Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Christmas? A Sermon

Whether or not you attend church, whether or not you are a Christian, today and tomorrow are significant days in our year… at the very least we are bound to notice at this time of year that everyone else round about us is preparing for Christmas parties, Christmas dinners, visits to family. But I can guess that all of us are directly affected by Christmas… all of us are here! So that means in one way or another we think there is something special about Christmas.

Regular special times of the year become markers in our life story…birthdays, anniversaries… as we get older we remember more and more of them… and our experience of each new Christmas changes… at one time we ourselves were children, caught up in the excitement… perhaps now we see our own children caught up in the excitement…perhaps at one time we always stayed at home for Christmas, but now we travel to see our own children look after their children at Christmas.

And because Christmas is like that… because it such a regular yet changeable part of our lives… every Christmas is usually a time when we stop and reflect or think about things more than we usually do… Where have I come from, where am I going to? Why or how did such and such a thing happen to me?

And the thing about that kind of reflection is that no-one can answer those questions for you. And your own attempts to answer them are probably very vague or wishful… we put the best slant we can on things, or maybe we’re the opposite and we’re prone to read the worst into everything.

Perhaps you are not the kind of person given to that kind of personal reflection… if you’re not given to personal reflection… I guess that you are passionate about other things… you’re political, or you’re obsessed with sport… you get angry at things, you want to make a difference… but Christmas comes, and Christmas goes… and so it is Christmas again, and what have you done… another year over, and a new one about to begin… and all your obsession, commitment, anger… it doesn’t seem to have made all that much of a difference.

A question for all of us this evening, and tomorrow perhaps… Why Christmas? Why Christmas? What’s different or special about the Christmas message that it has created such a significant time of the year...

Well, for one thing, the Christmas message is a big message, it’s a universal message… it’s for everyone, it’s aimed at everyone… whether or not you believe or think it is true – the message of Christmas is big… the claim is that God did something, that’s big in itself… the Christmas promise from our first reading is that the greatness of this baby king will reach to the ends of the earth… so there is no restriction… everyone will see the Christmas message being worked out. Whether or not you believe the Christmas message, the Christmas message is for you, it includes you whether you like it or not.

But what is the message? Well, the message is that a baby was born in Bethlehem. And – given all the problems in our world – you might ask yourself… why a child? Why Bethlehem?

I want to read something to you… it’s an account of how one man came to believe the Christmas message… as a teenager his friends had tried to persuade him, but he wasn’t religious, wasn’t interested… then he goes on

"… a funny thing happened a few years later. I had just started my first semester at a nearby community college and was reading sections of the Old Testament (I hadn’t picked it up since before my Bar Mizpah at age 13). In my readings I came across a passage that really shocked me: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). I had seen all of the animated Christmas specials year after year, so I knew what the implications of “Bethlehem” were, but no one had ever shared with me the connection between the Jewish messiah and Jesus Christ..."

Remember, this guy was from a Jewish family, but he wasn’t interested in religion….

"...Why was I so surprised to see the passage I found in Micah 5:2? Because no one ever showed it to me. In their zeal to convert me, my friends spent all their energy thinking of techniques by which I could be saved, rather than approaching me with sound arguments in support of Christianity. What they didn’t realize is that I thought all religion was absurd, so all of their attempts to get me to read Christian books or to listen to Christian tapes were equally absurd. But in my case, a simple discussion of fulfilled messianic prophecy could have been an open door to sharing the Gospel with me. All they had to do was to give me reasons for their faith."

"All they had to do was to give me reasons for their faith…" !!!

Why a child? Why Bethlehem? Because that’s what God promised long before the first Christmas. God’s interest in us isn’t a recent thing, it’s not a new thing… and it’s not a desperate attempt to impress us or shock us or do something fantastic because it’s fantastic.

To be God with us, to be our Saviour, God had to become like us, he had to take on a human body and possess a human mind... in and through Jesus God builds his kingdom for us… you cant have a kingdom without a king, you cant save people without a saviour, you cant look after sheep if you are not prepared to be with them as a shepherd....

God could hardly promise to do all these things, and not follow through on that promise. And because he promised, he kept the promise. And that’s where we are now… God has kept his promise to send a child… we’ve seen him, we’ve heard about him, we sing about it every Christmas… and because he’s done that much, we can be sure that his promises for the future will be fulfilled too… God’s full and final kingdom will come… we can know peace now… but there is a day coming when we will see peace on earth… there is a day coming when we will see Jesus as one of us, as Saviour, as the Prince of Peace reigning and ruling for us.

