In these pages are writings from Dr Peter Harris who combines being a schoolteacher, husband and parent with writing about Christian faith. Peter attends St Aidan's and is also training for Licensed Lay Ministry with the Diocese of Rochester.
Peter's writings are in the field of 'apologetics'. This is a form of Christian writing has been in use since the earliest years of the Christian religion. Basically, apologetics defends Christian belief in the face of disbelief or hostility. In fact, our modern use of 'apology' tends to mean to say sorry, but the word also has the meaning of 'to defend' and that is the meaning used here.
Peter is especially concerned with writing about Christian belief in the atmosphere of our contemporary society which, although broadly tolerant of Christianity, has a tendency towards agnostic belief (believing that God 'might' exist but generally suspecting that there probably is no God and bieng dismissive of 'belief' itself as a valid approach to human life). In recent years, a number of eminent thinkers have published writings about atheist belief (believing that there is no god and that to believe in god is to hold humanity back in superstition and ignorance). It is against these agnostic and atheist ideas that Peter writes.
He is the author of two books on the subject, 'The Rage Against the Light' and very recently, 'Would You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith.' Peter also contributes regularly to blogs, interviews and holds seminars at St Aidan's on key themes around faith.
We hope that you find these pages interesting, challenging and above all, useful to you as a Christian living in contemporary society. Comments, questions and discussion can be directed in the first instance to the vicar, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New articles from Peter are added numerically, so scroll down past ones you have already read to find the latest!
1 My Personal Journey into Apologetics,
by Peter Harris
At the beginning of this year Wipf and Stock, a Christian publisher based in Eugene, Oregon, published my book Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith. The book’s aim is to provide a defence of Christianity as a world view and to provide Christians and unbelievers with reasons to believe. It was a book I had wanted to write for a long time as I was aware from my own and others’ lives how easy it is to reject one’s Christian faith if one is confronted with seemingly powerful sceptical arguments when one has no knowledge of how to respond.
As an introduction to apologetics, which is the study of how to give a reasoned defence of Christianity and which is the subject of this webpage, I present the preface and conclusion of my book for you to read. Both extracts reveal how I rejected my faith because of my ignorance of apologetics and how my re-gained faith was bolstered by my reading of a defence of the New Testament’s historical accuracy. By reading these extracts, I hope that you will form a deeper understanding of how important it is that our faith is a thinking faith and that you too will go on to read the material on this web page in order to understand better how always ‘to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ (1 Peter 3:15; NIV).
When I was a 19-year-old student, I rejected my Christian faith of seven years and lived as an atheist for eight years. I had made friends with a fellow student who was an atheist and he challenged me to prove my faith. What made my friend a great debater was that he had clearly thought very much about the issues we were debating and as he was studying philosophy, he knew many of the arguments against the existence of God. On the other hand, I had never been taught to defend my faith rationally and how to challenge the atheist worldview in turn. I decided to investigate atheism and read books by well-known skeptics such as Bertrand Russell and David Hume. Against their criticisms I had no response. I had no idea that there have been and are many robust defenders of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis for me was the author of charming children’s stories rather than the foremost apologist of the twentieth century. I had never even heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, Norman Geisler, and Ravi Zacharias, let alone read their works. Deeply troubled by my weakening faith, I did something I would never ordinarily have done: I visited without prior arrangement one cold, somber Sunday evening an acquaintance of mine who was a Christian. He was studying science and seemed a very mature believer. I thought he was the one who could satisfy my doubts. Over a cup of tea I asked him to give me a knock-down reason for why I ought to be a Christian. He was surprised by the question and supplied me with the answer that I least wanted to hear: Being a Christian was a matter of simply believing it. There were no reasons. It was a matter of faith. Taking his response as the best Christianity could muster, my faith slowly died and I chose atheism.
I do not blame my acquaintance for my temporary departure from Christianity. He most likely did not know any arguments for Christianity either as he had never been taught them. He did his best to help me, but it was not enough. When I look back on this episode which happened just over thirty years ago, I am struck by the fact that I did not question more of my Christian friends and acquaintances. It was as if I had already made up my mind about Christianity and though my acquaintance’s failure to provide an argument dismayed and angered me, it also confirmed what I had already concluded: That Christianity was superstition. I wanted to be considered an intellectual and remember thinking to myself that if I were to be regarded as such, I ought to become an atheist. Declaring myself to be an atheist excited me because it seemed daring. Both emotional and intellectual forces were therefore acting on my decision-making with the emotional forces pushing me into atheism and the intellectual forces confirming that choice.
Memories of this moment in my life have never left me. I remember it clearly and it has taught me the importance of knowing why we believe in Christ and how we may best help others who have doubts and those who have no faith, but who have challenged what we believe. If you have not yet questioned the truth of your faith, one day you might. If you have never been asked by another Christian for help during their doubting, one day you probably will. If people know you are a Christian, eventually someone will challenge what you believe. The aim of this book is to help sustain and strengthen your and others’ faith. Its aim too is to enable you to answer some of the tough questions non-believers ask. I hope you enjoy it.
That is how my faith fell apart. But my story does not end there. So, please read on…
I hope you have enjoyed reading this book and that it has given you a firmer understanding of why you believe in Jesus. My thesis has been that the best explanation for the first Easter is the Resurrection of Jesus. To support this thesis and affirm that Jesus was raised by His Father and not a super angel, I have presented signposts that indicate God’s existence found in scientific data. I have argued that the creator of the universe and the man who died on the cross are the one and the same person. This book has also provided responses to the problem of evil and suffering and issues that are contemporarily significant. A book of this length cannot answer all the questions and so I have provided a list of resources you may wish to explore in the bibliography and the further reading section. I have also furnished a series of questions that can form the basis of discussion between Christians whose faith is wavering. My book’s aim is that you have the reasons for why you believe to hand so that if you do begin to doubt or happen to enter into debate with someone who is not a Christian, you will have a reasonable foundation on which to stand. At this stage, you may have an unanswered question prompted by the introduction: How did you, Peter Harris, return to your faith? I should very much like to answer this question because it rounds off this text which began with the story of my deconversion and because it might give hope to those who know people who have deconverted that one day they will reconvert and have their relationship with Jesus Christ restored.
Just as my deconversion was a combination of emotional impulses and lines of reasoning, so my reconversion was a combination of feelings and thoughts. I was twenty-seven years old and working as a teacher of English and History in a state secondary school. My life was comfortable: I lived in a pleasant neighborhood, had time often to go to the gym, go out for a drink with friends, and read, write, and publish poetry. But I had reached the point where I was wondering where my life was going. I feared that my life and life per se were meaningless. I had no intellectual defense against this conclusion and this conclusion made me fearful. One day I was standing in my kitchen and I did something I had not done for a long time: I cried out to God, asking Him where my life was headed! Immediately, I began to feel the presence of God again. I had a red pocket Bible which I had never thrown away. I began to read it again. The books of Daniel and Romans became my favorite parts of the Bible. My prayer life which had begun with an existential question soon became deepfelt prayers of repentance for the many wrong things I had said, thought, and done. God’s word had become again a living text rather than a set of untrustworthy documents filled with legends. What shielded me from the doubts about its veracity was a New Testament commentary I found in my local library. I do not remember the name of the book or of the author, but I do remember that the author wrote very intelligently about why the New Testament could be trusted. This was the first apologetic I had ever read and it was very useful in strengthening my recovery from atheism. My prayer is that in some way this book you are now reading helps to sustain your faith, or recover it, or bring someone else to Christ. If it achieves any of those things, I shall be honored.
