Friday, March 22, 2013

God and Reason, Session 8: "The Next Step"

I attended the final session of the "God and Reason" course given by Christian professors at my university on Wednesday, March 20. This one was entitled "The Next Step" and was given by John North, a professor of English. If you would like to see more of John North's style, there is a youtube video from 2003 available.

Although the course was entitled "God and Reason", any pretense that reason was an important consideration was abandoned in this talk, which was just straight Christian evangelism. I found it pretty hard to stomach. As usual, I report what was said, with my comments in brackets.

Beyond reason: Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." (Matthew 22:37). There are 3 aspects of humans: heart, soul, and mind. Loving God with our mind is an obvious challenge [for] students. Tennyson: "There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds", which shows that we should think about our faith and not just mumble dogma over and over. Doubt springs from a kind of faith.
[No, it doesn't. Doubt is the opposite of faith. Faith is believing in the absence of evidence; doubt is saying the evidence is insufficient.]

In my [North's] field, all my literary heroes are Christians: [Edmund] Spenser, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Gray, Bronte, Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Dickinson. Pascal: the heart has its reasons. It is the heart that experiences God and not reason. Pascal was one of many renowned scientists and academics who were Christians. This shows it is possible to be a Christian and be respectable intellectually.
[Who doubts that? But all of the people Prof. North named lived in predominantly Christian societies, so it is not very surprising that most of them were Christians, any more than it would be surprising that literary heroes who wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish would mostly be Jews.]

[A name conspicuously absent from North's list is Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford and lost custody of his children after he published The Necessity of Atheism. How many people of those times would have dared to admit they were atheist, considering the consequences?]

[This reminds me, by the way, of a talk that Michael Higgins gave at Waterloo 6 years ago. Speaking of atheists, Higgins said, "We [Catholics] used to burn them", and this got a good laugh. Just imagine if he had said the same thing of Jews! I doubt there would be much laughter. This shows the double standard that our society has for believers and non-believers.]

John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Wrote The Idea of a University and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In the latter book he argued that scientific standards for evidence and assent are too narrow and inapplicable in daily life. Logic and its conclusions are not transferable to real-life decision making. "Logic is loose at both ends" - it initially depends on restrictive assumptions and is thus unable to fit its conclusions neatly into real world situations.
- I can believe with understanding
- I can apprehend (beyond belief) or intelligently accept without understanding

[By the way, the points above that Prof. North presented seemed to be taken more or less verbatim from Wikipedia, without citation. But maybe Prof. North wrote the Wikipedia article, I don't know. I haven't read Grammar of Assent. All I can say is, the process of science relies very little on formal logic. The manner in which scientists actually reason, which is based on forming hypotheses, figuring out how to test them, being skeptical of claims and even more skeptical of one's own beliefs, and consilience, is very useful in daily life, and I use it all the time.]

He objected to claims like "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something and are true to yourself." [But who makes claims like that? Of course it matters: "It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it." (Edwin Way Teale)]

Prof. North claimed that hospitals in Egypt are "notorious for routinely using black Christians for body parts" and that this is "well-documented". [Perhaps; I am hardly an expert about this. I found this article and, later, this one. I don't know exactly what his point is. After all, Egypt is a strongly religious and monotheistic society. Furthermore, Israel has been accused of similar practices.]

Prof. North talked about his petition against sex selection used in "partial birth abortion". He seemed to imply this was happening routinely in Canada. [I am not aware of this.]

Prof. North said: "Consider"
- if Jesus is the creator of the universe, who exists beyond time, then he is able to relate to each human being intimately & uniquely
- if Jesus does love the world as a group & each individual then he will answer the private prayer of a child or an adult
- if Jesus respects our integrity, he will let us turn away from him
- He is both a macro and micro God
[Well, this is just babble. What does it mean to "exist beyond time"? Why does "existing beyond time" say anything about a desire or ability to relate to us? Why must it mean he will answer prayer? What about all the prayers that are not answered? So much foolishness!]

Prof. North said:
- every little child is worth the world
- even aborted ones through partial-birth abortions
[Again with the partial-birth abortion business; he seems very preoccupied with this. Well, if every little child "is worth the world", why does the Christian god let so many of them die of starvation, disease, and natural disasters?]

Prof. North said:
- of the thousands of people I have ministered to as a volunteer at the local hospital, almost note have said they don't believe in or hope for an afterlife.
[Well, I have no doubt that there is some self-selection going on here. Probably non-believers would not want to talk to a Christian evangelical on their deathbed. I know I wouldn't.]

Prof. North said:
- rich people donate more near the end of their lives, in order to ensure hope in the afterlife.
[Well, that could be one possibility. But another possibility is that people dispose of their assets when they realize they won't need them.]

