of sailing is entirely dependent upon the work of grace, ie benign tidal currents.

The balance of the boat
There comes a point when the sailor and their boat find a balance, and real sailing becomes possible. The sailor understands the impact of wind and tide, the nature of their vessel, how to set the sails, how to steer and where to go. At this point the attainment of the destination is no longer the most important factor, for the sailor is safe at sea. In a very real sense the sailor is in a safe harbour wherever they are on the water.

When a Christian has discovered their vocation, has accepted it, pursued it, developed it and is now living it - then they are at peace with themselves and with God. The attainment of any specific aim has become irrelevant, they know their eventual destination and they know that, even though the environment might conspire against them and they may not make it there themselves, the destination is real and they can share in it already. This is called 'living in the kingdom', and those who have attained this are called saints. I think Rowan has attained this - he knows that he is not in control of the processes in which he is embedded but he is still sailing, expertly, and he gives every evidence of being in a safe harbour in his soul. Something to which to aspire on my own journey.


I may continue to work on this post as further elements occur to me.


A short history of Western Civilisation. Punchline: 'in the end, agriculture always failed'.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


No TBTM today as we all went camping last night.

SPCK statement

SPCK have released a statement, text here which contains much sense.

I don't propose to comment about the general SPCK case any more on this site, unless and until that legal process is concluded. However, I reserve the right to talk about the more general free-speech ("Free Dave Walker!") issues, as occasion permits.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Unbelievable allegations about J Mark Brewer of BPLaw (Brewer and Pritchard)

"Looking through the paperwork from the so called Bankruptcy case involving St Stephen the Great, and more particularly SSG Ltd we have the following conundrum. J Mark Brewer is chair of the trustees of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust - a body that has the same charity and business number as SSG Ltd that he is trying to make bankrupt through the US Courts. J Mark Brewer is also a director of ENC Shop Management, Chichester Shop Management Company and Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company. J Mark Brewer is a partner in Brewer and Pritchard P.C. Brewer and Pritchard's address is 3 Riverway, Suite 1800, Houston. So is a strange charity called Orthodox Christian Mission Fund... So Mark Brewer is also behind the Orthodox Christian Mission Fund...

According to the documents given to the courts in Houston Texas, SSG Ltd owes Brewer and Pritchard $56,694.98 and owes Orthodox Christian Mission Fund $494,097.55. If we add the $75,000 retainer Mark Brewer has agreed to, Mark Brewer, as trustee of SSG Ltd, owes himself, or his own companies, $625,792.53."

This is the context for USDAW taking him to court. Ho hum. They're also trying to take various Sheffield people to court, including someone I was at Westcott with...

Found here.

About the conflict in Georgia

Go read Dmitry Orlov.


How to get by on the London Underground.
All too true.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Discussions with Stephen Law

This is going to be one of those 'central posts' where I'll gather some threads together, principally about the problem of suffering, and the relative merits of atheism and Christian faith.

For those who don't know, at two of the establishments where I studied Philosophy and Theology I was tutored by Stephen Law, who I found to be a great teacher and a very nice man. He's also a very intelligent and committed atheist, which gives rise to more or less helpful discussions!

My first post on the problem of suffering here.
Stephen responds here and here.
I respond here.

Stephen takes up Hart's essay on theodicy here, my explanation of Hart here, and he takes up some of my comments here, here , here and here.
I comment on this blog here.
And I offer a more substantial response here.
When Stephen responds to that I'll link it in.

Even though I end up being abused rather a lot (eg 'bullshit artist'!) I find the process helpful and it helps to clarify my own thinking, even if that clarity doesn't seem to get shared very far.


An out of place beach-hut.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Some questions for moderate believers

From the Celtic Chimp. My comments in red.

Here are some questions then for moderate believers.

1. Do you think the bible is the inerrant word of God? If not, why not?

No, simply because Jesus Christ is the inerrant word of God. Treating the Bible this way is a Protestant innovation, by and large.

2. If you answered no to question 1, why do you think that a) it is reasonable to believe that a man wielded magical powers and b) rose from the dead and c) was a god and a man at the same time; I am assuming that you do not generally believe in these things. What is it about the Jesus case that is so compelling as to make believing the impossible reasonable?

a) I don't think Jesus did anything which isn't (in principle) available to the rest of us to do.
b) I think i) the historical evidence is robust, and ii) science doesn't have anything to say about it.
c) My understanding of God (and man!) is different to yours.

