Is doubt a good thing? Faith and doubt in the Bible

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

In my previous post I asked whether doubt in the Christian life is a good thing. In Greg Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt”, he answers – essentially – yes, doubt is a good thing. However, I questioned the care with which Boyd had come up with a definition of faith and doubt, and said that I would write another post looking at how I understood the Bible to talk about faith and doubt. This is that post.

At various points in this post I will point out where I disagree with Boyd, however I hope that this post will stand on its own and be readable without reading the book or my review of it.

First things first: What is faith?

I don’t want to focus on faith too much because I think the real meat of what I want to say is in looking at doubt. However, I think it would be helpful to start out by briefly thinking about faith. Continue reading

Review: Benefit of the Doubt

Benefit of the Doubt by Greg BoydIs doubt a good thing when it comes to the Christian life? Doubt seems to be in vogue in certain circles these days – uncertainty about doctrine, uncertainty about the Bible, uncertainty about all sorts of things. It’s become deeply unfashionable to be certain about anything to do with the Christian faith (well, nearly anything … in my experience of such circles a belief such as the validity of women being priests/bishops/etc is often held with as much certainty as anything I’ve ever seen).

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to blog about this subject for a while but just haven’t quite had the right opportunity. However, back in January, fellow blogger The Alethiophile asked “What to read in 2015?” and suggested a sort of exchange – if you suggested a book for him to read, he would suggest one for you to read. I suggested to him “Taking God at his Word” by Kevin DeYoung, and he suggested to me “Benefit of the Doubt” by Greg Boyd. Well, I’ve just finished reading it, and it provides the ideal opportunity to talk about doubt!

The book is subtitled “Breaking the idol of certainty”, and – as you can imagine – his contention is that doubt is actually a good and healthy thing for the Christian. What I’m going to do in this post is to review the book itself, and then follow up in the near future with a blog post about faith and doubt. [I was going to do all of this in one post, but the review went on a bit. Sorry.]

Continue reading

Review: The Plausibility Problem

The Plausibility Problem by Ed ShawI’ve just finished reading The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. The book is subtitled “The Church and Same-Sex Attraction”, and I can understand why that might immediately put people off: surely, we don’t need yet another book on the church’s view of sex? And this is exactly the reason I wanted to write this brief review: in my view this is one of the most important books to have been written on the subject – it is not what you think it is!

The real strength of the book for me is the fact that it doesn’t deal with traditional / revisionist Biblical arguments (although they are treated in two appendices), but rather seeks to outline how evangelical churches have made the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality implausible by a number of ‘missteps’ in the past few years. In other words, the problem which traditional Biblical churches face is not what they believe about sexuality – it’s how that teaching can be plausible in today’s society. Too often in today’s churches, the orthodox Biblical view of sexuality is seen as implausible because the church has lost focus on a number of other important teachings. These are what Ed Shaw labels ‘missteps’.

These missteps are:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality;
  2. A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children;
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay;
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right!
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found;
  6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable;
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality;
  8. Celibacy is bad for you;
  9. Suffering is to be avoided.

In all these areas, Shaw demonstrates how evangelical churches have often bought into cultural assumptions or perhaps not taught the full Biblical picture in a certain area. For example, I found his chapter on being “born gay” helpful: he argues that evangelical churches who argue that being gay is simply a ‘lifestyle choice’ are detrimental to the cause – it is in fact irrelevant whether same-sex attraction is chosen or not, and arguing that it is chosen will do nothing but alienate those for whom it is not a choice (or is experienced that way).

In my opinion, the area of sex and sexuality is shaping up to be the biggest area of contention between the church and the world and what Shaw outlines in this book is absolutely vital to enable people to make the move from the world to the church. It is no longer enough to simply teach what the Bible says about sex and sexuality – our church must regain its hold of teachings which have perhaps been under-emphasized in recent years.

I heartily commend this book to anyone who has an interest in the church – especially to anyone involved in church leadership in any capacity (including things like PCCs and so on). It is sorely needed, a real word in season for the church of today.

“Knowing me, knowing me…”: on knowing ourselves

Gnothi_seauton
‘Gnothi seauton’ – ancient Greek for ‘Know Thyself’

Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.

Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?

As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.

In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.

But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.

Fingerprints_Dirty-Glass-Windows-House_IMG_5872-320x480
Source: publicphoto.org

Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.

This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.

What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!

Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.

Gay marriage and the power of stories

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in the UK now for nearly a year, I still think it’s worth reflecting on the road which brought us to where we are. In fact, I think it’s probably good to reflect on what happened with the benefit of hindsight.

One thing which is clearer to me now than it was at the time was just how powerful a story can be. The pro same-sex marriage argument would often present itself using the story of someone who wanted to get married. I remember reading and seeing various different stories about a young man or woman, who grew up dreaming of a white wedding, dreaming of a family – only to have those dreams shattered because gay people were unable to marry. Now, whatever your position on marriage – you have to admit, in our culture today, that is a powerful story. A story so powerful, in fact, that I think most people bought into it.

