The Missing Links — May 15, 2011

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  • Audio of the 2010 debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza at Notre Dame.  The video is here.
  • The blog of the recently formed Christian Apologetics Alliance is up and running.  You can follow us on Twitter as well.  If you’re on Facebook and a student of apologetics, you can search for our name and request to join the Facebook group.
  • Alvin Plantinga’s recent Bellingham Lectures on the topics of  God and Evolution:  Where the Conflict Really Liesand “Does Science Show That Miracles Can’t Happen” can be viewed online here.  It’s not clear whether both lectures are included on the video or only one, but the running time of two hours, 22 minutes seems long for a single talk.
  • I love this video.  Your favorite characters from Star Wars quoting Jean-Paul Sartre. : )
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Book Review — The Passionate Intellect

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  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (July 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • Alister McGrath’s Website
  •  

    I recently had the opportunity to review Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect. The book, subtitled “Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind,” explores the practice of Christian theology and its relevance to the modern church and to Western culture. It is based on lectures and addresses given over the course of several years by McGrath, a Christian apologist and theologian who has gained public recognition as a speaker and author. Dr. McGrath’s credentials as a former atheist and an accomplished academic theologian with doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics and divinity give him a unique perspective in discussions of science, atheism, and Christianity.

    The first chapters of The Passionate Intellect primarily discuss the functions of theology as an aid to faith and understanding for the individual and the benefits of theology for the Christian community. The combination of the academic writing style and the subject matter made this part of the book a difficult read; analysis of a field of study is, to me, less engaging than the field of study itself. However, McGrath communicates very clearly his passion for a relationship with God that transcends intellectual understanding. Theology for McGrath is not merely a dry study of the history or meaning of God’s actions in this world, but a pursuit that should “leave us on our knees, adoring the mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.” He advocates a theology that is rooted in a personal desire to know God more deeply, is useful to the church, and that informs apologetics and evangelism. For the church as a whole, he argues that theology can hold the church to a dynamic orthodoxy, making religious truth accessible to a changing culture while remaining faithful to original apostolic teaching.

    From these first chapters, McGrath moves into a discussion of engaging with our culture. For me, McGrath’s strength lies in these subjects; he tackles the supposed conflict of science and religion, the implications of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and the “new atheism” with thoughtfulness and an impressive command of both history and the natural sciences. He criticizes the dogmatic assumptions inherent in the arguments of scientific atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, who argue that good science is incompatible with religion. In this section, McGrath devotes a well-balanced chapter to the implications of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species for the Christian faith. In my opinion, the most fascinating chapter in the book follows the chapter focusing on Darwin. In chapter nine, “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution,” McGrath describes the conclusions that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) drew after much reflection and study of Scripture regarding God’s creation of the universe. Of course, Augustine was not responding to Charles Darwin or his work (Augustine predated Darwin by fifteen hundred years or so), but his conclusions are remarkably applicable to the current creation debate.

    The last several chapters focus on the new atheists’ metaphysical and sociological arguments, and their intellectual heritage. McGrath thoroughly addresses the new atheists’ assertion that “religion poisons everything,” a sound bite coined by Christopher Hitchens (2007) asserting that religion is responsible for most of the social ills in the world. This popular argument most commonly blames violence (particularly wars, terrorism, and abuse) on religion. The author dismantles the argument piece by piece, drawing from history, philosophy and sociological research to support his case.

    Alister McGrath is reasonable and meticulous when discussing the history and sociology of Christianity, enthusiastic about science, and passionate regarding the prospect of a life spent getting to know God. The Passionate Intellect is the product of a believer who expresses his faith with intellectual integrity and a remarkable command of the historical and scientific evidence. This book is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to clarify their thinking on the issues at the intersections of science, modern atheism, and Christianity. The Passionate Intellect is confirmation that a vibrant intellectual life is fully consistent with a deep faith in God.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.  Desmognathus now blogs at Fish Nor Fowl.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    David Bentley Hart on the New Atheism

    In this article from the April issue of First Things, Hart provides a reliably incisive commentary on the many flaws of the New Atheists’ writings, and especially their failure to understand the gravity of their own proposals to abolish religion compared with their atheist forbears like Nietzsche.

