Morality for Atheists

There is a longstanding debate about how atheists are moral.  It shouldn’t be an argument about whether or not atheists are moral, because of course, many atheists follow moral principles to which they are committed.  But there is a standing debate as to why.  As an atheist, you weren’t created for a purpose and you won’t be evaluated in the end.

12657829_963585900401513_4734572524383960592_oThis week, it was revealed that “celebrity atheist” Lawrence Krauss has been accused of sexual misconduct by students.  Krauss was a physics professor who has just resigned.  Of course we can point to any number of clergy and Christian leaders who have done the same if not that which is more shocking.

The issue though is not a matter of whether or not anyone can offend.  The question is whether or not anyone can offend consistently with their own worldview.  A Christian, by definition, is bound to the teachings of Christ, who condemns the exploitation of the vulnerable.  An atheist, conversely, commits herself to a worldview and ethic by choice rather than necessity.  The values to which she commits herself are self-selected and do not answer to an ultimate purpose or judgement.  So an atheist can consistently say that life has no value, whereas a Christian cannot.  An atheist can consistently say that one can establish relations of power with one’s peers in such a way that one’s peers are marginalized, whereas a Christian cannot.

Christians who violate the moral norms of Jesus’ teachings are failures.  The question is whether or not atheists who violate mainstream moral norms are actually failing at anything at all.

The Easter Myth

We should reasonably asked whether or not the Easter story really happened or is merely a fable filled with accretions.  Years ago I made an intentional exploration of the question of whether or not God was real.  I made a point of studying everything I could about it.  I read the holy books of many different religions with only one question in mind – could any of this be true?

One of the tests scholars may use to evaluate the validity of a historical claim is called “the criterion of embarrassment.” They say that if a story from history is embarrassing to the author or to the hero of the story, it is probably true.  We usually don’t like to tell embarrassing stories about ourselves, and history is usually written by people in power.  Most stories are edited to make the author of the story look better.

When I use the criterion of embarrassment on the story of Jesus, I see something interesting.  The story is terribly embarrassing to Jesus.  It would have been embarrassing to any 1st century Jewish person waiting for a Messiah.  If a 1st century Jewish person wanted to make up a story about a Messiah, they would have changed a lot of the details about it.  For instance:

* They would not make up a story about the Messiah being born in a barn to unwed parents

* They would not make up a story about wise men from the east finding Jesus, because it makes it look like someone else’s religion steered them correctly

* They would not make up stories about the Messiah getting in arguments with the religious leaders, who were generally respected and represented the kind of endorsement a hero would need

* They would not make up a story in which he was not only tortured but humiliated by the Romans

* They would not make up a story about him dying on a cross, because the Jewish Scriptures say that being hung on a tree is a sign of God cursing someone

* They would not say that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb, because women’s testimony was not respected in that culture

* They would not make up a story about him appearing after rising from the dead in which some people were not sure if it was him or not

And yet, all of these are parts of the story of Jesus.  They are all embarrassing to Jesus and to his followers.  If they were making the story up, they wouldn’t have written it this way.  And if they wanted to edit things out, they would have edited out some if not all of this.

From a historian’s perspective, there is no way this story if made up.  This is a true historical event.  And the truth is that there was a moment in history where God walked among us.

The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

How old is the Bible?

Did you ever wonder whether the Bible was written close to the events it describes or much later?  I’ve heard people dismiss the Bible as a later, legendary account composed many generations after the life of Jesus.  The manuscript evidence gives us a hint.

The oldest piece of a manuscript that we have is a tiny little piece of paper that’s only about 3″ long and 2″ wide, which is now in a museum in England.  It has text from John’s gospel on the front and on the back, and scholars who study ancient manuscripts say that the handwriting dates to between 100 and 150 AD.  This piece was found in Egypt, which suggests an earlier original, allowing time for the story to have travelled over 400 miles.200px-P52_verso

However, Ignatius Theophorus of Antioch, who lived from around 35AD – 117AD, wrote seven letters in which he quotes from at least 17 of the 27 New Testament letters, suggesting that they were in circulation even earlier, in the first century.  Clement of Rome, who died in 99AD, left behind a letter which quotes or refers to at least 9 letters of the New Testament, making their first century authorship undeniable.  These include a quote from Jesus, making the gospel stories unquestionably first century.  An early Christian document called the Didache, which scholars date to the end of the first century or beginning of the second, refers to Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, particularly Matthew.

Credible scholars now date the New Testament entirely to the first century.  Since the date of Jesus’ death falls in the 30s, that means the whole of the New Testament was written within 60 years of his death, which means during the lifetime of his contemporaries.

