Causes of human wickedness

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Sometimes people harm others inadvertently. They sell asbestos sheeting without realising that asbestos dust can lodge in your lungs and kill you. They charge a lot for a drug without thinking that many people who need it will not be able to afford it. They steal and crash a car without knowing that its owner cannot afford another.

Such wickedness can often be checked by publicising the damage done, and punishing those who continue to offend. (more…)

Heart or head? Ways of responding to our culture.

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Our dominant culture favours love at home, fun with mates, and personal advantage in the world, be it through investments, fees or favours. This culture is dominant, largely because it accords with our natural inclinations, and partly because it is based upon highly respected academic works. John Locke said every individual has a right to life, liberty and property, or as the American Declaration of Independence says, life, liberty and happiness. Adam Smith convinced us that selfishness is good for the economy, as long as markets are free. Charles Darwin explained that competition for natural resources is natural, and only the best adapted species will survive. Friedrich Nietzsche declared that individuals should be free to pursue their own ideals, no matter what the cost to others. Together, these works legitimate selfishness, the pursuit of greater wealth for oneself and the benefits that flow from it. (more…)

Peace

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Sermon on Peace

The first Sunday in Lent, 2008

Christmas cards often  celebrate Jesus’ birth with the word “Peace”. They make me ask myself, has Jesus really brought peace to the world?

It would be nice to think that Jesus’ coming into the world brought peace.  But it is not obvious that it did.  Wars and wickedness have persisted since he came.  So I wondered whether there are any Biblical grounds for thinking his coming would bring peace.  I found two passages linking his coming with peace. The first is in Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of a messiah.  (Is. 9: 6-8a)  (New International Version)

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The second Biblical text linking Jesus birth with peace are the words of the heavenly host at the time of his birth, as reported by St Luke (2: 14), who told the shepherds:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

These writers clearly associated the coming the Messiah with the advent of peace on earth.  But has the coming of Jesus brought peace?  Several writers, such as Richard Dawkins, have reminded us recently that Christians have been the source of persecution and war.  Sometimes Christians have fought against Christians: most recently the Protestants and Catholics have fought each other in Northern Ireland.  To convert heathen tribes such as the Saxons in early medieval Europe, Christians offered them Christianity or death.  To cleanse the church of perceived heresy, Christians tortured and killed those whose views differed from their own.  To protect the Holy Lands from infidels, Christians fought crusades against Muslims.

Can we really believe that Christ’s coming brought peace to the world?  This is the question I want to consider this morning.  Sceptics would point to the facts I’ve just listed as providing overwhelming evidence that it did not.  On the contrary, they would say, Christianity has been a source of dreadful and unmerited suffering.

We have seen that the Bible links the Messiah’s birth with an increase in peace.  Does it explain how the Messiah will bring this about?  Indeed it does.  It focuses on three areas:  peace in the world at large, peace between individuals, and peace for the faithful.  At first it seems that they are quite distinct topics, but we will find that they are closely related.

First, then, has Jesus brought peace to the world at large?  Isaiah promised that the Prince of Peace would establish universal peace.   As we heard in the first reading, with God’s help he would create a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem of faithful people, blessed by God, living in peace (Isaiah 65: 17-25.  Cp. Is. 11: 1-9).  In  chapters preceding this passage, the author described the iniquity of the people of Israel and the need for God to intervene if his kingdom was to be established on earth.  Here are a few verses from ch. 59 that express the author’s concerns:

We look for justice, but find none;  for deliverance, but it is far away…

The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;  so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.  …

He put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.  According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies..

The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins.  (vv.11, 16, 17-18, 20)

Thus the prophet promises that God will come in power to defeat his enemies and establish an eternal kingdom of peace for the righteous.

Now we face the first problem.  When Jesus, the Messiah arrived, he did not behave as the author of Isaiah had prophesied.  He did not kill God’s enemies, but let them kill him.  He did not establish peace on earth, but, as we will see, a division between those who follow him and those who oppose him.  So what are we to make of Isaiah’s prophecy?

According to the gospels, Jesus, like the rest of the Jews, continued to believe the prophecy, and, knowing that he was the Messiah, he believed that he would fulfil it.  But, he said, he would do so some time in the future.  He did not know exactly when, but he thought he would come again in power to punish the wicked and reward the faithful quite soon.  The early church’s faith that Jesus would conquer evil and establish a new kingdom of everlasting peace is described in detail in the book of Revelation.  We have no evidence that Isaiah’s prophecy will ever be fulfilled, but the church continues to hope and believe that one day it will be.

However, there is some evidence that Jesus did not think that peace in the world would be established by force.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah, he did not come on a warhorse but on a donkey, as a symbol of peace.  And he did not destroy his enemies, but instead he wept over Jerusalem, saying “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 42)  If the people of Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, and lived in obedience to him, they would have enjoyed peace. But they did not understand that, and instead treated him as an enemy of peace, and crucified him.

It is not hard to see what Jesus had in mind.  When people honour Jesus, they set aside their greed, and ambition and pride, which are the chief causes of strife, and, following his lead, they live godly lives of love, truth and forgiveness.  Unconverted people are prone to hurt and exploit others, no matter how firmly they are governed.  As more and more people become disciples of Jesus, peace within communities and between states will increase.

It seems unlikely, however, that the whole world will convert, and even converted people have lapses of anger that hurt others.  Will the world ever enjoy perfect peace?  It would, if Jesus’ rule were complete, as it is in the New Jerusalem described at the end of the book of Revelation.  The possibility of the kingdom of heaven on earth can and should inspire Christians as the ideal society that God wants to create.  I’m reminded of how a vision of the New Jerusalem inspired Christian to keep on the straight and narrow way in John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christ will build the new Jerusalem here through his disciples, not I think by descending from the clouds with hosts of armed angels in chariots of fire, but by his disciples’ acts of mercy, forgiveness and love.  The people of Jerusalem did not understand this.  Nor, alas, do many people today.

But just a moment.  Is it true that Jesus’ disciples bring peace on earth?  In the gospels Jesus is reported as saying:  “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  I have come to set a man against his father…” an so on. (Matt. 10:34-6)  Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received.  In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said:  “Remember what I said:  “A servant is not greater than his master.”  As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20).  To use John’s metaphors, those who prefer darkness to light will try to extinguish the light of all who illuminate and challenge their dark deeds.

When Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, it seems that he thought the way to establish justice is by force, just as Isaiah had said.  Indeed force can establish peace of a sort, and nations use their armies and police forces for that purpose.  In speaking like this, had Jesus in fact abandoned any other path to peace?

Well consider another of his sayings, also reported by St Matthew.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9).  He went on to say that his disciples should not retaliate when people harm them, but continue to love them.  He said:  “You have learned that they were told:  “love your neighbour, hate your enemy.”  But what I tell you is this :  Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors;  only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike,..” (Matt. 5: 43-45).

Just as God loves wicked people, so must we, forgiving them even when they harm us.  Of course they might not love us in return, but continue to persecute us.  Such, it seems, is life.  Sometimes, despite their best efforts, Christians do not enjoy a very peaceful life with family and neighbours who do not share their beliefs.

Then in what sense, if any, did Jesus bring peace on earth?  He has not, as yet, brought universal peace between nations, or peace between neighbours.  What he has brought, however, is peace in the lives of his disciples.  This is the third kind of peace discussed in the Bible.  What it shows is that every stage of Christian discipleship is marked by increasing peace of mind for the disciple.  Let me briefly indicate what I mean.

As you know, people today are encouraged by advertisers to be selfish, and encouraged by counsellors to be ambitious, yet Jesus was selfless and lived and died for others.  The conflict in people’s lives between their natural desires and godly inclinations is resolved when they sincerely repent of their sins and submit to God’s will.  As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters.  You must choose just one, or remain torn between two. Those who decide to submit to God find peace from a divided heart.  However, they might then feel guilty for having acted so long contrary to God’s will.  They find peace from this guilt through faith in his forgiveness.  So instead of being at war with God, his disciples are peaceful followers of God, walking in his ways.

Having set out on the path of discipleship, people often find the going difficult, and they fear that they will lose their way, or lose their courage and strength to continue.

Disciples overcome their fear of straying from God’s paths by finding that Jesus is always with them, to guide, strengthen and comfort them.  When they pray in faith for his help, and then wait for it, it is given.  This experience, repeated again and again, creates a sense of peace and even joy, knowing that you are never alone, but that the spirit of Jesus is always with you, to support you along the way.  St Paul put it this way to the Philippians:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

Finally, when people discover Jesus’ will for them, they find that it is characterized by peace.  In some pagan religions, I’ve been told, people believed the essence of god was to be discovered in wine, women and song, in some sort of Dionysian ecstasy.  The characteristics of Jesus’ will, however, are well summed up in St Paul’s list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which begin with love, joy and peace (Gal.5:22).

I once saw the passion play at Oberammagau, and the strongest impression I had of Jesus throughout his ordeal was of his peace.  No matter what was happening around him, whether he was being defamed, mocked or scourged, he remained peaceful, knowing the he was with God and doing God’s good will.  On occasion he may require us to act vigorously, but because his will is always good and loving, it is always at peace.

If the Bible finds the peace of God to pass all understanding, you will forgive this feeble attempt to analyse it.  But let me conclude by relating the peace that Christians enjoy with God to the other two areas of peace:  peace between neighbours and peace in the world.  Christians can enjoy peace with God, but they will only enjoy full peace with their neighbours when their neighbours have become disciples too.  And the world will enjoy peace only when Jesus’ sovereignty is respected by all people. That is what the Book of Revelation understood.  In the new peaceful Jerusalem, it says, God dwells with men and women:  they are his people and he is their God (21:3).  There is no sun to light the city, but it will be alight with the glory of God in his son, the Lamb, and all the nations will walk by his light (21:23-24).