    * On the recent book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists:

    Simple probability, surely, would seem to dictate that a collection of essays by fifty fairly intelligent and zealous atheists would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God. Certainly that was my hope in picking it up. Instead, I came away from the whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings feeling rather as if I had just left a large banquet at which I had been made to dine entirely on crushed ice and water vapor.

    * On the lack of conceptual seriousness and scholarship among the New Atheists:

    The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that todays most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants. . . .

    But how long can any soul delight in victories of that sort? And how long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists–with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

    A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

    * On Christopher Hitchens who frequently illustrates these serious shortcomings:

    On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface: He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “an admirable but nebulous humanism,” which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples. He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen. He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modem hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

    The whole essay and the material on Nietzsche’s atheism in contrast with the contemporary version is worth pondering.

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    April 7 Debate – D’Souza vs. Hitchens – “Is Religion the Problem?”

    The South Bend Tribune reports,

    Atheist and author Christopher Hitchens and Catholic conservative Dinesh D’Souza will present a public debate on the topic “Is Religion the Problem?” on April 7 at the University of Notre Dame.

    The debate will be at 7:30 p.m. in Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

    Named one of “America’s most influential conservative thinkers” by the New York Times, D’Souza has been outspoken in his defense of religion in his writing and speaking appearances.

    A native of India and a graduate of Dartmouth College, D’Souza served as a policy analyst in the Reagan administration. He is the author of the best-selling book “What’s So Great About Christianity?” He is also the author of a 2007 book, “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11.”

    Hitchens is an author, journalist and public speaker. Considered a leader in the “New Atheist” movement, he is the author of the 2007 book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” He has been a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, The Nation and other media outlets. Born and raised in England, he now holds dual British-U.S. citizenship. (more)

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    Guest Blogger Joseph Porter on the Inevitability of Mystery

    It’s my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Joseph Porter to Cloud of Witnesses.  Joseph is a rising sophomore at Harvard College and Features Editor of The Harvard Ichthus, an undergraduate Christian journal at Harvard. He blogs at The Fish Tank (the blog of The Harvard Ichthus) and Deus Decorus Est.

    “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

    What do the Atonement, the Incarnation, the Trinity, Christ’s marriage to the Church, and the Resurrection of the Dead have in common?

    The obvious answer is that they are pretty important Christian concepts. The less obvious answer is that they are mysteries of the faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Ephesians 5:31-32, and 1 Timothy 3:16, inter alia).

    What does it mean for God to become Man, or to be three Persons? The most honest response I can give is “I don’t know.” God gave us the Bible, a collection of texts concerning God’s pursuit of mankind and our various responses – not an instruction manual for formulating Christianity within the framework of twenty-first century analytic philosophy. Of course, every once in a while, we may sit down, scratch our heads, and figure out a theological question or two. More often, however, we are left with mysteries.

    As a Christian, I confess that mysteries sometimes bother me. Why do I believe in Christianity if I cannot even understand it completely? Am I “copping out” intellectually? It certainly is easy to feel that way when good answers to important questions are elusive – or (for now) non-existent.

    But mysteries, if you think about it, aren’t all that mysterious.

    Shouldn’t we expect mysteries? Shouldn’t we expect it to be the case that we don’t understand everything perfectly? Shouldn’t we expect to be . . . human? After all, if mysteries did not exist, we would know everything. We would be omniscient – gods, even. But it is obviously not the case that we are omniscient or divine. For us, mysteries are inevitable.

