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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Yesterday I went to a debate hosted by the University of Birmingham’s philosophy society. The topic of the debate was the question “Does God Exist” with the two debaters being two renowned professors of philosophy, the atheist Prof Peter Millican and the Christian Prof William Lane Craig.

I have been along to many religious themed events in the course of my student years. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, free food was frequently the biggest attraction! I joined the Hanukkah celebrations and had lots of free donuts with the Jewish society, I ate what I think was daal and chapatis (very delicious) at an event hosted by the Sikh society and stuffed my pockets full of mince pies after the carol service hosted by the Christian Union. The difference with this event was that there was no food on offer and I had to pay – something I have never done for a religious event! However, I’ve had questions of my own that I wanted answering and I thought perhaps this might be a place where they might be answered so I took myself along to the Great Hall and paid for my seat.

The first thing that struck me was that there was a queue…for an event about God. The Great Hall is pretty big – you can pack over 1000 people in there I would imagine. And by the time the debate started (20 minutes late because of trying to get everybody in) the place was pretty much rammed. Evidently the existence of God is something that is on the minds of more than a few people. The chair of the debate made an interesting point that 100 years ago, the presence of two such philosophers at such a debate, and the turnout of 1000 people would have attracted significant media attention. Yet there seemed to be no media presence or interest in this particular event.

The debate was an interesting one – to be honest a good deal of it required translation from my housemate afterwards as it was a remarkably complex and complicated discussion encompassing deep philosophy and astro physics, mathematics! The topics covered were wide and varied – intelligent design, evolution and the beginnings of the universe, objective moral values, personal experience of God/lack of personal experience of God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ….and many more. I wish I had the time and space to go into the arguments -and the understanding to be honest….but I thought it better to highlight a similar debate below – which you can watch for yourself.

From what I did understand I found considerable weight in lots of the arguments – from both sides. Professor Millican was a very eloquent, thoughtful speaker – quite different in his approach from the more aggressive, and often rude approach taken by New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. His approach was to argue against theism…rather than to propose atheism as the alternative. Prof Craig however didn’t seem to be taking the role of “Christian apologetic” – his argument was a proposal rather than a defence of theism. Being a Christian myself, obviously I’ve heard a few of the arguments that Prof Craig put forth before (I’m pretty sure CS Lewis should take some credit for at least one of them), however, it was interesting to hear a new take on some of them. The arguments put forth did open up my mind to new possibilities and I’ll definitely be exploring some of them further and trying to read up on some of the numerous authors both speakers were quoting throughout the evening!

A few things stayed with me though which weren’t drawn directly from the lines of argument or the contents of the debate. The first thing that hit me was that the question of whether God exists is an important question to ask. If there is a God – and if as Christianity claims – he is interested in me – then it’s important to figure out the implications of that. But if God doesn’t exist – that also has significant implications. From the turnout, it seemed that a significant number of people placed the same value on asking this question last night.

Secondly, Prof Millican made the point that out of all the different “theisms” in the world, it was impossible for them all to be right. I know there are some religions which make exclusive claims in regards to God (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) whilst others don’t have the same exclusivity, however, I’ve never been engaged by somebody from a different religion about the fundamental message and importance of their religion. And as a Christian, I don’t enter into those kinds of conversations with people outside of Christianity very often at all. After listening to some of Prof Millican’s arguments I began to wonder why this was the case? (I’m sure that wasn’t his intention but that was the effect it had on me!) What is holding me back? What is holding other people back?

I will not be offended if someone comes to me and says that they believe that they have discovered something which has massive implications for my life. I would want to listen to the information they presented and then weigh it up – but I wouldn’t be offended if they told me that what they had to say was something I really needed to seriously investigate and if I didn’t there could been very negative consequences.

I think it’s unfortunate that history and even recent events and current figures have made many people cautious to “nail their colours to the mast” when it comes to faith.  Institutional Christianity has a bloody, brutal past– from the Crusades, to some of the more repressive activities of the Catholic Church in Europe before the advent of Protestantism, to colonialism…the tenants of Christianity have been literally forced down the throats of people across the globe. Even in the 21st-century, there are activities which go on and things said in the name of Christ which make me physically cringe – when George Bush and Sarah Palin are the most notable advocates of a faith that cannot be good!

But I don’t think that just because of the shameful acts of the Crusaders and colonialists and the hypocritical rhetoric of figures like Sarah Palin that Christians should be ashamed of the message itself. As a Christian, I believe that the message of Christianity is a vital one, a life changing one and needs to be heard and considered soberly. I want the opportunity to be able to present that information, to be able to have that discussion. I would assume that anybody who believes in something which they know is important for other people to know – would want to be able to engage in discussion about those beliefs. In this way, I can fully understand where people like Richard Dawkins are coming from – the fact that he is evangelical in his atheism is something I can understand (the fact that he’s rude, pushy and intolerant of anybody who disagrees with him is perhaps less understandable).

