The question of how the Mysteries (sacraments) ‘work’ is necessarily and closely related to the question of the nature of God. If we want to know something about the work of the Holy Spirit, then we need first to know something about the Holy Spirit Himself. But can we ever really understand God? In the West, the Enlightenment was a time when the human mind seemed unstoppable. So many ancient questions were finally resolved, so many dark corners that seemed for centuries to be impenetrable had the light of human intellect flood into them, that it seemed that there was nothing we could not understand. Including perhaps, even God. It is a characteristic of modern Western theology that it sometimes seeks to explain what we of the East accept as inexplicable. Not just unexplained, mind you – in the sense that we just don’t know enough, but one day we might – but genuinely and forever beyond the reach of our human understanding.
But not all the great minds of the Enlightenment were so confident. Seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes famously applied the ‘method of doubt’ to everything in his world and concluded that we cannot be certain that anything truly exists except ourselves (thus was born his famous phrase, cogito ergo sum, roughly translated, “I think, therefore, I am”). While most people rightly consider Descartes’ scepticism impractical, it is important for anyone who really cares about truth to be cautious about what they accept as truth.
In modern times, belief in God has been questioned for many reasons. One of these reasons is that theologians can sometimes overstep the mark and say things about God with far too much certainty. The pattern oft repeated in the West goes something like this: “God is X, Y and Z” becomes doctrine. But when thoughtful people apply careful sincere thought to the doctrine, they find serious holes in it. So they reject the doctrine of God being X, Y and Z, and the concept of a God along with it, since those who should know God best, the theologians, seem to have an indefensible concept of God. For a thoughtful Christian who has come to this point, the result is one of three things: either she will insist on holding on to a doctrine of God that she knows is indefensible; or she will lose interest in theology altogether; or she will lose her faith in the existence of God altogether.
Orthodox Christianity is more humble in its approach. (more…)
Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.
One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.
Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. (more…)
Diogenes was disturbed. It wasn’t really because he had lost his wares. It was frustrating to know that his carefully crafted ornaments were floating down the river for anyone to pick up, but that was not what disturbed him mostly now. It was not even the fact that he was wet and cold from having capsized as he crossed the river, nor even really because he had nearly drowned. No it was not the nearly drowning that disturbed him so much as the questions that nearly drowning had forced into his mind.
“If I had drowned, what difference would it have made?”
“Hello Diogenes,” a cheerful friendly voice hailed.
“Oh, it’s you Socrates.”
“Why so glum, then my friend? And why so damp? Have you been swimming in your clothes like an absent minded philosopher?”
“This is no time for jokes Socrates. I almost drowned. But that’s not the worst of it. My life has no meaning!”
“Oh, surely you are being too dramatic? Will you add the skills of the player to those of the philosopher?”
“What does my life amount to? What have I achieved? What mark shall I leave upon this world?”
“But surely, you are a master craftsman? Have you not created many a work of beauty and significance?”
“Bah, Socrates. In a few hundred years all my works will be dust or buried in the ground or forgotten in some dark corner. What difference does that make?”
“Ah, let us play this game then my friend. But surely you have made a good living from your craft, have you not? That is something to be proud of.”
“What is a good living but food for the stomach that will only be eaten by worthless worms one day?” (more…)
Many atheists feel uncomfortable because the Christians they talk to seem to be very subjective about their faith. It doesn’t feel like someone searching for the truth, but someone out to make a case. The difference is important. It’s like the difference between a doctor searching for the cure to a disease and a lawyer defending his client. The doctor has to pay attention to reality: this is not something you can fudge, for people’s lives are at stake. But the lawyer’s job is to advocate for his client; whether the client is really guilty or innocent is irrelevant and the lawyer just has to make the most convincing case he possibly can.
So which of these two models best fits how a person should approach their faith? I think that there is room for both.
I believe one should start with, and always maintain as the default approach, the medical research strategy. Truth, for Truth’s sake, above all else. This is never easy.