2 An Apologia for Apologetics
As one who temporarily lost his Christian faith at the age of nineteen because he could find no good reason to believe anymore and who regained it because he found those good reasons, I am alarmed when I meet Christians who either dismiss apologetics as unnecessary, or have no notion of it in the first place. There are people who believe because they first saw good reasons to and there are people who have ceased to believe or refuse to believe because they can see no good reasons to. These are sufficient grounds to accept the importance of apologetics which is the rational defence of the Christian worldview by giving good reasons for its acceptance. However, for those who are not convinced of the necessity of apologetics, let us deal first with some of the reasons why some Christians reject apologetics before moving on to make a positive case for it.
The most common reasons in my experience for why people reject apologetics are as follows. First, the word apologetics itself is off-putting. It sounds very technical and therefore requiring many years of study. Second, it appears insulting because the word is close to the word apology and no Christian ought to apologise for his/her beliefs. Finally, arguing for the truth of Christianity also appears to contradict the idea that Christianity is a matter of faith rather than evidence. On this view, to look for evidence is wrong because that signifies unbelief. None of these reasons is acceptable.
Apologetics need not be highly technical, although it can be, particularly when Christian scholars write it. But like many other things, apologetics can be as demanding as a person wants it to be, whether their understanding is to sustain their or another’s belief or to present the case to an unbeliever. There are many good books on the market which provide readable introductions to apologetics such as Frank Turek and Norman Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Apologetics is not an apology in the contemporary sense of the term. In fact, a person who engages apologetically with unbelievers is advocating the faith, not apologising for it. The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia which can be translated as a defence or vindication of someone or thing. Our apologetics flows from our confidence in our faith, not from a sense of embarrassment at our belief. The word faith comes from the Greek word pistis which can be translated as trust. Faith is therefore not a blind leap into the dark because the faith we have in people or things is based on evidence. Of course, people can let us down and what purported to be evidence can be found not to be, but our trust was motivated in the first place by evidence. Therefore, if X is indicted with theft and there is evidence that he is guilty, then a jury is reasonable in declaring his guilt. If the chair on which I am sitting has always borne my weight, I am reasonable in assuming that when I next sit on it, it will bear my weight again. For some, Christianity needs no proving because they just see that it is true. That is great! But there are people who need to see the evidence first before they will consider something that is not self-evidently true to them and there are Christians who look to evidence to strengthen their belief. These are not inferior or less spiritual people. They are people of an intellectual mind-set who deserve to be treated in the way that best suits them. There are also those people who once thought Christianity to be self-evidently true and who start to have doubts. Apologetics is for them too, even if they have never seen any purpose to it before.
So far, I have been defending apologetics from criticism; let us now explore some of the compelling arguments for apologetics.
The best argument is that apologetics is a biblical command. Jesus stipulated that we should love God with all our being, including our minds (Matthew 27:37-39). This means honouring God by seeking to know the truth for Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). Peter admonishes Christians to be ready humbly and respectfully with an answer, or apologetic, for their hope in the Gospel (1 Peter 3:15-17). Paul tells us to come against arguments that deny the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Jude instructs us to contend for the faith (Jude 3). Being told to do something once by Scripture is once enough, but four times?
The Bible also gives examples of how apologetics is done. Jesus demonstrates the importance of evidence when he answers John the Baptist’s question whether he is the Messiah by listing the miracles he is performing that demonstrate that that is who he is (Luke 7:20-22). Paul provides a master class in apologetics when he reasons with the Athenian and foreign philosophers (Acts 17:22-34 ). His entry point into conversation with them is their altar to the unknown God and knowing that these philosophers know nothing of his God, Paul takes the opportunity to tell them about him. Paul describes the Christian worldview for them by describing God as transcendent and yet imminent and personal. He exposes the illogicality of idol worship. If as the Greeks believed humans resembled the gods that had created them, then their idols cannot be a faithful portrayal of these gods, for these idols do not resemble their human makers who resemble God. Paul’s speech is more than a philosophical lecture. Like a good apologist, he calls on his audience to escape divine judgement through repentance. He concludes by referring to the proof of what he is saying: the resurrection of Jesus.
There is a plethora of other justifications for apologetics, but space does not permit their exposition. An excellent book to consult is Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. But I do wish to say one more thing.
Apologetics is not about winning arguments but winning people. It strengthens the faith of believers and it is a form of evangelism for as demonstrated by Paul in Athens, apologetics appeals to the audience to believe in Jesus and repent. Apologetics can prevent tragedies such as the following example. My wife has a friend who is a devoted Christian. She raised her daughter well and her daughter became a Christian. Her daughter also is a talented student at science and chose to study Biology at university. So far so good. There are many Christians who choose to study science and many scientists who are Christians. But by the time this young woman had graduated, she had jettisoned her faith on the grounds that the story of creation is incompatible with Darwinian evolution. Like many young Christians who leave for university, she had not been taught the justifications for her faith and was not prepared to meet sophisticated objections. As a thinking type person, her faith collapsed in the face of what appear to be superior arguments. For her sake and for the sake of many others, it is time that the Church universally took apologetics seriously.
3 An Unexpected Ally
When I jettisoned my Christian faith at the age of nineteen, it was partly the fault of the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Late night debates with a fellow undergraduate who seemed to know all the arguments against God’s existence kicked down my faith’s door. Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian shattered the walls. The foundations collapsed when another acquaintance, whom I regarded as a mature Christian, could give me no better reason for being a Christian than that I just had to believe it as it was a matter of faith. My Christianity was a ruin for the following nine years. I defined myself as an agnostic, but lived as if God did not exist.
So why do I now, as a Christian, think that Christians ought to read Russell? It is important to emphasize that I am not suggesting that we all read his atheistic writings extensively. Christians who are not aware of the intellectual defenses of their faith might find Russell an intimidating critic. It is best to approach his scepticism once one has gained a strong knowledge of and confidence in the rationales for Christianity.
But there is one part of his writing that I would recommend to all Christians: it is his discussion of the nature of truth which appears in the twelfth chapter of his book The Problems of Philosophy. In an age of religious relativism in which religious beliefs are treated as expressions of personal preference rather than assertions of truth, Russell’s understanding of truth provides philosophical justification for Christians presenting their beliefs as objective truth claims and therefore worthy of verification by those who are not Christians. That is how Russell himself treated Christian beliefs, though he drew the conclusion that they were false.
For Russell, truth and its correlative falsehood are properties of beliefs as expressed in propositions. For instance, if I say that there is a black and white cat sitting on my lawn, my belief about the cat is expressed as a proposition and that proposition is either true or false.
The truth or falsity of this proposition about the cat and the lawn depends on something outside of the proposition. The proposition is true, not because of some truth property intrinsic to it, or because I like the idea, but because there is actually a black and white cat sitting on my lawn. The truth of the proposition is therefore dependent upon its relationship to an external state of affairs.
Another thing Russell notices about truth is that it requires a mind to have beliefs which he calls the subject and things about which the mind has beliefs such as a black and white cat and a lawn. These he calls objects. To express the truth, the subject organizes the objects into the correct order in his or her proposition. It is the cat that is sitting on the lawn, not the other way round. The lawn being referred to is mine. And it is the cat which is black and white, not the lawn. The subject, or the mind, does not create what is true or false; it creates beliefs which if they correspond with the relationship between the objects of those beliefs, they can be called true. This need for correspondence has given this theory of truth its name-the correspondence theory of truth.