So the Christmas story is significant, is special, because it’s part of God’s story. And if you are able to fit your story into his story… if you understand that your questions about your life find ultimate answers in his life… that’s when Christmas can be truly happy, truly merry, truly joyful…

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who is the true God?

[notes of a sermon, loosely based on Jeremiah 10]

There is a question underlying the passage we’ve just read… a question that doesn’t on the surface seem relevant in today’s society … As I hope we’ll see, it is actually the most important question we can ever ask, because if we know the answer to this question, and if we live and act according to that answer, then we will be happy, secure, fruitful and useful people… The question is… Who is the true God? And there is one simple answer to that question that we see in Jeremiah 10… The true God is the God who creates.

When the prophet Jeremiah was pleading with his people to worship the true God, when he was trying to communicate to them what God is like, who God is, that was one of his fundamental points - the Lord God is the one who made all things, God is the creator God, opposed to all the other pretend gods in the world. V11,12… and then v16

About two years ago in the UK there was an atheism advertising campaign. You might have read or heard the story… The campaign was launched throughout Britain on the buses - the slogans had the message “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

If you saw the original story in the news, you might have spotted a follow on story - a Christian bus driver, in Southampton, England, refused to drive any bus with the advert on it.

The bus company tried to manage his concern about the ads: its statement read like this "As a company we understand Mr Heather's views regarding the atheist bus advert and we are doing what we can to accommodate his request not to drive the buses concerned." It added: "As an organisation we don't endorse any of the products or sentiments advertised on our buses”

The chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "I have difficulty understanding why people with particular religious beliefs find the expression of a different sort of belief to be offensive… I can't understand why some people seem to have a different attitude when it comes to atheists."

What’s going on in all this? The story itself was pretty insignificant. Compared to other things in the news at the time… compared to Gaza and Israel, compared to the economic meltdown, compared to the new superstar American President, in media terms the story was small.

But it illustrated something, something that Jeremiah 10 illustrates too. Both the No God bus slogan story, and the story in Jeremiah 10 illustrate that we are all witnesses of a battle of the gods. More than that we are all involved in the conflict.

It’s not a conventional battle. There is no clear division of sides. It is a difficult conflict to notice and describe even though it is all around us. But we are involved in it body and soul, our bodies and our souls are affected by it, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. It is a real battle that we need to be aware of, conscious of, even if we know it’s difficult to understand fully.

The battle is all about answering the question, Who is the true God? And it’s important because the way we answer the question will influence how we live, how we work, how we respond to the poor and the needy, how we care for the sick and dying, how we care for the environment and the earth, how we care and look after ourselves… how we worship when we worship.

The God question is not academic. It is not theoretical. It’s highly practical. It is relevant for our moral and ethical questions. It is relevant for legal and political questions. It’s not just a religious question. If there is a God who created the world, that doesn’t just change whether or not we go to church, and what we do in church. It changes everything. If there is no God, that changes everything too.

No Creator God, nothing to worry about, because nothing has any lasting value or meaning. No Creator God, no worries about right and wrong, because there is no-one to set any principles of morality. No Creator God, you can do whatever you want, which on the face of it is quite appealing.

No Creator God, anyone-else can do whatever they want, whether you like it or not. No Creator God and there are no consequences, no justice - because if there is no Creator God, then there can be no ultimate consequence, there can be no final justice.

In the first five verses of the passage, Jeremiah passes on a message from the Lord to Israel. That message is something like this…

Don’t learn or copy from the nations round about you - don‘t follow their ways of worship, their religious customs. Don’t look to astrology for guidance. Don’t make idols or statues to use in your worship. And don’t be afraid of their idols and gods, the idols and gods of other nations.

That’s quite a clear message. It’s a negative message. Comes from the first two of the ten commandments:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. "You shall have no other gods before me. "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

Why did Jeremiah have to say this to the people? Why did God have to remind them not to have other gods, not to use images and idols?

It’s simple - that’s what they were doing! They were looking to other gods, they were using images and idols - they were playing away from home. That’s partly what the first nine chapters of Jeremiah tell us: God was angry with his people, because they had turned away from him, to follow and worship idols, to look to the stars for inspiration and guidance… Jer 8:18,19 9:12-14

Jeremiah warns them, warns us too, that these other gods, these other things that we worship, will fail, they will be destroyed. They can’t do anything for us. (verse 11,15) They cant offer help. They cant protect us against anything. They are not worthy of our praise or our time or our money.