On intimacy:
- forgiveness is the basis of faith and is the basis of all relationships
[No, it's not. Most of my relationships are not based on "forgiveness" - the relationships I have with my students, colleagues, tradespeople, physicians, and so forth.]

"Without the shedding of blood there is no remission..." (Hebrews 9:22)
[More foolishness. We routinely forgive people without the shedding of blood.]

Prof. North discussed a student of his, Kelly, who read Don Knuth's book "3:16" at his suggestion and became a Christian. [Unfortunately I missed the punchline because Prof. North spoke so quietly. He asked his student, Kelly, why she had changed her mind, and she said, [inaudible].]

"The only forgiveness big enough is the death of God himself."
[This makes no sense at all. The Christian god is immortal, and so cannot die. Jesus is either not god, or he didn't die. And how does someone else dying forgive anyone else's sins? I am at a loss why anyone believes this stuff.]

Loving with one's soul:
- our soul might be described as our self-hood, our unique nature, our gifts and talents
- the Lord walks and talks with each of us in a unique way, at a depth no one else can
- Hence this is companionship of the most profound kind
- I [Prof. North] have a deeper relationship with God than with my wife
[Well, I am really glad that I am not married to Prof. North. I would be profoundly insulted if my spouse told me she had a deeper relationship with some imaginary being than with me. ]

Prof. North then described how he prayed to help the people of Africa in some way. Later his prayers were answered, because he was able to connect some people who invented a technique for laying plastic pipe cheaply from a helicopter with the government in South Sudan, so now the people of Juba will have fresh water that they never had before.
[Well, this is, on a superficial level, a nice story. But who would fail, given the opportunity to connect people together to achieve social good, to do the connection? It has nothing to do with religion. And the belief that you are somehow so special that a god would deliberately deprive hundreds of thousands of people of fresh water just so you could have the virtuous feeling of helping them -- well, it simply beggars the imagination. I fail to see how a Christian, who invests so much in "humility", could think that his prayer is at the root of what has occurred, or that the whole situation is somehow positive! Why didn't his god simply put a good freshwater lake down near the people, instead of working through John North?]

Early intimacies:
- "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)
- "knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7)
- "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:28-29)
[But, for gosh sakes, if you don't, then have fun rotting in hell forever. Yes, that is really "gentle".]

Later intimacies:
- "You shall hear a voice behind you saying, This is the way, walk ye in it" (Isaiah 30:21)
- "Know that I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20)
- "Your sin and iniquities I will remember no more" (Hebrews 8:12)
There is no such thing as a "good Christian". "Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15).
[Sounds like a recipe for suicide bombers to me.]

Prof. North concluded the series with these suggestions:
- read the bible (gospel of John, particularly)
- find fellowship
- pray
- ask for prayer of others
- "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10)
- "Study to show yourself approved of God" (2 Timothy 2:15)
- accept the call to good works.
[Not much "reason" here. Just lots of god-talk.]

[I didn't stay for the questions, because I don't like being preached at.]

15 comments:

KeithB said...

How does he know that Shakespeare was a Christian? Was it because of all the plays that use Bible stories as their source? Oh, wait...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Shakespeare's religion - from Wikipedia.

William Godwin said...

Percy Bysshe Shelley ... was expelled from Oxford and lost custody of his children after he published The Necessity of Atheism. How many people of those times would have dared to admit they were atheist, considering the consequences?
Was the custody loss due to his publishing of this book, or because of his messed up love life?

Diogenes said...

Emily Dickinson a Christian!

Dickinson's character was largely formed by her resistance to the bullying of evangelical Christians.

In her time New England was being swept by a wave of evangelical "enthusiasm". Many people were forced to knuckle under, get down on their knees and pronounce themselves sinners-- it worked like the Red Guard. Including Dickinson's father, who was forced to get down on his knees and call himself a sinner.

But Emily wouldn't be bullied. If you read Lives Like Loaded Guns, a really excellent biography, when she was in girls' school she was notorious as a free thinker. She was the smartest in school and also independent, so other girls were sent to spy on her and report on what she was up to.

The headmaster would gather all the girls and ask the "Christians" to stand up. Dickinson wouldn't stand up. That was basically a public announcement that she was not a Christian. She suffered a lot for that.

I should set about editing her Wikipedia page; it's not very accurate.

As for other non-Christian writers, obviously there's:

Mark Twain (whose Letters from the Earth is the funniest agnostic, or deistic, manifesto, very anti-Bible, really required reading),

Walt Whitman who was a deist,

Thomas Paine who was a deist,

Abraham Lincoln, a beautiful writer and a deist who liked the Bible but never said anything about Jesus,

Jack Kerouac, who at most interpreted Catholicism metaphorically,

and Bob Dylan, who had a Christian phase he got over-- I count Dylan as a literary hero because Chronicles is a great beat novel.