Religious relativism, however, denies that religious beliefs can be, or ought to be, treated as objectively true for a number of reasons. First, because there are so many religious worldviews making competing claims that often appear unverifiable, it seems reasonable to deny that any claim is objectively true to the exclusion of the rest. Religious claims therefore become metaphorical and poetic expressions of human desires or myths useful for teaching a moral point rather than statements about what is the case. Relativism is also seen to be an effective way of keeping the peace in religiously plural societies. On this view, if N prefers to worship Christ rather than Allah, N is not asserting that Christ exists and Allah does not, which could be very offensive, but rather that N is simply saying what he likes to think or feel is true. In other words, this is what is true for N, but no one else is obliged to accept what N thinks if what he thinks is just a personal preference. Religious relativism is also a handy psychological tool for protecting a person from considering other religious beliefs. Let us imagine that P has been told by a Christian that Jesus died for her sins. This notion of sin needing forgiveness by God deeply troubles her as she is ashamed of certain things she has done in the past. Her belief, however, is that the universe is God and the universe accepts everyone regardless of what they have done, with the exception of egregious people such as Stalin and Hitler. As she is no Hitler or Stalin, P feels no need therefore to ask for anyone’s forgiveness. To P this sounds a lot nicer and neater than a bloody crucifixion and weird gothic claims of a dead man returning to life. This is what works for her and she will stick with it.
The correspondence theory of truth, however, gives religious people philosophical warrant to treat their beliefs as propositions as to what is the case. A religious proposition such as Jesus rose from the dead is as much a truth claim as the statement that there is a black and white cat sitting on my lawn. The proposition that Jesus rose from the dead is an historical truth claim and therefore verifying it will be a different process to that of checking if my lawn has a black and white cat sitting on it now. An historical truth claim may never be more than highly likely due to the fact that it is only in mathematics and logic that one finds proof. On the other hand, I can see for myself if there is a black and white cat on my lawn in the way that I can never witness the resurrection. But the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is a truth claim nevertheless. It is true in the same way that any other proposition is true: that there is a correspondence between the proposition and a relationship between the objects Jesus, death and resurrection in which Jesus does the dying and then the rising. Such a proposition is either true or false and is such whether any one likes the idea or not. It is a statement that is in conflict with other religious propositions such as: the prophet Jesus was only a man. The law of non-contradiction declares that two conflicting propositions cannot be true. One of the propositions is true or neither is true. As we have seen, the relativist retreats at this point into metaphor and subjectivity. The mature response is to investigate as to which of the propositions is true. In fact, this is of utmost importance, for to echo C. S. Lewis, if it is false that Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is irrelevant; but if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is of infinite importance. Within the context of the correspondence theory evangelism makes sense, for evangelism is the presentation of truth claims.
Some might object to my underpinning the integrity of Christianity using an atheist’s theory. But that would be to fall into the genetic fallacy: the source of an argument has no bearing on its truth. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest of Christian philosophers, would agree. It was his view that truthful philosophical ideas could be divorced from their pagan origins and associations and used for the Gospel’s propagation. In our case, we can separate Russell’s lucidity about truth from his atheism. Augustine also argued that truthful ideas are God’s anyway and so by using them, we are reclaiming them for proper use. This is true of the correspondence theory of truth which can be derived from Scripture. I have already used the statement that Jesus rose from the dead as an example of a proposition that claims to correspond to a relationship of objects. This is certainly how the apostle Peter used it when he preached his first sermon (Acts 2:30-32) and it is how Christians ought to use it today. There are a multitude of other such propositions in Scripture. Take for example Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman as she comes to draw water. He tells her that she has had five husbands and that the man she is living with at the moment is not her husband. (John 4:17, 18). For Jesus’ statement to be true, there would have to be seven objects, or people, in a certain relationship. There is a woman who has had marital relationships with five men who all stand in relation to her as ex-husbands and there is a sixth man with whom she is living. The woman affirms these uncomfortable truths by declaring Jesus to be a prophet (v. 19).
Ultimately therefore, the correspondence theory of truth is not Russell’s idea, but a Christian one and indeed a religious one before it ever became a secular one. The unifying force of a healthy religiously plural society is not religious relativism which seeks to paper over the stark differences between religions at the cost of logical integrity, but the underlying commonality of religions which is their desire truly to state objectively what is the case. Therefore what has been taken to be the cause of interreligious conflict could well function as a culturally homogenous attribute that holds religions together. Moreover, rather than promoting religious sensibilities, relativism turns out to be a form of irreligionism for it collapses the distinctive features of each religion’s god or gods into an illogical ecumenism. It is also a form of atheism as it denies theism’s truth claim that there is one God who is omniscient. Ironically, it is an atheist’s elucidation of objective truth that is one of the best weapons against it.
4 The following extract is taken from chapter six ‘Four Responses to Hitchens’ Moral Philosophy and Anti-theodicy’ in Peter Harris, The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens was Wrong (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2019).
The Contradictions between Hitchens’ Objective Ethics and His Metaethics
In chapter four we saw how Hitchens’ assumption that humans are free to choose morally makes no sense within Hitchens’ materialist universe where everything, including humans, is nothing more than matter in motion determined by those forces described by science’s laws. In a materialist universe, a person might be responsible for a moral action in the sense that s/he is the one who has performed that action, but s/he cannot be held to be responsible in a praiseworthy or guilty way. For Hitchens’ moral philosophy and anti-theodicy to be possible in the first place, Hitchens must assert the paradox of free-will and moral culpability within a deterministic universe.
Some biologists have expressed a skepticism regarding the extent to which natural selection can explain human behavior, which would include moral behavior. Can evolutionary forces really explain human moral behavior? Dennis Noble, for example, has pointed out that the genome and the brain are information systems used by the organism rather than the determinants of the organism’s behavior. He goes on to liken the human genome to an immense organ. The organ does not perform music of its own accord but requires an organist to do it; it does not compose music of its own accord but requires a composer for that. Noble is asserting that some grand intelligence is required to make the process work which, of course, naturalists such as Dawkins deny is necessary. The biologists Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, neither of whom identify as having a religious belief, have expressed their disquiet over the way in which natural selection has spread from evolutionary biology to other disciplines as an explanatory mechanism when the evidence for the rationality of such an application to disciplines as psychology and philosophy, remains flimsy. In their view, therefore, the nature of morality is not necessarily explained by natural selection as Hitchens would have us believe. Whether or not natural selection can bear the weight of such an explanation, it is nevertheless the case that if we run Hitchens’ argument that morality is the product of evolutionary forces, we shall see that his argument becomes problematic.
