How this Perth pastor made friends with Lawrence Krauss

In the final event for ‘Life, the Universe and Nothing’ a three-part conversation run by City Bible Forum, Rory Shiner from St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Perth chats with Lawrence Krauss on the topic: Is it reasonable to believe there is a god?

Rory’s performance in this discussion has been met with good reviews in Christian circles. And the feeling between Krauss and Shiner seems much more friendly to that between Krauss and William Lane Craig, the subjects of the first debates in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne (read Eternity’s interview with Lane Craig and Krauss here, which revealed those feelings rather bluntly). Below is a transcript of Rory’s introduction to that discussion at Perth Town Hall on Thursday 22 August 2013. 

I would like to begin by thanking Professor Krauss for being willing to engage in this discussion, and in particular to be willing to engage me in this discussion.

Tonight’s event has given me recurring nightmares… that my efforts would end up featuring on an Atheist YouTube comedy channel…or that the word “Shiner” will become a neologism in the atheist community—a newly minted verb to describe a wild mismatch resulting in hilarity: To Shiner, or to be Shinered.

A quick google of “Dr Krauss” reveals an impressive body of work from a leading scientist and public intellectual.

To google “Rory Shiner” on the other hand is to discover a reasonably active Facebook user with a Twitter following the size of a rural family.

The potential of tonight’s event being something of a mismatch has given me two recurring nightmares over the past month. First, that my efforts would end up featuring on a Atheist YouTube comedy channel, and secondly, the abiding fear that the word “Shiner” will become a neologism in the atheist community—a newly minted verb to describe a wild mismatch resulting in hilarity. To Shiner, or to be Shinered.

However, in agreeing to be Dr Krauss’s interlocutor this evening, I have comforted myself with the memory of the late and great Christopher Hitchens, whom I admire deeply, and who Dr Krauss new personally.

When Hitchens published his book God is Not Great he insisted that his publishers send him, not to the North East of America where in New York and Boston he would find receptive audiences, but rather to the South and Mid-West, where he would be able to debate with people who actually believed the things he so passionately believed were wrong.

And so Hitchens promiscuously debated pastors, apologists and church-workers, both respectfully and with no-holds barred. I comfort myself with the thought that tonight’s event is something of a footnote to that noble tradition.

Given the situation, I don’t intend to pose as a philosopher or to challenge Dr Krauss’s science, which at any rate would be like watching you dad dance at your 21st. However, what I can offer as a local pastor is an account of faith that comes from the trenches of actual Christian life and experience.

The churches are where faith is incubated and built. They are where we hear our sermons, share in communion, visit orphans and widows, baptise and pray. If I can give sceptical people an insight into how reasonable or otherwise our patterns of thought are there, that is a service I can gladly offer.

Our topic tonight is: “Is it reasonable to believe there is a god?”

We both agree that if it is unreasonable to believe in God, then people should abandon that belief, or at least accept that that such a belief private and eccentric rather than public and relevant.

Of course, the origins of our beliefs on anything are part of a complex web of tradition, culture, genetics and biography. Why we first came to believe anything is often mysterious, sometimes irrational.

However, I think as reflective beings we do well to answer the question: “Why do you still believe in God?” I do believe it is reasonable to still believe in God. And I wish to address issues.

1.   Which god?

Firstly, which god?

Our question includes the indefinite article:

“It is reasonable to believe there is a god?” To which the reply is ‘which one?’ As atheists regularly remind Christians, there are thousands of gods none of us believes in. Mars, Aphrodite and the Flying Spaghetti Monster have no temples and receive no prayers from us.

Indeed, as the joke goes, when it comes to unbelief, atheist beat Christians by one. Now, I think that joke does contain a deep insight. The early Christians, you may be aware, were called atheists.They were sceptics regarding the claims of the emperor to divinity. They were sceptics regarding the pagan gods. And they appeared to have no cult, no worship.

Part of the DNA of Christianity is scepticism about the very existence of the gods. However, I think the joke about ‘which god’ we don’t believe in also hides an epistemic and categorical confusion. You see, the easy dismissal, ‘there are thousands of gods” confuses two quite distinct things: “God” and ‘the gods’. ‘The gods’ refer to a plurality of divine beings, allegedly inhabiting the cosmos, ‘God’ refers to the transcendent source of all being, outside the cosmos.

This is not special pleading on the part of Christians. It is an unremarkable distinction that, according to David Bentley Hart, goes back in the Greek tradition at least as far as Xenophanes, and one that is readily understood in Islam, Judaism, forms of Hinduism and Deism.[1]

The gods do not transcend nature, but ultimately belong to it. There are stories of how they were born, who their parents were, even accounts of their deaths. Their so-called creation myths are accounts of the present order, not creation from nothing. They are distinct beings rather than being itself.

How would you assess the reasonableness of believe in the any of the gods, given they are distinct beings? Well, you would either have to find them—to design some empirical method by which they could be uncovered, or you should propose a reason why they are believed in despite not being there—that they are projections of human hopes onto the heavens, ala Feuerbach; that they are instruments of control, ala Marxism. Or that they are instances of that broken worship which is called idolatry, ala Christianity.

My point is this: the way in which you would assess the existence of Hermes or Poseidon or the Flying Spaghetti monster, if you could be bothered, would be very different from the way in which you would assess the existence of God. It is like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare creates a world populated with characters: Ophelia, Claudius, Horatio and Hamlet himself. And the gods are like that: characters who inhabit—or not—our world.