3. Why does God command and condone evil acts in the bible (genocide, Rape, slavery etc.) if he is good?

i) God is beyond good and evil, so my basic answer is 'I don't know'
ii) Some of what is predicated of God is a projection of local culture
iii) Some of what is predicated of God is about obedience or something else (Abraham and Isaac)

4. Why is it not more reasonable to assume that God is evil given his rampage of destruction throughout the O.T?

It's all in how you read the OT. I read it as the story of a people discovering that YHWH wasn't the bloodthirsty tribal God that they thought he was.

5. In what way would an evil God have acted differently and can you imagine a way in which God might have acted more morally at any point in the O.T.?

I have no view on the latter part, but on the former part - he would have resembled the Baals and the Molochs.

6. Why is Jesus’ character so different from the God of the O.T. if they are (inexplicably) the same person?

Technically that's Marcionism. The whole point of Christianity is that Jesus is NOT different to the God of the OT.

8. Is it conceivable to you that Christianity might not actually be true (in the sense that Jesus might just have been an irregular Joe.)?

Yes. It's perfectly conceivable that the resurrection didn't happen.

9. When considering the idea that there is no God, is your reaction one of distaste or disagreement and could you be happy living in a universe where there was no God?

More disagreement; specifically a sense that it was an incoherent perspective. I wouldn't know what to do with various things that I understand about the world (eg how to link together justice, integrity, knowledge and so on).

10. Why do you think (assuming you do) that Mohammed was not in direct contact with God (Allah)? There is a holy book and many witnesses who profess he was. If you are willing to believe such things are possible, why do you not believe this?

Mohammed was a completely different character to Jesus. He was more like Napoleon.


Colour photos of the US Depression.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Does anyone else think this qualifies as "incompetence and injustice"?

A letter from Pauline Edwards to Mark Brewer:
"Mr Brewer,
Could you tell me please, why you told a fellow worker, that their job was safe, and it was o.k. to take their first mortgage out to buy a house. The fellow worker trusted you, after asking you a few times. That fellow worker has took the biggest debt ever, on your assurance, and was only in there new home 2 days, when they were sacked by email, and left this person with no wages to pay their first mortgage payment.
Does this ring a bell Mr Brewer?"

Lots of writing being done on this subject around the blogosphere at the moment. For a list, try here.


About the singularity.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Purpose of Existence

I have been fairly criticised for not saying enough positive things about what I DO believe, as opposed to pointing out things that I DON'T believe. I think there is a real need for the latter, as so often Christianity is misrepresented or misunderstood, including by (perhaps especially by) Christians themselves, but it can become irritating on its own. So here is, hopefully, a more positive line of thought.

1. Christianity begins with Jesus, and a response to him. It means accepting his vision as determinative, and his authority as absolute. The gospel is: "Jesus is Lord", the rest is detail.

2. That means, necessarily, taking on board his language and attitudes. It means talking about the Kingdom and the Father and the Spirit and Abundant Life.

3. This language therefore does not begin in abstract speculation, but in an embodied existence.

4. This language is, therefore, vulnerable to historical criticism. There are some historical claims which, if shown to be true, would invalidate Christianity, eg that Jesus was violently abusive, or, that the crucifixion was a sham.

5. This language evolves over time.

6. One of the earliest and most important evolutions was to see Jesus as not just the Messiah, the Christ, but as the 'Word Made Flesh', the purpose of existence expressed in human form. This can be seen in John's gospel - so it is an evolution that took place whilst Jesus was still within living memory.

7. This evolution, that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, is the heartbeat of my faith, the fixed core around which everything else rotates. I believe that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the full meaning of human life and purpose is revealed to us. I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.

8. I don't believe that this purpose is something that can be rationally proven. I think that there are irrational criticisms of it, which can be overcome, but I don't see becoming a Christian as something which can be driven purely be reason. To become a Christian involves falling in love with Jesus, which is no more subject to rational control than any other falling in love.

9. Of course, you can't fall in love with Jesus unless you know him - hence the importance of the gospels, and historical study of the gospels. To love him is to obey him; it is to love one another as he loved us; it is to become a disciple and to be disciplined in obedience to him.

