Tuesday, 15 January 2019

No Time for God

Stephen Hawking had no time for God. In Brief Answers to the Big Questions and other places he claimed that the role played by time at the beginning of the universe is the final key to removing the need for a grand designer and revealing how the universe created itself.
On Hawking’s view, time itself began at the instant of the Big Bang. This claim is not uncontroversial among scientists.* But if we accept for the sake of argument Hawking’s understanding of the physics of the big bang, what are we to make of his claim that this removes “the need for a grand designer” and reveals “how the universe created itself”?
Three observations:
(1) The question of the existence of God should not be reduced to the question whether we need to postulate a god to explain the existence of everything else. The only “theology” with which Hawking shows familiarity is one that uses “gods/God” to plug in the gaps in our knowledge. This is completely inadequate for Christian theology and I am not sure that it is adequate for any other major religion.
(2) The conflation of the language of causation (used in his argument in a specific sense) with that of design (used in his conclusion about “the need for a grand designer”) seems to be indicative of a more general failure to differentiate causality. Since Aristotle four types of cause have been distinguished: formal, material, efficient and final. Natural laws define material and efficient causes. To deny that there are formal and final causes on the basis that the natural sciences cannot demonstrate them is a logical fallacy.
(3) Language of the universe creating itself is not unproblematic, not only because it attributes agency to the universe but also because we cannot readily conceive of an action of which we cannot say that there was a before and after. In other words, we could just as well say that the universe is eternal: if time does not exist apart from our space-time universe, there is no time at which the universe is not. If Hawking’s science can be shown to be correct, we can exclude a temporal cause for the universe but this not only fails to demonstrate that the big bang was an uncaused event but also still leaves us short of a compelling answer to the question why there is something rather than nothing. (Hawking seems to claim that there really is nothing because for everything positive matter there is, there is negative energy to cancel it out, cf. this previous post, but this does not sound to me like an answer.)
What then is the relationship between God and time? Gregory E. Ganssle who authored the entry on “God and Time” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also edited God and Time: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2001) which hosts a discussion between proponents of four different views: Paul Helm who defends the view of divine eternity as timeless, Alan G. Padgett who argues that God is everlastingly temporal but not in physical (metrical) time, William Lane Craig who speaks of God as timeless without creation and temporal within creation, and Nicholas Wolterstorff who advocates “unqualified divine temporality.” As far as I can see Hawking’s science would not rule out a single one of these options.
The leap from Hawking’s reconstruction of the origins of the universe to atheism is not made on the strength of the science but relies on the truth of his premises, namely (a) there cannot be causality without temporality and (b) all temporality is material. This means that we seem to be dealing with an entirely circular argument.  

* Other physicists favour “the idea that our universe is but one expanding bubble in a much larger pre-existing area of space-time, sometimes called the multiverse” (source).

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Metaphysics of Time

Gleaned from Natalja Deng, God and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2019) in the Elements in the Philosophy of Religion series edited by Yujin Nagasawa.

In contemporary metaphysics A-theorists argue for a dynamic (tensed) theory of time and B-theorists argue for a static (tenseless) theory of time in which time is much like space.
Among A-theorists are, e.g., 
(i) those who believe only the present exists, 
(ii) those who believe that reality is a growing block because the past as well as present time exist, and 
(iii) those who believe that all times exist but that only one of them is ever absolutely present.
B-theorists believe that all times exist but that each time is present only “relative to itself” with no ontological privilege.
“The overall shape of the A versus B dialectic is that the A-theory is often seen as capturing the way we ordinarily think about and experience time, while the B-theory is seen as being closer to the results of modern physics.”

“There are three major metaphysical theories about what how things persist. The first is endurantism. This is the view that things persist by surviving from one time to the next, where this survival amounts to strict numerical identity.”
“Perdurantism is the view that things persist over time by being spread out or extended over it. According to perdurantists, things persist by having not only spatial parts, but also temporal parts (or stages). So, material objects are temporally extended. They are four-dimensional, in the sense that they are spread out in time – the fourth dimension – just like they are spread out in the three spatial dimensions.”
“Endurantism is the view that things persist by being wholly present at each time they exist, where to be wholly present at a time is, roughly, to have all of one’s parts exist at that time... Perdurantists have to be four-dimensionalists, since they think objects persist by having temporal parts (and at least some objects do persist). But there are ways of being a four-dimensionalist without accepting perdurantism.”
“some four-dimensionalists reject perdurantism and accept the stage view (also known as exdurantism) ... This is the third of the three main views of persistence ... on the stage view, it is the stages that persist over time, and that we refer to when we refer to ordinary objects. When someone uses your name, they refer to a stage. Which stage they refer to depends on when they use the name.”