For one thing, it is dangerous. What if the truth turns out different to what you have believed and cherished all your life? Given the growing sense of cynicism and scepticism in our world today, what if you woke up one day to find that God, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all belong to the same club? What would happen to your life if it were so? What of all those structures in your life, the friendships, the habits of thought and behaviour, the principles and ideals that lend your life meaning and purpose? There is a lot at stake!
For another thing, we are not built for objectivity first and foremost. We are hardwired for all kinds of bias; there is a whole literature out there on this endearing little trait of ours. Bias encourages us to love our families and our friends, to prefer safe foods to poisons, and make more effective use of our time, among many things. It allows us to deal with the bewildering inflow of information that batters our senses every day by filtering out what is unimportant to us and focussing on what is important.
But when it comes to discussing your faith with someone who thinks differently, bias kicks in to make you ignore the valid things they say, and inflate the invalid things you yourself say into irrefutable truths (even if they’re silly).
Atheists are by no means immune to this. (more…)
You’re only a Christian because you were born a Christian. If you were born a Muslim, you’d be a Muslim today. So why should you think your faith is the right one? It’s purely a matter of chance.
I have discussed that challenge with many people over the years. On the face of it, it sounds pretty convincing. But that’s only on the face of it. When we dig a little deeper, you might be surprised at just how strong the case for Christianity against that of all other religions.
Now there are some who will say that we shouldn’t even be considering a question like this, that it is dangerous and might weaken the faith of some, or that it is disrespectful or blasphemous to even think about such things. But I follow the principle that if Christianity is true, then you should be able to throw anything at it, absolutely anything at all, and it should be able to stand up to it. If it can’t, then I want to know, by gum! That is, if I really care about Truth; and Truth is the very thing that Jesus not only promised would set us free, but even used as His own title (“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”).
But it turns out that those who worry need not do so. Christianity is unique in so many ways that it really does stand alone among all the religions of the world. I know that’s a politically incorrect thing to say nowadays, but I believe it is true.
Next Saturday, we hope to explore this topic in some depth. St Abanoub’s Church, Archangel Michael Church and the Coptic Apologetics Group are organising a day where we will examine the question: “Given that God exists, why should we believe that Christianity is the right faith in contrast with all the other faiths in the world?” Last year we had an Atheism Day where we looked at the arguments for and against the existence of God. The ‘Why Christianity’ Day is the logical follow up to that.
Just to whet your appetite, here are some of the reasons why I find Christianity to be quite worthy of the title, “The True Faith”. (more…)
Do you know what it is like to be a bat?
I have been doing some reading on the tantalising question of what human consciousness is, and it has led me to some very strong arguments for the limitations of scientific explanations.
The natural enemy of the Christian faith today is no longer paganism as it was in the Apostolic age, but naturalism: the idea that nothing exists except that which is physical, made of matter and energy. The naturalist therefore only accepts that which you can examine scientifically and objectively. Anything outside this definition is considered not to exist or be real. Thus of course, the very idea of a supernatural God is unacceptable to the naturalist.
But human consciousness seems to pose an insoluble problem for the naturalist. In 1974 Serbian-American philosopher Thomas Nagel published a paper titled “What is it Like to be a Bat?” In it, he pointed out that no amount of objective, scientific knowledge can tell us what it feels like to be a bat. OK, maybe we can imagine flying like a bat, since we have our own similar experiences of flying in airplanes or floating under parachutes. But whereas we humans mostly experience the outside world through our sense of sight, bats mostly experience the outside world through a sense we do not possess: echolocation. They emit high pitched sound waves that bounce off their surroundings and they have specialised, highly sensitive sensors for picking up the reflected waves and creating a mental picture of the world around them. It’s a kind of natural sonar system. (more…)
Life today in a western society is very different to the life our parents and grandparents knew. As a result, our whole world view is quite different, and as such, I propose, our faith needs to also adapt to the new and ever changing circumstances.
