27 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 4: How Can I Be Sure of My Faith?

Dinner: Actually excellent this time, and by far the best thing about this night’s session. Chicken breast in a light fruity sauce with green beans, bread, salad. Dessert: Homemade apple crumble made by a girl in my discussion group.

Part 1: Sermon

Honestly, I found this to be the most disjointed and meandering sermon so far by a wide margin. It touched on many things including:

-How God wants us to be sure of our faith.

That’s nice of him. Let’s see how this pans out…

-How we must not rely on only our feelings which can be changeable and may even be deceptive.

Good advice. Too bad it’s ignored completely by everyone in my discussion group and by Gumbel himself later in the sermon.

-How faith is supported by God’s promises.

Which we then have to “dare to believe through faith,” as the course manual says, thus making the whole “sure of our faith” thing rather circular.

-How we can also be sure of our faith through the works of Jesus.

Which we accept as true based on the same criteria as for God’s promises above.

-How new believers have their lives changed through the presence of the Holy Spirit; their characters, relationships, and feelings all change.

Big Whoop. You’ll find converts to any belief system, Islam, Buddhism, even atheism, claiming their lives have been changed. Feelings don’t prove anything.

-Finally, here are a bunch of new feelings you’ve probably experienced since you’ve been taking this course: new love for God, desire to read the Bible, sense of forgiveness, new concern for others, enjoyment of worshipping God, desire to meet other Christians.

Wow, this is one big happy-feely love fest all of a sudden. I’m pretty sure that this marks the point where everyone is just expected to be Christian now.

Thankfully, and amazingly, he did not do a single name drop during the sermon. Perhaps he figures that by this time, most attendees have already been convinced and don’t need to be further coerced by celebrities.

Part 2: Small Groups

This one was a painful session. Also note that we did not talk about the sermon at all, so this will be about other topics.

Before we got to the formal discussion, my wife asked the lawyer guy (recall day 2) what his big transformative experience was, as it had confounded both of us. I think we were both hoping for an answer that was a 'big deal,' like some big personal trauma or big supernatural revelation. Instead, this normally intelligent and logical guy explained that, one time when accompanying his wife to church, he got to hear one of “my church’s” best musicians doing a very emotional song. Suddenly, he just started crying like a baby and realized he was ready to believe. So much for rational faith.

We also discussed the testimony of a guy getting baptized at the church service this past weekend. The group leader brought it up because she thought it would be very meaningful and relevant for me since the guy was described as “a logical, scientific person” by both himself and by people who know him, and he said that before his conversion “he thought he had it all figured out” and was a “flaming atheist.” First problem: he grew up in a Christian family and those family members got him to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He said that, though it didn’t convert him, the first part of Mere Christianity caused his logical brain to feel uneasy. But the first part of Mere Christianity is the argument from morality, so, in a word, yikes; therefore, I doubt he’s as logical as he thinks he is. The second much bigger problem was that his conversion wasn’t due to solving any of the evidential issues I’ve been bringing up. Instead it was due to what he termed a 'Pauline experience' – for reasons he left unelaborated, he almost died by the side of the road somewhere in Africa and feels he was saved by God. While this is certainly a big deal that stands a good chance of converting anybody who experiences it (even me), I explained that it doesn’t actually do me any good, as an anecdote of this nature fails as evidence and I’m not the one who experienced it.

The lawyer guy also told me about another argument he just heard that he found convincing for proving the historicity of Jesus. The argument involved comparing the legacy organizations left behind by Alexander the Great - different mini-empires that lasted varying lengths of time after his death - with the legacy organization of Jesus - namely, the church. The existence of these organizations are undeniable for both Alexander and Jesus, and we don't deny that Alexander existed; therefore Jesus is as proven as Alexander.

Problem the first: Jesus did not found the institutions of his own religion; it was Paul and other church founders who did. If anything, this proves Paul existed.

Problem the second: He could have said, “We can infer the existence of Alexander the Great by the existence of the organizational structures he left behind; therefore, we can use similar tests to infer the existence of Jesus,” which, while I’ve shown this is incorrect, I don’t actually have a problem with. Instead, he says, “We can infer the existence of Alexander the Great by the existence of the organizational structures he left behind; therefore, Jesus is just as historically proven as Alexander!” But this is stupid; even if the same argument could be made for Jesus as for Alexander, and Jesus could actually be inferred to have existed to a strong probability, there is mind-bogglingly more evidence for Alexander than there is for Jesus: coins minted with his image from when he ruled, dozens of cities named Alexandria (and one named after his horse), contemporary accounts from biographers, historical implications in the cultures of conquered peoples who obviously wouldn’t be pro-Alexander, tombs of his family members, etc.

The lawyer guy could tell that I was shutting him down and getting angry with him, so he questioned if I didn’t want to believe that Jesus existed even as a non-supernatural historical figure. I told him that I didn’t really have a strong opinion about that (I lean towards Jesus as a composite of a relatively mundane historical rabbi, savior mythology, and some anonymous wise-man quotes). And I told him that what really pissed me off is that he expected an obviously misleading argument to be convincing.

Finally, we spent most of the discussion time addressing a question one guy had last week: "do people who honestly have no significant opportunity to embrace Christianity get condemned to hell?"

