Alpha Day 1: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant
Last Tuesday night was intro night. Dinner = lasagna of reasonable quality, Caesar salad, garlic bread (too tame) and mushrooms. Dessert = ample pie and ice cream. I was really tired so I drank too much coffee. It didn’t help in keeping me awake for the video, but it did keep me from falling asleep that night in bed. Unfortunately, since it was intro day, we did not break into groups to discuss the sermon, which was too bad.
If you’re just showing up, you might want to read the previous two posts: Alpha Course: see it again for the first time, and Alpha Course Primer. These will get you up to date on what Alpha is and why I’m attending.
The introductory sermon was entitled “Christianity: Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?” In it Nicky Gumbel attempts to address these three common reasons given by non-Christians about why they aren’t. Let’s go through what Gumbel said about each of them:
I was pretty tired that night so I might have slept through it, but I’m pretty sure he never said anything to counter the “boring” accusation.
For me, this is the deal breaker, and the one that I had the argument about with my wife afterward.
In this, Gumbel did a particularly unconvincing job. You’d think that if you wanted to convince people of something’s truth, you’d demonstrate it with your best evidence. In fact, not one shred of evidence was given (hopefully the other lectures on the subject will provide some). Instead, he started out by telling a story of when he was an atheist in school. He was “so misguided” that he had written an essay detailing his proof that there was no God, and that the quality of theological knowledge at his school was so poor that his essay was nominated for the theology essay prize. If course, this kind of comment draws a smug chortle from the fundy crowd.
He went from this straight to multiple arguments from authority. First, he named a British historian, Thomas Arnold of Oxford, who said (note: he’s very dead, d. 1842) that the resurrection is the best attested fact of history – a whopper if I ever heard one (see a long ago post about this here). Here we see an example of fundy-style “binary thinking” about God (all or nothing) – not only is the resurrection true, it’s the MOST true! Even though being most true is completely unnecessary for their claims and being most well documented is a completely unreasonable demand to make of something that was 2000 years ago. That it’s probably NOT true and it’s NOT EVEN SPARSELY historically documented is a big problem though.
Next followed more arguments from authority: Gumbel said that many people who make careers out of evaluating evidence, like scientists and lawyers, support Christianity. He then listed a fairly long and impressive list of scientists (plus mathematicians and philosophers of a more scientific bent), including Descartes (d. 1650), Newton (d. 1727), Kepler (d. 1630), Locke (d. 1704), Galileo (d. 1642), Copernicus (d. 1543), Faraday (d. 1864), Boyle (d. 1691), Mendel (d. 1884), Kelvin (d. 1907), Maxwell (d. 1879) and some guy named James Simpson (d. 1870). Problems with this: First, science is evidence-based, not authoritative. If you’re going to reference scientists, do them the honour of explaining why they believe something, rather than just that they did. Second, most of the scientists listed lived in the 16th through the early 19th centuries. This is a big problem when you consider that the bulk of them lived before Darwin and Natural Selection (published 1859), before Lyell (published 1830-3) and modern geology, and before an understanding of the universe outside our solar system (Hubble proved that there were other galaxies around 1925). In their days, Christianity was not questioned much and origins were deferred to Genesis because there was no scientific alternative available. Now, with the discoveries of modern cosmology, evolutionary biology, and physics, scientists today are overwhelmingly atheistic (only about 7% of members of the US National Academy of Sciences believe in something similar to the Christian God).
The third section talked about Christianity’s relevance. Or something like that. By this time, I was getting really tired and had started to zone out. Strangely, the impression I got was that his talk on relevance was kind of irrelevant.
The only thing I gleaned was yet another example of fundamentalist “binary thinking” – black or white, all or nothing, and superlatives to either side. Gumbel quoted CS Lewis who said that if Christianity is not true, it is of no importance, and if it is true, it is of ultimate importance. No middling importance. Well, that’s not quite true there, my dear deceased CS and my dear mentally deceased Nicky. If Chirstianity is true, then it certainly is of ultimate importance; however, I have zero faith in Christ but I think Christianity is somewhat important because of its cultural and historical relevance – for better or worse (usually worse) it affects my life. And what about Muslims? If they’re correct, then Christianity is partially true and therefore of some but not supreme relevance. Regardless, it's relevence is tied to its truthfulness, so there's still a ways to go there.
We (me, my wife, and her two friends) sat together at a table with one guy, there without his wife, who was at home with his kids. According to him, she was of admirably strong faith and had been for many years. He was there to, in essence, catch up. Nice guy. Already indoctrinated. I didn’t get a chance to interact with anyone else to hear their thoughts.
In summary, dinner was nice but unspectacular and the Alpha Course spectacularly managed to be boring, untrue, and irrelevant.