    We are embodied creatures whose understanding of the world is derived largely from our senses. How we think about things is fundamentally limited. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch a four-dimensional world. That is it. We struggle in vain to imagine imagine anything but a four-dimensional world – even though our world may not even be four-dimensional. Even within the confines of my four-dimensional worldview, I can’t imagine the echolocation of dolphins or the sound-color synæsthesia of my friend Gio. Echolocation and synæsthesia are, in a sense, mysteries to me; I can ascertain certain facts about them (e.g., how they may correspond to certain neurological states of affairs in delphine brains), but little more. Obviously, that is hardly justification to deny their existence! But God is far more different from me than dolphins or synæsthetes. Thus, I should not only accept a mysterious God, but expect a mysterious God. A God Who is not mysterious – Who is somehow circumscribed by our impoverished imagination – is no God at all. Asking God to explain Himself fully would be like asking a dolphin to explain echolocation. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

    Of course, this isn’t just true from a Christian perspective. The fact of the matter is that every belief system – including metaphysical naturalism – has mysteries. (Trust me, quantum mechanics is mysterious.) If someone tells you that his belief system has no mysteries, he is either God or a liar.

    The difference between Christianity and some other belief systems (such as the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) is that Christianity is operating with entities and substances that really should be mysterious. God may not exist, but if He does, we surely cannot understand Him completely. Belief in God is belief in the Transcendent – and the Transcendent is, well, transcendent. When God declares that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:9), He is saying something rather obvious. How could God’s ways not be higher than our ways?

    The real mystery, to me, is the current popularity of the idea that “Science” will someday answer all our questions – the idea that there someday will be no mysteries. Even if modern physics didn’t have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, this much trust in human reason would still be woefully misplaced. After all, according to the scientists, we are glorified apes who arose from random processes and are ultimately no different from any other organism. If that is the case, what grounds can there be for idealizing our cognitive faculties? If anything, we should be astounded by the (relatively feeble) capacity for abstract thought we actually have. In a way, the most interesting thing about biology is biologists – organisms capable of studying themselves systematically. That minds arose from mindlessness – that truly is a miracle. (In fact, I have difficulty imagining that our current capacity for abstract thought could have developed without divine intervention. I am boggled when I think about the sheer brainpower that went into something like Gödel’s incompleteness theorems or Debussy’s Clair de lune. I concede that prehistoric Man probably benefitted from basic arithmetic – but whence the leap from multiplication tables to this?)

    For me, reality ends up being much less mysterious with God than without Him. I may not entirely understand the Trinity (for example), but I see no reason why I should be able to understand it entirely. Moreover, I see no real rationale for believing that the conjunct of spatiotemporally bound matter and energy we call the “universe” could have come into being on its own. In the eyes of science, at any rate, the universe remains very much a mystery; as (agnostic) Robert Jastrow writes, “Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced the effect? Who or what put the matter and energy in the universe? Was the universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials? And science cannot answer these questions.”

    In the end, I must agree with Chesterton: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

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    More on the Craig-Hitchens Debate

    There’s still a lot of discussion going on about the Craig-Hitchens debate at Biola University on April 4.  A very interesting thread has developed at Doug Geivett’s blog where Doug is answering questions and comments from believers and nonbelievers.

    I also came across this colorful and evenhanded account from a blog called Common Sense Atheism.

    I just returned from the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. It was a bigger deal than I realized. Over 3,000 people were there, and groups from dozens of countries – including Sri Lanka, apparently – had purchased a live feed. I did record audio of the debate, but the quality is too poor to post.

    Of three recent Craig debates, I was most looking forward to his matchup with Morriston, which has yet to be posted online. I was somewhat excited for his debate with Carrier, which was disappointing. I was least excited for this debate with Hitchens, but it was the only one in my area, so I went.

    The debate went exactly as I expected. Craig was flawless and unstoppable. Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab. Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child. Perhaps Hitchens realized how bad things were for him after Craig’s opening speech, as even Hitchens’ rhetorical flourishes were not as confident as usual. Hitchens wasted his cross-examination time with questions like, “If a baby was born in Palestine, would you rather it be a Muslim baby or an atheist baby?” He did not even bother to give his concluding remarks, ceding the time instead to Q&A.