It’s important for us to understand what God is like, because if we don’t believe in the true living God, if we don’t worship him, we’ll worship something or someone else.

That’s why all the recent debate and discussion about God is so shallow… there is no such thing as pure atheism. Even the atheist worships his or her own god - if you stop believing in God, you just end up believing in anything that fills the gap. Everybody has to worship something. Everybody has to serve someone.

I don’t know about you - I shudder whenever I hear someone talk about Mother Nature - who is this person? Why turn nature into a person, where does that tendency come from? Why is it so difficult for us to talk about the world without using personal terms?

There’s an answer to that question… we find it difficulty not to talk about the world, because we are personal, and personality makes the world what it is. The whole world shouts out to us that a person is responsible for it, a person is behind it all.

I remember a few years back, I got the chance to spend some time in America, in New Jersey. New Jersey is just south of New York City - so I was able to visit the city several times… it’s an extraordinary place - not the biggest city in terms of population, but it’s pretty special - and I remember thinking about how New York City is now this huge massive place, with a life of its own, organised, and so on.

And I had this thought: no-one’s responsible for it, nobody’s planned this place. There’s a government, and a mayor, but the city has grown up over the years, and nobody planned that it would become what it has become. But I still wanted to attribute responsibility to someone… something in my little head kept saying to me, there has to be someone behind this - it can’t be chance, it cant be a mistake.

Now that’s just one city - how much more is that feeling present when you consider the whole country, the whole world. Somebody has to be behind it, somebody has to be responsible - Mother Nature, or Father God - that’s the choice.

You see there are only three real options when it comes to explaining things, everything that we see:

Either, before this world there was absolutely nothing. Everything we see came from nothing. No-one has provided a theory that supports this - it requires a leap of faith.

Or, everything we see came from an impersonal something or other. A lump? A energy? A bunch of atoms? Or just a mass of stuff? Out of that came the all diversity that we see and know. Everything came from the impersonal lump.

Lots of scientists and philosophers try to work from this assumption - but it still remains an assumption - and there are still questions - why something rather than nothing? And what’s driving the progress, where does personality come from, how did it come out of some impersonal thing?

The third option is the Christian doctrine of creation - a living personal God who is responsible for the world, the universe. A God who is the source of all personality and intelligence. A God whose wisdom explains scientific knowledge, emotional behaviour, our artistic gifts, our sense of beauty. A God who provides the energy for life to exist and flourish. A God who watches over how all things in the world change and develop. A God who provides purpose for everything that happens in his world.

Those are the three basic options…
1. something from nothing;
2. personal and living stuff from impersonal and dead stuff, stuff that just happens to be lying about;
3. or personal and living stuff that finds its cause and origin in a personal and living God.

Now, I’ve simplified each of those three options.

But I’m sticking to only three. You might think I’ve missed out an option - is it not possible that there are other gods?

How can we be sure that the Christian knowledge of the one living God is true? Well, that’s the point of Jeremiah chapter 10 - other gods are not the God who created everything. The true living God is the God who creates - that’s more or less what the last few verses teach us in the passage.

V11- these other gods, wherever they come from, whatever their origin, are not the creator God. Most of them come from our human imagination, they are human creations. Or they are human perversions of the sense that we carry with us of the true living God. Because we’ve got to worship something, if you turn your back on the living God, you need to fill the gap... and that’s what we’ve done.

Story about Kingsley Amis, the novelist - apparently on one occasion he was asked whether he was an atheist, and he answered, “Yes, that’s right, but it’s more than that. You see, I hate him!” It’s that kind of spirit which leads us to go and follow other gods.

There’s a tendency within us to hate the living God, the creator God. And that tendency is prone to temptation. Things start getting difficult, our circumstances become trying, tragic even. And we are prone to get angry with God, to reject Father God because we won’t believe that he cares anymore, or we wont allow his ways to shape us.

But that’s our human folly - because God is not like the idols we make, he is the Maker of all things - he has something to do with everything - no matter how far back or how deep we search, he’s always there - we can’t escape him - even though we try.

