Christianity

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.

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Watch Now: Sydney debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The Sydney debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig has finally been posted. This was actually the second of the three debates chronologically, but for whatever reason was the last to be edited. I haven’t watched yet but am looking forward to it:

Did Jesus look like Bill Murray?

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that title. My apologies if anyone is offended…including Bill Murray fans.)

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Jesus

It isn’t terribly unusual for professing Christians to claim they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I know many who describe Him as almost a tangible presence in their lives, and I don’t doubt that a good deal of their thinking time is devoted to contemplating His character and desires. But I’ve always wondered what individuals with such a purportedly close relationship picture when they imagine Jesus. Do they picture an amorphous, feature-less essence? Or, since he’s both divine and man, do they imagine a face? A body? If so, who exactly are they picturing? Because it ain’t Jesus.

As you are probably aware, no one alive today has any idea what Jesus looked like (only a handful of people throughout history ever did). There were no portraits or drawings made during his lifetime, and the Bible is frustratingly void of descriptors. The best we get is from Revelation, and I very much doubt this is the image most cling to:

…dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:12–16, NIV)

But ask almost anyone to draw Jesus, and you’d get something back (unlike asking them to draw God). Why? Because Jesus, the image, is part of the collective consciousness – we’ve literally created it over centuries through a process of artificial selection (see Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay on the evolution of Mickey Mouse), dominated mostly by the West, whereby Jesus has become more beautiful, Aryan, and heroic-looking than we have any reason to suspect he did in actuality.

As far as we can tell, early Christians represented Jesus primarily through symbols like the fish. The first known portrait of Jesus does not appear until 235 (about 200 years after his reported crucifixion), and it already shows signs of historical distortions, whereby the artist down-played any hint of Jewish identity and instead attributed features associated with Greco-Roman society (he has close-cropped hair, for instance, and no beard). While some of the earliest Church fathers like Tertullian and Justin considered Christ’s appearance to be plain or unremarkable, later leaders beginning with Origen, then Jerome, then Augustine of Hippo began characterizing Him as distinctly beautiful (it delights me that they may have done this as a response to an insult from the pagan Celsus, who apparently ridiculed Christians for having an ugly God).

From the second century on depictions of Jesus varied widely, eventually coalescing on the more familiar image we have today, including the beard and long hair (though Paul discourages long hair for men in Corinthians). Thanks, I think, to America, a good percentage of believers now decorate their homes and car dashboards with a drastically caricatured image of Jesus: a handsome, blue-eyed white man of considerable stature (compared to the average for men of his time period) with perfect flowing hair and a cleanly-trimmed beard.

And while nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, we can be reasonably sure he wasn’t atypical for a Galilean Semite of first century Palestine, and would have had darker skin and been well under six feet tall. Just a few years ago, a group from a forensic science department in Israel recreated what they thought Jesus might have looked like based on actual first-century Jewish skulls. You can see and read about the result here: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186

So, back to my original question. Who do modern Christians imagine when they imagine Jesus? I can’t help but think everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike) has been heavily influenced by the popular depictions, and if they do picture something physical, are likely to imagine something similar to the caricature described above.

But that begs the question – since we know Jesus didn’t actually look like that, won’t believers be a bit surprised to see a completely new face staring back at them in Heaven (assuming they’ve made the team)? Won’t it be a bit jarring? I imagine it might be something like expecting Bill Murray …

Bill Murray

and getting Dan Aykroyd:

Dan Aykroyd

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*For a quick summary of the history of depictions of Jesus, check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depiction_of_Jesus

Watch Now: Perth discussion with Lawrence Krauss, “Is it reasonable to believe in God?”

UPDATE: Oh wow, if you only have a minute, check out Part II starting at about 5:35…Shiner is asked if he can prove God performs miracles and, incredibly, answers “sure”, only to stutter through one of the worst answers I’ve ever seen given in a dialogue like this.

The final discussion in the City Bible Forum’s Life, the Universe and Nothing series (this time not featuring William Lane Craig) is now available on YouTube in three parts. The discussion topic once again centers on whether it is “reasonable to believe in God” and features cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and local pastor Rory Shiner. I haven’t had time to watch yet but will do so soon. Enjoy!

Part I (opening statements):

Part II (discussion):

Part III (Audience Q&A):

Answers to Ehrman Bible quiz, part II…

Second half of Bart Ehrman’s bible quiz below the break. Check out the original post to test your New Testament knowledge before reading the answers!

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From Bart Ehrman’s blog:

  1. According to the Gospels, who baptized Jesus?  Who carried his cross?  Who buried him?

Answers:  John the Baptist, Simon of Cyrene and/or Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea.  So this question allows for a teachable moment.  Mark’s Gospel indicates that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus.  It does NOT say that Jesus started to carry it, stumbled, and so they had Simon carry it.  That’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of the movies.   But the reason is because of the Gospel of John.  In John we’re told that *Jesus* carried his cross.   How can both be right?  Well, if he stumbles and then Simon (unwillingly) comes on board, the problem is solved.  Part of my course is designed to show how directors have to make decisions when the Gospels are at odds, and this is a place where that has to be done.