By contrast, those who were (and are) against same-sex marriage – and I include myself in that camp – had nothing really to compete. That’s not to say that the arguments weren’t sound: I still believe what was said about marriage two years ago (see my blog posts on “What is marriage?”: part one, part two) – but I think by and large people didn’t understand because they didn’t have anything to relate to. Quite a few people who I interacted with simply could not see how same-sex marriage would make any difference at all, and abstract arguments didn’t really help. The argument was mostly won (or lost, depending on how you see it) at the emotional level. Continue reading

Update: Was Stephen Fry speaking ‘hypothetically’?

Stephen FryA quick post-script to my previous post about Stephen Fry’s diatribe about God and evil. A few people have come back and said to me, “Ah, yes, but Fry was speaking hypothetically – assuming that the question was true for the sake of argument. He doesn’t actually believe in evil.”

It’s interesting, because I think from what he says he does believe in evil – and that is what gives his argument its weight. Whether or not he’s speaking ‘hypothetically’.

This is a transcript of what he says (taken from YouTube transcript and edited – I’ve removed a few bits which I think are irrelevant).

I think I’d say, bone cancer in children … what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I’d say.

[…]

I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms … they’re wrong.

Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish … yes the world is a splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind – they eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. So you know atheism is not just about them not believing there is not a God but on the assumption there is one, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent that he’s monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

Now, after you’ve read that, tell me that Stephen Fry believes that evil doesn’t exist – even if he is speaking ‘hypothetically’. If God did not create the world, then those insects which burrow into the eyes of children – they’re just natural, they’re morally neutral. If God did not create the world, then there isn’t really such a thing as injustice and pain – and on a cosmic sense it would hardly matter if there were.

The whole weight of what he says rests on the fact that some things are actually wrong or evil. If they are not, then his argument basically collapses. Imagine, for example, if he’d said instead: “yes, the world is splendid but it also has Wensleydale cheese in it. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist.” It would just be utterly meaningless, wouldn’t it? I use cheese as an example because it’s a morally neutral thing (I happen to like it, some don’t). The whole power of his argument rests on the fact that God would be a moral monster, and the only thing which gives that view any weight is that there is a transcendent morality which Fry thinks that God should adhere to.

In other words, Fry presupposes the fact that God exists in order to argue against God existing.

Evil and the problem of Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry… or do I mean, Stephen Fry and the problem of evil? Either way, one of the links which has been doing the rounds on Twitter today is that of Stephen Fry talking to Gay Byrne about God, and more specifically, about what he would say to God if Fry died and found out he was wrong about his atheism.

Stephen Fry’s answer focusses on the problem of theodicy, which is a philosophical term meaning the problem of reconciling evil with a good God. (There would be no need to reconcile evil with an evil God, obviously – the problem only exists if we start out by assuming that God is good).

Now good/evil and atheism are two subjects I’ve written about here quite often (e.g. whether secular society would be a good thing, and godless ethics), so here I’d just like to focus on one thing. Stephen Fry says that a God who allows (say) bone cancer in children would be “evil”.

My point is simply this: evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians. Whether you like it or not we live in a world where children do get bone cancer, where parasites exists, where ‘evil’ exists. I would therefore suggest the question is not simply ‘how could God let this happen?’, but rather ‘which worldview best answers the question of evil?’

Let’s think briefly about atheism. Atheism demands that there be no God, no purpose in the universe – we are simply the result of an accident, some sort of cosmic blip which caused everything that we see. In other words, you and I are nothing, we are simply the product of blind forces acting in accordance with the laws of an uncaring universe. What that means, and this is what Stephen Fry and others seem to have missed, is that bone cancer and parasites (etc) are completely natural. If atheism is true, then we are exactly the way we are intended to be: evolution just dumped us here, in a place where illness and death exist – the universe has no categories of right or wrong, it just simply is.

As Richard Dawkins famously said:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

So, my question for Stephen Fry, and others who share his opinion, is – from where does this category of “evil” come from? In the interview, Fry seemed to understand evil to be an objective thing, something which really exists. And yet, that cannot be if atheism is true, if – as Dawkins says – the universe has no design, purpose, etc.

I believe Fry has essentially contradicted himself in his answer: atheism does not and indeed cannot explain or account for evil. In fact, ironically, I think Fry demonstrates the truthfulness of Christianity in his answer because only the idea of a good God can give rise to the idea of an objective moral good and evil.

Personally I believe that Christianity is the best explanation that we have for the universe as we perceive it, evil and all. Very, very briefly: (1) evil is an alien intrusion into the world, caused by the Fall (see Genesis 3). This explains why we have a higher ideal for the world than the one we actually see – because creation is not as God originally created it. In other words, illness, death etc are not ‘natural'; (2) despite that, God promises that there is a purpose in all suffering – that “all things” work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28, see also Genesis 50:20 and elsewhere); (3) One day God promises to end all suffering (Revelation 7:17). To my mind that is a far more convincing and comprehensive answer to the problem of evil than anything atheism could provide.

The important thing to remember is that all of us have to give account for the world as we see it: it’s not a question of God being on trial, but rather – every view needs to be put on trial. I find it surprising that someone as intelligent as Stephen Fry should be so blind when it comes to critiquing his own views. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency and rigor?

Post script: I’m nearly finished working my way through Christopher Ash’s excellent commentary on Job. It deals a lot with precisely this question – how a good God can be reconciled with evil. I hope to be writing a review on it soon.