Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Belief, by Francis S. Collins

May 19 – Alvin Plantinga & Antony Flew

Question 1.  Alvin Plantinga (whom I’ve never heard of) seems to be a pretty sharp guy.  He goes to great lengths to demonstrate the absurdity and contradictive nature of evolutionary naturalism.  Granted, this may fall under the category of “Who cares?” for the general populace, but there are some very interesting ancillary discussion pieces that we may find rather savory upon further inspection. 

According to Plantinga, naturalism (the idea that there is no such person as God or anything like God) makes atheism look like a half-baked effort…calling naturalism “high-octane atheism or perhaps atheism-plus.”  He notes that this mindset is extremely fashionable in the academy…even labeling it as “contemporary academic orthodoxy.”  Where do you see this present in our current culture, both inside and outside of academia?  What persons (and in what positions of influence/power) are most likely to possess and assert this belief?

Question 2.  Plantinga introduces naturalist philosopher Patricia Churchland, summing up her thesis this way:  “What she means is that natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior.  Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.”  “All that really matters…is that the neurophysiology cause the right kind of behavior; whether it also causes true belief (rather than false belief) is irrelevant.”

Granted, this is not a theological discussion per se…but it does force us to examine both our history and our purpose as humans in a much different light.  Recognizing the grand diversity of beliefs and truth-claims that emerge out of the human experience, how do we respond, then, to what Plantinga calls the unreliable nature of our collective cognitive faculties?  (The answer, he suggests, is that evolutionary naturalism is therefore self-refuting.)

Question 3.  Fortunately, as Christians, we believe that our beliefs are not limited by the neurophysiology that caused or produced certain adaptive behaviors in us.  We are much more than the principle functions of Churchland’s four-part survival scheme as directed by our nervous systems (page 302).  How does this discussion not only allow, but especially encourage, our Christian understanding of “grace?”  How does grace allow us to believe, even when we fail to understand or agree on God’s activity?

Question 4.  Antony Flew is first and foremost a philosopher.  He is not a Christian and does not subscribe to any recognized religious affiliation.  As he writes at the conclusion of his article, “In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.”  His arguments follow along the lines of natural theology and not any of the revealed religions.  He has no personal relationship with God.  As such, Flew simply argues for the conceptual justification of “infinite Intelligence,” as well as Divine intention and involvement with creation.  What are the pros and cons of such a position?  How does this differ from real faith?

Question 5.  On page 311, Flew identifies the three domains of scientific inquiry that intrigue him most: the origin of the laws of nature; how life emerged from non-life; and the origin of the universe.  How does the Christian faith allow for the scientific community to function as common partners in each of these dialogues?  What perspectives do we have in common?

Question 6.  Flew professes his admiration for both Aristotle and philosopher David Conway.  Toward the end, he writes, “Conway believes, and I concur, that it is possible to learn of the existence and nature of this Aristotelian God by the exercise of unaided human reason.”  While I’m sure that his aim is to disarm the many proponents of atheism, the effect of such statements also alienates Flew from the Christian community, which solidly recognizes faith in God as a matter of revelation, led by the Holy Spirit.  As Luther emphasized repeatedly, faith is unattainable by any amount of human effort or reasoning.  It is always God’s free gift to us.  Why is this contrast so important to recognize?  How does this insight serve to free us in receiving God’s unconditional grace?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Belief...by Francis S. Collins

May 12 - G. K. Chesterton and Hans Küng

Question 1.  OK…is it just me, or does Chesterton’s writing style leave you a bit unsure as to where he’s coming from?  He does make some evocative statements, including liberal amounts of sarcasm and humor, but fails to fully explain his perspective…at least in terms that I can confidently interpret.  Perhaps this is simply due to the amount of change that has occurred since this was written.  In his opening portion on “The Suicide of Thought,” he states, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.  It is full of wild and wasted virtues.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”  How did you take this?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?

Question 2.  On the topic of humility, Chesterton writes, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”   I found this discussion to be intriguing…how about you?  How does this confusion of roles and values play out in today’s culture?

Question 3.  Perhaps my favorite quote (p. 284) is this, “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith.  Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”  That’s a loaded statement!  How do you see and experience this close relationship between reason and faith?  What potential caveats are necessary as we consider their dependency, yet also their individual characteristics?  How does this play into an attitude of proper humility?

Question 4.  Hans Küng takes on an ancient, but lingering question, “Is religion merely wishful thinking?”  (Similarly, can Vikings fans really expect their boys to win the Super Bowl?)  Küng’s primary focus here is Freud’s contribution to this subject.  By and large, he dismisses Freud’s atheistic position, though validating some of his criticisms of the Church’s many abuses.  He states, “It is true that the wish alone does not contain within itself its fulfillment.”  And later he notes, “The existence of God must remain an open question.”  So, from your studies and observations, how do religion and psychology differ?  What traits and pursuits do they share?

Question 5.  Küng asks, “Can faith in science replace faith in God?”  He thinks not, stating, “But for innumerable people throughout the world belief in God has gained a new future, particularly in our time.”  He then asks, “Is there really an essential contradiction between science and belief in God?”  How do you respond to this ongoing question?

Question 6.  At the beginning of page 296, Küng argues that many in today’s culture turn neither toward science nor religion as a total explanation of reality.  “Between skepticism and affirmation we now find all too often not indeed a militant atheism, but one that is practical, everyday, and banal.”  He closes with a partial justification of Freud’s critique of religion, pointing to “defective forms of religion, the Church’s misuse of power, and the traditional image of God.”  How do we address such shortcomings to an ever-increasing attitude of skepticism in today’s world?  What are the ultimate strengths of the Christian faith that allow us to prevail in our witness to God in Christ?