One important area where this applies is the relationship between faith and knowledge. Extremes often help to illustrate a point more conveniently: think of your ancestors of centuries ago, most likely living in rural village somewhere along the majestic Nile. Let us imagine Folla, your great, great, great grandmother. She has grown to be a young woman without the benefit of formal education, for very few Egyptians can afford a formal education, and the vast majority would not want it even if they could afford it. It would be a waste of time and would not in any way help in running the family farm. Thus she is blissfully unaware of any formal laws of nature, of anything but the most basic mathematics, she cannot read or write, so she has no access to books or newspapers, and the only history she knows is the local legends of her village and the stories she hears read out in Church from the Bible and the Synaxarion every Sunday. She does not understand what the priest prays in Church every Sunday, for he prays in Coptic while she only knows Arabic. Sunday School has not yet been introduced to Egypt and the priest has only slightly more education than her, so he does not give sermons or conduct Bible studies; in fact her chief source of religious knowledge is her mother, the kindly woman who would sit her on her lap when she was a young girl and tell her stories that she had heard from her mother before her.
Folla’s faith is a very simple one. It is not based on outright reason so much as on trust. (more…)
Or: “Did the Devil Really Make You Do It?”
One of the (many) things I find very confusing in life is the question of Free Will. I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for how free will works. On what basis does a person make his or her choices? And if one’s choices are determined by those factors, where is the freedom? And yet, we experience this strange freedom that we cannot explain every day. When Samuel Johnson was challenged to defend the existence of free will, his answer was typically pithy yet profound: “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!”
On a more practical level, we grapple with free will. In confessions, “I couldn’t help it Abouna,” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to hearing, usually followed by something like; “He forced me to swear at him!”
“Hmmm” I will answer if I am in a sarcastic frame of mind, “so he reached into your mouth, grabbed your tongue, and forced it to produce a swear word?”
The most common response I get is a stare that is usually reserved for inmates of mental hospitals. The question of my sanity notwithstanding, personal responsibility is a deeper issue than I once thought. How much of what we do is conscious choice and how much is ‘mechanical’? And if mechanical, then how are we to be held responsible for it? (more…)
Cloning is an issue that raises many complex moral and ethical issues. There is any number of opinions on many of these issues, but it has so far proven difficult for the honest Christian to find certain answers on many of them. I am not sure that I have definite answers, but I will simply share some thoughts on a few interesting questions. No doubt you might disagree with some of the things I write, but feel free to comment and tell me why.
If a child is diagnosed with an abnormality in the womb, should that child be aborted?
We must begin with what we believe about that child in the womb. If we believe that the child is a human being (as we do) then we must treat her the same way we would treat her after she was born. The question thus becomes: if a baby is born and has an abnormality, should we put her to death? I don’t think there are many rational people in the world today who would answer yes to that question. (more…)
If you think the ethical questions raised by IVF are tough, you’ll be totally flummoxed by those raised by human cloning. Claims of human cloning have occurred sporadically since the turn of the 21st century, yet none of them has been substantiated – with one exception. Dr Panayiotis Zavos, a Greek Cypriot immigrant to the USA, may soon go down in history as the person responsible for the first ever successful human clone. He has so far made a number of unsuccessful attempts, but with each one, the knowledge gained is bringing him and his team a little closer to success. I have included some links at the end of this blog for those who wish to learn more about him and his very controversial work.
Dr Zavos is an enigmatic figure who proves yet again just how much truth is stranger than fiction. He is a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, and he puts forward arguments based on Bible verses in support of his work, even though most Christians would disagree with both the work and his interpretation of the Bible. Having been blocked by the laws of Western countries, he moved his work to Beirut in Lebanon where there are no laws to prevent human cloning, and he even met with the spiritual leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon to get his ‘blessing’ on the work of human cloning. (more…)