See also Ned Markosian's entry on Time in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Heather Dyke's entry on Time, metaphysics of in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Hawking on Belief Systems

A few observations on the first BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week in 2019, Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, beautifully read by Anton Lesser.
“Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
Hawking believed that religion and science are two fundamental belief systems, competing frameworks for understanding the universe around us. The better we are able to explain events and phenomena in terms of natural causes, the less need there is to appeal to the capriciousness of the gods until the god who lives in the gaps of our knowledge can abdicate because no gaps are left. The final loophole to be closed, in this view, was the question of the origin of the universe. Who or what was there before the Big Bang to get everything going? Because we are (nearly) able to offer a definitive answer to the question how the universe begun by the application of universal and unchangeable physical laws alone,* Hawking felt, there was no longer any need for a god. Science offers a simpler alternative.
I cannot judge the soundness of Hawking’s science (and have no great issues with accepting it) but it is clear to me that Hawking pronounced on more than science and in ways which are clearly unsound.
The claim that “people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science” is untrue. I do not know whether this sentence was meant as a dig at his first wife, whether the claim was informed by some unfortunate encounters, or whether it is purely the result of wishful thinking. In any case, it is not plausible that Hawking did not come across a good few people to whom this verdict does not apply and we therefore seem to have prima facie evidence here for a refusal on his part to acknowledge facts that do not fit his world-view.
Science is a method, not a belief system. The scientific method is capable of being turned into a belief system but only by the addition of non-scientific propositions about the nature of reality. The method itself does not yield the world-view Hawking espoused.
Religion is not a belief system either. This is so not only because every religion is a cultural system that encompasses far more than belief, including also behaviours and practices, but, more importantly, because “religion” in the abstract cannot be a belief system. The various cultural systems we designate religions and the world-views they imply are incompatible with each other and cannot add up to any system.
Whether the Vikings “believed in supernatural beings” in order “to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses” is a matter for historians to debate. As a biblical scholar, I claim that this will not do as an explanation for any “religion” promoted in the Bible.
First, there is little concern with explaining natural phenomena in the Bible. There is a delight in creation expressed in various places and no attempt to curb curiosity about explaining phenomena naturally.
Secondly, the understanding of disasters as divine punishment is not a given. There is no assumption that we can readily deduce anything about the divine will from the presence of disastrous natural or historical events and several explicit warnings against assuming that suffering is the result of having offended God. 
Thirdly, biblical authors assume a version of compatibilism and the possibility of explaining events at different levels (the destruction of the city can be seen as a divine judgement even when it did not involve any unusual, supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events), philosophical views that are at odds with Hawking’s zero-sum-game assumptions.
Fourthly, the Bible speaks of a Creator God who is logical and has imposed order on his universe. This renders the language of “laws of nature” plausible (see, e.g., Jeremiah 31:35-36; 33:25), if the genitive is understood as “laws pertaining to nature” rather than “laws given by Nature,” as if nature was a personal agent. 

* The explanation is roughly as follows: It seems at first as if three ingredients are required to build a universe: matter, energy, and space. Einstein taught us that mass and energy are basically the same thing. Energy and space are therefore the only ingredients needed and these were spontaneously created out of nothing according to the laws of science. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called ‘negative energy’ (if you build a hill on a flat land, you also make a hole; the stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out). Laws concerning gravity and motion tell us that space itself is a vast store of negative energy, enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero (the mass and the energy is like the hill; the corresponding hole is spread throughout space). If the universe adds up to nothing then you don’t need a god to create it. So what triggered the whole process? Quantum mechanics tells us that particles such as protons really can appear at random, stick around for a while, and then vanish again, to reappear somewhere else. Because the universe was very small at its beginning there is no need for an explanation beyond the laws of nature. The Big Bang was a random act of the sort quantum mechanics observes for protons.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Posture and Reverence

“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11)