We enjoy an imperfect glimpse of this heavenly city in the fellowship of our church, when it is faithful to Jesus.

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  Let us commit ourselves afresh to our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can increasingly enjoy his peace, and brighten our family, and neighbourhood and city with the light of his love.

Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday (and dying with Christ)  John 13: 1

When Jesus and his disciples met for a meal in Jerusalem about the time of the Passover, I imagine the disciples were excited.  The previous Sunday Jesus had entered the city as Israel’s promised Messiah, mounted on an ass rather than a warhorse, as the Prince of Peace.  Many people had welcomed him, even though the authorities had not.  Perhaps Jesus would soon inaugurate the New Jerusalem of peace and justice that Isaiah had foretold.  As close friends of Jesus, they looked forward to  prominent roles in his kingdom.  St Luke writes that some of them were arguing as to who would be greatest among them (Luke 22:24).  They had absolutely no idea that Jesus was about to be betrayed and crucified.

While the disciples were discussing who would be greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom, Jesus was worried that they still did not understand what his kingdom was like.  They imagined themselves like other rulers, telling people what to do.  But Jesus knew that if one lives by God’s spirit of altruistic love, one has no interest in one’s own greatness, and one seldom tells people what to do.  Instead one’s concern is for the wellbeing of others, to help them in any way one can.

With his death immanent, Jesus seized the moment to remind them of this important fact.  According to St Luke Jesus told his disciples that, although he was the greatest among them, he had lived a life of a servant. This is what Luke writes:

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them;  and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and those who rule like the one who serves. …I am among you as one who serves.” (Vv.25-6, 27b.)

No doubt these words stopped the disciples from squabbling over who was the greatest.  But did they really get the message?  It is St John who writes that Jesus put a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet.  That was considered too menial a task even for Jewish slaves.  It was the job of Gentile slaves, or women or children.  Would the disciples ever forget that:  having their feet washed by their master?  Today even the Pope calls himself the servant of the servants of God, and washes a few feet on Maundy Thursday.

So the first lesson we can learn from this reading is that we too must forget about our social standing and must refrain from bossing people about.  Instead we must humbly offer to help people as best we can, in loving concern for their wellbeing.

Does this mean that Christians should go around as lowly servants?  Yes and No.  They should put concern about their own status to one side, and instead do whatever they can to meet the needs of those around them.  Now they might do that from a position of power, as head of a big institution:  the Pope, after all, is head of the Roman Catholic Christians.  Or one might serve others in humble obscurity, for instance as a mother tending a sick child by day and by night, with no-one to praise her for doing so, except God.  The love that Christ showed us, and that animates his friends, is focussed on serving others.

In serving others, of course, one does not obey their every whim, as a slave obeys his master.  Christians serve God above all, and his love has the well-being of people at heart, physical, mental, social and spiritual.  We should help people to find wholeness in their lives.

Finally, the injunction that we should love others does not mean we spend all our time in humble service of others.  God also asks us to worship him, and to thank him for his blessings.  So it is right that sometimes we celebrate life with our friends, as the disciples did with Jesus, at a dinner party.

St John’s account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet has a twist in it.  Peter was appalled that Jesus should serve him in this way, and objected.  But Jesus said to him:  “Unless I  wash you, you have no part with me.” (v.8b)  What did he mean by that?  Jesus also said to Peter:  You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (v.7)

As John’s gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that in washing Peter’s feet, Jesus is saying to Peter, I am not only cleaning your feet.  I am also washing away the guilt and sinfulness that could keep you from loving me.  I am cleaning your soul. .  The act of washing the disciples’ feet was not merely a demonstration of humility.  It was also a symbolic act of cleansing.

Later at the dinner, Jesus says to Peter:  “before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.” (v.38b).  And according to the gospel, as you know, that is what happened.

Peter wept bitterly after he had denied Jesus three times, and consumed by his guilt, must have wondered how Jesus could ever forgive him, ever love him.  So for Peter to be reconciled to Jesus once again, he had to discover that, although he had denied Jesus, Jesus was willing to forgive him.  Later that day Peter might have heard Jesus say to those who crucified him:  “Father forgive them, for they not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).  Jesus’ loving forgiveness of his enemies knew no limits.  Peter must have realized that Jesus would forgive him too.

People can know they are forgiven by Jesus, but still not be part of him.  Forgiveness  removes the power of guilt to keep us from a relationship with God.  Knowing that he still loves us despite our rejection of him means we can love him again. But knowledge of Jesus’ love and forgiveness is not enough to bind us to him.  It is always tempting to think, I’m glad Jesus loves me and forgives me, but I’ll go on living life my way, thank you very much. To partake in the life of Jesus, we must commit ourselves to his will.  That is why St John, at the end of his gospel, has Jesus ask Simon Peter three times:  “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”  And when Peter said he did, Jesus said “Feed my sheep”, that is, commit yourself to serving me.  Only when that commitment has been made, when we have committed ourselves again to serving Jesus, is our life part of his.

Jesus washed Peter of the power of guilt and sin.  But can he wash us?  There is a passage in the first letter of John which says that he can. It reads:

God is light;  in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

It continues:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (I John 1: 5b-9)

Notice the two references to purification.  First, the blood of Jesus can purify us;  and second, once we repent of our sins, Jesus will purify us from all unrighteousness.

The decision to follow Jesus is a turning point in one’s life, as it was for Peter when he first obeyed Jesus call to leave his nets and follow him.  But after making that decision there are always times when our commitment fails, when we walk in darkness and not in his light.  On those occasions, how can the blood of Jesus purify us, as John puts it, or wash us clean?

As I said before, when we see the Son of God crucified, praying to his father to forgive those who tortured and killed him, we know that in his love he forgives us when we act contrary to his will.  That event shows that our guilt is no barrier to his loving forgiveness.  You might say that his blood removes the power of guilt to keep us from loving God.

But what about the power of temptation to lead us again and again into sin?  How can we be cleansed of the power of sin?  St Paul answers that question in Romans ch.6 with these words:

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning…? By no means!  We died to sin;  how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised in Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Think about Jesus, for a moment, as an obedient son. We should distinguish between his dying from the sin of his persecutors, and his dying to sin.  He died to sin in that when he was tempted to disobey God, he remained dead to that temptation, he did not allow himself to be animated by it at all.  Imagine how tempting it must have been for Jesus to save himself from the cross, but he did not yield to that temptation because it was contrary to God’s will.  He remained dead to sin, and instead offered himself to God in obedience.

What St Paul is saying is that we should identify ourselves with Jesus, and in particular with this aspect of his character.  Just as he remained dead to sin, so should we, in order that God can raise us by his Holy Spirit.

To do this, to identify with Jesus in his death and to receive his life, I find Holy Communion a help.  In accepting the broken bread, I’m identifying with Jesus in his death;  and in taking the cup, I’m accepting his life-giving blood, his Holy Spirit.  The Christian life is one of remaining dead to sin and alive in God.

So you can see, when the Son of God died on the cross forgiving his murderers, he displayed for all to see the depth of God’s forgiving love.  And when as a man he humbled himself in obedience to God’s will, he remained dead to the temptation to sin, even to death, showing us the path of discipleship.

Thanks to his death we are washed free from the power of guilt to keep us from God.  And thanks to his humble obedience to the point of death, we have a way to overcome the temptation to sin.  Our souls are cleansed thanks to the loving forgiveness of the Son of God, and the obedience unto death of the Son of Man.

To whom be the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.

Enjoying the life of God

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Sermon at St Marks Camberwell, 4 July, 2010.

Reading:  James 1: 12-18

 

St James is thought to have been a brother of Jesus, and leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem.  The first Christians in Jerusalem were persecuted by Jews, particularly for proclaiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Jews expected the Messiah to be a powerful man who would rid their nation of foreign powers and establish a kingdom of righteousness.  Jesus, by contrast, was weak and humble and was executed by the Romans. When Stephen declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews stoned him to death.  To escape such persecution, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem to live in other cities around the Mediterranean.  But their persecution did not stop:  Jews in many of those cities attacked them, as St Paul found in Thessalonica and Corinth for example, when he went to visit them and preach the gospel.

James’s letter is addressed to the Jewish Christians “scattered among the nations.” (1:1)  It begins by acknowledging their persecution, and encouraging them to persevere in their faith.  The temptation they faced was to renounce their faith in Jesus, and resume their original Jewish traditions.  After all, the Jews were following laws that God have given to Moses and the prophets.  Why risk one’s life and happiness for this new religion proclaiming the divinity of Jesus?

The reason for remaining faithful to Jesus, James writes, is that those who do so  “will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (1:12)  It is that promise that I wish to discuss today.

Christians in our society are not persecuted, thank heavens, but they are sometimes mocked by atheists for believing in an invisible God who often seems very remote from them.  As for thinking that a man like Jesus is divine, that can seem very confusing, something it would be simpler to deny.  It is quite natural for Christians today to wonder whether they should persevere in their faith.

James points out that the decision whether to retain one’s Christian faith and practice is not just a matter of convenience or personal preference.  Rather it is a matter of spiritual life or death.  Those who live by their Christian faith will receive a “crown of life”, whereas those who live by their own desires will be led into sin and spiritual death.

What did St James mean by a “crown of life?”  Saints Paul, Peter and John write in the New Testament of a crown of life being a reward for keeping the faith,  bestowed upon the faithful after they have died, possibly by Jesus at his second coming.

(I Cor.9:25ff; I Peter 5:4;  Rev. 2:10.)  The crown is a symbol of their glory in heaven.  This would have been reassuring to Christians who were persecuted for their faith.  Indeed it is also reassuring to us when we face our own death.