10. Jesus gathered around himself a group of disciples - both men and women - which later became codified as 'the twelve'. These disciples, as a result of what happened to them, most especially what happened to them at the resurrection, became infused with a completely different way of understanding the world. These disciples called this infusion 'the Holy Spirit' and it enabled them to withstand torture and torments with humility, perseverance, gentleness and grace, such that within a few hundred years this ragtag group of semi-literate peasants had converted all the known world to their faith.

11. At the heart of this faith is relationship - not simply the relationships within the group, or between the group and their God, but the claim that God in himself is relational. This was another evolution of language, this time called 'The Trinity'.

12. What the Trinity expresses is that our human existence is first of all dependent - that we are creatures. Life does not begin with us; it may flow through us, more or less abundantly, but we are not the origin. Consequently our fundamental attitude to our existence is best expressed as thanksgiving. This element of the Trinity is called 'the Father'. Secondly, the Trinity expresses that our purpose as creatures has been revealed to us by the one man Jesus of Nazareth (see above), this is 'the Son'. Thirdly, the Trinity says that the relationship of intimacy between Father and Son, the Holy Spirit, is itself able to be shared in by the faithful. The goal of Christian life is a full and ecstatic absorption into the life of the Trinity.

13. This sharing in the life of the Trinity is a mystery, it is mystical, it is beyond words. Words point to it as fingers pointing to the moon. We cannot capture it in definitions; indeed, the desire to capture it in words is itself a sign of spiritual ill-health, so, one of the comparatively early developments of the language of Christianity was a refinement of the Jewish notion of idolatry, and the application of that notion to the faith journey. This is known as the mystical tradition, which, roughly speaking, runs in its classical form from Denys through to St John of the Cross. This is the via negativa. Everything said about God has to be negated, not in order that nothing is said, but in order that we do not get trapped on a particular rung of the ladder of ascent.

14. The via negativa is theologically mainstream and orthodox. Unfortunately, most especially in Protestant cultures, the insights of the via negativa have been systematically undermined and denied, and aspects of the Western theological cul-de-sac have hardened into dogma. Virtually all atheist criticism of Christianity that I am aware of takes this late-Western-Protestant derivative of orthodoxy to be Christianity as such. Most of their criticisms of it are good ones - it's just that they don't touch the historical mainstream of the faith.

15. It's all about Jesus, and it remains all about Jesus, and it is more relevant than ever.


An article giving strong evidence of Global Warming. Dated 1948.

Friday, August 01, 2008

PZ Myers confesses that atheism is insufficient

For those who haven't been following this story, PZ Myers is a US academic, and atheist, who obtained (apparently) a consecrated host, and desecrated it. See his blog here.

I'm not without sympathy for his fundamental attitude (see my earlier post here) but what strikes me the most about what he has done is the fact that he has resorted to a ritual action. Surely the Enlightened approach would be to resort to rational argument? No, he has carried out his own personal drama.

‘Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather, it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied.’ (Wittgenstein)

As human beings, we are ritual animals. Ritual has an inescapable part to play in furthering and expressing our humanity. We are impoverished without it. It is not based upon rationality - it is based simply on humanity.

‘One could almost say that man is a ceremonial also perform actions which bear a characteristic peculiar to themselves, and these actions could be called ritualistic actions... the characteristic feature of a ritualistic action is not at all a view, an opinion’ (Wittgenstein)

It seems to me that the humourless variety of atheism cannot account for what PZ Myers has done. Surely, he has demonstrated convincingly that there is more to humanity than is accounted for in his philosophy.

I have no doubt that the recent upsurge in atheist agitation is due to the acknowledgement, deep in their bones, that the tide of history has turned against them. Their conception of the world is insufficient.

My sailing instructor the other day said 'At some point, the boat has to do the teaching'. It was a way of indicating that some realities are not negotiable. Cheap and abundant energy has insulated the rich world from reality from a few centuries - that age is passing, and the reality of the divine is re-emerging, like hard rocks temporarily obscured by a high tide.

That is the significance of PZ Myers' actions.

A thought for the day

Who did Jesus most criticise?

I used to think that it was the people who were sure of their own salvation.

I now see that as misleading.

I think Jesus most criticised those who were sure of somebody else's damnation.

Those were the people whom Jesus damned.

Dave Walker's posts on SPCK-SSG now available as a complete collection

Here (pdf), thanks to Matt Wardman.

Marvellous. Please copy and circulate as far as possible.


Renewing the culinary culture should be (IS!) a conservative cause.