Conversations with Dan: 3 Shane on Minchin parody

Dan, even though you have not yet had a chance to respond to my first post, I do have to take the opportunity to pursue a tangent, and say something about Tim Minchin’s thank you God. I confess to finding it funny on the first read but less so with time (you were right to presume that I might not be a big fan). While it might be clever humour (and it’s a shame we cannot see the live version) it is the sort of thoughtless atheism that is too common among the 95% of unbelievers (dig, dig) who, unlike yourself, set up a straw house they label ‘Christianity’ and then marvel at how easy it is to burn down. What I mean to say is, I recognise almost none of the views of my Christian friends in the thing Minchin is parodying.  Of course the same is true of most Christian responses to atheism! We presume the atheist is a thoughtless pot smoking greenie. Nice to have a conversation with a brother that can get past the name-calling.

Now, while I would like to get to your important discussion of healing soon, I might take the opportunity to respond to another one of Minchin’s concerns. He says:

  • ##, what are the odds
    That of history’s endless parade of gods
    That the god you just happen to be taught to believe in
    Is the actual one and he digs on healing
    But not the AIDS-ridden African nations
    The victims of the plague or the flood-addled Asians
    But healthy, privately-insured Australians
    With common and curable corneal degenerations

I hear this complaint a lot but I actually think it’s logic is upside down. The author presumes there is no God or, at least, that the God we believe in cares for the white Westerner but doesn’t give a hoot about the starving Third World. In fact, however, it seems to me that global poverty is very much a human problem (I would use the label sin) rather than a divine one. Further, the Christian Church, in response to God concern about poverty and injustice, has a long history of working tirelessly and sacrificially on the side of the poor and oppressed. The church is criticised because its God is supposedly impervious to evil in India and Africa, yet, in fact, it is God at work in people like Mother Teresa (and countless unnamed people like her) that show us that the opposite is true. indeed, we only patronize Africans when we parody the Jesus that countless millions of them have come to believe in. In reality, it is Western secularism that tends to ignore poverty.

I could say more but I realise that this is very tangential to your point. back to a discussion of healing – or whatever you wish.

Conversations with Dan: Daniel 5, inequity of miracles

Certainly with you in your celebration of the wonders of nature (whether created by divine design or the blind watch maker it is certainly awesome). The more people that appreciate the beauty and wonder of the world hopefully the more that will realize the imperative to conserve and protect this precious resource as opposed to our current trajectory. Unfortunately, to my great frustration, I see no greater level of desire/action to protect this amazing resource in Christian communities than I do in the general population.

Still can’t get my head around it being termed a “miracle” when it is part of natural process but happy to go with this as an appreciation of the wonders of the world/universe – is it the “cosmic jackpot” or just a just an act of sheer random luck? – I can’t answer this but come back to my point in the previous post that if there is a 1:1,000,000,000 chance that these characteristic occur this seems extremely unlikely that it would happen on earth, but if there are 10,000,000,000 planets in our universe (and potentially many more universes out there) chances are that these unique conditions will occur on 10 of these planets so why not on earth? Also need to consider the effect that life itself has had on creating these unique circumstances in light of the whole Gaia principles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis)

To be honest, as a dub ranger, I do not have the head space or the inclination to devote my time to the consideration of the universe – to much to keep me going on earth itself and my real interests are in biology rather than physics. In this I am happy to accept that this is just the way it is and to move on (although I realize that this response seems lame in light of our current level of discussion).

Can and does god transcend nature? I guess we may never know but I would certainly be interested in the results of a study to see if there is a statistically significant difference in the number of “miracles” (those not attributed to the laws of nature) in response to prayer in Christian populations as opposed to these events outside of Christian populations or in other religious streams.

If we presume that god does have the power to transcend nature if he so chooses why Sam’s Mum’s cataracts. This randomness does not seem equitable or merit based – if I wielded my power/love as a parent in such a random and sometimes downright harsh way I would expect my kids to grow up resentful and possibly seek compensation through the courts.

Conversations with Dan: 4 Shane miracles

Dan, I’m loving having these conversations with you – especially since your questions and thoughts are so stimulating. Before getting into the nuts and bolts just a brief response to your comment on the meaning and purpose of life. As I hope you know, I certainly do not think your life is without meaning and purpose. My point was simply that Christianity imbues life with a particular meaning and purpose – that faith becomes a driving force in life.