They fell down. They did not sit up, as if nothing great was before them; or on the foolish supposition that the body has no relation to the soul, and that while the soul is cleaving unto the dust before the Majesty of God, there is no reason why the body should not lounge and loll on a chair in a posture of easy, if not of studied, indifference. They fell down and worshipped; the outward act corresponding to, and being dictated by, the inward self-protestation, just as the Hebrew word for adoration implies the prostration of the adoring soul. Say you that this prostration was only oriental? Was it not rather profoundly human, and should we not do well to note it? Ah! brethren, methinks we have much to learn of these Eastern sages; we who, like them, come into the presence of the King of kings, but who, unlike them, think it perhaps proof of a high spirituality to behave before Him as we should not think of behaving in the presence of our earthly superiors. Do we murmur that “God looks not at the bowed head or at the bent knee, but at the heart”? No doubt he does look at the heart; but the question is whether it is possible for the heart to be engaged in worship while the posture of the body suggests irreverent sloth. Burke has shown, what must be apparent to every man of reflection and sense, between the postures of the body and the emotions of the soul there is an intimate correspondence. You cannot, as a matter of physical fact, feel a sinner’s self-abasement before the Sanctity of God, while you stretch yourself out in a chair with your arms crossed, and your eyes gazing listlessly at any object that may meet them. Doubtless the old and the weak may worship without prostrations, to which their bodies are no longer equal. For the young and strong to attempt this is to trifle not merely with the language of Scripture but with the laws of our composite nature. Be sure, brethren, that irreverence is not a note of spirituality. Reverence is the true language of faith, which sees God and adores Him. Irreverence is the symptom of unbelief or indifference. When the soul’s eye is closed to the Magnificence of God, the outward actions of worship are barely endured or contemptuously rejected as though they were lifeless forms.
Revd Dr. H. P. Liddon, "The guidance of the Star," sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 1871.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Two Sacraments Only

A few notes, written from the position of relative ignorance:

Christians are divided over the question of the number of sacraments. The (39) Articles of Religion of the Church of England opt for a narrow definition. The relevant article opens:

SACRAMENTS ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
It then rejects the grouping of other rites with these two sacraments:
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
Accordingly the question How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church? in the Catechism in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is given this answer: 
Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Many have considered this somewhat unsatisfactory and this is reflected in the Revised Catechism authorised by the General Synod of the Church of England in 1982. It distinguishes between “Gospel Sacraments” and “Other Ministries of Grace.” Question and Answer 38 affirms the classical Anglican position
Christ in the Gospel has appointed two sacraments for his Church, as needed by all for fulness of life, Baptism, and Holy Communion.
But answer 39 acknowledges five other “sacramental ministries of grace” which, applying answer 38, were not appointed in the Gospel and are not needed by all for fulness of life.

The historic position seems to make some questionable assumptions.First there is this unfolding logic:
  • there cannot be a sacrament within the church which is not a sacrament ordained by Christ;
  • Christ cannot be recognised as having ordained a sacrament unless this can be referenced with regard to the Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), which implies
  • whatever Christ's apostles ordained cannot be said to have been ordained by Christ.
This last point is most obviously relevant for ordination and the anointing of the sick. While Jesus appoints ministers, the laying on of hands is known as an apostolic practice from the latter part of the NT. While Jesus heals the sick and instructs his ministers to do likewise, the anointing is specifically referenced in James 5. The reference in the Article to the "corrupt following of the Apostles" should not obscure this argument. The answer to the corruption of the Lord's Supper was to purify the sacrament. But while the Church of England retained ordination and the anointing of the sick (with opportunity for individual confession of sins) and even confirmation and "holy matrimony" (all in purified forms, presumably), in none of these cases is there a sacrament to be purified.

This is so, secondly, not only because of a lack of reference to having been ordained by Christ in the Gospel but because these other rites "have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God" which is a surprising claim, given the rites found in the Book of Common Prayer itself, unless we put the emphasis on the last three words. Thus, e.g., while marriage is ordained by God, God did not ordain any ceremony to go with it. But can this claim be upheld if one allows that God ordained laying on of hands for ordination, anointing for prayer with the sick, absolution for confession of sins and even that marriage should be a covenant? Or would one need to deny all these things? After all, even with baptism Christ gave so little instruction beyond the central act that Christians debate whether sprinkling or pouring are as good as dipping and even eating and drinking the Lord's Supper comes in the form of different local ceremonies. 