The problem Hitchens has is that the argument to the evolutionary origins of morally good behavior cannot avoid invoking a justifying transcendent principle outside of the material world that evolutionary forces and their products, human beings, inhabit. Human evolution has favored cooperation, paternal investment, and altruism which we call good things, but it also has favored what we call evil things. Michael Price names xenophobia as a probable adaptation and violence as a psychological adaptation. If such bad psychological adaptations exist within humans, it is because they confer some reproductive and survival value. They are no less important than cooperation, parental investment, and altruism in securing the propagation of our genes. To praise one set of psychological adaptations over another set therefore seems to be contrary to the amoral nature of natural selection in which those behaviors, whatever they may be, that lead to survival and reproduction are retained as part of the disposition of a species. To do so requires a person to stand outside of the evolutionary process and make that judgement. The question therefore is on what does that person stand? This is at first seemingly not a problem for Hitchens, but the problem for him becomes apparent when one begins the process of finding that alternative ground on which to stand. Is there anything else in the anti-theist world on which objective values can be founded by which certain psychological adaptations are judged good and certain judged bad? Such a question might after all be redundant in a purely material world such as the one Hitchens believes he inhabits. If everything is molecules, it is impossible to see how molecules can be called morally good or morally bad. But if we ignore this objection for the time being, assume that it is possible for values to exist in a purely material world and earnestly seek the ground of unchanging values, we see that we have limited options on the anti-theist point of view, none of which satisfy. Where in the materialists’ world is there an unchanging moral value to hand? The materialists’ world is what it is and no ‘ought’ can be derived from it. If what we think ought to happen and not to happen is a matter of human nature or culture, which it has to be if the godless universe is an ‘is’ and not an ‘ought’, or does not contain ‘oughts’, it is hard to see how the different moral convictions of individuals and cultures over such issues as capital punishment and abortion can provide a stable ground on which to base our values. If it is argued that most humans and human cultures agree on certain moral principles and that that majority constitutes a moral ground, that is a working principle but no moral argument at all, for the unchanging rightness and wrongness of certain values and behaviors do not depend upon how many people recognize that rightness and wrongness. Once a majority of people in Christian Europe did indeed think that the immolation of those convicted of witchcraft was an act of mercy, but probably no one thinks that now. If there is no objective morality in the world, or inside humans, then if we wish to posit an objective morality, it can only be done on the basis of something beyond this world, but that of course is not the conclusion the anti-theists wish to draw.
Another way in which arguing that morality is objective but tracing its origins to evolution leads to relativism can be seen in what Stephen Jay Gould has proposed regarding evolution: that if evolution were re-played, it might be possible to get different results in terms of the species that emerge.
It is conceivable that human beings might have been different in some way. Perhaps human beings might have evolved to be more physically powerful, less dependent as infants and solitary like tigers. They are still human in the sense that they are capable of sophisticated thought processes, creativity, and speech acts, but instead of using these gifts to form and sustain groups, their cleverness, ingenuity, and verbosity are exclusively tools by which to form temporary, loose alliances and outwit other humans in the competition for resources and mating partners. Such humans would therefore not prize as highly as they now do cooperation, altruism, and trustworthiness. Self-reliance, independence, and suspicion would be highly prized. Therefore, there would be a reversal of moral priorities based on a different evolutionary result. Now Gould’s speculation about re-running evolution producing different results might be wrong and he himself does not say whether he thinks that the same or different results would transpire, but his thought experiment places an interesting question mark over Hitchens’ desire to trace the origins of the values he likes back to natural selection which might have thrown up a different set of values as the core values of humanity.
5 Why Christianity, not Epicureanism, is the philosophy we need now!
The Covid-19 pandemic, pro-Trump protestors storming the Capitol, fake news, and global warming-it is true that we live in an age of crises, but we are not unique in this. For instance, the generation born in 1890s Britain would have experienced the consecutive crises of the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the great majority would have died during the Cold War with its many nerve-wracking geopolitical tensions. What is common to crises is that they provoke societies into reviewing their worldviews and asking whether they need to be modified or rejected because they are the cause of their difficulties. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, the Romans asked themselves what they had done wrong to cause this great humiliation. Many concluded that they ought to return to the worship of the traditional Roman gods who they thought were punishing them for embracing Christianity. However, despite this popular conclusion, Christianity was too deeply rooted as the Roman Empire’s official religion for it to be supplanted. But so great was the outrage against Christianity that the great Christian thinker Augustine was stimulated to write City of God to refute pagan accusations.
The philosopher Catherine Wood, in her recent article for the New Statesman called ‘Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now’, asks a similar question to that of the Romans: what is the best belief system to deal with the crises in our institutions and in our relations with the natural world and each other? Her conclusion is that we must throw off the deeply ingrained influence of such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, the early church fathers, and Kant who have demonized pleasure and instead be guided by Epicurean principles. For those who have not come across Epicureanism, Wood is an expert guide.
According to Wood, Epicureanism took its name from its founder, Epicurus, who was a Greek philosopher living in the third century BC. His definition of what is good is pleasure gained through our senses. Watching a beautiful sunset is a sensory pleasure. Wood does not believe that Epicurean definitions of pleasure are limited to the senses. In contradiction to Stoicism that holds the pleasure principle responsible for reducing humans down to the level of primal sensuality, Wood argues that pleasure drives our rational thinking and communication because they are in themselves pleasurable. She also refutes the Stoic representation of Epicureanism as the uncontrolled and unprincipled seeking of pleasure. Epicureans are disciplined because they judiciously choose their pleasures to avoid causing themselves and others pain. For example, consumerism is consumption gone made. Epicureans are not consumerists because they wish to avoid the pain of environmental destruction, economic inequality, and the exploitation of shopworkers that consumerism causes. Epicurean ethics boil down to a few simple dictums: avoid harming others and therefore making enemies, form agreements with others for mutual aid and seek the highest good which is friendship. Avoid wealth because having it causes anxiety. Avoid too ambition as it creates adversaries. Unrequited love and jealousy are terrible pains and so be careful when falling in love. What else does Wood find attractive in Epicureanism?
Wood values Epicureanism’s courage in the face of realities that we cannot change. Epicureans refuse to believe in gods and an afterlife. Their view of death is that living organisms decompose into their constituent atoms and nothing more. Death, however, is not to be feared because although we will experience dying, we do not experience our deaths as we are not conscious. We also have experienced a kind of death before-the time before we were alive and that never bothered us. Wood’s question therefore is why would anyone reject such a great philosophy?
Her answer to that question is that we are taught to be ambitious for wealth, power, and fame at the cost of our enjoyment and often at the cost of our health and relationships with others. Another reason is that suffering is tolerated as it is regarded by some as an inherent part of the cosmos and so only a lucky few will experience pleasure. Religion prevents people from seeking pleasure amid their suffering by teaching that suffering is the means to salvation and that it will be compensated for in the next. But Epicureans argue that this life is all we have and so according to Wood, Epicurean politics and economics would aim for the protection and pleasure of all in the here and now, a principle far superior in managing the political, economic and health crises of the present age than the obsession with free markets, unequal capital acquisition and consumer output that is burning up our planet. But there is another reason why someone would reject Epicureanism and that is Christianity. Christianity offers as much as Epicureanism and more when it comes to pleasure and suffering.
If this is the case, why does Christianity have a reputation for being a faith about suffering? Hagiography’s many martyrdoms, excruciating penances, barefoot pilgrimages-such practices appear to justify this reputation. For Epicureans, Christian theology is imbalanced and the Christian mind morbid in contrast to Epicureanism’s healthy embrace of pleasure and avoidance of pain. There are other reasons, however, for why Christian culture is legitimately so deeply concerned with suffering. First, Christianity is founded on Jesus of Nazareth’s dolorous death. The full theological and existential implications of this history-dividing event of everlasting consequences are still being understood. What is clear, however, is that Jesus’ death was the price God was prepared to pay for the ineffable pleasure of reconciled relationship with humanity, a pleasure that overrides this life’s pains in the here and now and forever. Second, unlike godless Epicureanism, Christianity faces this serious question: why would an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God permit humans to be evil to each other and to suffer disease, pain, and natural disaster? This question is a profoundly searching one on philosophical and pastoral levels, hence the amount of emphasis it has received within Christian thought.