Story of Job. Job38:1-3, God’s appearance to Job - in love! Job is righteous man. His answer, v4 - creation! - where were you when I laid the foundations… I’m the creator God, Job. I’m the Maker of all things - let me worry about the problems – you, keep trusting me… I know what I’m doing.

It’s our twisted hatred of the living God that leads us to worship other gods, or things, things that owe their existence to the living God.

And it is a twisted thing, because it is based on two lies that attack us like a pincer movement.

On the one side, the lie that God doesn’t love us - a belief that is more rooted than you would imagine, because the other lie says the opposite. The second lie tells us that we’re not as bad as all that - our faults our failings are not all that important - don’t go worrying about your sin… because if God does exist, then surely he is a God of love, he will forgive me… this lie that we’re not all that bad, is based on a false view of love.

Do you know the worst thing about this second lie? This lie that our sin doesn’t matter, because God must be a God of love? It’s a perversion of the Christian God, the living true creator God - what other religion even dares to think that God or the gods love you?

There is only one God who loves, only one person who proves that love, only one Holy Spirit who assures us inwardly that we are loved. It’s only the Christian understanding of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the one true creator God - he’s the only God who can be a God of love. (Two lies countered… Ephesians 2.3-5)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can 21stC Ireland live without God?

[These notes were prepared in the third full week of October 2010. They were intended as a 20 minute lunch time talk. Some sections rely heavily on popular online resources, such as Wikipedia.]

The consequences of the recent controversies and crises in Ireland are only just beginning to be analysed and understood. The two big ones - the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the economic and financial crash – those two big stories together will lead many people in Ireland to wonder about their personal history, their personal identity, their values, their sense of well being and belonging. Being Irish is one thing. Everyone who lives in Ireland is affected by the fall out. It’s as if someone has opened the floodgates to a tide of soul searching. In public forums and media commentaries there are articles and letters asking big big questions. I’m about to refer to comments and letters from newspapers and magazines in particular. I think it’s fair to say they reflect what many people in every area and every level of Irish life are feeling and thinking.

According to the lead article in the latest Village Magazine, there is “…a Millennial sense that things are catastrophically bad and we are helpless, particularly in pulverized Ireland, to change our future.” Taking a sweep of Irish history, the article suggests that colonization and famine were so dispiriting, that Ireland turned to religion, only recently turning against it. It is not surprising, therefore, that in Ireland of all places there is genuine debate and interest in the God question. 20thC Ireland lived with God. So God is implicated in the turmoil. Should 21stC Ireland continue with God? Or is it time to finally break the relationship?

Even before the problems of the last two or three years people were aware of dramatic change in Irish society.

Modern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction, published in 2003 – the final sentences on page 146 would have made for a good introduction to another talk… “the first two decades of the 20th century brought Ireland independence, but the final two brought a social revolution whose consequences were probably even more far-reaching. They have shaped profoundly the contours of modern Irish life.”

The financial miracle has turned out to be a con. But very few people would argue that early 21stC Ireland is not a very different country to 1960s or even 1980s Ireland.

The first thing I want to do is share a recent example of this reaction with you. Last weekend, in the Irish Times, Garret Fitzgerald contributed an article blaming the current Irish mess on the erosion of any sense of civic morality over the second half of the 20th century:

“WHILE – UNDERSTANDABLY – we all blame individuals in government, in parts of the public service, in property development and in the banks for the collapse of our economy, no one so far seems to have reflected on just why there has been such a simultaneous collective collapse in public responsibility in all these areas. Surely there must be some common element in this simultaneous emergence of deep fissures in so many areas of our society?

A factor common to this whole range of failures seems to me to have been a striking absence of any sense of civic responsibility throughout our society. The civic morality that underlies the social cohesion of so many democratic societies seems to me to have been absent in Ireland in recent decades.”

Fitzgerald ends the article by suggesting that the crisis might be the start of a new morality in Irish society. But there may have to be a little more conversation before the content of that new morality comes to the surface. One letter in response to Fitzgerald suggests the crisis is chronic…

“Madam, – To read Dr FitzGerald’s article on civic morality (Opinion, October 16th), you might be forgiven for thinking there was some golden past age, where everything in Ireland was hunky-dory and everyone was accountable and the body politic, business and the professions were not riddled with cronyism and jobbery. …
The people who are now in Irish politics, and decision-making positions in the public sphere, are a mirror reflection of the Irish people who elect them, time and time again. They get to be candidates because party members select them at conventions, those members are a reflection of the Irish people too.