    This always seemed like a pointless matchup to me. One is a loudmouthed journalist and the other is a major analytic philosopher. You might as well put on a debate between Michael Martin and Bill O’Reilly.

    For some reason it occurred to me that it’s too bad the contenders were not more physically appealing. Hitchens is a sweating, unkempt, bulbous louch. Craig has better presentation, but he is withering away to nothing. I swear at one point I could see through the flesh between the thumb and pointer finger of his right hand.

    Craig’s physical deterioration makes me especially sad. He is absolute perfection in debate performance. It’s a good thing we have him on video because debaters on any topic should study him like actors study Brando. Anyway, we could use some sexier debaters. Let’s see Austin Dacey vs. Kevin Harris!

    I had come prepared with a question to ask, but unfortunately only Biola students were allowed to ask questions. But here’s the question I wanted to ask Craig:

    Dr. Craig,

    Tonight you’ve argued that objective moral values cannot exist apart from grounding them in the traits and opinions of a particular person. Your choice is Yahweh. That seems like an odd way to get objective moral values, but nevertheless, you’ve elsewhere argued just the opposite: that objective moral values do exist apart from Yahweh.

    For example, in your answer to question #61 on your website, you write that abortion is wrong because life has intrinsic moral value – that is, moral value within itself, apart from anything outside it, including the opinions of Yahweh. Is this a discrepancy, or have I misunderstood you?

    There were very few atheists in the crowd. Being at Biola reminded me that there are dozens of universities with entire programs devoted to teaching students how to argue for the existence of God. Hundreds of bright young students are being trained like Craig. Many will probably become pastors or theologians, but many of them will be writing books and getting professorships in philosophy and the sciences. In contrast, I don’t know of any programs that teach arguments against the existence of God (except philosophy of religion programs, which teach both sides). And there is certainly nobody who believes it is their divine and cosmic purpose to devote their life to defending the truth of atheism. It’s a wonder atheism is so vastly over-represented in American academies.

    I have little to say about the points of the debate itself because Craig gave the same case he always gives, and Hitchens never managed to put up a coherent rebuttal or argument. I will bring up one point that I liked, though. After Hitchens finished elaborating a list of religious atrocities, moderator Hugh Hewitt jumped in and asked Craig to explain how atheists had committed atrocities in the 20th century, too. Craig responded admirably:

    Well, this is a debate, Hugh, that I don’t want to get into because I think it’s irrelevant… I’m interested in the truth of these worldviews more than I’m interested in their social impact, and you cannot judge the truth of a worldview by its social impact – it’s irrelevant.

    Hitchens jumped in and said, “I completely concur,” and explained that he mentioned religious atrocities as an example of how bad people use God to justify any and all wicked actions.

    So that was good. Otherwise, it was what I expected. One person was conducting an academic debate, the other thought he was hosting a polemical talk show, and there was little connecting the two performances.

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    William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens Reviews

    Christopher Hitchens
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    Joe Gorra at the EPS Blog reports:

    On April 4th at Biola University, William Lane Craig debated Christopher Hitchens concerning the question, “Does God Exist?” The debate was moderated by columnist, law professor, and radio host Hugh Hewitt. Both Biola’s student body and the graduate program in Christian apologetics co-sponsored the debate.
    Below is a basic overview of the web coverage. A helpful, summary transcript can also be found here.
    Some regional and local college papers covered the debate, including the Whittier Daily, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star, the Daily Titan (Cal State Fullerton), and Biola’s Chimes.
    Perhaps the best atheist response comes from the Common Sense Atheist blog.
    And some of the best theistic blog coverage and analysis can be found from Doug Geivett (Biola philosopher), Melinda Penner (apologist), MaryJo Sharp (apologist), and the Evangelical Outpost (cultural commentary).

    I haven’t read all of these, but Doug Geivett’s recap is very informative in terms of the arguments and responses and his commentary is incisive.

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