Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

January 27 Discussion Questions

Question 1:  Anselm is no doubt the only person to ever repeatedly use the term: “that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought.”  It just rolls off the tongue so smoothly, doesn’t it?  And he’s not referring to Michael Jordan…although that would be close.  Assuming you absorbed this line of reasoning without lapsing into a semi-coma, what do you make of this case for God’s existence?  Would Anselm’s circular argument provide any assurance or clarity for contemporary discussions on this topic?  Why are language & meaning – particularly theological – so difficult to transpose from one generation to another?  How do we bridge such gaps?

Question 2:  Aquinas offers five “proofs” for God’s existence.  Each of these is limited by abstract thought…providing little in the way of concrete, contextual demonstrations. (Aren’t you glad I don’t preach this way?)   Look at each proof again and imagine potential examples in our time…good luck! 

In “The Simplicity of God,” Aquinas explains what God is not, namely: God is not corporeal; not composed of matter and form; not in any genus; nor can there be any accident in God.  “God is, therefore, wholly simple…”  While it’s doubtful that any of these are in question today, can you imagine the mindset of the common person back in Aquinas’ day...along with healthy doses of superstition and a general lack of education that permeated that time and culture?  Even so, such an academic style of writing would have been accessible only to a select few.  Just for fun, let’s attempt the same task, but in our language.  Briefly complete these two sentences: 
God is not _________? 
God is _________?  Explain your responses.

Question 3:  John Locke carries on this discussion of God’s existence from a slightly different angle.  On page 55, he concludes, “There is no truth more evident than that something must be from eternity.”    His second conclusion is the distinction between cogitative and incogitative beings…material and immaterial.  Where have these distinctions surfaced in contemporary theological, philosophical, and scientific discussions of late?  How might we transpose such fundamental ideological components into a more coherent schema for current existential interpretations?  How do we explain our origins now?

Question 4:  In his first section, “Foundations,” Pascal claims that “we know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart.”  Contemplation of the whole of nature is essential.  He takes great pains to lay out this process and to cite the shortcomings of those who disregard or are careless with the task of contemplation…even (gasp) philosophers!  Hubris aside, what are the common limitations we tend to experience in our efforts to examine the inward and outward dimensions of our perceived world?  How has your sense of humility before God been shaped by such contemplation of the heart?

In his second section, “Of the Need of Seeking Truth,” Pascal states that all of us seek happiness and that this is the motive of our every action.  So far, so good…until he, too, lapses into an archaic style of prose seemingly confined to endless circular reasoning.  (This caused me to nod off more than once…Uffda!)  What to do with such “pure reasoning?”  From what I can gather here (and I do so with less than optimal confidence), Pascal invites us to consider not only the existence, but also the nature of the infinite…including God.  His best line (p.64) is, “But by faith we know his existence, by glory we shall know his nature.” 

From this point on, the discussion quickly dissolves into verbose speculation of dubious relevance and interest.  Whatever he meant to say, I’m pretty sure it was an encouragement of sorts to embrace faith in God.  Where does that leave us, the readers?  Perhaps our subsequent discussion is best focused on the question, “What is the difference between acknowledging the existence of something/someone and knowing its very nature?"  In other words, what is involved in discovering the true nature of something and how does that lead to a deeper relationship…especially with God?  What avenues, then, are available to us to further promote and enhance such journeys of faith?

Monday, January 17, 2011 Fancis S. Collins

January 20 Discussion Questions: Plato & Augustine

OK, this is not Plato’s best stuff…not by a long shot.  This form of dialogue resembles a courtroom cross-examination where Plato functions as the prosecuting attorney.  Such dialogue seems designed to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. 

Question 1:  What do you find helpful about such a style of dialogue?  Is “reason” best demonstrated/achieved by such means?

Question 2:  For me, things began to pick up speed on page 26 with Timaeus and Socrates.  Which of these many short discussions gained your interest or confirmed your perspectives?

Question 3:  What insights do we gain into this period of history & thought?  Did “reason” achieve any indisputable results? 

Question 4:  What are the greatest attributes of pure reason?  What are its limitations in regard to faith?

Personally, I enjoyed this next dialogue much more than the previous one with Plato.  Augustine’s partner is feistier and well-reasoned…for example, “Get on to the next point!”

Question 5:  On page 39, Augustine notes that, “Only the supreme good will bring the real happiness that we all deserve.  Certainly we all wish to be happy.  So in the same way we all wish to be wise, because no one is happy without wisdom.”  So…if we all seek happiness, and no one is happy without wisdom, then why the frightening scarcity of wisdom so prevalent in today’s society (e.g., the Judge Judy show)?

Question 6:  Augustine fails to cite the influence of sin and evil here as roadblocks to happiness and wisdom.  Therefore, genuine wisdom comes not from within (reason), but from without (the Holy Spirit).  How then does the God-given gift of wisdom fulfill our individual capacity to gain and implement wisdom in our daily affairs?

Question 7:  Finally, on page 43, Augustine connects perceptions of God’s existence through both faith and intellect.  Give examples of how they have deepened your appreciation of God’s activity in your life.  Where are you experiencing growth in each of these?

Saturday, January 8, 2011 Francis S. Collins

Jan. 13 Discussion Questions: N. T. Wright

Question 1:  What were your earliest experiences with injustice?  What created an awareness that something wasn’t quite right?

Question 2:  Justice has always been elusive.  What mix of circumstances contributes to that disparity today?  How is that mix both similar and unique when compared to previous generations?

Question 3:  Where do you witness injustice most prevalently today?  Give several examples, if possible.

Question 4:  Review Wright’s three basic explanations on pages 8-9.  Which of these do you relate to most? 

Question 5:  Wright introduces the concept of the “hidden spring” as a metaphor for the suppression of spirituality in the world, especially in Western culture.  Where did this suppression or denial of spirituality occur in your childhood years…either in family or community?  Please describe the generational period and circumstances surrounding that religious/political environment.

Question 6:  How does Wright’s metaphor of the “hidden spring” play out here in Rockford today?  What is our current religious and political environment?  How is it similar or different from times past?  Where have you seen this dynamic tension at work?

Question 7:  What role has technology, the internet, and media played in the diversity of style and substance of church life and spirituality today…e.g., the rapid proliferation of mega-churches and other media-driven religious enterprises?

Question 8:  Western culture promotes a “thirst” for many things, least of which is spirituality.  Yet, our thirst for spirituality bubbles to the surface of our lives in various expressions.  Where has this occurred recently for you in surprising ways?

Question 9:  How would you describe your desire for spirituality, your yearning for God?  How do you nurture and address that deep longing?

Question 10:  Where do examples of relativism around us serve to undermine the basic truth of Christianity?  How do we defend against this wave of secular skepticism?