Thirdly, the 1662 Catechism spells out the assumption that sacraments are "generally necessary for salvation" which is also reflected in answer 38 in the Revised Catechism ("needed by all for fulness of life"). This seems to be behind the observation in the Articles that one or two of the "commonly called Sacraments" are "states of life allowed in the Scriptures" (although the use of "allowed" is surprising in the context of marriage and ordination). It is hardly logical to deny that a "state of life" can also be a sacrament, unless it is assumed that every sacrament is necessary for every Christian.

The definition of "sacrament" adopted in the Articles is workable but it is not without remaining questions, not least because the Church of England retained within its liturgy, e.g., an order of confirmation, forms for the "making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons" and for solemnizing matrimony, all of which are rites which include acts alongside prayer and thanksgiving and could fall under a more traditional definition of sacrament. 

I wonder whether the Church of England would have done better to imbibe more of Luther and Melanchthon here. See Article 13 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.

Monday, 24 December 2018

No Penguins at the Crib

Our nativity scene is nearly complete. Or is it? Are we in the scene? Do we allow ourselves to be invited into this scene & have our lives changed as a result? Are we engaging with what’s happening here?
I want to explore this by asking another important question: Why were there no penguins at the crib?
 (1) It’s not their habitat.
David Attenborough reminded us that the majority of penguins don’t live near the south pole but in warmer, even tropical conditions. So it is not that Bethlehem wasn’t cold enough
But whether in the tropics or near the south pole penguins love water of which there isn’t much in Bethlehem.
Apparently penguins evolved from creatures that could fly at one point but they enjoyed the water so much that they grew heavy enough to “fly” speedily through the water,up to 40 miles/hour, if I remember right. But this meant they grew too heavy to fly through the air.
This could be the reason that some of us stay away from the crib. It’s not our habitat; we got used to living our lives in a certain way and we would be entirely outside our comfort zone if we did not make sure that we kept the crib and all that at a certain, maybe ironical, distance.  And so we miss out – like the penguins.
But there may be another reason why the penguins were not there. I reckon if Mary had known about penguins, she would not have wanted any of these creatures anywhere near the crib. 
Thanks to David Attenborough we have learned one or two other s h o c k i n g things about penguins. I mention just one:
(2) Penguins are potential kidnappers. For penguins, as for humans, there is a great deal of effort and risk involved in producing offspring but unlike humans penguins stand in long rows together all having little babies at about the same time. When a baby penguin does not survive the parental instinct is so great in penguins that they will steal the baby from other penguins if they can.
[We should not blame them for this – they are animals that cannot but follow their instincts and urges. To be able to say ‘No’ to our animal urges is probably a particular gift to humanity.]
If penguins had made the long journey to Bethlehem, they would surely have lost their children and then they might have tried to steal the baby from the crib!
And this is another way in which we might miss out on what is happening there. If, in effect, we steal the baby and turn the nativity of our Lord and Saviour into a kitschfest.
Jesus did not come to remain a baby that decorates a tree but to grow up a man and be hung on a tree to suffer the consequences of our rebellion against God, to break through death to resurrection life and reconcile us to God. We do not celebrate the birthday of a good man who is long dead but of someone who is very much alive and wants to be part of our lives.
This Christmas. Don’t be a penguin. Be there. Let yourself be invited into the big story in which all of our lives have a place.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Locating the Holy Family