Your last post was probing, and to provide a short answer will be impossible. But stick with me and I shall make things as brief as I can. First I do need to dispute your definition of miracle. For Christians, miracle could never be limited to that outside the laws of nature, because that would prevent us from celebrating the hand of God in and through nature. This fact is, I think, recognised even by some scientists. Cosmic physicist Paul Davies describes the likelihood of life in the universe in terms of our having won the ‘cosmic jackpot’:  “If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a bio-friendly universe looks like a fix – or ‘ ‘put up job’ … as if a superintellect had been monkeying with the laws of physics.”[1]

Many people (including many Christians) think that God is constantly intervening in the laws of nature to bring about his purposes. Thus, people presume that to locate God we need to do so in those things that cannot be explained by science. Yet as Davies also notes  “A God who lurks in the dark corners of human ignorance is a God who must make a slow and inexorable retreat as science progresses.”[2] In fact the church founded universities precisely because they understood that God was the primary cause of nature, so that an exploration of nature is one into the wonders of God.

This is a vital point. Christian tradition understands God as the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is not one cause among many. We do not say ‘this thing cannot be explained by a natural cause therefore it is God’. Instead we recognise that God is at work in all secondary (I.e. natural) causes. He does not just start up the world and leave it to its own devices but he sustains and lies behind all that is.

So, I’m a firm believer in miracles but I do not believe that God breaks natural laws all that often (although no doubt he can and sometimes does). Such would actually undermine his power, since it would suggest that the creation is somehow deficient -that it needs tinkering around the edges to be effective!

So, what then is a miracle? It is something that causes people to recognise the wonder of God. It is a sign that points to the providential goodness of God . This may be the “miracle of nature”, such as the miracle of the human body. This may be the miracle of circumstances – when each individual event has a ready enough natural explanation but there is a miraculous confluence of events (e.g. Jesus calming of the storm; storms always go calm – just not always in response to prayer!). This may be something extraordinary that cannot be explained by science now – even if one day it might. My close friend Neil Ormerod notes that there have been recent discoveries of the way in which bacteria have brought about instantaneous cures of certain cancers. This observation, however, does nothing to reduce the miraculous experience of a person who receives such a healing after prayer; nor does it eliminate the work of God in that healing – as I’ve already suggested, the opposite is true.

Clearly, I am not as sceptical of science as many of my Christian friends. In fact, I am a passionate amateur scientist who reads cosmic physics in my spare time. Having said this, nor do I give science the ultimate authority that you seem to give it. Science cannot and never will be able to explain everything. This is not only because of the limitations of human knowledge and human capacity. It is also because the universe, and God at work in universe, is spectacularly mysterious. Science does a good enough job of explaining certain phenomena, but there is so much that is beyond its reach. Because this is so, I actually am sure there are miraculous events that simply cannot and will not ever be explained by science. Given my earlier arguments I will not be in a position ever to be able to say categorically that this or that event has no natural explanation, and since God is at work in nature I do not need to. Yet I am also open to God transcending nature, and I think that is a perfectly rational position to take. Christian faith then is not irrational.

Shane

PS – my insights into these questions have come from ongoing conversations with my friend Neil Ormerod. But they are not unique to he and I. They are in fact the standard theological responses of mainline church thinkers such as Augustine Aquinas etc. That is to say these are not heterodox views but long-standing orthodox ones.

PSS – I have not directly answered your question about God healing a cataract rather than healing leukaemia or fixing the problems of poverty in Africa. Will do so in another post

PSSS – sorry to all of this lengthy confusing post!


[1] Davies, Cosmic Jackpot , 3-4.

[2] Ibid. 195.

conversations with Dan: 3 Daniel – science and the laws of nature

Could I start by saying that in my original email I was not attempting to
get you to question your faith, I was questioning why you believe what you
do. This was done not in an attempt to discredit your beliefs but for me to
gain a greater understanding of what you believe and why you believe those
things, and I guess to give you a similar understanding of me. I ask you
because from you I often get a response that makes some sort of sense even
to me.

Where I come from is that I believe that the world, the universe, is
governed by a set of laws that cannot be broken by anyone ever. Beliefs
that work outside of these laws (whether they are Christians, other
religious persuasions, magicians, or those that deny human induced climate
change) can perplex me a little.