However, there is a second aspect to the crown of life.  When James writes about “the crown of life” he means the glory that comes from sharing in God’s own life, the life of the Holy Spirit, given to those who love him. St Paul said that possession of the Holy Spirit was a condition for enjoying life in heaven. James clearly has this in mind when he contrasts a life of sin, which leads to spiritual death, with a life of faith, whose reward is the eternal life of God’s Holy Spirit.  He calls those who receive the Holy Spirit of God “the firstfruits of all he created.” (1:18)

The observation that sin leads to spiritual death is first made in Genesis ch.3.  You remember that there were two trees in the garden of Eden:  one bore knowledge of good and evil, and the other was the tree of Life.  Adam lost his innocence by disobeying God and yielding to the temptation of Eve to take the fruit of the first tree, thereby acquiring first hand knowledge of good and evil.  God banished him from the garden, and then is says “he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis3:24)  Those who live in sin are denied access to eternal life.

This message of Genesis is as true today as it was for Adam and Eve.  If we live in sin, we are also unable to enjoy the Life of God.  When we think of sin, we often recall the seven deadly sins.  Adam and Eve were led away from God by sexual desire, but the other sins are just as dangerous:  anger, greed, laziness, pride, envy and gluttony.  Isn’t there a bit of all of those in most of us?

A particular temptation for Christians, I think, is to let righteous indignation turn to hate.  When I studied the life of Martin Luther King, I was particularly struck by his care for the souls of the whites who discriminated against the blacks and for the souls of his black followers, who were being organised to oppose them.  It was very tempting for the blacks to use violence against the whites.  But King, following Mahatma Ghandi, developed a method of passive resistance.  He wrote (on 23 July 1956):

…in this method, the non-violent resister seeks to lift or rather to change the opponent, to redeem him.  He does not seek to defeat him or to humiliate him.  And I think this is very important, that the end is never merely to protest but the end is reconciliation..  Another basic factor in the method of non-violent resistance is that this method does not seek merely to avoid external physical violence, but it seeks to avoid internal violence of spirit.  And at the center of the method of non-violence stands the principle of love..  This is the point at which the non-violent resister follows the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is this love ethic that stands at the center of the Christian faith.  (“Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony.”

To keep his demonstrators from becoming angry with the whites, he conducted practice sessions in which people abused them and threatened them, and they learned not to reply or hit back.  Every volunteer had to sign a Commitment Card on which he pledged to meditate on the life of Jesus, and to walk and talk in a loving, Godly way. [Why We Can’t Wait, p. 61.]

James said, keeping away from sin is important because sin leads to spiritual death.

Why does sin lead to spiritual death?  Because while we obey dictates of our own desires, we are deaf to the will of God.  But those who repent of their sins and submit to God’s authority can receive his Holy Spirit. The Tree of Life is a symbol of the life of God himself.  God’s absolutely good, holy life was manifest in the life of Jesus, and it was bestowed on his disciples as God’s Holy Spirit.  James says that anyone who loves God, that is, anyone who honours Jesus and obeys him, will be endowed by God with his Holy Spirit, spiritually reborn with a new, good, holy life, which will take him to heaven.  As Jesus said to Nichodemus:  “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water [for the washing away of sin] and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6)  Born again Christians are those who have received God’s Holy Spirit, who animates their lives.

So James is pointing out to the Jewish Christians, to renounce your faith in Jesus is not a trivial matter.  It could result in you spiritual death, both in this world and the world to come.  Faithful Christians, on the other hand, will enjoy the crown of eternal life.

At this point you might say, well this is all very interesting, but what exactly is the Holy Spirit of God that you keep talking about?  What, if you like, are His distinguishing characteristics?

I think the best way to describe the Holy Spirit is by saying that He is God’s particular word for each one of us, at the present time and place in which we find ourselves.  But, you might reply, isn’t the Bible God’s word to us?  Well yes it is, it seems to have been divinely inspired.  It points out that God has expressed himself by creating the natural world;  and he spoke to Moses, giving him the ten commandments which are still valid;  and finally he spoke to us through Jesus, who taught his disciples about God’s wish that we should love him and one another self-sacrificially, and then showed us how that was done.

Notice, incidentally, how St John equates the word of God with his life and with truth.  He opens his gospel with these famous words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made;  without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men. …The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-4, 14)

There are limitations, however, with the word of God found in the Bible.  The laws given to Moses, and even the summary of the law provided by Jesus, to love God and our neighbours as ourselves, provide only general guidance as to how we should behave. They can certainly check us if we behave badly.  If we murder or steal, the laws of Moses tell us that is contrary to God’s will.  If we fail to honour God and to love our neighbours, we know that we are not conforming to Jesus’ commands.  But the laws do not tell us what we should do just now, about the particular circumstances that confront us.

God’s Holy Spirit prompts us to perform particular actions, according to God’s plan for us, hour by hour and day by day.  These promptings are loving in intent, for the real good of either ourselves or others.  Indeed St John wrote that all acts of love are divine.  He said “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (I John 4:16b)  St Paul described the characteristics of life in the Spirit with his famous list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians chapter five:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22.)

So the first characteristic of the words of God to us through his Holy Spirit is that they are loving in intent.  But be warned:  the kind of love that characterizes God is the self-sacrificial love that a parent has for his or her child, a love called agape in Greek.  While God does care for our well-being, he would like to use us in the service of others, very occasionally to the point of death.  Martin Luther King found that despite his peaceful, loving campaign, his efforts to achieve justice for the black community were often met with hatred and harm.  He wrote [in Testament of Hope, p.41] of being put in jail five times, of his house being bombed twice, and of being the victim of a near-fatal stabbing.

So life in God’s service is not always easy.  But King would not be put off.  Elsewhere he wrote [Strength to Love, p. 40] of his determination to continue loving white people no matter how dreadfully they treated him..  He concluded:

Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.

One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.

We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

As you know, on 4th April 1968 King was shot dead in Memphis.

It is to the credit of the United States nation that every year they honour King with a public holiday.

The first characteristic of God’s Holy Spirit is that His words are loving in intent.  A second characteristic is that they are very wise.

James, in his letter, refers to the promptings of the Spirit as “wisdom”.  Earlier in chapter one he writes:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5).  In the first few chapters of the book of Proverbs, wisdom is the name given to God’s Spirit.  For example, there it is written:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding…

She is more precious than rubies;  nothing you desire can compare with her.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.  She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;  those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;  love her, and she will watch over you.  Wisdom is supreme;  therefore get wisdom.  (Pr.3:5,13,17-18; 4:6-7)

The advice of the Holy Spirit is not only loving, it is also wise, sometimes wise beyond our understanding.

Finally, when we start to do what the Spirit suggests, we find that He also provides us with the strength we need to get the job done.  Paul wrote to the Philippians:  “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4: 13)

So the Holy Spirit is a source of new spiritual life, He reveals the truth to us, He inspires us to act in ways that are loving and wise, and He provides the strength we need to obey Him.

Then how can we experience God’s Holy Spirit for ourselves?  In our passage, James writes that God has promised his life “to those who love him.” (v.12)  Let me stress that we cannot find the Holy Spirit by ourselves.  He is a divine person, who must be addressed.  We can ask Him to guide and strengthen us, but then we must wait for his inspiration.  Jesus told Lazarus that the Holy Spirit is like the wind that “blows wherever it pleases.” (John 3:8.)  Not only must we invite the Holy Spirit to guide us, our motives for doing so must be good.  We must sincerely want to love God by serving and obeying him.

The voice of God is quiet, and closer to us than our own thoughts.  Do you remember how God addressed Elijah?  Not in earthquake, wind or fire, but with a still small voice (I Kings 19: 11-12).  We must still our minds and remain expectant to catch what God says.

Let me conclude with the words of Psalm 95:

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

Amen.

The Life of God

Sermon summary

James 1: 12-18

James wrote to Christian Jews who had dispersed around the Mediterranean to avoid persecution in Jerusalem.

He encouraged them to persevere in their faith, in order to receive “the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

What is a “crown of life”?

It is (1) a symbol of the life and glory that Christians will enjoy in heaven, possibly bestowed at Jesus’ second coming.  (I Cor.9:25; I Peter 5:4; Rev. 2:10.)     And it is (2) the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to those who love him.

The life of God is not available to those who live in sin.

Adam was excluded from the Garden of Eden, and from the Tree of Life.

We must avoid the seven deadly sins, and not let righteous indignation turn to hate.

Martin Luther King insisted on this.

While we obey our own desires, we remain deaf to the will of God.

What are the characteristics of the Holy Spirit?

(1) He is the particular word of God to each of us, here and now.

(2) His will is loving in intent.  But the love is agape, self-sacrificial in nature.

It can incur the wrath of others, and consequent suffering, even death, as in the case of Martin Luther King.

(3) His will is very wise.  Note the praise of Wisdom in Proverbs chs. 1-4.

(4) He provides us with the strength to do His will. (Philippians 4: 13.)

How can we experience the Holy Spirit?

We must sincerely want to serve God, and should ask God to send us His Spirit to guide and empower us.

We must be still, wait and listen for the Spirit’s promptings:  a still, small voice.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Ps. 95)

Reason, science and faith

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Living with reason, science and faith

Reason and science have brought humanity many blessings. But they have proved unable to limit human evil. To overcome evil the world needs the spiritual renewal promised by Christian faith. Reason, science and faith are all necessary for a good life.

Atheists insist that our lives should be guided by reason and science and not by faith. They see these two as not merely different, but as opposed to one another. They point back to the European Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, as a period of cultural and economic stagnation which was the result of the rule of faith. To avoid everlasting punishment in hell, people then believed what the church taught them and lived as the church required. Progress came, they go on, only with the development of scientific means of inquiry, and with the Renaissance of classical values in art and the humanities focussing on the pleasures of earthly existence. The goal of humanity now became happiness, not holiness. The church and the feudal society it supported began to lose relevance, and today progressive thinkers want to sweep away the last vestiges of its influence and its faith.