The accusation that Christianity causes people to endure suffering patiently and meekly because of the promise of an everlasting afterlife compensation is true if one half of the Christian message is ignored. It is true that Christianity offers everlasting compensation for the hardships and horrors of our mortal lives. Nothing less could be expected from an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and everlasting God who desires ceaseless relationship with people. In the New Testament book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is described as a place where God ‘will wipe away every tear’ from his people’s eyes and there shall be ‘no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying’ and ‘there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’ (21:4; NKJV). Such a prospect is comforting for those struggling with life’s pains. Nevertheless, Christianity is no less concerned with this present life’s quality. For example, the Old Testament makes it clear that ‘the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern’ (Proverb 29:7). One of the signs that people are genuine followers of Christ is how they alleviate suffering in this life (Matthew 25:31-46). If Christianity is indifferent to present suffering, why have so many Christians over the centuries labored hard to alleviate it? The historical and contemporary record of Christianity’s humanitarian acts such as establishing hospitals, charities and schools is impressive. Such philanthropy is hard to explain if the present is of no consequence. As Christian Aid’s slogan reads: ‘We believe in life before death.’
Wood declares that Epicureans avoid suffering through making judicious choices. Christianity does so no less. The Book of Proverbs is filled with advice and admonitions about the importance of being wise and discrete. Solomon, who is traditionally held to be the author of Proverbs, wrote this: ‘My son, let them not depart from your eyes-keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul and grace to your neck. Then you will walk safely in your way, and your foot will not stumble’ (3:21-23). Christian teaching is clear: a life of judicious moral choices prevents people from falling into dangers.
What evidence is there that Christianity not only seeks to prevent suffering, but promotes pleasure? The creation narratives reveal that God intended the world he had created to be one of pleasure. God himself took pleasure in what he had made because he saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Life was intended to be satisfying for Adam and Eve. They had meaningful work such as the supervision of God’s creation, the pleasure of reproduction, a plentiful supply of healthy food and leisure due to the institution of the Sabbath (1:28-30). The garden of Eden where humans lived was filled with trees that were ‘pleasant to the sight and good for food’ (2:9). Adam and Eve enjoyed friendship with each other and with God, something that Wood says Epicureans value highly (1:28; 2:18-25). Intellectual pleasures were available also. Adam at God’s invitation engaged in taxonomy, or the naming of the animals, and whatever names Adam gave them, that was its name (1:19, 20).
Human enjoyment of God and the Edenic paradise were lost by Adam and Eve’s injudicious choice of eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (3:1-the end). This was a loss of cosmic proportions according to Christianity because it is the source of all moral evil and suffering. Atheist Epicureanism does not accept the historical truth of the Genesis account, but whether or not it is true, because of it Christian belief cannot be described as one of pro-suffering and anti-pleasure. On the contrary, Christian belief is about the restoration of friendship with God and each other and the restoration of the natural world made possible by the atoning death of God the Son incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection (John 3:16; Romans 8:19-21). Again, Epicureans are atheists and so would not accept these assertions, but because of these assertions, Epicureans cannot describe Christianity as less concerned with pleasure than they are.
Although Epicureanism has much that is morally worthwhile, philosophically it suffers a decisive weakness which is exposed by these questions: who is to tell us what is pleasurable and who is tell us that we are to choose our pleasures judiciously? The answer to this question might seem obvious since there is remarkable agreement over what causes pleasure and suffering, the desirability of pleasure and the undesirability of suffering and the need to make sagacious choices if we are to flourish. For example, millions of people find vacations pleasurable and will organize vacations with reliable travel companies to give themselves and others pleasure. Each human finds toothache painful and so will try to avoid it through good oral hygiene and regular dental checkups if those things are available, and will advise others to do the same so they can avoid this pain. Taking vacations with reliable travel companies and looking after our teeth are judicious choices for, they are a secure way of gaining pleasure and an easy way of avoiding pain. Most people take most of their pleasures in ways that do not cause others pain. Jimmy might enjoy listening to heavy metal music in the early hours, but he wears headphones so as not to cause his housemates and neighbors the pain of disturbed sleep. Epicureans therefore feel morally justified in advising people to seek what causes them pleasure and avoid what causes pain in sensible ways.
What then can Epicureanism say to the psychopath who sees pleasure and pain differently to the rest of us? Why is the psychopath’s pleasure in torturing and shooting his victims any less of a pleasure than innocently going on vacation? Why should he not be allowed to pursue his passion of killing? The Epicurean could appeal to the fact that murder is an illicit pleasure as it causes the victims pain. The Epicurean could also tell the psychopath that the great majority of people do not enjoy killing and therefore he ought not to either. Finally, the Epicurean could appeal to the psychopath’s sense of self-preservation: if he attempts to kidnap and murder someone, he might end up being killed by his victim who reaches for her gun first. It is therefore not judicious for him to murder. The psychopath could argue that he adheres to another moral philosophy called violent hedonism. This is what he calls seeking the pleasure he needs from killing others and his pleasure is far more important than anyone’s suffering. In fact, others’ suffering is vital to causing him pleasure. The possibility that he might be killed by one of his victims heightens his pleasure because he enjoys risk-taking. The psychopath therefore sets his own ethical rules. As the psychopath cannot see the Epicurean’s point, what can be done?
The Christian certainly agrees with the Epicurean at this point. Torture and murder are profoundly wrong. There is Scriptural warrant for agreeing that the great majority of people condemn murder as wrong for Romans 2:14, 15 states that generally people, whether they know God or not, have a conscience.
However, the psychopath ‘problem’ reveals a serious problem with Epicureanism. For the Epicurean to be right contra the psychopath, she would have to demonstrate that people are intrinsically valuable as a fact, something which the psychopath cannot see, but is objectively true. As the contemporary Epicurean is an atheist and post-Darwin, she is committed to the theories of evolution and natural selection as the origins of humanity. Unfortunately, intrinsically valuable humans do not emerge from valueless, unguided forces. We can treat each other as if we are intrinsically valuable, but this is exposed by the psychopath as a useful fiction. If the Epicurean’s ethics are the result of evolutionary forces, so too are the psychopaths and therefore no less justified. As the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer asserted with vicious clarity, if there is no God and everything happens naturalistically, God is not needed and he, Dahmer, owned himself and could set his own rules.
The Epicurean has discerned objective moral values but cannot ground them as objective in the face of the psychopath because of a naturalistic world view. Christianity, on the other hand, presents humans as intrinsically valuable because humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), a maximal being who possesses maximum value. Christianity’s ability to ground human value depends on its truthfulness, but Christianity has no more burden of proof than Epicurean materialism does. The psychopath may not be convinced any more by the idea of the image of God than the idea that inflicting pain is wrong. For that to happen, God would have to work an act of grace inside the psychopath. However, the argument from intrinsic value grounded in God may well prick the consciences of selfish, but non-psychopathic people more quickly.
At the beginning of this essay, we noted how Wood admires Epicureanism because it calls on people to be brave in the face of their extinction in death. Bravery certainly can fit within the Epicurean moral economy. Being brave can be frightening, but the fact that one has been brave is a source of pleasure. Being brave can also reduce pain. The big brother, or sister, who stands up for a younger sibling against bullies is taking away the pain of being bullied. What is clear is that many people are brave in the face of death, even when they are convinced it is the end of them. Many people on the other hand are also very frightened of dying and being dead because the first can be very painful and the second appears to mean extinction or the possibility of an afterlife that is very unpleasant.