But when Christians speak of God, he is not a character in our world. He is not present in the drama as a character is present in Hamlet. No, God’s relationship to our world is like Shakespeare’s relationship to Hamlet. Shakespeare is nowhere present in Hamlet. And yet, and we know, Shakespeare is the ground and source of all being in the play, the one through whom they live and move and have their being.

None of this, I realise, is an argument for that God’s existence. But it is, I think, an important foundation for the question of what reasonable belief in such a God would look like.

2.   Reason and God

Which brings me to my second point. What grounds could there be for belief in this God?

I think two possible paths: Reason or Revelation. The path of Reason includes the famous arguments for the existence of God: The teleological argument, the ontological argument, the cosmological argument and so on.

Three things: First, they are generic, rather than specifically Christian.They are in Aristotle; they are in Islam and Judaism and Deism. Whatever you think of them, they cannot be dismissed as products of a provincial religious culture.

Secondly, in the Christian tradition, they have not been leant on as incontrovertible reasons to believe, but cases of faith seeking understanding.

And thirdly, as formal arguments I note that they have experienced something of a revival in the academy, with philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame, Keith Ward of Oxford and Richard Swinburne of Cambridge all providing compelling contemporary accounts of them.

Personally, I do think some of them succeed in waving their arms in a generally God-ward direction. I still vividly remember the half hour I comprehended the force of the ontological argument as I sat in a library in Sydney University.

But for me and for many Christians, I stand with C. S. Lewis when he says that he believed in God as he believe in the Sun: not so much by looking at it, but because by its light we may look at everything else. For many of us Christians, our reasoning for God is like the process by which a scientist might suddenly see the way a host of clues can be comprehended by a new hypothesis.

God provides a powerful and compelling account of a wide range of human experience: Our sense of justice and morality, our ability to reason itself, consciousness itself, our sense of beauty and transcendence and so on.

Notice: I do not say that any of these experiences are unavailable to atheists. I simply say that God provides a powerful and compelling account of those things we all share.

3.   Revelation

At the point of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity puts its head on the chopping block of history.

But finally, and to be honest, Christians believe in God because God has revealed himself. Now, I realise that appealing to revelation among sceptics can be groan-inducing, but I think it’s unavoidable given the topic of discussion. Because you see, if God is to our universe like Shakespeare is to Hamlet, then revelation is not only desirable, it is necessary.

What could Ophelia conclude about the nature and character of Shakespeare from her existence in Hamlet? Hamlet, like our universe, makes a good deal of sense on its own. And, just as the literary critic does not need to keep evoking the “Shakespeare” hypothesis to make sense of the drama, the scientist doesn’t need the “God” hypothesis to make sense of her discoveries. And for Christian thought, this is not a bug, it’s a feature.

We have a universe gloriously open to empirical investigation, and any Christian should feel free to wait for Dr Krauss’s next discovery about our universe with bated breath. However, to press the analogy to breaking point, for Ophelia to know Shakespeare would require Shakespeare to write himself into the play. And that is the heart of the specifically Christian claim.

Christians claim that the transcendent God of creation has, for reasons of love, written himself into the unfinished drama of human experience.

This act of revelation centres of the man Jesus Christ, who was born in Palestine at the time of Herod the Great and Tiberius, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who, Christians believe, was raised to new life by God somewhere in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning in a graveyard on the edge of Jerusalem.

At the point of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity puts its head on the chopping block of history. It is not like the stories of dying and rising gods of antiquity. Such stories come from outside of Judaism, in which Jesus was firmly embedded. And those dying and rising gods were indexed against the seasons, and fertility. They were about how things are. And they were precisely gods, not men. Their dying and rising happened in the dream-time, in pre-history.

If you asked a pagan, “On what date did Osiris rise and at what time?” you would get you a puzzled face, saying: “You don’t really get myth, do you?” Jesus by contrast was crucified under Pontius Pilate, within the time of our history, and, it is alleged, rose to life in April, early in the morning, on a Sunday.

It is a claim of history. It is not scientific in the limited sense of observation, hypothesis, testing, repeating and so on.

No Christians claim that, under the right conditions, a 33 year old dead Jewish body will, in a sufficiently cold and dark tomb, come back to life within 72 hours. It is not a claim for something that happens, but for something that happened.

Whether on historical grounds it is reasonable to believe that that is what happened requires the kind of reasoning domestic to the discipline of history: written evidence, conjecture, probability, testimony and historical hypothesis.

The world of New Testament scholarship is, like the world of science, a competitive, critical discipline. It is a field populated by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Atheists and Agnostics. And, theories contrary to Christian dogma and tradition are the stuff on which many PhD’s and academic careers are built. And in that critical world, it is surprising how few treat resurrection of Jesus as a myth.

Don’t misunderstand me: many in the field do not believe, but very few think ‘myth’ comes anywhere close to accounting for it. Indeed, many scholars believe, historically speaking, that an empty tomb and the experience of resurrection appearances are the two stable facts with which historical hypotheses must reckon.

Now, those two facts need not be remarkable in themselves: empty tombs one the one hand and hallucinations on the other do not require “God” as explanation.

But the way in which those two events come together, and the way in which almost every other theory that seeks to account for both of them falls short are for me sufficient to make the resurrection hypothesis compelling.

I do think there is one very good reason to disbelieve the resurrection of Jesus: namely that there was no God to do it. But that is precisely the point under discussion. And I believe the resurrection of Jesus could bring someone, reasonably and rationally, toward belief in God.

[1] David Bentley Hart, “God, gods and fairies”, First Things, (June-July 2013) Accessed 10 September 2013.