I’m guessing that people who hold fundamental beliefs are concerned that if they are vocal about those beliefs they will be labelled extremist and intolerant and that it will cause tension. Tension may occur as whenever we’re challenged personally on something we never feel good. That’s just a normal part of being human surely – whenever friends hold me accountable for my behaviour or challenge my way of thinking I always feel uncomfortable, even if its for a little while. But I don’t see that discomfort as a bad thing as I know they’re speaking out of love, it means I grow a bit as a person, and I still respect them and they respect me.

I think similarly, believing something is true and wanting to tell other people about it doesn’t mean I am automatically intolerant of people of other faiths, that I cannot see the good being done by those people in the name of their faith. I know a lady who is working for an interfaith organisation which is doing incredible work in interfaith communities and in places torn apart by conflict – and I have nothing but respect for her, for her religious devotion and for that work.

I think it is really important to be able to find the good things in common between different faiths – the work in fighting poverty and injustice is perhaps the best example of this. But amidst this, I do not want to lose sight of the importance of engaging in discussion about the important questions like the one that was discussed last night. Does God exist? Is seeking him a good idea? I think so…and I want to nail my colours to the mast on that one!

I’m guessing that the debate will go up online at some point but if you want to see a similar debate before than have a look at this one from Biola University a few years ago (I haven’t watched it through myself but its William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens so is sure to cover some of the broad arguments).

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When was the last time you were terrified? When the only thing you experienced was pure, unadulterated fear taking over your whole body so you couldn’t even think?

Yesterday I watched a film “The Empire in Africa” which was a documentary account of the civil war which brought untold brutalities to Sierra Leone in the 90s and early 21st century. This film was horrific. It made films like Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda look like Toy Story or Peter Pan. You may have seen those films and find it hard to believe but I can honestly say I left that room (early as I couldn’t keep on watching) feeling physically nauseous at the images on screen.

And the images went something like this. A truck load of people being taken to a refugee camp with their limbs hanging off, a young man being loaded into the back of a van…and then his leg being loaded in after him, young children with arms and legs missing, a lady lying dying in the street with literally half her body blown off as a result of bombs dropped by ECOWAS forces, a man with the lower half of his body in shreds as the result of a bomb, a man slowly leaning forward as breathe eked out of him after being shot, a  man begging for his life from a young ECOWAS soldier who shot him at point blank range, a small baby lying in a grave full of people blown to pieces from a bomb…those are just the images that I can remember… There were many more.

I think the image that really abides though is that of a young boy…he couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10…being picked up by a gang of soldiers. He whimpered as they approached and then let out a wail of fear as they grabbed him and shoved him into their truck. Then he screamed with terror as they stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back and began to kick and beat him…with those big, heavy soldier’s boots.

How do I respond to this? I walked out of the room nearly shaking with rage and shock. What do I do with this? I have some background knowledge of Sierra Leone from my Masters…but these images cut through the politics, through the dryness of academic study. Is it right for me to want to avoid thinking about such things or being exposed to the reality of such brutality? Or am I an idiot for even watching such a film in the first place, giving myself nightmares as a result?

I’ve thought it through a fair bit. The only time I experienced anything close to being terrified was when I was robbed a few years back – I was surrounded by a group of men, one of them held me to the ground whilst going through my pockets. I screamed and screamed and screamed…you lose all sense of rationality, the fear inhabits you and are overwhelmed by feeling of complete helplessness, misery. And afterwards you shake… you’re jumpy, distrustful, nervous, weepy.

I thought about it – I was just robbed one time – but thousands of people in Sierra Leone were subject to a terror drastically worse – and lived in fear of it for years on end. What on earth does that do to people’s emotional stability? To their ability to trust? To build their own futures? Yet again I’ve been shocked at the degree of evil that human beings are capable of. When you think we have reached the limits of our depravity in how we treat each other – you discover a whole new level is being dug.

Evidently politics and governance failures have been a huge part of the problem in Sierra Leone and these issues need to be addressed by its leaders and by its people if peace is to be sustained. The international community needs to hold its hands up and own that it has been part of the problem in the past, not only through multinational corporation’s role in fuelling the corrupt diamond trade, but also in its imposition of solutions and governance structures which were inappropriate for the Sierra Leonean context and history.

But this must go beyond politics. Being desperate and marginalised should not justify the hacking off of the limbs of others and arbitrary execution as an expression that desperation. That can never be justified. Which is why I think the faith communities in Sierra Leone will have just as a crucial role to play as the politicians. Speaking as a Christian, true Christianity results in transformation from within – it means challenging injustice but not through using violence, it means loving Jesus through loving others – even if that person is your enemy, it means forgiving people when they have hurt you in the most terrible of ways. People who have been transformed by God – that transformation can be seen in the way that they relate to others, their ambitions for themselves and their communities, their attitude towards work and money, towards the poor. I think after watching that film, its gives me more of an urge than ever to trust God more than I trust human beings’ ability to end the evil in this world.

If you can manage to cope with some very graphic images in what I think is a very important film – you can watch the full version here.

These organisations are where I’m turning to in my response…

http://www.tearfund.org/

http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/