The bigger problem is that John indicates that Jesus carried the cross himself the whole way.  So then how could Simon of Cyrene have done it?  In the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told (which some viewers have argued is false advertising) Simon of Cyrene is played by none other than Sidney Poitier.   Jesus (Max von Sydow – long before his Exorcist fame) starts off carrying the cross; Simon of C. is compelled to help him carry it; but he *helps* him carry it – Jesus still carries it himself as well.  So *both* Gospels are right: Mark is right that Simon was compelled to carry the cross and John is right that Jesus carried it!

On the burial question, some readers of the blog rightly pointed out that in John’s Gospel Nicodemus also helps bury Jesus and that in the book of Acts it’s actually a group of Jews from the Sanhedrin who bury him; but the latter is not one of the Gospels (cf. the question!), and Joseph of A. works for John as well as the Synoptics.

  1. In about what year did Jesus die? What year was he born?

I use this question to deal with basic chronology, to situate students in time (since some of them have NO sense of history); I also use it to explain why there was no year zero, again, and to explain that we don’t know how old Jesus was when he started his ministry or when he died.  Luke says (and Luke *alone* says – I assume he was guessing) that Jesus was “about 30” when he started his ministry.  In Mark he may have been 21 or 40; same with the others..   Only in John is there any indication that the ministry took more than a few months (which is the clear impression you’d have from Mark); in John there are three separate Passover feasts mentioned, so the ministry there lasts at least over two years.  Most people round it up to three, add that to Luke’s dating of the beginning of his ministry, and PRESTO, Jesus then is widely assumed to have died when he was 33.  But who knows?  (In my view, no one knows.)

  1. The author of the Gospel of Luke wrote two books.  Name two of them.

Luke (most of my students get that one.  J ).  And Acts.   This question is just for some factual information.

  1. What is normally thought to have been the occupations of (a) Matthew and (b) Luke?

Tax Collector and Physician.  If I have time in class, I explain that in fact we don’t know who wrote these books, and I point out that if you read the only passage in Matthew that mentions someone named Matthew, you would have no idea that the author is referring to himself (as the students can see simply by reading Matt. 9 for themselves.   And if I have more time – which I usually don’t – I explain the complex logic by which one gets to the idea that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, the Gentile physician, the one-time traveling companion of Paul.  If anyone on the blog wants to know the logic, I’ll be happy to spell it out in a subsequent post.

  1. Which of the following were Jews?  John the Baptist, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Simon Peter, Tacitus, the Apostle Paul.

JB, Jesus, Peter, Paul.  I use this to give a relatively long talk on how Jesus was a JEW and not, decidedly not, a Christian.  Some of my students start getting nervous about the semester at just this point….

  1. What is the shortest verse in the New Testament?

OK, a number of you on the second try got it right (thank the gods for Google….).   So here’s the deal.  Virtually every English speaking human on the planet who has any idea of the answer thinks that it is “Jesus wept,” John 11:35.   That’s wrong.   I scarcely need point out that the NT was not written in English, and different translations translate different passages differently, so you can’t decide a shortest verse on the basis of an English translation.   I would accept TWO different answers for this question (I tell my students that this is a great trivia question for their next frat party; at this point they start understanding my sense of humor).   If you count by WORDS, 1 Thess. 5:16 is the shortest verse in the Bible: two words, in Greek, “rejoice always” (“Jesus wept” is actually three words in Greek).   If you count by LETTERS, Luke 20:30 is the shortest.  It has 12 letters in Greek (though three words), 1 Thess 5:16 has 14 letters, and John 11:35 has 16 letters.

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The Skeptics Annotated Bible – the newest addition to my collection

The Skeptics Annotated Bible

Behold, the newest addition to my collection of bibles (sadly I only own one copy of the Koran). This is the Skeptics Annotated Bible and it’s fairly new to the market (I believe it was originally an internet project and is still available for free online). You might have guessed, but it’s the first Bible published from a nonbeliever’s point of view, carefully noting each verse that falls into one of the following categories: absurdity (2,178 instances), injustice (1,541), cruelty and violence (1,316), intolerance (701), contradictions (462), conflicts with science and history (428), misogyny and insults to women (384), sex (253), false prophecy and misquotes (231), and a few more, including “good stuff” (507).

The translation is the King James Version, which is a bonus because that’s one I didn’t own before. I’ve already thumbed through a bit and it’s great, though lacking detail in terms of historical context – for that I’ve got the ESV study edition along with the NET, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in getting as close as possible to our earliest manuscripts.

Finally, the SAB is beautiful – it’s leather-bound with an easy-to-read font – and looks right at home next to the others:

Bible bookshelf

Watch Now: William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, Melbourne debate now up!

The Melbourne discussion between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss has now been posted (meaning we’re only waiting on the one in Sydney). Jerry Coyne has a good overview of all the events here, and you can read my previous posts as well.

“Is it reasonable to believe in God?”