Saturday, 12 November 2011

Heathen's Regress

Yesterday the American memorial service for John Stott was held in Wheaton, Chicago. Stott, who many would claim put evangelicalism back in touch with intellectual rigour, famously recommended that Christian preachers should hold a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

The Guardian's Comment is Free section is - in my view - becoming a leading site for thoughtful public debate on a variety of issues, with a wide variety of contributors and a lower-than-usual proportion of brawling and trolling in the user commentary. A few days ago Julian Baggini wrote this piece as part of his series, "Heathen's Progress." In it, he's interested in the question of whether it's possible to debate between belief in God and atheism, for instance, without all such debate getting bogged down by the inconvenient fact of mutual incomprehension.

I've said more than once that I find myself attracted to the purest forms of atheism, on the grounds of a heroic willingness to stare down the abyss. I'm not thinking here of the fundamentalist wing - Dawkins cronies, whose contortions in defence of their hero's dismissal of philosophy in its entirety now that the pendulum in this discipline has started its return swing from adventures in ultramaterialism (the idea that there is no valid meaning beyond mere description, or that all 'why' questions must either be given a 'how' answer or be considered meaningless) would be amusing if not for what's at stake. But in the more intellectually credible accounts lies much I find attractive, if ultimately unconvincing.

But I digress. The sentence that stuck out in Baggini's article was this:
Maintaining, for instance, that it is naive to read the gospels as literal history is – or should be – to maintain that the events it describes did not, or need not, have literally happened.
The syntax could be more helpful. (And yes, kettle, I do know I'm a pot!) I hope this is a faithful re-statement:
If you don't believe that the gospels are literal history, then you can't also insist that the events in those gospels took place.
This sounds fair enough - common sense, surely. But even an amateur philosopher like me will say, "if your argument rests on common sense, you had better either prove it logically, or at least demonstrate that the vast majority of people would agree with you."

But actually, it's nonsense: logical nonsense, factual nonsense, historical nonsense. I stress this not because it's a stupid statement, but because as any logician knows, starting from a falsehood you can prove essentially anything. And the point has nothing whatsoever to do with any understanding of religions in general or Christianity in particular.

So why is the statement nonsense? Let's get there in a few steps.

You're told that a warehouse has been robbed. There's CCTV footage showing a clearly identifiable person - who has now been arrested - breaking in, and later leaving with a large and clearly labelled box.

In this cut and dried case, the literal evidence of the CCTV is compelling. But if an expert convinced you that, contrary to appearances, what you were viewing was not in fact a faithful record of the events of the night in question - well, if this was the only evidence you had, you had better release your suspect. So far, so good.

But now suppose that, instead of CCTV footage, we had several eyewitness accounts of events. They agree at many points and vary at others, and no single account covers the full sequence of events.

Now ask yourself, is any one of these accounts 'literal history'? What about the collection? Or an account constructed by an investigator who had access to all the statements?

So, Julian, your "knock-down" argument fails at the very first hurdle. The key term, "literal history," is extremely hard to define. Ask me, "are the Gospels literal history?" then whether I answer "yes," "no," or anything else, it's hard to be sure what either the question or the answer might mean, harder still to be sure if your definition and mine would line up. And on the basis of your insistence that unless I answer an unequivocal "yes," then I must concede that I can't hold to any event of those Gospels, every court conviction resting primarily on multiple eyewitness accounts should immediately be quashed.

But all this is more than hypothetical. In my experience, hearing a leading question like, "do you believe that the Gospels are literary history?" is rather a common debating gambit. Of course it is!

  • If I say, "yes," then next comes a bombardment: every discrepancy of detail you have detected or suspected between two Gospels, or indeed between two ancient copies of a single Gospel. Or else I'll be told I'm a fundamentalist - I just believe what I'm told, and that's the end of it.
  • If I say, "no," then I'm judged to have conceded that the events of the Gospel - and in particular the central points that Jesus lived, was crucified, dead, buried and rose again - ain't necessarily so
  • Any other answer, and it looks like I'm shiftily evading the question, or trying to trade a simple discussion for obscure technicalities 
Now, I'm not accusing Julian Baggini of doing this. But as someone commenting specifically on the communication (and miscommunication) between atheists and Christians, his faulty logic on the point I highlighted makes me think that he might want to re-examine his sources. 

The heathen's progress should, perhaps, go back just a step.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A smile for Remembrance Day, 11/11/11

I love the English language. What I want is a word that suggests humour and irony, and there it is: "Wry." Not just any word, this is a three letter word. And as any fule kno, the short words in a language tell you most about its speakers and writers.

So here's a wry offering for Remembrance Sunday, offered to you this Remembrance Day, in the hope that it will give you a smile at around the two minute silence millions upon millions will observe at 11a.m. It was inspired by Louis being asked to make this Sunday a day of young enterprise, making money selling junk at a car boot sale. Louis is a Scout, and he will (alongside  many others from the global scouting movement) be attending a Remembrance Sunday service. I am an "ordained entrepreneur," and I love enterprise, aspiration, wealth creation and the "big society," firmly believing that work is not merely toil, but a celebration of the very nature of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So on that day I will lead the Sunday service with an Act of Remembrance at St Thomas's Hall, Cambridge where I am privileged to minister.

We remember the war dead not as tragic figures defined by death alone, but as those who lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved - and, of course, laughed. So I offer you a wry poem, written on the small screen of my Android smartphone, somewhere between London Liverpool Street as I returned from collecting the IET Information Technology Award for the Cambridge Heathcare team.

On a Remembrance Sunday Car Boot Sale

In Flanders fields the poppies grew 
Between the hatching, straight and true 
That marks our pitch - until our eye 
Fell on an Astra parked nearby 
With garden shears of every hue.

We earn some bread. Some time ago 
We saw a boot sale near Heathrow, 
Paid, and got paid. So we branched out 
To Flanders fields.

Take up our offers so unique. 
Roll up, roll up and take a peek 
At all our wares. The value's clear: 
Cheap DVDs and Belgian beer. 
We've proved that it was time to clear 
Those Flanders fields.