So can we please stop this myth, that today’s political class and policymakers, who have yet again ruined the country, are some sort of different species and, if only the “real” Irish people were in control, things would be grand. The real Irish are in control, that’s the problem.

Until the mentality of Irish people changes, the quality of people selected as candidates, elected as candidates and promoted to decision-making positions will remain as weak and corruptible as has always been. – Yours, etc, DESMOND FITZGERALD..."

There is a crisis of confidence and morality, and there is open discussion in public forums about the crisis. What happens when you throw the God question into the mix? This week the Irish Independent published an article by Michael Nugent, part of Atheist Ireland, a voluntary advocacy group that promotes atheism and reason over what he calls superstition and supernaturalism. In his article he writes things like this…

“…the State should be secular, promoting neither religion nor atheism.…atheism provides a better model of reality. It typically results from rational thinking. Science gradually moves closer to the truth, while religion claims to have already found it. …atheism provides a better basis for morality. Morality evolves, and involves concern for the well-being and suffering of others. Religion distracts us from examining this by giving priority to the underdeveloped morality of bronze age tribes and by inventing consequences in an imagined afterlife.

The Biblical God displays at best arbitrary morality, at worst immorality. … Whether you read the Bible literally or metaphorically, you intuitively identify that some of its ideas are morally good and some bad. This shows that you are applying your own natural morality to the Bible, not getting your morality from it.

In Ireland, we need a secular Constitution relevant to today, not 1937. Our President and judges should not have to swear religious oaths. We need a secular State education system based on human rights law. We need to remove casual entanglements between church and State.”

There is a lot that we could pick up on in those words… but there is a reason why it is so significant that the God of the Bible is mentioned in them. The reason that the God question is still relevant, and the reason that the God of the Bible, the Jewish and the Christian God, needs to be part of all these discussions… is because the Christian God is part and parcel of the Irish Constitution.

The current constitution of Ireland came into force in 1937, after it was passed by a national plebiscite in the summer of that year. The 1937 constitution replaced the 1922 Free State Constitution, and it can only be amended by referendum. Among the groups who opposed the constitution were supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party the major opposition parties, Unionists, and some independents and feminists. The major personality behind it was, of course, De Valera.

Here is how the Preamble, or the introduction, to the Constitution reads:

"In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution."

So, less than 80 years ago, the people of Ireland voted for a Constitution written in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord. I think for most of us today that is a truly staggering thing… I’m told that the Preamble makes Ireland’s Constitution unique. As far as I know it is the only modern explicitly Christian national constitution.

Now, for the last 40 years there have been a series of formal reviews of the Constitution, including those reviews and changes in connection with the Belfast Good Friday agreement. There are two or three controversial aspects to the Constitution… but I only have time to survey what the Constitution says about religion.

The Constitution of Ireland guarantees freedom of worship and forbids the state from creating an established church. Previously the constitution had contained a clause which explicitly recognised a number of churches including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church as well as the Jewish religion. Controversially it also recognised the "special position" of the Catholic religion. But part of the article which listed those churches was deleted from the Constitution in the Fifth Amendment of 1972.

In drafting the Irish constitution in 1936 and 1937, Éamon de Valera and his advisers chose to reflect what had been a contemporary willingness by constitution drafters and lawmakers in Europe to mention and in some ways recognise religion in explicit detail. This contrasted with many 1920s constitutions, notably the Irish Free State Constitution of 1922, which, following the secularism of the initial period following the First World War, simply prohibited any discrimination based on religion or avoided religious issues entirely.

De Valera, and his advisers (including Fr. John Charles McQuaid, the future Archbishop of Dublin), faced conflicting demands in his drafting of the article on religion:
1. The demand from conservative Roman Catholics that Catholicism be established as the state religion of Ireland;
2. Protestant fears of discrimination.
3. Prevailing attitudes of anti-semitism.
4. The fact that most people in Ireland belonged to some religion, and that the education system and to a lesser extent the health system were denominational in structure, with Roman Catholicism, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Jewish community and others running their own schools and non-governmental agencies.

