Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review – The Future of Faith

Harvey Cox’s most recent book, “The Future of Faith” was an excellent summary of the history of Christianity with a look to where he thinks the movement is going. In many ways he covers the same ground as Karen Armstrong did her in book, “The Case for God.” I enjoyed Dr. Cox’s work much more than Karen Armstrong. I found that his different perspective was refreshing and I find that Karen Armstrong tends to gloss over and minimize the differences in different religions and I think she may be missing important elements.

Harvey Cox divides Christianity into three main periods. There was a freewheeling, dynamic Christianity during the first few hundred years. He calls this period the age of Faith. We have only recently discovered just how dynamic this early period was. This was before many of the “traditional” Christian ideas had been fully developed. There was a wide variety of view points on the trinity, nature of Christ, and the reasons for his death and resurrection as well as what happened after death. This age ended during the reign of Constantine.

In his book he is quite clearly not in favor of what Constantine accomplished as well as his successors. It was during this time that the Christian church started to teach that there were certain beliefs that were critical for Christian faith. During this period heresies were identified and quashed as much as possible. This period he calls the age of belief and it lasted clear into the twentieth century (and even today.) If you want an example, you can google Brian McLaren and check out all the critical reviewers online. Many of these people are eager to define Brian as a heretic because of his thoughts on Substitutionary Atonement and the afterlife.

The last period is the Age of the Spirit. His claim is that we are currently entering this age of the spirit. As examples he lists off some of the trends in Liberation theology, Pentecostalism (now the largest subset of Christianity), and the emergent church. He is of the opinion that the non-Western world will now be the leaders and innovators in the coming years. He is also of the opinion that believers in Africa, Asia, and South America have not been as tainted by Constantinian thought (or Hellenistic/Western Thought) and so they are practicing a Christianity that is much closer to the original form. It will be interesting to see if he is right. I am skeptical about his claim that Fundamentalism is in decline, but much of what he says sounds about right.

My favorite part about the book is he seems to take a position that thoroughly rejects fundamentalism (especially the literal reading of scripture) but he is also skeptical of the atheist position. He presents a compelling third way, which I have found almost impossible to maintain. Anyway, this is a book that I would recommend. He documents the changes in Christianity and religion but without the triumphalism that was present in Phyllis Tickles book, “The Great Emergence” and without the generalizing that is in Karen Armstrong’s works.

Christian Atheists

Recently my local pastor had a section in his sermon where he discussed Christian Atheists. Now his definition of a Christian Atheist is very different from mine, however both definitions would make a certain level of sense. On the one hand, the pastor had defined a Christian Atheist as somebody who claims to believe in God, but they don’t live their lives as a follower of Christ (whatever that means.)

My definition would be somebody who doesn’t believe in God, but is a follower of Christ. Probably the most famous example would be Robert Price (aka the Bible Geek.) Robert Price is an extreme skeptic and atheist, but he loves liturgy and regularly (could I say religiously) attends his local Episcopalian church. Some would prefer the term Christian Humanist. Now in this case I am talking about people who are consciously trying to follow the example of Jesus even without a belief in God. There are many people, especially in small communities, that attend church and go through the motions just so that they won’t be ostracized by their local community.

Now I am sure some are questioning how this could be? First of all, the teachings of Jesus have inspired many movements, some of them not necessarily Christian. There are examples where the teachings worked (think civil rights movement in America or Indian independence led by Gandhi.) The Christian Atheist would of course reject the claim that Jesus was a savior or God. Only John has explicit language that could be interpreted to be a claim to Godhood. However John is widely considered to have been the last Gospel that was written. So it is very likely much further removed from the actual events and sayings of Jesus. Also, as documented by Bart Ehrman, there are several examples where the earliest documents are much more ambiguous on this issue. It turns out that later scribes may have altered the original text to support the doctrine of the Trinity. This means that you can still think of Jesus as a good teacher, but not necessarily God (contrary to the logic of CS Lewis.)

Along those same lines I read something in Harvey Cox’s book, “The Future of Faith.” He was telling a story to illustrate the difference between faith and belief. In his view faith is largely the impetus of action as opposed to belief, which is just accepting certain assumptions as true. A son was trying to comfort his mother in her illness. She asked her son to pray for her and he told the local priest that he was uncomfortable with this whole idea of praying and he went on to say that he didn’t believe that God existed. The priest responded, “What does belief have to do with prayer? You can still pray even though you think that there is no God.” The act of prayer would be an act of faith even though there is no belief.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Review - The Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Dawkin's is a prolific science writer and I have always enjoyed his prose. The extensive vocabulary and creative word play are simply enjoyable. This book had plenty of that, however I found the scientific content a little shallow. I have read several books that discuss evidence for evolution recently and I am sad to say that Dawkin's latest effort falls disappointingly flat. His book, "The Ancestors Tale" is miles better (of course it is also miles longer.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Interesting Podcasts

One interesting aspect of the internet, is the ability to record and distribute audio programs about a wide variety of topics. I enjoy reading, but most of the books I enjoy are not featured in more traditional media outlets. Some of the more popular books will be featured on NPR or on the Daily Show (ironically enough.) However with podcasts there is an ability for authors to directly connect with a very targeted audience. If you ever wondered how books were placed on my reading list, many of them were put there because I heard a podcast with an author interview. So here is a list of some of my favorite podcasts.

Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot This is a recently discovered podcast for me and actually it is becoming one of my personal favorites. It tends to delve into fairly deep philosophical discussions. Luke, the host, is very much an atheist but he frequently has Christians and other theists. The tone is overall very friendly and I really enjoy the format.

Freethought Radio This podcast is sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and hosted by Dan Barker. It is actually a radio program that is available on a few AM or FM radio stations. There last guest was Daniel Dennett, who was discussing his study on preachers who don't believe.

Homebrewed Christianity
Tripp Fuller and Chad Crawford are the co-hosts for this intriguing podcast. They usually have great guests and it is usual a good source for the latest and greatest in theology.

The Nick and Josh Podcast is another podcast that primarily is Christian focused. They do tend to have more atheist guests than Homebrewed Christianity and one of the hosts is basically an agnostic.

Point of Inquiry
is a podcast sponsored by the center of Inquiry. I would say that they have gotten some of the most interesting guests. They recently lost their host, DJ Grothe, because he has accepted a position at another organization. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain the same level of quality.

Reasonable DoubtsandThe Skeptics Guide to the Universe both have a fairly similar format. They have a variety of segments and usually discuss news and events. The will also have guests on occasion.

RadioLab This is another of my favorites. They tend to be science themed. My absolute favorite so far is one episode that they did on statistics. Once you listen you will understand.

Nasty Computer Virus

So our home computer has been out of comission for the last two weeks. It started when we discovered that it had been infected with one of those fake antivirus programs. Basically it pops up a helpful window telling you that your computer is unprotected and then simulates an attack in progress. The goal is to convince you to give them your credit card number so that you can "purchase" an updated anti-virus program. I was able to get the point, with a combination of registry edits, manual file deletion and 4 anti virus programs, where the computer was mostly functional. All scans came up clear, but every once in awhile the virus would reappear. After a week of this, I finally installed Windows to a new harddrive and I have started over from scratch. All data has been backed up so none of the Disney World pictures have been lost or my 2009 tax return and financial documents. (This is extremely important for some reason.) Anyway, I hope to get back to posting blog updates more frequently.