To this many others could be added, Richard Wright, Richard Brautigan, etc.

Diogenes said...

These parts are perhaps the most absurd:

every little child is worth the world

To the God of the Bible? Hello? How much infanticide is there in the Bible? Book of Exodus, Book of Joshua, Psalm 137, etc.

If a kid is disobedient, you stone him to death, according to Leviticus.

The Christian God doesn't just "let them die." He commands us to kill them in many different situations.

"Without the shedding of blood there is no remission..." (Hebrews 9:22)

Bare assertion. How can we know this or how could we anticipate it outside of bare assertion? We would never guess such a horrible idea by analogy to any human feeling or emotion or relationship.

It would never follow from induction, from analogy, or by making testable predictions. It's an ad hoc claim to make Christianity sound plausible.

rich people donate more near the end of their lives, in order to ensure hope in the afterlife.

Like atheist Bill Gates?

forgiveness is the basis of faith and is the basis of all relationships

Bullshit! Trust is the basis of relationships. Tell people the truth so you don't lose their trust.

People can forgive, but in many situations, if you've lost their trust, you can't get it back. So forgiveness may not be possible and you can't count on forgiveness.

Eric Collier said...

Reading this series was emotionally exhausting--these pious pedants are so self-righteous, depthless and turgid I felt as if I was treading water at an event horizon. One bright spot: at least the United States is not the only country that produces these nitwits in such numbers ... Of course, that's also pretty scary.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Pascal: ... Pascal was one of many renowned scientists and academics who were Christians. This shows it is possible to be a Christian and be respectable intellectually.
.
Pascal died in 1662. He accepted neither Darwin's theory of evolution through means of natural selection, nor the theory of relativity. (Because neither had been thought up during his time.) For bleep's sake, he didn't even accept Newton's laws of motion! This is their example of someone who is scientifically respectable? Why do they have to dig so deep into the past?

Reginald Selkirk said...

if Jesus is the creator of the universe, who exists beyond time...
.
Wha? Is this verbatim from North? These seem to be statements about God. But accepting (ad arguendum) the Christian Trinity, both of these claims would be about God the Father, not about Jesus his son. If Jesus existed as a man who was born in Palestine ~ two millenia ago, lived a normal lifespan, then died by crucifixion; he most certainly was not "beyond time."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Wha? Is this verbatim from North?

Yes, if my notes are correct.

Casey Hunter said...

Doubt is the opposite of faith. Faith is believing in the absence of evidence; doubt is saying the evidence is insufficient.

It's impossible to say which of these two positions is right or wrong. They are too subjective.
The whole argument borders on silly. Let me illustrate.

Imaging standing next to a guy, we'll call him Cornelius Luskin, playing a game of poker in Las
Vegas. He casually watches the physically imposing dealer shuffle the cards, and then pass out the
cards.
Cornelius looks at his cards and, lo and behold, a straight flush!
He puts in all his money, and then watches as the dealer reveals his own hand:
a royal flush! Cornelius loses everything.
Cornelius looks askew at the dealer and exclaims: I doubt that set of hands was just bad luck.
The dealer huffs back: Are you saying that you believe I cheated?
Cornelius meekly responds: I didn't say that. I just don't think it was accidental.
The dealer responds: So you're saying you believe it was premeditated!
Cornelius dismisses him, saying: I don't "believe" anything. Stop putting words in my mouth.

Hopefully, now you see why I think the original argument borders on silly.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It's impossible to say which of these two positions is right or wrong.

I don't think they are "positions"; I was talking about the common meanings of words.

Hopefully, now you see why I think the original argument borders on silly.


No, since I have no idea what you are considering the "original argument".

Casey Hunter said...

"original argument" = the sentence "Doubt springs from a kind of faith," and your rebuttal to it.
Was Cornelius' reaction based on his doubt that the poker hands were truly random, or was it based on his conviction that they weren't?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Was Cornelius' reaction based on his doubt that the poker hands were truly random, or was it based on his conviction that they weren't?

Now you want me to discourse on the thought processes of an imaginary person you invented?

Go away and troll someone else.

Curt Cameron said...

From Reginald Selkirk:
"if Jesus is the creator of the universe, who exists beyond time...

Wha? Is this verbatim from North?"

It's pretty standard Christian theology that Jesus is co-eternal with God the father - they don't think that he came into existence 2000 years ago; he just came down in human form then.

That's what they say anyway, not that it makes any sense.

Casey Hunter said...

"Now you want me to discourse on the thought processes of an imaginary person you invented?"

Of course not. What I wanted you to do is demonstrate why "Doubt springs from a kind of faith" is any more or less valid than "Doubt is the opposite of faith." It's way too subjective to answer.