The group leader went away last week and did some research, finding a couple of bible quotes and some commentary from some Christian scholar who edited her bible. The verses she gave were Romans 2:12-16 and Romans 1:18-20. First, Romans 2:12-16:
12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Now Romans 1:18-20:
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Those passages, and the commentary about those passages, convinced the group leader that all people were required to follow Christianity to make it to heaven. As I summed up, it screws the African tribals.

And at first, everybody who said anything in response agreed. Tribal dudes were screwed and still need to live according to God's laws. But, according to the commentary by the bible scholar, this still gave them a chance to make it in because of humanity's inate ability to be good people and to sense God's presence (ie. all societies have religion of some sort and most people don't go around killing people).

"But wait," I interjected, "Don't these verses mean that you CAN get to heaven through works alone?"

"No," the group leader said, "you need to believe in Jesus."

"That's what I thought. So according to the quotes, 'obeying the law' means both being good AND accepting Jesus, right?" They agreed. "Then, doesn't this still mean isolated tribals are still almost guaranteed to be screwed because they would be required to independently come up with a half-way decent Christianity analog (ie. monotheist but with a God-son sacrificed for your sins)?" They agreed again.

So I hammered home the point that this is unethical and evil; you can't infinitely punish someone for something that is not their fault.

The group leader then went on the defensive and proceeded to talk for about 5 minutes just saying how God's ethics and actions were unknowable and that he has a plan and we don't know what it is but we can be assured that it is good because God knows better than us and who are we to judge?

After that, several other group members jumped in and said how they believed that God would take this into account. Their feelings were that it WAS unfair, so God couldn't be that way.

I was speechless; with mouth agape, I gestured madly at the bible in the group leader's hands. In essense, screw the bible verses we just read and uniformly agreed on, screw literalism, and screw the respected biblical commentator.

In one respect, I was happy that they decided that it was unethical to sentence unknowing people to Hell. And I'll admit I'm not a theologian and I don't know if our interpretation was correct. However, I was extremely disturbed that they could just flip-flop like that and not even notice the problem.

Just say "God is unknowable" and then fall back on feelings and you can uncritically change the goalposts as much as you want.

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At October 27, 2008 10:32 p.m., Blogger Eamon Knight said...

Yup: last time I sat down to re-read Mere Christianity, I got to the end of the Argument From Morality, where Lewis says that if you don't accept what he's said so far, there's no point in readng the rest of the book. So I didn't.

Awfully nice of him to give that warning up front, no? I bet it's saved a lot of people a lot of wasted time over the years.

At October 27, 2008 10:43 p.m., Anonymous Karen said...

I'm curious to know what your wife thinks of this course. Does it support her beliefs completely, or is it making her think sometimes?

Long before I stopped being a believer, I realized that there are as many Christian gods as there are Christians. In other words, all believers have their own conception of god, as personal as themselves, though there may be many points of similarity with other people's gods.

At October 27, 2008 11:22 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

All of this just seems to reaffirm one of the major reasons I started questioning my old religion: we called it 'Cafeteria Catholicism'.

I'd sit down and have conversations with people about some particular topic, and they'd always come up with their own interpretation of what God wants. So like, someone would claim that God would be okay with their divorce, or adultery, or sins or whatever, 'because ultimately God wants us to be happy.' And I'd always ask the question as to 'where does the Bible say that?' Like, where does the Bible say that it's ok to cheat on your husband if you're unhappy?

And that's part of the reason that I realized that these people were just making God up. Regardless of whether the 'real' God existed (to me at the time), these people were basically just picking and choosing what they wanted off of the 'Biblical menu' and making up their own religions in order to feel good about themselves. Because they still went to church or whatever, they weren't considered crazy - but their imaginary friends were just as nutty as any five-year-old's.

At October 30, 2008 9:07 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Eamon, that is a kick-ass exit clause there. I wish the Alpha Course had that.

Karen, I think she has to think occassionally, but for the most part she just accepts everything. I see her scribling away notes about what Gumbel is saying in the videos, but I'm pretty sure it's just verbatim.

Your point about there being as many Gods as there are Christians is a good one. I think my wife realizes that to some extent, based on conversations I've had with her in the past, but the theological implications of that realization eludes her.

At October 30, 2008 9:10 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Carlo, I agree with you 100% here. Interesting things happen when you treat the bible as 100% true though - if you can find it, look for The Year of Living Biblically I think it's called, a book by a humour writer who tried to fallow all the rules of the bible, down to stoning adulterers (with very tiny pebbles in his case), not wearing mixed fabrics, treating menstruating women as unclean, etc. I think Friendly Atheist had some links about it.

At October 30, 2008 11:06 p.m., Blogger TheBrummell said...

if you can find it, look for The Year of Living Biblically I think it's called, a book by a humour writer who tried to fallow all the rules of the bible...

I saw it in Chapters about a month ago, so I'm pretty sure it's still in print and shouldn't be too hard to find. Also, I think Chapters was selling it for some discount, like 20% off or something. I almost bought it, but I went with an obscure history book about Canadian nuclear weapons (yes, we had them, for a while) instead.


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