Critical reason and scientific inquiry have brought immense benefits to humankind. Unjust feudal structures have been replaced by democratic ones, and advances in medicine, engineering and technology have been amazing. No wonder atheists believe that reason and science are all that people need to live well. With writers like Richard Dawkins the optimism of the eighteenth century, based upon its faith in reason, has surfaced again in the twenty-first.

The achievements of reason and science are the result of their ability to discover the truth. Religious faith has often obscured the truth. For example, the church often preaches that God loves everyone He has made, or at least those who believe in Him. But this statement needs qualification in the face of dreadful suffering that He allows to occur. Only by applying critical reason to such statements can the truth be eventually discovered: God wants His love to be expressed through people. Then again, the church sometimes teaches the opening chapters of Genesis as scientific fact, whereas the findings of science tell another story, one much more likely to be true. Genesis has a lot to teach us about the relations of God, humankind and nature, but when science so overwhelmingly diverges from it, we should follow science if we want to live by the truth.

Strictly speaking, one should say that reason and science are more likely to reveal truths about the world than can be discovered by uncritical faith. The conclusions of science are superseded from time to time as scientific theories change. But the scientific method of devising theories to account for observations has proved a very useful way of arriving at reliable beliefs about the world.

Then why not agree with atheists that we should live by reason and science and not by faith? Because reason and science are powerless in combating evil and injustice, and in developing goodwill towards all. Only a spiritual transformation based upon Christian faith will foster the steady altruistic love that a good life and a good community require.

When evil people employ reason, science and technology to achieve their ends, the results can be horrific. Nazi and communist dictatorships are the paradigm cases, but evil dictatorships elsewhere around the world have produced untold misery as well.

How can evil be overcome? Kant argued that human will can overcome immoral desires, and that human reason can judge which maxims are just and deserving of respect. Sometimes indeed people can see what is just, and find the will to pursue it. But very often, as St Paul said in Romans, people do not act as they know they should. His conclusion was: “if I do no what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7: 20)

St Paul knew that the solution to this problem involved religious faith: faith that God was willing to forgive his sins and that God wanted him to live by His Holy Spirit, who would give him the wisdom and desire to live honouring God and in the service of others, as Jesus did. (All this he explained in the following chapters of Romans.)

Why, then, have more people not embraced St Paul’s solution to the problem of evil? One reason is that many people are unaware that there is a problem. To live for others is difficult, but many people live just for their family and friends, and so do not encounter the difficulty of loving God and their neighbours very often. And those whose hearts are set on increasing their wealth and even their power are relatively insensitive to moral concerns, and of the need for spiritual renewal.

Another reason for ignoring St Paul’s message is that it requires religious faith, which many think is irrational superstition. Notice, however, that faith in God and in his Holy Spirit is not contrary to reason. The truth of God’s existence and the power of his Spirit cannot be proved rationally or scientifically. But there is evidence of God’s existence in the ingenious systems and regularities of nature and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual transformation of believer’s lives, so it is not irrational to believe in these things. Indeed there are great benefits in doing so.

Civilizations have benefited immensely from the application of critical reason and scientific methods. But they are in danger of collapse from moral failure. There is, therefore, an urgent need for the world to pay attention to St Paul’s advice on overcoming moral evil. Then people will employ critical reason and scientific understanding not to exploit others but to help them, in the hope of creating a glimpse of heaven here on earth.

Reason and faith

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Living with reason, science and faith

 

Reason and science have brought humanity many blessings.  But they have proved  unable to limit human evil.  To overcome evil the world needs the spiritual renewal promised by Christian faith.  Reason, science and faith are all necessary for a good life.

Atheists insist that our lives should be guided by reason and science and not by faith.  They see these two as not merely different, but as opposed to one another.  They point back to the European Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, as a period of cultural and economic stagnation which was the result of the rule of faith.  To avoid everlasting punishment in hell, people then believed what the church taught them and lived as the church required. Progress came, they go on, only with the development of scientific means of inquiry, and with the Renaissance of classical values in art and the humanities focussing on the pleasures of earthly existence. The goal of humanity now became happiness, not holiness.  The church and the feudal society it supported began to lose relevance, and today progressive thinkers want to sweep away the last vestiges of its influence and its faith.

Critical reason and scientific inquiry have brought immense benefits to humankind.  Unjust feudal structures have been replaced by democratic ones, and advances in medicine, engineering and technology have been amazing.  No wonder atheists believe that reason and science are all that people need to live well.  With writers like Richard Dawkins the optimism of the eighteenth century, based upon its faith in reason, has surfaced again in the twenty-first.

The achievements of reason and science are the result of their ability to discover the truth.  Religious faith has often obscured the truth.  For example, the church often preaches that God loves everyone He has made, or at least those who believe in Him.  But this statement needs qualification in the face of dreadful suffering that He allows to occur.  Only by applying critical reason to such statements can the truth be eventually discovered:  God wants His love to be expressed through people. Then again, the church sometimes teaches the opening chapters of Genesis as scientific fact, whereas the findings of science tell another story, one much more likely to be true.  Genesis has a lot to teach us about the relations of God, humankind and nature, but when science so overwhelmingly diverges from it, we should follow science if we want to live by the truth.

Strictly speaking, one should say that reason and science are more likely to reveal truths about the world than can be discovered by uncritical faith.  The conclusions of science are superseded from time to time as scientific theories change.  But the scientific method of devising theories to account for observations has proved a very useful way of arriving at reliable beliefs about the world.

Then why not agree with atheists that we should live by reason and science and not by faith?  Because reason and science are powerless in combating evil and injustice, and in developing goodwill towards all.  Only a spiritual transformation based upon Christian faith will foster the steady altruistic love that a good life and a good community require.

When evil people employ reason, science and technology to achieve their ends, the results can be horrific.  Nazi and communist dictatorships are the paradigm cases, but evil dictatorships elsewhere around the world have produced untold misery as well.

How can evil be overcome?  Kant argued that human will can overcome immoral desires, and that human reason can judge which maxims are just and deserving of respect.  Sometimes indeed people can see what is just, and find the will to pursue it. But very often, as St Paul said in Romans, people do not act as they know they should.  His conclusion was:  “if I do no what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7: 20)

St Paul knew that the solution to this problem involved religious faith:  faith that God was willing to forgive his sins and that God wanted him to live by His Holy Spirit, who would give him the wisdom and desire to live honouring God and in the service of others, as Jesus did.  (All this he explained in the following chapters of Romans.)

Why, then, have more people not embraced St Paul’s solution to the problem of evil?  One reason is that many people are unaware that there is a problem.  To live for others is difficult, but many people live just for their family and friends, and so do not encounter the difficulty of loving God and their neighbours very often.  And those whose hearts are set on increasing their wealth and even their power are relatively insensitive to moral concerns, and of the need for spiritual renewal.

Another reason for ignoring St Paul’s message is that it requires religious faith, which many think is irrational superstition.  Notice, however, that faith in God and in his Holy Spirit is not contrary to reason.  The truth of God’s existence and the power of his Spirit cannot be proved rationally or scientifically.  But there is evidence of God’s existence in the ingenious systems and regularities of nature and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual transformation of believer’s lives, so it is not irrational to believe in these things. Indeed there are great benefits in doing so.

Civilizations have benefited immensely from the application of critical reason and scientific methods.  But they are in danger of collapse from moral failure.  There is, therefore, an urgent need for the world to pay attention to St Paul’s advice on overcoming moral evil.  Then people will employ critical reason and scientific understanding not to exploit others but to help them, in the hope of creating a glimpse of heaven here on earth.

Pragmatic justification of religious beliefs

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Can Religious Beliefs be Justified Pragmatically?

 

C. Behan McCullagh

 

This question arises for two important reasons.  The first is that it is impossible to justify religious beliefs epistemically, as they are not clearly the best explanation of the evidence that supports them.  The world might have been created by a good God, but it might also be a result of chance events, or have been created by several gods, good and evil.  So if religious beliefs cannot be justified epistemically, is there any other way of justifying them that deserves serious consideration?  Pragmatic justification seems a possibility, especially as religious beliefs are closely related to good practices and experiences which often flow from them.

The second reason for asking the question is that pragmatic justification of beliefs is of interest in its own right.  We often believe facts about the world of which we have scant evidence because it is useful to do so.  But to accept pragmatic justification seems like accepting wishful thinking, believing something to be true because you want it to be so.  Most people would condemn this as the height of irrationality.  So it is interesting to ask whether pragmatic justifications of belief are ever rational, and if so, under what conditions.

Let me explain these points a little more fully, though they are commonly agreed and fairly well known.  Scientists often postulate invisible fields of force to account for observable facts.  Thus the regularity with which ripe apples fall to earth can be explained by the force of gravity.  And the regularity with which a compass points in one direction is explained by the force of magnetism.  If one assumes these fields of force exist, then the regularities they explain can be predicted. If an explanation of some observations, such as this, is clearly superior to any other that people can think of, according a number of well-known criteria (refs), then it is generally accepted as probably true. Indeed, when such predictions are not confirmed by observation, the assumptions on which they are based are regarded as incorrect in some way.  Often they have to qualified;  sometimes they are abandoned.

