Tuesday, 16 December 2014

David M. Holley on "Maintaining a Critical Distance"

"...the ideal of maintaining a critical distance in relation to our deepest convictions is unrealistic. Human beings need some identity-shaping convictions, and nothing can play the role if it is subject to being put on or taken off with ease. It is difficult to be fully engaged in something and be fully open to the possibility of rejecting it at the same time. Imagine someone who is engaged in the practise of law, but finds herself frequently questioning the value of justice. There comes a point where the questioning can undermine the ability to be wholeheartedly involved in the activity. A believer can have moments of wondering whether God really exists, but to treat the belief as something to be examined with dispassionate aloofness is close to abandoning the conditions needed to sustain any recognizably religious belief. We can examine our beliefs, even our fundamental convictions, but in the case of beliefs that give shape to our lives, the kind of examination we can expect to do is tempered by the pressing need to become fully engaged in a way of life."

Holley, David M. Meaning and Mystery: What It Means to Believe in God. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. pp.211-212.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

One Day You Will Know How Much You Have Received

The last fews years have been hard. Sometime I might write about it all. But not now. Rather, I just want to share some lines from Henri Nouwen that have become, for me, rather special.

'A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom'; that's the subtitle of the small book of his in my hand. It's a collection of journal entries he wrote when his inner life was restless and bleak. I came across it first all of in the room our college had set aside as a 24/7 prayer station. During my slot (which I mostly spent sleeping, to my shame) I saw the book on a desk. The main title, 'The Inner Voice of Love', I cynically scoffed at. But upon seeing the subtitle, I knew this was something I needed to read.

Turning the pages, I had that sense of being spoken to which often accompanies us when sympathy, insight and hope strikes us suddenly and all together. That feeling of not just being understood but also, in a sense, guided along a path...

Even so, I forgot about the book not too long after my prayer slot ended and I left. I only remembered about it when it arrived in the post. A dear friend, out of the blue, had seen the book elsewhere and thought I'd find it helpful.

Well, here is the main section that is now underlined in my copy. I hope it may be of comfort to you too, if you need it. (Note, in reading, that the imperatives he gives were actually written to be directed at himself, no-one else, originally).


"Simply start by admitting that you cannot cure yourself. You have to say yes fully to your powerlessness in order to let God heal you. But it is not really a question of first and then. Your willingness to experience your powerlessness already includes the beginning of surrender to God's action in you. When you cannot sense anything of God's healing presence, the acknowledgement of your powerlessness is too frightening. It is like jumping from a high wire without a net to catch you.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. And the more you get in touch with that divine power, the easier it will be to confess to yourself and to others your basic powerlessness.

One way you keep holding on to an imaginary power is by expecting something from outside gratifications or future events. As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed. A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground in which it is sown. When you keep digging the seed up to check whether it is growing, it will never bear fruit. Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil. All you have to do is stay there and trust that the soil contains everything you need to grow. This growth takes place even when you do not feel it. Be quiet, acknowledge your powerlessness, and have faith that one day you will know how much you have received." pp26-27

NOUWEN, H. J. M. (1996). The inner voice of love: a journey through anguish to freedom. New York, Doubleday.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The 5 Books That Have Most Influenced My Life

1. "Straw Dogs" - John Gray

This was the first philosophy book I ever read, around ten years ago. 

There wasn't much in here I didn't already believe. What it did do was bolster my sense that whether or not there is a God really matters. John Gray's depiction of the human condition in a naturalistic universe is a bleak one. It's not "cheery atheism". And that struck me as the correct picture of atheism. It struck me that value and meaning were difficult to fit into reality if reality had no God. Nonetheless, I believed atheism at the time. Atheism did not strike me as good news, but I thought it reported the facts. 

Here developed a fascination over the basis of value and meaning, and a longing to rest in a world where those features have a home. This longing led me, as a teen, to resent atheism for its truth (as I thought back then) and resent theism for not having a better case for being the truth (as I thought back then).

2. "Refuting Evolution 2" - Jonathan Sarfati

The most controversial book on my list.

During my gap year before university, I began seriously exploring Christianity. I was blown away by this book. It was the first book I had ever read that actually tried to give an intellectually satisfying answer to honest questions I had about Christian belief. Evolution had been my biggest objection but after reading this book, I had serious doubts about evolution's truth.

Indeed, as I eventually became a Christian, I eventually became a creationist. These days I have a lot of agnosticism about these issues and I would probably not endorse even some of the theology of this book but it makes sense to me that I found it so powerful. Quite simply, the picture of creationism I had absorbed through secular culture was grossly naive and simplified. Picking up this book, I expected it to actively denounce science while quoting the Bible and to say things like "dinosaur bones were placed here to test our faith." Instead I received a better education in philosophy of science than I had ever received in my secular school, and I was presented with sophisticated arguments (by layman standards anyway) that sure as hell looked like science.  

Whatever I think about its ultimate conclusions, this book taught me the importance of an education in philosophy and worldview for distinguishing what the science reveals from what the scientist tells us it reveals.

3. "Tektonics.org" - James Patrick Holding

Okay, this one isn't actually a book, it's a website, but it deserves a spot.

JP Holding's tektonics.org has had an enourmous role in shaping my thinking not just about 'apologetics' but about a wide range of issues internal to the Christian worldview. My thoughts on the nature of God, humanity, the interaction between them, scripture and much else besides have all been impacted by Holding's work. 