Epicurus regarded extinction as an advantage because he believed it removed the fear of suffering in the afterlife. To resolve the fear of extinction, there are two arguments within Epicurean literature.
The No Subject of Harm Argument
As the dead no longer exist, they cannot experience death. As the living are not dead, they cannot experience death either. Being dead therefore is nothing to be feared because it cannot be experienced by anyone.
The Symmetry Argument
This argument says that if anyone fears death, s/he ought to consider the time before he was born. As we do not think not existing before we were born a terrible thing, so we ought not to think that our non-existence after death is a terrible thing. Our non-existence before our birth is mirrored by our non-existence after our deaths.
These assurances are problematic. Being extinct may not be a problem to the inexistent one, but it is the anticipation of being inexistent that is so painful to the existent one. Death is an interruption of love which is regarded as the greatest pleasure and the thought of losing it either by dying ourselves or through the death of others is a horrendous pain. Such pain will end with death for the dead one, but whilst we are alive, we can think about our deaths, even though we cannot experience death on an Epicurean view, and that is this great pain’s source.
It is true that our pre-natal non-existence never bothered us because we were not around to be bothered by it, but that non-existence was not going to go on forever; it came to an end eventually. However, our extinction will never cease, and it is our anticipation of this that can horrify.
Both these assurances reveal a contradiction in Wood’s thinking. She has censured religion for using post-mortem existence as compensation for present life sufferings yet advances post-mortem non-existence as compensation for the suffering incurred by the anticipation of death in the present life.
Another problem with Epicureanism is that its post-mortem non-survival view is challengeable. First, the correlation between the brain and mind does not necessarily mean that the brain and the mind are identical. The brain will die, but the mind will not necessarily die also. Second, descriptions of what happen in our brain clearly do not do justice to the richness of our conscious experience. Consciousness stubbornly refuses to be confined to a materialistic conceptualization. Third, if epiphenomenalism is true and consciousness is a by-product of material processes, it is hard to see what biological role it would play and therefore it would be inexplicable on naturalistic terms. Finally, university research into near death and after death experiences suggest that consciousness is more than brain function. What can account for consciousness is a mind-or non-physical reality-in perpetual interaction with the brain. This view does not entail necessarily the cosmic panorama of post-mortem existence of Christianity, but it is the beginning of a move towards the proposition that we remain conscious after death as described by Jesus in his parable of Lazarus and the beggar (Luke 16:19-31).
What Christianity offers to those who cling to Jesus as his or her sins’ atoning sacrifice is not personal extinction of all and the universe’s heat death, but an everlasting enjoyment of relationship with God and his people. If people are willing to accept it, Christianity offers quantitatively and qualitatively pleasure and the absence of suffering on a scale beyond the Epicurean’s imagining. This is not a promise for the future. It is a promise for the present, for everlasting life begins the moment a person is ‘born again’ and is a potential infinite that stretches through and beyond his/her death. Christianity also provides an energy for the reforms needed to mend the institutional, social, and ecological crises Wood lists at the start of her article. Those who govern and employ exploitatively, those who ostracize others and those who damage the earth in pursuit of profit need to reflect that there is one who establishes authorities, is the creator of human beings and the earth, and will return one day as a judge. Better that people reform because it is the right thing to do, but fear can work the same results.
All of the above is conditional upon Christianity being true, of course, but the arguments for Christianity are arguments for another time and one which I should heartily recommend the unbelieving reader to investigate.
A Portrait of Epicurus!
6 Christianity and the Environment
Recently, the world celebrated Earth Day (22 April) to demonstrate support for the idea that humans have a serious responsibility to protect the natural environment. Christianity has a poor reputation regarding its attitude towards the environment. According to David Runcorn, there are four ways in which Christianity is held to be destructive in its assumptions about the natural world:
Christianity is an anthropocentric religion that regards humans as being at the top of the natural order and promotes the view that nature is only valuable when it is somehow useful to humanity.
The wording of Genesis 1:26 is used to prove that humans seek to exploit natural resources: according to this verse, humans are commanded by God to have ‘power over’ and ‘dominion’ over the environment.
Christians emphasise the importance of the spiritual over the material and therefore the material world is regarded as an irrelevance, an inferior thing and a distraction to the higher purpose of attaining entry into heaven.
As humans have fallen into sin, so has the natural order been corrupted and therefore it is not to be valued.
For many environmentalists and ecological activists, Christian theology is at best out of touch with nature and at its worst has given nations that have Christian roots a view that nature is there to be exploited by humans with the result that the earth now faces a serious ecological crisis. On the contrary, I shall argue that Christianity provides Christians with a robust theology of care for the environment. Let us look at each of the four points above in the order they have been presented and see the evidence for my claim.
It is true that Christianity is humanity-focused, though not exclusively so, in that it is deeply concerned about solving the problem of the alienation of humanity from God because of sin. One of those sins is mistreatment of the environment. Every person is sinful by his/her volition (Romans 3:23) and therefore many are potential or actual destroyers of the natural world. An essential part of the process of transforming human behaviour towards the environment is therefore to proclaim the personally transmogrifying Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection (3:24, 25; 6:7-14) so that people can find reconciliation with God and love his creation with his love.
The wording of Genesis 1:26 does require careful handling if it is not to be interpreted as a licence for exploitation. It is poor exegesis if doctrine and philosophy is created from one verse in isolation of the whole of the biblical witness on any issue. Admittedly, the command to exercise dominion over the world does connote the idea of mastery; but equally, many commentators read this verse to mean benign stewardship if read within the context of what else the Bible teaches about the relationship of humans to the environment and what ecology teaches us about the place of humans within the natural order. Many things can be said about this, so for the sake of concision, I shall examine two significant points.
First, it has been pointed out by theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann that the climax of the creation narrative is not the creation of humans but the day of rest or the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3). On that day, the world and its Creator rejoice in the harmony of creation. That harmony is an analogy for and a work of the glory of God. To despoil the natural world, as much human activity does, disrupts creation’s harmony and is an offence against the glory of the one whose creation it is. Environmental damage is a sacrilege.
Second, biological and environmental science demonstrate the kinship of humanity with the rest of creation. Humans, for example, have a 98% genetic similarity to chimpanzees. Our welfare is inextricably bound up with the preservation of the environment. For example, increasing global temperatures, caused by human activities, are raising sea levels which threaten societies living on low lying islands and coastlands. From a scientific and an ethical point of view, it therefore makes sense for humans to be environmentalists not exploiters. Revisionist theology supports the conclusions of science and ethics by placing an emphasis back upon the fact that though exclusively we humans are made in the image of God (1:26), we are also made from the dust of the earth (2:7). Though intended ultimately to be dwellers in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-4), we are also part of creation which has been shaped by God to be a community also. Within a community, the constituent members depend on each other for their survival and the community’s continuation. Humans are part of the world and both we and the flora and fauna that inhabit it are mutually dependent for our existence and flourishing.