The regularities of nature themselves can be explained as the work of a wise, kind creator, who designed them for humans to understand so that they could master nature.  The trouble with this religious hypothesis is that it seems inconsistent with the existence of much pain and suffering, which the hypothesis cannot explain.  Consequently it seems not much better than the hypothesis that the world came into existence by chance, though this does not explain the remarkable regularity and intelligibility of laws of nature;  or that it was created by two or more gods, some good and some evil, though this hypothesis is less simple that the first.  When the evidence supports different hypotheses more or less equally, it is better to regard them as interpretations of the evidence, rather than as good explanations of it.

Paul Davies, for example, has noted the remarkable “fine tuning” of the fundamental constants of the forces in the cosmos that are necessary for the existence of our world, so perfectly fitted to human life.  He postulated an “anthropic principle” at work in nature, unwilling to accept that the conjunction of so many critical values, that could easily have been otherwise, was a matter of chance.[i]  The “strong” anthropic principle is “The universe must be such as to admit conscious beings at some stage.”[ii]   “Alternatively,” he wrote, “the numerical coincidences could be regarded as evidence of design.  The delicate fine-tuning in the values of the constants … might be attributed to God.”[iii] Davies’ “anthropic principle” is a scientific explanation that admits of testing.  But to ascribe the fine-tuning to God is not a scientific explanation.  Instead, it is an interpretation of the data, which could be understood as the work of a single intelligent creator.  An interpretation of facts about the world is a way of making sense of them, and of significant patterns in them, by postulating causes for which the evidence is ambivalent.  All metaphysical beliefs, such as beliefs in the reality of the physical world and in the reality of other minds, are interpretations of the world as we know it.  The existence of a physical world helps to explain our perceptions of material objects;  and the existence of other minds helps to explain people statements about what they think, feel, dream and imagine.  But it is quite possible for all we know, and as some have argued, that our perceptions of the world are just ideas we have;  and that other minds are simply physical brains.

Given that evidence for the existence of God is not entirely convincing, one wonders whether people are rationally justified in holding religious beliefs as firmly as they do.  Prima facie, it seems that they are not, as they lack convincing epistemic justification of the kind that clearly warrants belief.  Can the valuable consequences of such beliefs justify people in holding them?

It would seem that they cannot, for to hold a belief because you like the consequences of doing so is a case of wishful thinking, something that is widely condemned. I shall return to the question of wishful thinking shortly.  Before doing so, let me mention another reason for denying that religious beliefs can be justified pragmatically.

To believe a proposition is to be convinced that it is true.  When Richard Swinburne considered the rationality of religious beliefs, he insisted that the only reasons that could justify belief are reasons that imply its truth, epistemological reasons.[iv]  The fact that a belief has good consequences implies nothing about its truth.  It is comforting to believe that God made us and loves us, but the fact that this belief is comforting is no evidence of its truth.  An illusion of this kind would be just as comforting.  Consequently, Swinburne concluded, one cannot provide rational support for a belief by referring to its valuable consequences.

One way of responding to Swinburne is to ask what is the point of rationally justifying a proposition?  If by ‘rational justification’ one means epistemic justification, then by establishing the truth of a proposition one generally provides conditions sufficient for believing it.  So if the point of a rational justification is to create a belief in a proposition by demonstrating its truth, then an epistemic justification will usually do the job, and a pragmatic justification will not.  People do not usually believe a proposition simply because someone points out the good consequences of doing so.  Pascal recognized this when he advised those who want to acquire a religious belief to follow religious practices in the hope of acquiring it along the way.

In that case, what is the point of a pragmatic justification?  If it is not to create religious beliefs in others, it could be to encourage those who already have religious beliefs to continue holding them and not abandon them in the face of evidence apparently inconsistent with them. Often people acquire religious beliefs in their youth, from their family or church group, and wonder whether they should continue to hold them when they become autonomous, rational adults.  If their beliefs have very good personal and social consequences, as they do in many devout religious people, it would seem dreadful to urge them to abandon them.  So let us contrast the rationality of acquiring beliefs, which is what Swinburne was considering, and the rationality of continuing to hold them, which is where a pragmatic justification might be appropriate.

It is important to note, however, that when someone finds the evidence against a belief they hold to be so great as to convince them that it is false, then they will probably abandon it, no matter how comforting it may be.  Thus although it may be comforting to believe that those lost at sea are still alive, after a while people abandon it when the evidence against that proposition is overwhelming.  One is pragmatically justified in abandoning a belief that is clearly false because, were one to act on it, one’s action would probably be unsuccessful.

These points help us to reply to those who claim that religious beliefs are cases of wishful thinking, and that wishful thinking, being irrational, should be avoided. W.K. Clifford, for example, objected that wishful thinking often leads to false beliefs that can have disastrous consequences for others, no matter how comforting they are to those who hold them.  His example is brilliant, of a shipowner who ignores evidence of the fragility of a ship carrying people abroad, and convinces himself that it is good for one more voyage, and that God would never allow it to founder.  When it sinks in a storm, with the loss of all souls, he cheerfully collects the insurance![v] If Clifford is right, it seems that a belief cannot be justified because of the comfort and other benefits it brings.  In which case, it would appear that religious beliefs cannot be justified pragmatically.

It is important to contrast, however, irrational beliefs that people hold because they want the consequences of believing them to be true, and non-rational beliefs that they hold as a result of the same desire.  The shipowner’s belief was irrational if the evidence that the ship was not sea-worthy was overwhelming.  In that case the belief was probably false, and there are both epistemic and pragmatic reasons for abandoning it.  Indeed pragmatic justifications take into account, not just the probable truth of a proposition, but the value of the consequences of holding it true.  If the consequences of holding a belief true which turned out to be false could be disastrous, then it is wrong to hold it true without very strong evidence indeed.  For this reason, it would have been wrong of the shipowner to believe his ship was seaworthy even if the evidence for and against that proposition was fairly balanced.  However, if the consequences of holding a non-rational belief, such as a religious belief, are good, and would not be very bad if it turned out to be false, then there is a good pragmatic reason to hold it, even though it is held because its consequences are desired.

When religious people are asked to justify their faith, they often say that it is important because without it they will not get to heaven.  Blaise Pascal famously argued in his Pensees that since it is possible that people who have a Christian faith will go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss, that is a good reason for holding or seeking such faith.  If there is no heaven after all, nothing much would have been lost by leading a religious life.[vi]

A pragmatic defence of religious faith that appeals to theological facts, such as a reward in heaven, will seem reasonable to those who already believe in such facts, but not to those who do not.  In this paper, reference to a rational justification of religious belief is meant to signify a justification that all rational people could accept on the basis of their experiences of the world.  To refer to a reward in heaven is to assume a theological fact, a matter of religious belief, whose justification is in question.  In effect, it is to beg the question being addressed by this paper.  So it is not an argument that can be accepted here.

It is important to note that Pascal does not assume the truth of a theological proposition.  He does not affirm a reward for the faithful in heaven, but simply entertains it as a possibility.  His argument is objectionable on other grounds.  For a pragmatic justification to be convincing, it must refer to consequences which there is good reason for believing really will follow.  Or, to put it more accurately, as the probability of the consequences decreases, so does the strength of the justification.  Is it rational to buy a lottery ticket?  The rationality of doing so diminishes as the chances of winning diminish, though the value of the guaranteed prize for the winner is relevant.  If it is strongly desired and little is lost in buying a ticket, then there could be a pragmatic reason for buying one.  But when there is absolutely no evidence of the reward existing, but it is a mere possibility, as in Pascal’s case, then the justification for believing is vanishingly small, no matter how great the possible reward might be.

William James’ pragmatic defence of religious beliefs

The most famous defence of a pragmatic justification for religious beliefs is to be found in William James’s essay “The Will to Believe”.[vii] James said that if one entertains a proposition that is “live”, ”momentous” and “forced,” then one has a right to believe it if one wants to.  A proposition is “live” if one is inclined to accept it; it is “momentous” if accepting or denying it have important implications; and it is “forced” if a decision between its being true or false is not avoidable, as there is no middle ground.  James pointed out that we often believe propositions whose truth has not been established by evidence, when it is important to do so.  We cannot prove many facts about the world are true, but we believe them to be so when we must act on them.  James remarked that one cannot prove the truth of moral beliefs, but if we want a moral community, we believe them and act upon them.  Similarly we cannot prove that strangers are trustworthy, but we believe they are in order to act in a friendly manner towards them.[viii]

In many cases such as these, the evidence that is available points to the truth of the propositions we believe, even though it falls short of providing an absolute proof.  James was, in fact, writing about propositions, including religious ones, for which there was some evidence, but which could just as easily be false as true.  He emphasised this condition in the following passage:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this:  Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds;  for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision, — just like deciding yes or no,–and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.[ix]

He concluded that if we want it to be the case that God exists, then we have the right to believe that he does.

John Hick objects that “this virtually amounts to a license for wishful thinking.”[x] How, then, can James defend his thesis?  James said that sometimes, by acting on the assumption that a proposition is true, we acquire evidence which implies that it is.  For instance, if we believe a stranger is trustworthy, and lend him our car, we might discover that he is indeed trustworthy when he returns it in good order. James’s basic argument is that if we always wait for empirical proof, we might miss out on many true facts, belief in which would be to our advantage.  Rationalists would confine beliefs to those propositions which the relevant evidence makes much more likely to be true than false.  James says that such scepticism is itself an emotional response in cases of uncertainty, and no more rational than his proposal that we believe those propositions that we want to, when the evidence for them is equivocal.  Even if, by believing a proposition we are unable to prove it true, it could still be true for all we know, and the benefits of believing it could be great.