I guess my response to your comments would be as below:

1. Lets start with the simple ones hey – I am glad you realize that life
is finite 🙂 . I do agree with this as well. I could take offence at your
insinuation that a life without a Christian faith is without meaning or
purpose, or somehow has less meaning or purpose – but I will not so lets
move on.

2. Every definition I can find of the term miracle is something like:

“An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to
be supernatural in origin or an act of God”

Given this I find your comment that people do not presume that a miracle has
no natural explanation a little perplexing. I would assume if it has a
natural explanation than it is not a miracle. I think we need to be careful
that we do not get the terminology miracle and amazing confused or even the
term extremely unlikely. If what you mean is unlikely or amazing please say
this to prevent confusion. (it should be noted here that unlikely event will
by definition happen, it is extremely I likely that I win the lottery but
someone wins every week, it may be a miracle if I win but do not have a
ticket).

3. God at work in or through nature – Did God set up the laws of nature,
I have no evidence that he did or did not and personally don’t care. If
good chooses to work through nature all good but not a miracle as outlined
above. The big question here comes back to why fix Sam’s Mums cataracts but
not that child with Leukemia?

4. I agree 100% that things happen every day that cannot
currently be explained by science. But I come back to the fact that the
definition of a miracle is not “cannot be explained by science”, but is
“breaking at least one of the laws of nature”. How the Egyptians built the
pyramids, is currently unexplained by science but no miracle, a human being
walking on water – this is a miracle as the human foot is not large enough
to spread the weight of a human sufficiently so that it will not break the
limited surface tension provided by H2O
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_tension). Humans are not clever
enough, and never will, to unlock all the mysteries of nature. If something
happens that cannot be explained by our current understanding of nature is
it a miracle? No. It may be accurate to say “this seems miraculous” but to
me it is not a miracle, it simply reflects our lack of understanding (or
perhaps imperfect recording of the event, or deceit).

Still unsure if we have a simple issue of definitions (would you define
miracle “A highly improbable or extraordinary event”) or if you believe that
God can, if he chooses, decide to break the laws of nature?

Dan

Conversations with Dan: 2 – Shane miracles

Dan, given my own situation, perhaps the place to start is with miracles. I probably should note that while I’m writing this post I have been kept in hospital imprisonment, rather than being allowed out for weekend leave, because I am suffering from a urinary tract infection – a direct result of all my stupid ongoing bladder and catheter problems. So, obviously, I’m not one of those who believe that if I pray for healing, or simply have enough faith, then I shall experienced perfect health. Such people are either wonderfully lucky, blind to their own inconsistencies (have you ever noticed a faith healer who wears glasses!), Or deliberately manipulative.

So the first thing to note is that Christian faith recognises that to be human is to be finite. It is to  be a ‘creature’ subject to the joys and struggles of life on this curious planet. Whatever we are going to say about miracles it cannot be a denial of the fact that we live in frail bodies and so are subject to sickness and ultimately to death. Christian faith does not deny this reality, it merely imbues it with meaning and purpose.

The second thing to note then is that when Christians speak of miracles they do not (or at least should not) presume that a miracle by definition has no natural explanation. We affirm that God is at work in the world most commonly through, rather than against, the natural processes that he created and sustains. So, I can thank God for working in me to restore function in my right arm and hand at the same time recognising that this is a product of natural processes at work in my spinal-cord. I can also thank God for the improvement I might receive through surgery even if the surgeon also warrants a kiss, because I believe God is the primary cause for all the good and beautiful things in the world – including the wonders of science and medicine.

You might rightly say, of course, that that is not what I mean when I use the term miracle. I concede the point, yet when speaking about the purpose of prayer I cannot let go of the idea that more often than not the answer to prayer can be given two levels of explanation– God at work in and through nature.

thirdly, I simply do not believe that science can lay claim (or will ever be able to do so) to being able to provide an explanation for everything. There is simply too much mystery in the world, too much spiritual wonder, to enable us to deny the possibility of miracles. Maybe, in fact, the mystery is such that we are compelled to accept miraculous.

So much more might be said, but I don’t want to be long winded and you deserve the right of reply.