De Valera's solution was Article 44. In contemporary terms, it marked a defeat for conservative Catholics, and Pope Pius XI explicitly withheld his approval from it:
• Catholicism was not made the state church.
• Catholicism was given an undefined "special position" on the basis of being the church of the majority. Article 44, section 2… “The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.”
• Other religions were named and recognised on a lower level. The use of the Church of Ireland's official name antagonised conservative Catholics, who saw Catholicism as being the proper and rightful "church of Ireland".
• The Jewish community in Ireland was also given recognition. The explicit granting of a right to exist to the Jewish faith in Ireland marked a significant difference to the legal approach to Jewish rights in other European states, though contemporary Irish society was far from free of anti-semitism.

Though perceived in retrospect as a sectarian article, Article 44 was praised in 1937 by leaders of Irish Protestant churches (notably the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin) and by Jewish groups.

By 1972, article 44 - once condemned by critics as liberal and indeed by some as offensive to Catholicism – article 44 had come to be seen as out of place and dated. The “special status” granted to the Catholic Church was ill-defined, confusing rather than constructive.

The explicit recognition of certain denominations was seen as unnecessary because of the provisions Article 44.2, which contains guarantees of freedom of worship and against religious discrimination.

This Fifth Amendment was introduced by the Fianna Fáil government of Jack Lynch and supported by every other major political party. The Catholic Church did not voice any objection to the amendment but it was opposed by some conservative Catholics. Some leading members of the Church of Ireland and the Jewish Community said during the campaign that while they appreciated the Article's recognition of their existence, that recognition was no longer necessary.

The referendum on the amendment occurred on the same day as the referendum on the Fourth Amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen. The Fifth Amendment was approved by 721,003 (84.4%) in favour and 133,430 (15.6%) against.

Nevertheless the constitution still contains a number of explicit religious references, such as in the preamble, the oath sworn by the President and Article 44.1, which reads: "The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion."

A number of ideas still found in the constitution reflect the Catholic social teachings current in the 1930s. The constitution also grants very broadly worded rights to the institution of the family.

So, Ireland's constitution provides for freedom of religion. And despite all the changes of the late 20thC Christianity remains the country's predominant religion, with the largest church being the Roman Catholic Church. In 2006, 86.8% of the population identified themselves as Roman Catholic, 4.4% described themselves as having "no religion.", and 1.7% did not respond to the question. According to a Georgetown University study, the country has one of the Western World's highest rates of regular Mass attendance.] While daily attendance was 13% in 2006, there was a reduction in weekly attendance from 81% to 48% between 1990 and 2006, although the decline was reported as leveling off.

Where does all that leave my question, Can 21stC Ireland live without God? Well, I think at the very least, Ireland has to choose. The country has to decide what it wants. The country cannot easily ignore all the questions. And every individual has to choose. Ireland may be a Christian country. But that does not mean all its people are Christian. And as people we cannot ignore the questions. Do we really believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of Ireland? Do we really believe that oaths should be taken before the presence and being the God the Father Son and Holy Spirit?

There is at least one practical reason why Ireland cannot live without God in the 21stC… the preceding generations in Ireland created a political and social society with God at its heart. This generation should at least explore study and get to know the God of the Bible before moving on. Because who or what will replace God at the heart of society if we retire God into historical obscurity? Who or what will provide the justice equality and fairness that the country needs so badly? The Christian gospel does not begin with political constitutions. The Christian faith does not focus on how to solve political and financial problems on a national scale. But it does provide identity for all those who choose to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. It does provide hope for all those who know and believe that God the Father is the Almighty God who created all things.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Science and the New Atheism

[These notes were prepared in the second full week of October 2010. They were intended as a 20 minute lunch time talk. Some sections rely heavily on popular online resources, such as Wikipedia.]

Last Saturday would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, and his most famous song – at least, his most famous hit as a solo artist – that song provides the title for the first two talks of this Word @ 1 series… “Imagine there’s no heaven” Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky…" The song doesn’t explicitly mention God. But the sentiment and the message is very clear. We don’t need God, we don’t need religion, we can and should live based on what we see in the world here and now. And Lennon’s philosophy of life was in some way a God-less, classless, society where there was equality and freedom with regard to rights and property and so on. Because for Lennon - at least according to the lyrics of Imagine - political, religious and national loyalties were the source of poverty, inequality and war.

Next week, we will ask the question, Can 21st cenury Ireland live without God? And we might think about some of those issues… how have religious and political realities shaped Ireland, and is it time to drop the religious influence? But today, in Part 1, I want to describe and comment on what I’m calling Science and the New Atheism.

Stephen Hawking.