Is this response by James of any help in providing a rational justification for religious belief?  In fact James rejected many religious beliefs as false or insignificant.  “The Will to Believe” was published in 1897.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, he declares one basic religious belief obviously false:  namely the idea that God exists and is just and loving, which “the moral complexion of the world” shows to be mistaken, as Job was so well aware.[xi]  Other Christian beliefs he objects are “destitute of all intelligible significance”, meaning that whether they are true or false makes no difference to our lives.  His list is a long one, and includes the following:  “God’s aseity [underived self-existence], for example … his necessariness;  his immateriality;  his “simplicity” … his indivisibility … his actualised infinity” and so on.[xii]   James also adopted a much more rational approach to religious belief in his book Pragmatism, published in 1907,where he said that both religious and scientific beliefs should be tested against experience. [xiii]

It is wrong to believe propositions which there is good reason to think false, because to do so might involve trusting in something that does not exist, or does not have the properties attributed to it.  The results could be disastrous.  If someone believed that God loved them and would look after them and their family through thick and thin, then they might fail to provide for themselves and the others leaving them destitute.  Indeed James remarked that those who rely on God’s goodness in this way tend not to worry about the evils in this world:  they “take a moral holiday”.[xiv]

A worry about James’s response in “The Will to Believe” is his insistence that the only options available are belief or scepticism.  Why not allow that people are capable of degrees of belief in a proposition, corresponding to the strength of the evidence, or the balance of evidence, in its favour?  This seems to be the rational response in cases of evidential uncertainty.  He has not offered any reason for the more passionate response, besides saying that it might result in good consequences.

I shall argue shortly that a passionate or strong conviction can indeed be justified in some cases by its good consequences.  But here let us note that it might also result in bad consequences, if the passion driving it was bad.  This is an objection raised recently by John Bishop.  It would be morally wrong to believe in “a white-supremacist God”, for example, simply because one desired a God like that.[xv]  It would be wrong because faith in such a God could vindicate white-supremacist behaviour:  severe discrimination against people of other colours, which is unjust.  So the mere fact that the results of holding a belief are desired does not justify holding that belief.  James should have insisted that the results be not only desired but good.  I suspect he assumed that if they were desired they were desirable, an old fallacy in ethics.

The requirement that the consequences of religious beliefs must be moral if holding them is to be justified, raises a difficult problem for those defending the rationality of religious belief.  There is no problem if moral values are universal, but given the variety of moral standards both within and between cultures, it is the case that there is no universal yardstick for judging the moral goodness or badness of the consequences of human behaviour.  It follows that judgements about the value of religious beliefs will not be universal.  Does that mean they are not rational?  No, it means that what one group of people judge to be a good reason for holding a belief might not be accepted as a good reason by another group.  Pragmatic reasons for belief, then, are not universal, but vary from tradition to tradition, and from group to group.  (I elaborate on this point at the end of the paper.)

Incidentally, I suppose that a belief for which there is no evidence, but which has harmless consequences, should not be condemned.  Suppose people believe that God inhabits all living things, then that might result in their reverence for all living things, which would generally be a good thing.  The worry is that the number of beliefs with good consequences is without limit.  Rationalists like T.H.Huxley and W.K.Clifford, to whom James refers,[xvi] would limit beliefs to those propositions whose truth is necessary or very probable on available evidence.  But there are many propositions we believe without being able to prove them true.  Some of these appear indispensable.  John Bishop has described a number of  “framework principles,” as he calls them, that are generally believed without proof, such as the proposition that there is an external reality and the proposition that the methods of induction are reliable .[xvii]  In fact Bishop explains that people need not believe such principles are true in order to live by them.  They can get by simply by assuming their truth for practical purposes, for instance when acting on their perceptions, or drawing inferences about the world from what they know.[xviii]   A sceptic could act as if these principles were true, while consciously and deliberately refusing to endorse their truth or to believe in it.  If these basic principles can be accepted without being believed, it makes one wonder whether any beliefs are really necessary for practical purposes.  We will address this question soon.  For the time being, to limit the number of acceptable beliefs without requiring absolute proof of their truth, let us assume that it may be rational to believe a proposition if there be some evidence of its truth, and it is not exceeded by (epistemic) reasons for believing it false.

This discussion of William James’s defence of a pragmatic justification of religious belief has yielded the following conclusions.  For religious beliefs to be rationally justified, there must be some evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, and believing them must have generally good moral consequences, not bad ones.

The first of these conditions in effect excludes those cases of wishful thinking that are condemned as irrational.  The mere fact that the truth of a proposition is desired does not mean it must be false or rejected as irrational.  That depends on the evidence available.  The ship owner’s conviction that his ship was sea-worthy was irrational, not because it was desired, but because the evidence on balance showed that it was not true.  The requirement that for beliefs to be rational there must be evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, puts a severe constraint upon religious beliefs, given the problems of evil.  For many the evidence of evil outweighs that of God’s love, so they reject the proposition that God loves the people he has made.

Can any religious beliefs be justified?

Rather than discuss the problems of evil, let us consider some religious beliefs that do not imply that God loves everyone and is wise and powerful enough to ensure their perpetual happiness.  Here are three central propositions from the Christian tradition that are worth considering: (1) that a powerful, intelligent being has created and sustained the universe so that humankind could evolve and live within it;  (2) that this God revealed his will for humankind to and through Moses and the prophets, and above all in Jesus, each revelation being appropriate to the people to whom it was given;  and (3) that God provides a spirit of truth and love, the spirit that characterised Jesus, to those who are willing to submit to it.  Many Jews and Muslims would accept these assertions, as well as Christians, though they would doubt the special significance of Jesus.  There is no implication in these three propositions that God would or even could intervene in physical nature in a miraculous way to help those in need, as some traditional concepts of God imply.  These three propositions are consistent with the existence of both natural and moral evil, and so cannot be immediately dismissed as incompatible with known facts about the world.

Furthermore, there is some evidence in support of these assertions.  (1) The fine tuning that so impressed Paul Davies is quite remarkable, and suggests the existence of a creator intent on providing a universe in which humans could evolve and live. That such a universe involves pain and suffering, decay and death, as well as pleasure and joy, growth and regeneration, is consistent with a wish to create human beings and world in which they could exist, at least for a while.  (2)  Some of the laws of Moses are repulsive to modern westerners, but the ten commandments, requiring respect both for the will of God as expressed in these commandments, and for one’s parents and neighbours, provide a foundation for a just society and would be almost universally approved.  Subsequent Jewish and Muslim prophets developed the same theme, particularly the need to have mercy on the destitute.  This theme was taken further by Jesus, who taught that people should not merely respect others, but love them to the point of self-sacrifice.  Most people would applaud such love within the family, and many would approve it towards others outside the family as well.  The near universal respect shown for the commands to respect and love others can be interpreted as evidence of their divine origin.  (3) Those who commit themselves to obeying God’s commands have often found spiritual support from what is referred to as the Holy Spirit, which reveals the truth to them, especially about God’s will, inspires them to act in a just and loving way, and gives them the resolve to do so.  There are numerous accounts of people’s characters being transformed once they make a religious commitment, and this can be interpreted as a spiritual transformation.  Diogenes Allen has remarked on people’s natural desire to be good, and sees Christian beliefs as helping to strengthen that desire and meet that need.[xix]

While the facts I have mentioned are capable of a religious interpretation, as supporting the three propositions stated above, they do not prove the truth of those propositions.  Indeed, they are capable of other interpretations as well.  For instance, the extraordinary appropriateness of the fundamental constants of the cosmos might be a matter of chance;  the Mosaic law and the commands of Jesus might be said to be good because Moses , the prophets and Jesus were wise and good men, not because they were divinely inspired;  and the changes in character found among believers could come simply from their determination to imitate Jesus, not from any mysterious spirit at all.

If the evidence that supports the theological propositions can be explained without any theological assumptions, then is it not rational to adopt the simpler interpretation?  It is widely accepted that Ockham’s razor should be applied to excise unnecessary assumptions.  Why not in this case?  The only answer that suggests itself is that the beliefs are of such value that it would be dreadful to abandon them.

The value of these three beliefs is well known. (1) If  the cosmos and the world were made for people to live in, that gives their lives an extraordinary value.  All this was made for them.  People, then, are of objective and absolute value.  Their lives should be treated as of ultimate value, to which all other values, such as the prosperity or good order of the country they inhabit, should be subordinate. (2)  If the commands given by Moses, Jesus and other prophets were the word of God, then they deserve unqualified respect.  A consequence of obeying them would be the creation of just and loving communities, something that almost all people value.  (3)  Finally, if  God’s Holy Spirit of wisdom and love is available to those intent on obeying God’s commands, it would enable people to overcome their wayward and wicked natures, and live as they ought and as they desire.

It is possible to believe that the three propositions are true, yet ignore them in deciding how to live.  Passionate faith, or complete conviction, however, is marked by a commitment to let them become a basis of one’s decisions and find expression in one’s life.  Those who are convinced of the truth of these propositions will treat all people, including themselves, as of ultimate value;  they will act as justly and lovingly as they can;  and they will seek the support of God’s Holy Spirit to enable them to lead a holy life.  The consequences for both the believers and their societies is so good, it could be argued, as to justify their faith.

Be that as it may, there are two objections to this conclusion that deserve careful consideration.  The first is as follows.  We have seen that the observable facts that support the three religious propositions could be interpreted without employing theological assumptions.  It is now claimed that the good consequences of believing those propositions justify faith in them.  But that argument fails if the good consequences of faith in them could be achieved without that belief.  Then the argument for ontological simplicity kicks in once again.  If theological beliefs are not necessary for these good outcomes, this last reason for retaining them seems to collapse.

It is certainly possible to argue that religious beliefs are not necessary to achieve the goods that have been described as following from them. There are people who value the lives of others as well as their own, though many love members of their family most, and treat others with less concern.  Doubtless many of those who work for social justice, believing all people are of value and should cooperate to live as happily as possible, act without religious beliefs.  Finally, Aristotle taught us how to curb excessive passion and live rationally and well, without religious beliefs.  It seems there is no need to hold religious beliefs to enjoy these good consequences of them.