It is a calumny to claim that Christianity asserts the primacy of spirit over matter. This prioritisation of categories comes from Platonism and Gnosticism rather than from orthodox Christianity. The body as a material entity is no less important than the spirit within the divine economy. We see this in many ways within Christian doctrines, most notably within the orthodox understanding of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. Christianity is a way of life that honours embodiment. As the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ declares so gustily, Jesus is ‘God of God’ and ‘Light of Light’ and yet ‘he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’. If there were something inherently wrong about matter, God who is holy would not have clothed himself in flesh and entered the creation he had made (John 1:14). When Jesus rose from the dead, his body came back to life also in a glorified state. We see in two of the Gospel accounts that Jesus not only wished to prove he was alive, but he also wished to prove that his body was alive once more and that he was not a ghost. According to Luke, Jesus invited his disciples to touch him, showed them his nail-scarred hands and feet and ate a piece of broiled fish and some honeycomb in front of them (24:39-43). John backs up Luke’s assertion of a physical resurrection. He records how Jesus told Thomas to examine his hands and his side for evidence of the crucifixion (20:27) and narrates Jesus preparing a meal of fish and bread for the disciples and eating with them on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias (21:9-15). Christ was not therefore an ethereal phantom wafting around Jerusalem and Galilee spooking his disciples and glad to be liberated from his body, but an amalgam of the divine with the human that includes a body which is the ‘first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23) of a new kind of human life: a life in which human bodies will be made perfect, no longer subject to weakness, ageing or death, but able to live eternally (15:35-49).
It does not follow necessarily that as creation has been corrupted by sin it ought not therefore to be valued. On the contrary, ancient Jewish and Pauline theologies have presented the view that the natural world will be rescued from its fallen state. According to the ancient Jews, the sins of humans and fallen angels have defiled the earth and caused parts of nature to malfunction. God holds humans and fallen angels accountable for this. Nature is therefore a victim and cries out for rescue, a cry that will be satisfied when it is redeemed and changed into a state of glory. In Romans 8:19-23, the Apostle Paul perpetuates this tradition of Jewish concern for creation. He anticipates with joy the transformation of creation when Christ returns. Sin’s damage will be reversed, and nature will be perfected so that it shares in the glory of God’s resurrected people. The environment is therefore of everlasting value because it is an essential part of God’s covenant of redemption.
In conclusion, it is clear that we Christians have much to be confident about when it comes to the environment. We have a theology of the natural world which clearly obliges us to show concern for our local, national and global environments. As Anglicans we are obliged further by the fact that the fifth mark of mission as defined by the Church is to care for the natural world. Perhaps the challenge is therefore not so much defending our theology as living up to it. Are we living lives in which we do our best to minimise out carbon footprint? If not, we undermine our witness to a world that has become increasingly more concerned to protect the earth. If we are doing our part, we can rejoice that we are participating in God’s cosmic mission.
The following is a summary of a seminar prepared by Dr Harris on the theme The Finality of Christ among the Gods and attempts to navigate a religious plurality in our societies and how Christians may approach this with confidence. Naturally, Christians have many different 'takes' on this issue, and the following is reproducved here as a 'way in' to thinking about these issues, which may include many divergences.
Christianity and Religious Pluralism: Part One
The Finality of Christ Among the Gods
A summary of the recordings for this seminar by Dr Peter Harris.
By way of a health warning
The topic of different religions can be a highly contentious and emotionally charged matter of debate. People understandably do not like to be told they are wrong about their choice of faith.
In our multi-cultural society, it is the done thing to respect other people’s religious convictions for the sake of civic harmony. The belief that all religions point to the same spiritual reality despite their differences is the polite view.
This can be a personal issue in that we may have friends and relatives who hold to another religious tradition and this has provoked the thought: will they still enjoy life with God forever?
We may have asked ourselves this question: why am I a Christian when I could be a Buddhist or a Jehovah’s Witness?
It is important to treat this subject with sensitivity and nuance therefore, whilst remaining faithful to Scripture.
Keeping our language right
I have the habit of using the expression Jesus is God in human ‘form’. I am going from now on to avoid using that expression. However, if you hear me use or see me write this expression, what I mean to say is that Jesus is both a divine person-God the Son-and a human person. It is important not to underplay the personhood of God and humanity. Thank you to Fr Michael for helping me to use appropriate trinitarian language!
What is religion?
To be good philosophers, we need to define the terms we are using. What therefore is religion? The theologian Winfried Corduan defines any religion as a set of beliefs that describes what is sacred and how human beings can relate to it. Notice how broad his definition is to encompass all religions.
Is the Christian faith a religion, therefore? We might be reluctant to call Christianity a religion as the word religion conjures up images of cold hypocrisy and unthinking ritualism. Yet, Christianity is a religion according to Corduan’s definition as it does describe the sacred through theology-which is the description of and knowledge about God-and it does tell human beings how they can relate to God as a sacred person. The initiative for this relationship lies with what God has done on the Cross, through the Resurrection and his Scripture. He is the one who has told us what is sacred and how we can relate to it.
Views on the different religions
There are four views of the different religions today:
All religions at the end of the day basically believe the same things and so all are, in their own culturally determined ways, paths to salvation and God (religious pluralism).
Religions do contradict each other, but as all religions produce roughly the same number of saints and holy people, all religions are ways to salvation and lead to the same spiritual reality, called ‘the Real’ (John Hick is the philosopher who proposes this view).
Religions contradict each other in what they say is true. They cannot all be true, so if there is any truth to religion, only one can be true (exclusivism).
In this seminar, I wish to defend a soft form of exclusivism which asserts Christ as the only way to salvation, but which recognises that other religions are true in certain ways, that those who have never heard of Christ can be saved and that within the complex folds of other religion’s theologies, a doorway to Christ can be found.
Beginning with the End: The Finality of Christ
So why am I proposing the finality of Christ to salvation? There are a number of Scriptures that make it clear that Jesus is the only way to the Father and the only means of salvation. Here are two:
‘Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”’ (John 14:6.)
‘“Jesus is 'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”’ (Acts of the Apostles 4:11, 12.)
These are exclusivist texts. Yet, it can be argued that these texts fit within a soft exclusivist understanding. Before we look at why that is, let us also look now at three other objections made to Christian exclusivism or exclusivism of any kind.
Offensive-for three reasons!
Over the past forty years, Christian exclusivism has been challenged for these reasons:
It is morally objectionable: what about all those people who never heard of Jesus and never had a chance to respond to him?
It is politically objectionable: is the finality of Christ not used as a justification for contempt and violence against those who do not worship Christ?
It is philosophically: truth is understood within the times in which it was uttered. So how can Jesus and Peter’s claims be appliable to everyone everywhere and in all times?
Therefore, religious pluralism is a neat solution to a potentially very unpleasant challenge. As we shall see, a neat solution is not necessarily a true solution.
Religious pluralism is the belief that if all religions are derived from the same divine source, then all religions share the same core truths and only disagree on minor matters.
An example of an attempt at religious pluralism comes from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. According to Hanh, when Christians celebrate the Eucharist, they are reflecting on their interconnection with each other and the earth. Hanh therefore takes a central Christian ceremony and tries to merge it with Zen Buddhist thinking.
Has Hanh successfully proved that Christianity and Buddhism are at their centres no different from each other? Alternatively, has he turned the Communion into something that Christians would not recognise and therefore proves that Christianity and Buddhist are very different in their core beliefs after all? I would suggest the latter. What he has done is take Christ out of the Eucharist when the whole point of the Eucharist is Christ. In attempting to demonstrate that Christianity and Buddhism are compatible, he has only ended up demonstrating that they are incompatible.
The Parable of the Elephant: what do you think?
The following parable is taught to illustrate religious pluralism; that despite their differences, all religions find their way ultimately to the same God:
Three blind scribes are touching different parts of an elephant. The one who is holding the tail says, “This is a rope.” Another holding the elephant’s leg says, “This is not a rope; you are wrong. It is a tree.” Still another who is holding the trunk of the elephant says, “You are both wrong. It is a snake!” But they all are touching the same thing-an elephant!