Ian Paul recently asked: Did Luke get his nativity history wrong? He highlights the overlap between the nativity history as told by Matthew and as told by Luke in spite of their great differences. Some see an irreconcilable contradiction in the geographical moves implied by Matthew’s account on the one hand and Luke’s on the other. Whether someone considers this a problem or not does of course depend on one’s view of the character of the Gospel stories in the Bible. My own view is that the Gospel writers are not telling edifying stories but giving an account of what happened. But I believe that they may well have done so with a greater latitude than would be acceptable today or is accepted by some readers.
The Framework  
·         Matthew gives no geographical reference for the pre-natal story. The birth is located in Bethlehem in Judea where the holy family also receives visitors from the East. The arrival of these foreign dignitaries alerts Herod to the birth of a rival king. This presents a threat to the holy family who flee to Egypt. After Herod’s death the family returns to the land of Israel, apparently at first with the intention to return to Judea but, having been warned against this, make their home in Nazareth.
·         Luke places the annunciation of the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, the starting point also of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, implying that both Joseph and Mary were residents there before the birth of Jesus. Both Mary and Joseph are said to have Judean connections. Mary visits her relative Elizabeth in the Judean highlands and Joseph as to be in Bethlehem to be registered. The birth takes place in Bethlehem, the purification eight days later in Jerusalem. “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to their own town of Nazareth [or: to a town of their own, Nazareth].” (Luke 2:39)
The Difficulty
·         In Matthew’s account the holy family appears to move to Nazareth for the first time upon their return from Egypt a few years after the birth of Jesus. They did so because they were afraid of Archelaus.
·         Luke, by contrast, speaks of Nazareth as the home town of both Joseph and Mary and strongly suggests that soon after the birth of Jesus the holy family moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth, without going via Egypt.
Some aspects of this difficulty may be more apparent than real. If Mary and Joseph had connections to both Judea and Galilee, there would be nothing odd about abandoning a plan to return from Egypt to Judea in favour of settling in Galilee and there is nothing in Matthew’s account to suggests that the family had no connections with Galilee prior to their return from Egypt.
It does not seem to be too difficult to imagine a set of circumstances in which the broad outline of both accounts makes sense. 
A Scenario
(1) Joseph is a Bethlehemite not simply by virtue of descent from David but having grown up there and owning a plot of land to which he holds on for reasons of theology and identity even if it cannot support him economically.
(2) Mary may have been born and raised in Nazareth, although the fact that her relative lives in the Judean highlands suggests that she herself is of Judean descent and may have been a factor in getting betrothed to the Judean Joseph.
(3) Joseph moves to Nazareth for economic reasons. The massive building projects in Tsipori have created job opportunities, especially for people who can work with wood and stone. He does of course not enter into a modern employment contract and may have moved to Nazareth without a clear idea of how many months or years he might stay there.  While he now lives in the small hamlet of Nazareth, his home is still very much Bethlehem.
(4) The registration requires Joseph to move back to Bethlehem, at least for a while. There was likely some flexibility in the timing of this. Joseph combines this requirement with ‘bringing his bride home’, i.e. marrying in his home town.
(5) While they are in Bethlehem (not: upon their arrival, as in nativity plays), most likely staying with family but in crowded circumstances (“no room in the inn” being a mistranslation), Mary gives birth to Jesus. Eight days later they are found in the temple in Jerusalem.
(6) Having decided to stay in Bethlehem, a year or so later the holy family receives visitors from the East which leads to their flight to Egypt. Both Galilee and Judea were in the domain of Herod the Great and by then he had already even some of his own sons killed for fear of losing control.
(7) Herod’s death leads to the division of his kingdom. The holy family’s initial plan to return to the paternal home town which had come under the rule of Archelaus is abandoned in favour of settling in Nazareth, Mary’s home town, now under the rule of Philip the Tetrarch. The maternal home town thus becomes the family’s own town.
I am not saying that this is how it happened. But if it did, Matthew may have deliberately omitted any geographical reference in the pre-natal story to link each location at its proper time with a prophecy Bethlehem (2:1-6), Egypt (2:13-15), and Nazareth (2:23). Luke, by contrast, seems to offer geographical references for their own sake. From these emerge the connections Joseph and Mary have to both Galilee and Judea, connections in which Matthew shows no interest.
The remaining question
Luke 2:39-40 concludes the infancy narrative; in the next event Jesus is twelve years old. It is possible that Luke is telescoping events in Jesus’ life. Due to a phrasing which emphasises the fulfilment of the law, this makes it appear as if the return to Nazareth happened shortly after the visit to the temple. This impression is either correct, if the story of the flight to Egypt is not based on an historical event, or misleading.  New Testament scholars are not agreed on whether Luke deliberately omitted the stay in Egypt or might not have known about it.
For myself, I do not find it difficult or forced to see the various references to Nazareth and Bethlehem in the two accounts as in harmony with each other. It is only Egypt that presents a problem. But is is arguably not impossible to locate the Egypt episode, which given the chronology relating to Herod and Jesus would have been short, between Luke 2:38 and 2:39. Indeed, in a sense this too is a (typological) “fulfilment of the law” (“law” referring to the Torah). Given the likelihood that Mary was a key source for Luke, it does not seem very plausible that Luke would not have known about a stay in Egypt.