I have just suggested that if the benefits of religious beliefs can be achieved without them, then in the interests of ontological simplicity one should, if one is rational, abandon such beliefs.  But if religious beliefs do a lot to motivate people to live well and achieve the goods outlined above, is that not a good reason for maintaining them?  More to the point, does not that benefit outweigh the value of maintaining ontological simplicity?  If those without religious convictions generally acted according to the values outlined above, then there would be little lost in abandoning them.  But these days alternative values, of personal wealth, reputation and power, seem increasingly attractive to those able to achieve them.  Indeed they always have, as the prophets have declared.  Without the motivation provided by religious belief, fewer and fewer seem willing to work for a society of justice and love beyond their own families.  Consequently I conclude that although belief in those propositions might not be absolutely necessary to produce the goods associated with them, nevertheless strong belief in them provides a very important motive for pursuing them, one which the world can scarcely do without.

The second objection to the pragmatic justification of these religious beliefs is one that was first argued by Richard Swinburne, and has been repeated since.  Swinburne described religious faith as involving both belief that certain propositions, usually about God, are true, and trust in those propositions when deciding how to live.  A religious life, Swinburne says, involves “acting on assumptions” that God will support and reward those who try to please him.  He goes on to remark that to many people religious faith seems more about trusting in God than holding beliefs about him.[xx]

The difference between belief and acceptance has been the subject of detailed philosophical discussion recently.[xxi] Jonathan Cohen, in An Essay on Belief and Acceptance, says that whereas belief involves a feeling that a proposition is true, acceptance requires no more than an assumption that it is true, for practical purposes.  He writes:  “To accept that p is to have or to adopt a policy of deeming, or postulating that p—i.e. of including that proposition or rule among one’s premises for deciding what to do or think in a particular context, whether or not one feels it true that p”.[xxii] He allows that one can accept a proposition for practical purposes, even though one’s belief in it is slight.  For example a lawyer might assume that a person she is defending in court is innocent when preparing and presenting her case, while privately believing he might well be guilty. As Engel puts it:  “acceptance is more the outcome of a practical, pragmatic decision than the outcome of a cognitive, epistemic reason.”[xxiii]

If one accepts this distinction, it is then possible to argue that while the good consequences of living a religious life are indeed of value, all they require and so justify is an assumption that certain religious beliefs are true, and not a strong conviction that they are.  Andrei A. Buckareff, for example, has argued that a life of religious faith “is a sub-doxastic venture that involves pragmatic assuming.  One assumes that p as a means to achieving a religious goal.  The assumption is an action-guiding assumption.” [xxiv]By “sub-doxastic” he means that it does not involve strong belief.  He quotes Joshua L.Golding with approval, when he writes that it is enough to believe “there is some chance God exists.”[xxv]  He does not give an example, but it is easy to imagine one.  One could assume that God made the cosmos so that humans could evolve and live, and that He values human life very highly, without being quite sure that this is the case, and then value human life highly as a consequence of accepting this proposition, no matter how hesitantly.

If, as these authors suggest, religious faith is nothing more than making an assumption about God for practical purposes, the rationality of faith becomes simply a matter of the rationality of the assumptions involved.  There are ways of calculating the value of such assumptions.  One way is suggested by decision theory.  According to this theory, in deciding which of several possible courses of action to adopt, one should calculate the value of each possible course of action by calculating what is called its “expectation.”  This is said to equal the product of the value of the consequences of the action, the “pay-off,” and the probability of their occurrence, with a deduction made for the costs involved.[xxvi] Clearly any estimate of the value and probability of the consequences of acting on a religious assumption will usually be vague and subjective.  But they might be clear enough to enable a person to compare the expectation of acting on a religious assumption and the expectation of acting otherwise.

Incidentally, there is some evidence that James thought religious belief could be the product of a rational decision. When James discusses the will to believe, he offers examples of belief in morality and belief in someone’s trustworthiness. He writes:  “The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by our will. … If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”[xxvii] Many of our beliefs, such as beliefs about the material world around us, are acquired without decision.  The evidence for them is so compelling that we simply acquire them without further consideration.  But some beliefs, such as moral and religious beliefs, are not so easily arrived at.  However, once a person begins acting as if a proposition were true, the disposition to believe it  can be acquired quite quickly.  At the end of his paper, James writes of people for whom religious faith is “a living option,” and he urges them to act upon the assumption that it is true.[xxviii] That is how they should exercise their will to believe.

Both Buckareff and Bishop agree that to enjoy the benefits of religious faith, people need do no more that assume certain theological propositions are true.  Unfortunately neither of them considered objections to this theory.  For although some of the goods of religious belief can be enjoyed by merely assuming the truth of certain religious propositions, there are others goods that require strong religious convictions.  Here, for example, are two common religious beliefs whose good consequences are widely attested, and the consequences can only be enjoyed if the beliefs are held with strong conviction.  (1)  The belief that God in his love forgives our sins, our actions contrary to His will, yields relief from a sense of absolute guilt and condemnation. (2)  The belief that there is life hereafter with God when we die gives peace of mind to those facing death or those whose loved ones have just died.  In both cases the benefits are very significant, and they would not be enjoyed by someone who assumed them to be true, but without conviction.

Why did Bishop, who was inclined to defend strong religious faith, overlook these religious beliefs, which are central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths?  There is a hint in one of his publications in which he declares that faith in an “omniGod”, that is “a unique omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, supernatural person who is creator and sustainer of all else that exists,” is not rational, given the arguments from evil.[xxix]  He adds, later on, that faith in life after death requires faith in an omniGod, or at least in a God so powerful that He could eliminate evil.[xxx] Bishop says, in a footnote, that he prefers “a genuinely naturalist concept of God” as existing in human loving relationships.[xxxi]  Such a God is not a lawgiving person capable of forgiving people their sins; nor is He capable of providing another heavenly world for those who die.  Indeed whether such a God even provides “hope in the midst of suffering,” which Bishop says is the most important function of religious belief,[xxxii] is very doubtful.

These remarks raise the question of whether there are any epistemic grounds for holding these two beliefs, even if there is reason to believe, as was argued before, that a supernatural God does exist.  Take the first, that God forgives people their sins.  Forgiveness is an aspect of altruistic love, so if God were characterized by such love, then it would be natural for him to be forgiving.  But, given the facts about natural and moral evil in the world, the evidence of His love is ambiguous at best.  Christians, believing that Jesus was divine, get around this problem by holding that he was both loving and forgiving, from which it follows that those are God’s attributes as well.  His love involves suffering the effects of evil rather than abolishing evil, and by  rising from the dead to show that it is not of ultimate significance. His prayer of forgiveness for those who crucified him is the most striking evidence of his love.  But why hold that Jesus was divine?  Largely because he was raised from the dead, and proclaimed himself the Messiah, sent by God.  Faith in his resurrection is also the reason Christians believe in life after death.

One could discuss the evidence for these Çhristian beliefs at great length, but it is already evident that the epistemic support it provides for the two propositions we are considering, is slight.  However, to abandon those beliefs for this reason would be to deprive Christians of the immense comforts they bring.  Although those comforts are not reasons implying the truth of the beliefs, they are very strong practical reasons for continuing to hold the beliefs, once the beliefs have been established.  But those comforts would not be enjoyed by someone who doubted God’s forgiveness, and His promise of heaven for the faithful.  Such doubts would result in doubt whether one’s sins really had been forgiven, and doubt whether one’s family and oneself really would enjoy life hereafter.  Only a firm conviction will produce the peace of mind that comes from such faith.

Conclusion

The conclusion we have reached, then, is that although religious beliefs cannot be proved true, the goods that follow from religious faith can justify the faith that produces them.  While many of those goods can be produced without religious faith, the probability of them occurring is considerably increased by the presence of such faith.  The faith required for some of them might be little more than an assumption of the truth of certain religious propositions, but the faith required for others is a strong religious conviction.

To show how some religious beliefs could be justified pragmatically, in the last section I suggested some of the personal and social benefits that followed from holding them.  There are some negative consequences of religious belief, however, which should also be considered.  Sometimes religious beliefs have driven people to cruel and immoral acts towards others.  Medieval Christians, for instance, are famous for setting up inquisitions to torture and execute heretics, and for organizing crusades against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land.  Clearly this was not Christ-like behaviour, but seemed to be driven by anxiety over the authority of the church, the purity of the faith, and the veneration of a holy place.  It was wrong of Christians to believe that they should persecute and kill those who challenged their faith. These days some Muslims are convinced that God wants them to kill unbelievers, with the result that suicide-bombers not only kill themselves but also kill or maim a number innocent bystanders.  Because of their thoroughly immoral consequences, the religious beliefs that inspire such behaviour are clearly not justified.

This discussion highlights the importance of not considering religious beliefs indiscriminately.  Some religious beliefs can be justified and some cannot.

Even when religious beliefs produce good consequences, for example a life committed to justice and love, there remains a need to consider the negative aspects of such a life in deciding whether the beliefs are justified.  For some, particularly very religious saints, the costs of a religious life can be considerable.  St Paul’s missionary endeavours involved him being scourged, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally executed.  (See II Corinthians, xi, 22-27.)  St Paul said: “Our troubles are slight and short-lived;  and their outcome is an eternal glory which outweighs them far” (II Corinthians iv, 17).  For those who doubt eternal glory, however, the hardships of a Christian life are simply the price one pays for living a life of love towards the needy.