Those who try to push the dates later must do so by controverting the obvious historical testimonies of both the biblical accounts and non-biblical witnesses.  Their agenda-laden activism does little to confuse the open-minded and clear-sighted, but it tends to empower those who are looking for loopholes and who don’t want to do real research.  The story of Jesus cannot be discredited as a later legend scripted by people of another generation.  It was written in his day by people who knew him and his disciples.

Do Archaeological Discoveries Discredit Genesis?

CamelNews agencies throughout the world burst into Biblical deconstruction this week with the announcement of a new archaeological find about camels.  The discovery, published in Tel Aviv Journalout of Tel Aviv University, was that domesticated camels didn’t appear on the scene in Israel until around the 9th century BCE.  If this is the case, it means that the Genesis account of Abraham using 10 camels to transport goods (Genesis 24:10) a highly unlikely story.  

 

Read more here.

Son of God Movie Review

Son of GodYesterday I was invited to Saddleback Church to preview the forthcoming movie Son of God, produced by the same people who created The Bible series for the History Channel last year, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who were both present for the screening.  I’d strongly recommend you put this on your list of movies to see when it releases on February 28th.

In terms of production value, it’s the best one of its genre.  The Jesus Film pales in comparison, looking almost like a homemade movie compared to Son of God.  The 1977 epic Jesus of Nazareth (over 6 hours long) was powerful for its time, but awfully hard to sit through.  The Passion of the Christ, which, coincidentally, released exactly 10 years ago on Feb. 25, 2004, did not tell the story of the life of Jesus, but really honed in on the pathos of his final week.  There really isn’t a modern day video retelling of the life of Jesus as good as Son of God.  More flamboyant retellings, like The Last Temptation and Jesus of Montreal, really fall outside the mainstream and look more like a sectarian reinterpretation of the story.

The movie doesn’t stray far from the biblical narrative, though it fleshes out some of the narrative behind the Roman occupation, and it emphasizes the way Jesus was an offense both to Romans and Pharisees.  Many of the lines are paraphrases of the words of Jesus and the biblical characters, but the movie isn’t indulgent in its adaptation.  It leaves a lot out, but after two and a half hours, it would have been hard to meaningfully include more and still accommodate the modern attention span.

For that reason, you need to see it.  Take your kids.  Take your unbelieving friends.  Take your small group and let it guide a discussion of which parts of the life of Jesus you tend to pay the most and least attention to.

The only criticism I have of the movie are just in the nature of the genre.  Many of the characters are white people with British accents and perfect teeth.  Of course, I don’t think American English would be any more authentic, and the only way around these cliches would be to do as The Passion and have the whole thing in Aramaic.  Some of the dialogue is oddly lilting, and the soundtrack is a bit melodramatic.  The costuming is a silly blend of immaculately clean robes in a rainbow of colors.  Still, the actor who plays Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is a nice variation on his predecessors.  Rather than pale and somber, he often appears amused.  You can’t help liking him from the beginning.  And to be honest, the cliches are at about the level of presentation that most Americans expect and even want from a story set in the ancient world.  We have the same caricatures when it comes to stories about ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

So take the movie for what it’s meant to be.  It’s not simply entertainment, and it’s not intended to offer a new slant on the biblical narrative.  It’s fundamentally an evangelical tool for retelling the gospel again in a modern language.  And anytime Christ and culture meet, it’s a good opportunity for Christians to enter into conversation with a world that has heard different representations of Christianity and still wants to see the real thing.

hardwired cover

 

Please check out my book!  – – – – – – ->

 

Unintelligent by Design

DarwinOne of the criticisms I’m regularly seeing in discussions of evolution is that those who claim that life shows signs of intelligent design are relying on a “god of the gaps” argument.  The charge is that where they cannot explain how something happened, they’re just answering “God,” without any further intellectual curiosity or explanatory possibilities.  In fact, I’ve heard several skeptics call it “Intelligent Design of the gaps.”

But it occurs to me that if something shows signs of being designed by an intelligent mind, and a skeptic says that such an explanation doesn’t count, what he means is that intelligence isn’t a thing.  Intelligence doesn’t have explanatory power.  You can’t point to something and say that it’s obviously the work of an intelligent mind.  If that’s true, the skeptic of intelligent design must literally be saying that intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, exist.  There must be something behind the appearance of intelligence which isn’t itself intelligence.  The skeptic literally won’t stop looking until he’s found something unintelligent.

It’s a little bit difficult to give credence to an idea being forwarded by someone who from the outset dismisses things that look intelligent.

 

 

My sense for how our design points us towards a designer is in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.