A few weeks ago, in the middle of the newspaper silly season, when nothing else was happening worthy of report, the newspapers in the UK carried headlines like this: Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create Universe. Has Stephen Hawking ended the God debate? With the publication of his latest book, called The Grand Design, Hawking has more or less come out of the closet and admitted that he is an atheist. In what I’ve read there is still a little ambiguity, but at the very least it is clear that he does not believe in any personal God.

Now, there is a brief history to this association between Stephen Hawking and God. Most of you will have heard of Stephen Hawking. World famous professor of mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, Hawking is respected among scientists for his theories about black holes and the structure of the universe. And he is known to the general public because of his popular best selling book from the late 1980s, A Brief History of Time. In that book, Hawking described his theories about the universe. Although he did not think God was a necessary part of those theories, he appeared to allow for the possibility that God did exist. So, if we were to discover the secrets of how the universe began, and the secrets of how it worked and held together… well, as he famously put it, then we would know the mind of God.

In his latest book, however, there is a more definite and distinct rejection of any need for God in explaining the universe. The suggestion is that, if we don’t need God to explain the universe, then we don’t need God at all. That is to say, if there is no need and no room for God in the physical universe, why should we allow for God in any sense? Whatever you believe about God, you may as well be an atheist, because to all practical intents and purposes, we are atheists when it comes to what we know about the universe through scientific knowledge.

There is an interesting background to all this. Why should Hawking be worried at all about the God question? Well, the funny thing is that in some ways the development of scientific theories about the universe led to questions about God. Let me try and illustrate what I mean by that. If I was giving this talk, let’s say, 60 or 70 or maybe 80 years ago, and you were all listening to me because you were interested in the latest ideas about the universe, one of the main challenges I would need to address would be this: I would need to persuade you that the universe had a beginning, had a creation. Because some scientists in the early and mid 20thC believed that the universe had always existed. They also believed that the universe was more or less one massive static fixed space. Stuff happened within that space, but the space itself was permanent and immovable. If something has always existed, there is no need for God or anyone else to create it.

So Christians and other believers in God had to argue against that, and it wasn’t very easy in some ways. But then, lo and behold, the science changed. People, influenced by Einstein and other leading thinkers, started to re-think how they understood the universe. They started to think that maybe the universe, maybe space itself was not so static and fixed. Where did that lead? Well, it led to the Big Bang theory. And what does the Big Bang theory say? The Big Bang theory says that the universe had a beginning! It is fascinating that the scientists who were most opposed to the Big Bang theory were Russian communists who were committed or forced into a God-less view of the universe. To defend themselves from the implications of the universe having a beginning, they tried to defend the old view of a static eternal universe that had always existed.

Once the Big Bang theory had become the dominant idea explaining the universe, Hawking and all the other scientists were left with one final problem. How did the Big Bang occur? How did something start out of nothing? And, so, you’ll be able to understand for yourself how that allowed the God question to remain legitimate, even for people like Stephen Hawking.

New Atheism.

To some extent Stephen Hawking has published his latest book on the back of another movement, dubbed the New Atheism. The New Atheism movement is something that has developed in the last decade or so, it has helped lots of people sell lots of books, and it is worth thinking about because of some of the questions that it raises.

The term, New Atheism, apparently first appeared in 2006. It refers to a series of best-selling books that were published in the years between 2004 and 2008. The books were written independently, and the authors included Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. The book written by Dawkins, The God Delusion, was on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a full year. The New Atheists are not all scientists. Of those that are scientists, I’d say that none of them are as groundbreaking or influential in scientific terms as Stephen Hawking. But they do claim that atheism, backed by the findings of science, has reached a point where it ought to be more confident. And I suppose that in that sense Hawking has contributed to the movement in his latest book.

The New Atheists write from a scientific perspective. Unlike other people who have written about belief in God, they argue that the God question is a valid topic for scientific research. A lot of thinkers claim that science is indifferent or even incapable of dealing with questions about God. But the point remains valid. New Atheists more or less says this: if God did create the world, and if God does effect the physical world, then that is something that should be open to scientific testing and observation. The New Atheists say, let’s put God to the test, and they argue that God fails the test. For them, nature and materialism is sufficient to explain everything that is seen in the world. There is no need for any kind of supernatural power, certainly not a Creator God. And so they go on to assert that many of the religious or supernatural claims of religion, including the well known Christian claims concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, are either false or they must have a scientific explanation. One example. Apparently scientists at Duke University in America are currently researching the power and effectiveness of prayer, without any evidence so far that prayer makes any material difference to the physical world.