Reading his work has done more for my appreciation of good scholarship than my university degree. And his special interest in the cultural background of the New Testament has forever changed the way I read the Bible, making much of it clearer. It has also raised serious questions, for me, about the extent of the Bible's cultural particularity and the possibility of 'objective' knowledge of God. Questions that are going to occupy me for the forseeable future.

4. "Sources of the Self" - Charles Taylor

The most insightful philosophical work I have ever read.

I'm close to calling it a page-turner. It's gripping. Just about everything is discussed here. The human self, the good life, knowledge and rationality, art and beauty, God, science, subjectivity and truth, oh, and like the whole of european history. I leave this book proud to be human - so sensitive to our nobility (and fragility) is Taylor. It's full of tantalising clues - pockets of wisdom articulated enough to entice but just short of the total transparency you can get a controlled grip on. Keeps me coming back to draw from its philosophical well.

5. "Dealing with Doubt"/"The Thomas Factor" - Gary Habermas.

 I include both of these books because I read them around the same time and I can't distinguish them much in my memory. 

I have experienced an unusually high level of doubt about my Christian beliefs (and other important areas of my life). These two books helped me understand, for the first time, that my doubt had a large emotional drive. They put me on the path to learning about the nature of anxiety - a path which has led to real change and freedom in parts of my life that I once thought were doomed to darkness and frustration. There is much I still struggle with but I have a hope I did not have back when the sources of my doubt were opaque to me.

And in addition to these breakthroughs in my personal life, knowing more about anxiety and doubt has also provided a rich source of insight into the nature of faith/trust, in general but also in God.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

"Destroy This Temple" - A Sermon

I preached at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church on the 10th of August. (AAURC was the church I attended while living in Northampton.) Have a listen below if you like.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

God and Meaning - What's the Connection?

I gave a talk for Buckingham University Christian Union and their friends on July 31st.

You can listen to it below if you like (the video includes all the powerpoint slides).

It is a refined and substantially re-written version of a talk I gave a couple months ago. The latter half of the talk owes much to Tom Price of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

God and Meaning - What's the Connection? [With Slides] from Martin Smith on Vimeo.

An mp3 is available over here.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Desiring to Believe and Self-Deception

What happens when you desire to believe something? Or when you are invested in a belief or committed to it?

If you were to let that desire, investment or commitment have full reign, would it compromise your rationality? Are the demands of desire for belief and the demands of rationality at odds with one another? Do you need to curb back that desire - take a more distanced, 'neutral' stance - in order to be rational?

I think that an analysis of self-deception suggests that the answer may be 'no'. That is, whole-hearted commitment to or desire for a belief may actually call for adherence to the demands of rationality. I am toying around with the idea that properly worked-out belief commitment and desire will lead one to be rational, rather than, as conventional wisdom would have it, irrational.

I sketch a suggestive argument for thinking that to be true in this short post on the Philosophy @ University of Birmingham blog (the university I'm doing my MA through):


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

Last Sunday (18/05/2014) I gave a talk (with Q&A) at Wantage Baptist Church on the topic, 'Can Life Have Meaning Without God?'

A good quality audio recording was made and can be found below:


Thursday, 24 April 2014

Stuff People Say: "Empathy Explains Morality"

Does empathy explain morality?

Here is my latest 'Stuff People Say' Chrysolis article addressing that question.


Sunday, 23 February 2014

Bennett Helm on the Problem of Both Inventing and Discovering our Values

"On the one hand, a person's values are at least in part up to her, and are in this sense subjective: she can have a say in creating or inventing the kind of person it is worth her being. To be able to invent ourselves in this way is to have a kind of freedom that is distinctly human: a freedom not merely to control our actions but more fundamentally to govern ourselves; call this freedom "autonomy". Thus it is inconsistent with our autonomy that the source of the norms at issue in the kind of person it is worth our being be wholly external to us; rather, to be autonomous is for the source of those norms to be at least partially within one's understanding of who one is to be. In being autonomous, therefore, we can choose certain values, and by making these choices we determine our reasons.
On the other hand, there seems also to be an element of objectivity in what values a person holds in that she can deliberate about them correctly or incorrectly. Deliberation is a matter of choosing for reasons, thereby making possible the articulation of why one course of life is better than another, so that it is not intellectually arbitrary which values we choose. Hence through deliberation we can discover the values things really have and so the kind of person it is worth our being, potentially overcoming delusions or misunderstandings about ourselves. The possibility of such discovery means that there are rational constraints on which values we can autonomously choose.

... The problem is that such talk of rational discovery seems to leave no room for autonomous invention, and vice versa. How can we make sense of the possibility of getting our values (objectively) right or wrong when we are the ones (subjectively) determining the standards of correctness? This difficulty, which I shall call the apparent paradox of simultaneous autonomous invention and rational discovery, seems to undermine our best attempts at getting clearer on the kind of deliberation at issue here."

HELM, B. W. (2001). Emotional reason: deliberation, motivation, and the nature of value. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press. pp.13-14.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Stuff People Say: "I do Jesus, not theology"

I run a monthly feature on the Chrysolis blog taking a deeper look at "Stuff People Say" about religion, philosophy, and culture.

My latest contribution examines a popular Christian sentiment; "I do Jesus, not theology."