This brings us to the final, vital point.  A pragmatic justification of religious beliefs is only valid for people who highly value the characteristic consequences of those beliefs.  From a this-worldly perspective, Christian beliefs are justified for those who value love and justice much more highly than physical pleasures and even life itself.  But there are many who do not rate those virtues as highly as Christians do.  Western humanists, for example, put human happiness first, and approve of love in as much as it contributes to that.  Other religious traditions have other emphases.  Jews and Muslims are devoted to their religious and moral laws.  Buddhists value peace of mind.  People commonly adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, and acquire the values of that religion as they acquire its beliefs.  They approve the beliefs because they promote those values that their tradition has enshrined.




[i]  Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1984) ch. 13.

[ii]  Davies, p.171.

[iii]  Davies, p. 189.

[iv]  Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford;  Clarendon Press, 1981), p.45.

[v]  Cited by David A. Hollinger, “James, Clifford, and the scientific conscience”, in The Cambridge Companion to William James, ed. Ruth Anna Putnam, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.76.

[vi]  Blaise Pascal, The Pensees, trans. J.M.Cohen (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1961), section 451, pp. 155-9.

[vii]  Reprinted in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 717-35.

[viii]  James, pp.730-1.

[ix]  James, p.723.

[x]  John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion.  Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1989), p.227.

[xi]  William James,  The Varieties of Religious Experience (London:  Fontana Books, Collins, 1960), p.427.

[xii]  James, Varieties, p.427.

[xiii]  Hollinger, pp.79-81.

[xiv]  James, “What Pragmatism Means”, The Writings, pp.387-9.

[xv]  John Bishop, “Faith as doxastic venture”, Religious Studies 38 (2002), pp.476-7.

[xvi]  James, “The Will to Believe”, pp.720-1.  The same position is defended in Jonathan E. Adler’s Belief’s Own Ethics”(Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford, 2002).

[xvii]  Bishop, p.481.

[xviii]  Bishop, p. 483.

[xix]  Diogenes Allen,  The Reasonableness of Faith (Washington:  Corpus Books, 1968), p.55.

[xx]   Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1981), pp. 121-2.

[xxi]   (See Believing and Accepting, ed. Pascal Engel, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 2000).

[xxii] Jonathan Cohen, An Essay on Belief and Acceptance (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1992) p.4;  quoted in Engel, p.8.

[xxiii]  Engel, p.9.

[xxiv]  Andrei A. Buckareff, “Can faith be a doxastic venture?” Religious Studies 41 (2005), p440.

[xxv]  Buckareff, p.441.      In reply, John Bishop agreed with Buckareff: John Bishop, “On the possibility of doxastic venture: a reply to Buckareff,” Religious Studies, 41 (2005), pp.447-51.

[xxvi]  See, for example, Morris, Thomas V., ‘Wagering and the Evidence,’ in Jeff Jordan (ed.) Gambling on God.  Essays on Pascal’s Wager (Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), p.49.

[xxvii] James, “Will to Believe”, p.730.

[xxviii]  James, “Will to Believe”, pp.734-5.

[xxix]  John Bishop, “Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?”, Nous, 32. (1998) p. 174.

[xxx]  Bishop, “Can  There Be”, p. 182.

[xxxi]  Bishop, “Can There Be”,  Note 7, pp.187-8.

[xxxii]  Bishop, “Can There Be”, p. 184.

Is violence justified?

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            Today you can scarcely imagine the loyalty and affection that Australians once felt towards Britain.  Today Australia is proudly independent, but prior to the Second World War the colony regarded itself as an offspring of the mother country.  People’s genuine enthusiasm for their king and queen when they came here on royal visits was an expression of their commitment to the Crown.  It was no wonder, then, that when Britain found herself at war in 1914 and 1939, Australians rallied to her defence.

Australians who were willing to lay down their lives in defence of Britain and her empire are rightly honoured on Anzac Day.  Jesus said:  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).  Their self-sacrifice deserves our respect.

The worry Christians have about self-sacrifice in war, though, is that in protecting their nation, soldiers harm, and often kill, others.  Quakers have decided that, while they are willing to suffer in support of their comrades as stretcher bearers, they will not take up arms against the enemy.  They take seriously Jesus’ teaching that one should love one’s enemies (Matt. 5: 44).

Many wars are fought from hatred, to revenge past wrongs.  Some are fought from a lust for the benefits of conquest.  These are clearly ignoble, unchristian motives for war.  Even wars fought in self-defence can be motivated by a hatred for the enemy.  How can Christians fight wars without spiritual pollution?

Then there are the objective facts that in war soldiers maim and kill those fighting against them, and destroy their property, which cannot possibly be an expression of love.  So how can Christians, whom Jesus taught to love their enemies, possibly engage in such violence?

It is vital to realise that wars are not always fought from revenge, greed or hatred.  They are sometimes fought in a just cause.  A civilised way of dealing with  people who inflict harm on others, is to judge and punish them under a law that forbids such destructive behaviour.  According to the Bible, God established such a system of justice when he issued Moses with the Ten Commandments, and told him to set up judges to enforce them by punishing those who disobeyed them.  The Ten Commandments were largely to restrain people within the nation of Israel from harming one another.  They did not include laws about international relations, but we have since learned that such laws are important for maintaining world peace.

There is no hint in the Old Testament of God disapproving of the Israelites fighting to protect themselves and their lands from their external enemies.  Indeed, they expected God’s support and often received it.  Saul killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands!

But, you might ask, does not Christ’s gospel of forgiveness and love supersede the rule of law and justice?  I suggest it does not, but rather it supplements it.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said he had come, not to abolish the law but to complete it (Matt. 5: 17).  St Paul reminded his readers that governors have an authority given by God to maintain the law.  The governor, he writes, “does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans, 13: 4b)  Just as it right to punish those who harm others to maintain the security of the people, so it is right for governments to order war against those who attack their state.  A government’s chief responsibility is to defend its people from harm.  Its motive in doing so should always be, not hatred, but self-defence.

Well, you might reply, but Jesus did not defend himself against his enemies.  So why should we?  But Jesus submitted to his enemies for an important purpose:  to reveal the depth of God’s forgiveness by showing how much he was willing to suffer in love for his enemies.  Normally when citizens suffer at the hands of wicked men, no great good comes from their doing so.  Rather, it usually results in pointless pain for themselves and their families.  Such suffering should be checked, first by appealing to those inflicting the pain to stop doing so, and if this fails, by forcing them to refrain.

As individuals who love our enemies, we must always respect them and try every peaceful way possible to stop them from hurting others.  However, when peaceful methods fail, then as agents of the government we must be prepared to administer justice for the sake of the community in which we live.

God’s plan for humanity, it seems, was first to minimise conflict by a system of justice, and then, once a peaceful society had been established, to deepen the bonds between people by encouraging them to love one another.  Love was not to replace justice, but to supplement it.

(817 words)

Is God to Blame?

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First we had droughts and fires, then storms and floods, recently there was the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, and now there is the tsunami in Japan. With so many devastating catastrophes in our region, some will be asking “Is God to blame?”

In God’s defence one could note the following facts. First, pain and suffering have positive value, in that they alert us to dangerous, undesirable situations and they motivate us to attend to them and correct them if we can. If our wounds caused no pain, we might ignore them at our peril.

Sometimes the damage or disease that afflicts us cannot be cured, and ends only in death. And death, whether painful or not, will come to us all. Why do people die rather than enjoy eternal good health? I do not know. It might be a bit boring to live for ever. And how could the world contain all the people, if none had died? We would have to stop having babies!

Second, the world God has created is not chaotic, but runs according to remarkably constant laws of nature. We have the ability to understand the laws of nature and to calculate ways of predicting and controlling many natural events, to a large extent. We know how to improve crops, cure many diseases, build safe houses, and communicate efficiently. Of all the animals, our power of reason is quite exceptional and has enabled us to live very securely and happily most of the time.

Third, although some people use their reason for selfish and destructive ends, most people have enough compassion and love to help others when they are in difficulties, and to celebrate with them when things go well. The Bible’s New Testament sees such unselfish love as a special gift from God, manifest in the life and death of Jesus.

So although we have to work for a living in this world, and sometimes face difficulties, God has not left us helpless. He has provided us with reason to guide us, and the support of loving family and friends to assist us, particularly over the rough patches.

Still people ask: why does God allow bad things to happen to people on earth? Why does He allow storms, floods, earthquakes, droughts and fires to destroy people and animals? Why does he allow dreadful diseases to maim and kill so many thousands every day? Why does He not intervene to prevent the harm these things cause?

Why God created these destructive things I do not know. I can only imagine they were unavoidable by-products of the forces by which He formed the planet, and the processes of evolution by which He populated it. But it is easy to explain why God has not intervened to prevent them affecting people as they do. For us to understand and control natural processes, the laws of physics and biology that govern them must remain regular, unchanged. If God were to intervene on every occasion that someone might be harmed, we simply could not predict what was going to happen. We could not use our reason to predict and control the environment in which we live.

Finally, people also ask: why does God allow so many people to act badly, to exploit others through greed, and to kill others in the pursuit of power? It is easy to see that many natural desires are good: they incline to us eat and drink which is important for survival, to acquire resources to see us through hard times, to form families who will support us when we are in need. Trouble comes when we let these desires control us, and drive us to eat and drink to excess, to acquire more property than we need, to seek greater and greater power over others. We have the ability to master our natural desires, though with time it can become difficult, and to lead a simple, productive, and generous life. God has given us the intellectual capacity and the desire to do so, and it is up to us to lead a good life. If we do not, we often suffer physical pain, personal anxiety and social hostility, all signs that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.

God has not created heaven on earth. But He has made a world whose natural laws remain constant, so that we can understand them and so control events to a large extent. And he has given us compassionate, loving hearts so that we help those in need. Even the pain and suffering he has made for a good purpose, though sometimes it has no good outcome. Our world might not be perfect, but it is hard to think of a better one.