A Response.

I’m speaking here as a Christian, so I’m not assuming to speak for anyone other than myself when I ask: How can Christians respond? Do we have to give up on our belief in God? Or do we have to choose? Do we have to choose between knowing and using scientific knowledge, and knowing and using religious knowledge? Or, and this probably describes most Christian and religious people: do we hold those two areas in tension, being careful not to confuse the two, switching between each area as we live our lives, but avoiding any combination or confusion, so that our religious beliefs and practices have a little existence of their own?

Here are three remarks, three observations on this movement which has become so prominent.

1. Atheism is not new

There have been atheists and atheist movements in public discourse for at least the last 300 years. The New Atheism is different because it is militant. According to CNN, "What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises."

I think the difference is this: There have always been people who have argued that religion is bad. But the New Atheists don’t even respect religious people, religion itself is a problem, religion itself is the worst thing ever, and needs to be wiped out. It can’t be a coincidence that the New Atheism movement started in North America and the UK, two or three years after 9/11. Terrorism and wars that appeared to be associated with strong religious beliefs dominated domestic and international politics for much of the last decade. So there was an opportunity for people like Sam Harris to write against religion and against belief in God. The tone of that writing was highly critical, almost belligerent. That’s a change from most other atheist movements. But I think that’s the only real difference. The actual arguments that the New Atheists use are not new, and they can be challenged by all sorts of people, not just Christians.

2. The God that New Atheism attacks and rejects is not the Christian God

In general terms, almost none of the New Atheist writers understand how Christian theology has described God. For example, Dawkins holds to the view of God as a complex being. It is difficult to describe, but his thinking in general is on the face of it quite plausible, something along these lines... “The Universe is a big complicated place, therefore God, should God exist, must be a rather complicated being. But we don’t see any sign of such a complicated being, therefore God cannot exist.” But whatever conclusions those arguments lead to, they do not challenge or undermine claims for the Christian God.

Christian belief has always stated the opposite to what Dawkins understands. God is simple. God is not complex in the sense that God is made up of many parts. Rather God’s being is pure, uncompounded. God is not material. God has no body or material component. God is not part of the universe. God is not the first and original cause in the universe, because the God of the Christian faith exists apart from the universe.

Someone has written these words about Stephen Hawking. They use this quote from his latest book: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. . . . It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” The writer then adds this comment… “Hawking is right: the god he describes does not exist. The true God did not simply set the cosmos in motion. … He does not merely inhabit the gaps in our explanatory theories. Rather he upholds his creation, including the laws of physics, at every conceivable moment. Without his doing so, it would cease immediately to exist. A god who is subsequent to the law of gravity is definitely not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Thank God there is no such god as Hawking conceives of him.”

3. Jesus

That leads into my final remark, as we draw this first talk to a close. I think there is a more specific sense in which the New Atheist writers misunderstand the Christian God. And I have to say that most Christians who engage and respond to the New Atheists also miss this point, which I think must be the starting point for any credible and useful Christian response. In one sense, you will not be surprised by what I’m about to say. But you might not realize the importance of it: the God that the New Atheists attack and reject is not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The god that the New Atheists attack is more or less an abstract vague notion or idea. But the Christian understanding of God comes from our knowledge of Jesus.

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but through me.” The first Christian believers, followers of Jesus, who knew Jesus before his death… after his death those early Christians were very quickly writing and telling and explaining to people things like this: "Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. By him all things were created… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." So, at least for Christians, the evidence for and the credibility of Jesus is the thing that will make or break belief in a God who created the world and the whole universe.

To explore the significance of that position would take another 20 mins at least. But I think you will understand how that changes the terms of the debate. If the Christian view of God is grounded in Jesus, described in historical documents that claim to be genuine records of his life… if the Christian view of God develops among people who knew Jesus, wrote about him, shaped their way of life around their knowledge of him… then the place to start thinking about God is wherever you find information about Jesus. And, of course, almost everything we know about Jesus is found in the New Testament gospels and letters.

Closing remarks.

Thanks for coming along. There are some leaflets to take away and read. We’ve got some booklets selling for a euro. If anyone is interested we can arrange further discussions on Science and the New Atheism. But this time next Friday the topic is slightly different… Can 21stC Ireland live without God?