We shall be looking later in the seminar at why this parable is nonsense.
John Hick’s Notion of ‘the Real’
Let us turn now to John Hick’s attempt at justifying religious pluralism through his notion of ‘the Real’.
I must confess I have a soft spot for John Hick (1922-2012). He is a philosopher who writes to be understood and his defence of the idea that the mind is not the brain is commendable and convincing. He has also done some effective work within the problems of evil and suffering.
He was one of the most prominent thinkers about religious pluralism this century. He began as a theologically conservative Presbyterian thinker after having a spiritual experience of God whilst seated on the top deck of a bus. This reminds us of the moment C. S. Lewis came to faith: sitting in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike as they drove to the zoo. Hick taught at the University of Birmingham and came into contact with many people of other faiths in that very multi-cultural city. He eventually concluded that all religions, despite their differences, are touching the same divine reality which he called ‘the Real’.
Unlike the religious pluralists, Hick accepts that the core beliefs of each religion are different, but as, in his opinion, each religion produces a similar number of holy, saintly people, salvation cannot be restricted to following anyone religion.
Hick resolves this problem of difference by hypothesising that all religions are touching on a divine reality that cannot be described. In that sense they are equally right. He cleverly avoids the problem of the differences in the ways the religions describe God by saying that the Real cannot be described as it is beyond human comprehension. This helps Hick to avoid the question as to which religion is right or more accurate than the rest in its description of God. If there is no way God can be described, then all the religions are equally wrong about him.
The Contradictory Claims of the Religions
Here is a table comparing the core beliefs of three religions. It is possible to see that they differ significantly in how they understand ultimate reality, the human condition and the way to salvation. Christianity presents a personal God, whereas Hinduism’s god is impersonal. Buddhism is a type of atheism because it does not believe there are any gods. Christianity’s emphasises the fallen, sinful nature of human beings whereas Hinduism and Buddhism place more focus on the ignorance of humans. Hinduism and Buddhism regard salvation as coming from knowledge and enlightenment whereas Christianity regards a person as the way to salvation-Jesus. These differences are significant and irreconcilable.
Triune, personal God
Made in God’s image, but fallen and sinful.
Found through faith
alone in Jesus Christ
Non dualistic Hinduism
Impersonal God (Brahman)
Divine but ignorant
By knowledge of inner divinity
No god, but an impersonal state of being
No soul, ignorant.
The path of knowledge
leading to nirvana
The Law of Noncontradiction
To demonstrate the irrationality of religious pluralism, I should like to use a law of logic. This law sounds complicated, but we use it in our every day lives.
The law of noncontradiction says that someone or something cannot both be x and not x at the same time.
In other words, God cannot be personal, as Christianity says he is, and impersonal, as Hinduism says, at the same time. He is either personal or impersonal.
The law of noncontradiction therefore ass us to decide. We cannot hide from this choice behind polite rhetoric about all religions basically saying the same thing.
Coming back to the elephant
So, what about the parable of the elephant? It sounds a good idea, but there is a serious flaw.
How does the person who tells us that all religions are touching the same ultimate reality, though describing it in different ways, know this is true? To assert this, that person would need to have the same viewpoint as God, which is impossible.
Who is to say that the scribes are not each touching a different elephant so that there are many different realities or gods?
The parable of the elephant is a hypothesis, a possible idea, but one which cannot be tested.
Coming back to Hick
Hick wants to maintain that all religions are of equal value. He therefore proposes that the ultimate reality is what he calls the ‘ineffable Real’.
Ineffable means something that cannot be understood and therefore cannot be described. The ineffable Real is therefore the ultimate reality or God which cannot be described because it is beyond human understanding. When the religions try to describe it, they are all equally wrong. There is no one religion that gets its description more correct than any other. Therefore, there is no one religion that can claim to be the only path to salvation.
However, all religions point to the same ineffable Real and in that they are equally right. They are all paths to salvation.
There are a number of decisive criticisms that can be made of Hick’s view, but to keep the topic manageable, I shall focus on one. Hick gets himself into a basic contradiction. If the ineffable Real cannot be described, how can it be described as the ultimate reality that is the basis of all religions and to which all religions point? To assert that one religion is the true way to salvation therefore makes more sense than Hick’s ineffable Real which is not ineffable after all!
The three objections
Let us now come back to the three objections made to the idea that Christianity is the only way to salvation.
Morally objectionable: what about all those people who never heard of Jesus and never had a chance to respond to him?
Answer=salvation is not a case of being in the right place at the right time, therefore a lucky coincidence. I think that God will ‘assess’ people who have never heard of Jesus and the Good News not on the basis that they never heard about Jesus, but on the basis of what revelation of God they did receive. If they lived their lives seeking the truth, though not finding it, I believe such a person has a heart for Christ who is the truth and so will be adopted by God.
Politically objectionable: is the finality of Christ not used as a justification for contempt and violence against those who do not worship Christ?
Answer=it is true that there has been contempt expressed and violence done to people of other faiths by Christians, or so-called Christians. This is clearly contrary to the Scriptural command to testify and witness to the Gospel and serve. There is no room within the kingdom of the God of peace for contempt and violence against anyone.
Philosophical: truth is understood within the times in which it was uttered. So how can Jesus and Peter’s claims be appliable to everyone everywhere and in all times?
Answer=this argument is called relativism. What is called truth is determined by the context in which people are living. But this is not really how we see truth. Mathematical principles elucidated by the ancient Greeks are still used today because they remain truthful. Why then, if the statement Jesus is the only way to the Father was true two thousand years ago, can it not be truthful today?
So why are we Christians?
There are many reasons why we might be Christians. Let me explain from my point of view why I am a Christian.
The person of Jesus: I find Jesus a deeply attractive person, particularly his intellect and his steadfastness in going to the Cross wit the hope of Resurrection and glorification at the right hand of the Father.
The Christian description of humanity and the natural world: Christianity is right to say that our greatest problem is guilt because of sin and that the natural world has been corrupted by our sin.
Salvation by grace and not by works: I prefer a salvation by grace rather than by works because the balance of my life probably goes in the direction of bad deeds rather than good deeds. Though we are to work out our salvation by following Jesus, our salvation is a gift in the first place because of Jesus’ works of keeping God’s law perfectly, dying in our place and the Father’s work of raising him to life. Salvation as a gift means that salvation remains a possibility for all, even those at the ends of their lives. Imagine an elderly lady who is dying. She has lived her life selfishly and her bad deeds are greater than her good ones. She now wants to be welcomed by God, but she has no time to do the good deeds that will outweigh all her bad deeds. If salvation is a gift, she can simply receive there and ten.
The evidence for the Resurrection: Scriptural and historical evidence reveals that the best explanation for what happened after Jesus’ death was his resurrection. Without the resurrection there can be no Christianity because if he were still dead, Jesus would be only a man and not God also. Fortunately, the evidence the suggest he was raised.
The Christian approach to suffering: I could not worship a God who did not in some way live out a life as we live out our lines, not sinfully as we do, but experiencing the trials and tribulations of life. God the Son did just that. I hypothesise that Jesus suffered every imaginable kind of suffering at some point in his life. I cannot prove that, but I think it is plausible.
The Revelation of Christ at the moment of conversion: I cannot forget the moment I became a Christian at the age of twelve and how at the point of conversion I experienced the love, warmth and peace of God.