Conversations with Dan: 1

My blogging has stimulated at least some degree of curiosity, but the most interesting response has come from my brother Daniel. Daniel and I grew up as best friends, but in our late teens and 20s my Christianity and Daniel’s lack of faith saw us take very different paths in life. We continued to love each other, but were not as close as we once were. In our 30s as we both settled down with families and closer contact was renewed. We still looked at the world differently but we started to realise that that should make no difference to our relationship. In the last six months Dan, who lives in Hervey Bay, North Queensland, has called me almost every week. He and his beautiful wife Bianca, and the amazing kids Kailani and Iluka , have taken the expensive flight to visit me twice (it may be more my memory is vague). I think it’s fair to say that we four Clifton Bros are closer together than ever before, and share a unique bond of love.

I say all this because during the week I received an e-mail from Dan that I found stimulating. I thought I might share it with you (he has agreed). We might, over the next little while, correspond overs these issues and see where the wind (I might say Spirit) takes us. note the following parameters

  • You are more than welcome to comment – and I hope you do, but we will probably respond to each other rather than your comments (please don’t think we are rude).
  • we will only deal with one issue at a time – so don’t be surprised if it takes some time to cover all the issues he raises.
  • we both lead busy and sometimes out-of-control lives, so that might add to the slow pace.
  • If either of us get bored, we reserve the right to stop at any time
  • this is a conversation, not an attempt to “convert” each other. We had that done to us too many times and, in any case, I have no power to convert anyone. That is supposed to be the role of the spirit (presuming you believe the spirit exists)

So here goes – I will start by leaving you with Dan’s e-mail:

Hey Shane, I was going to respond a comment on your blog but as I am not sure of your readership; their attitudes, tolerances etc I thought best to just respond to you directly (possibly I am missing the opportunity to communicate to the masses but I probably would not get the same level of ego filling support and encouragement for my views). As with everyone else your recent blogs certainly got me thinking (which is what you do best) and I know that you would be interested in how all people perceive your posts –

Throughout your post on this topic I keep nodding my head going yeah yeah, The whole randomness of supposedly miracle healings seems so arbitrary to a non believer that it could be no more believable than Noah’s ark. Having said that I am sure that placebos can actually heal if the person believes in it (reminds me of a discussion we had on homeopathy once!). And I also know that you can and will continue to make great improvements through improved strength, nerve healings, better technique, functionality and possibly dare I say the “miracle” of modern medicine / science that can transplant tendons and possibly has kept you with us to date through those early tough days to continue with your amazing jouney of life. A life which will be enhanced in many ways from this turning point (and for sure have its additional challenges). Seems already you are reaching more people and I feel sure that your journey will touch and inspire many lives and through this, give you much joy and fulfillment – I look forward to your conversation with Richard Fidler in the future and the wonderful stories and how many people you touch and motivate through this – you certainly do to all us (hang on I am starting to sound like a comment on your FB status!).

Anyhow I keep thinking of a great skit by Tim Minchin (not sure you would be a big fan, but I feel very funny) called “Thank You God”.  I really wanted to share this with you but unfortunately I could not find a live rendition on You Tube, alas the lyrics are attached below (the delivery is missing the piano, eye makeup, fuzzy hair and Sydney Synophy Orchestra) but go with it and you may get the general jist.  It is a tad cynical but it does seem to speak some truth to me and my kind – enjoy (or not Dad!).

Tim Minchin – thank you God (follow link to see lyrics) note from Shane; the lyrics contain strong language and are a very strong attack on faith – don’t say you weren’t warned.

Although the Hervey Bay Cliftons do not regularly “pray” for you we are always thinking of you, lighting a candle for you, sending positive thoughts, energy, love etc.  Are you now telling me this is the true value of prayer?  Dude the main arrows in my aethist armory are:

  • Evolution v creationism
  • The stories of the old testament
  • The belief in associated miracles attributed to God/jesus

You will soon reduce me to:

  • Why just happens to be the belief system of the culture I was born into at the time that I lived that was right
  • If humans are the chosen special race (in the image of god) why where we not put on this earth until 150,000 years ago when the earth has been around for over 4 billion years. Or can other animals go to heaven and if so do they have to be beleivers
  • The perception of the whole heaven hell thing
  • The frustration that your very liberal Christian views are in stark contrast to 95% of Christians

(I have others I am sure but that’s my rant for now)

Be cool bro,

Dan