Monday, June 28, 2004

A quick link that everyone should read on the alleged links between Christianity and Mithrism. The writer is a pagan and not a Christian but he still soundly trashes the links as either wrong or insignificant. Good to see a pagan refuting this stuff so it can't be questioned by those who won't believe anything Christians say.

Also, I had an email disaster over the weekend. If anyone did email me over the last couple of days and didn't get a reply - please could you send it again. Thanks and sorry.

Friday, June 25, 2004

A few days ago I said something about the idea of heaven as eternal and completely enveloping the life of the universe. This means that we don't have to worry about dying early and having to hang around for ages waiting for our mates to turn up. One-to-one correspondence between time in the universe and existence in heaven just does not apply.

So is there even a sense in which our lives on earth take place before our lives in heaven? I think there is, but only in a personal sense. If everyone in heaven remembers their life on earth then for each individual you could say that the earthly life came first. However, that would not mean that earth preceded heavenly existence in any objective sense.

I also briefly mentioned divine omniscience not effecting freewill. This is a common misconception based on the inability of most people to think outside the box of linear cause and effect in time. However, try this thought experiment. You and I are drinking our beer. I give you the choice of either picking up your glass with your right hand or your left hand. You freely choose your right. Is it valid for me to then say "Ha, I know for certain you picked your glass up with your right hand so you did not have a free decision." No, of course not. Just because my frame of reference is such that I know what your decision after the event does not mean the decision is not free.

Now I get into a time machine (handy to have around), and travel back ten minutes. I secretly observe you picking the glass up. Now, I know for certain which hand you will use even before the event but it is absurd to suggest that your choice has now ceased to be free. Nothing has changed except the place in time that I am observing from, but that is not sufficient to bring about a causal change.

God's position is similar to mine with my time machine. From his observation point God can see before and after you pick up your drink. But the simply fact of his being able to do this cannot have any causal effect on you anymore than my traveling back in time does. The point is that our knowledge can simply depend on where we are standing but it is not necessary for this to be causal. (Note to physicists, this analogy works even for the Copenhagen interpretation as we are not observing quantum events).

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Passion of the Christ was, of course, a masterpiece. It takes its place as one of the supreme examples of Christian iconography with the work of Piero della Francesca and Bach. One can argue that there exist greater depictions of Jesus such as the Harrowing of Hell at St Clora outside the Walls in Istanbul or the Christ Pancrator at St Catherine's in the Sinai, but neither of these portray the Passion but Christ as King. Gibson's Christ as man has no equal.

Art is dangerous and the extreme reaction of contemporary society to this work tells us all we need to know about just how dangerous this particular piece is. From the contemptible accusations of anti-semitism to the moaning of NT studies professors that it does match up to their own pathetic recreations, society has rebelled against this picture. But as surely as Carravaggio's Horse's Arse (usually called the Conversion of Paul) stands head and shoulders over its detractors, Gibson has left his critics standing. If all this seems impossible from the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, then all we have is further proof that God exists.

To understand a reality requires that one stands within it. This is why Christians have 'got' the film and others have often been left confused. The complaints about lack of context when we are clearly asked to make those choices for ourselves, are a case in point. Likewise, we are not just asked to watch this film. We must participate in it. Gibson forces us to do this in several ways by supplying us with proxies who join the action at crucial moments and bring us all into the narrative.

A few examples of this will suffice. The most powerful has been mentioned above where we join Mary in coming face to face with Jesus as he stumbles. During the scourging we have to watch and can do nothing just like the women who are reduced to vainly trying to clean up the mess afterwards.

More subtle, and a supreme example of the film makers art, is the case of Simon of Cyrene. As Mark Goodacre has pointed out, Gibson makes Simon a Jew although his source material says he was a gentile. Simon says what we want to say: "Stop". Simon does not want to be involved. But Simon is also drawn into Jesus as he takes up the cross. Like us, he is not given a choice. Circumstances force him to act: both in his initial defiance and then to become an actor in the drama. Then, he cannot drag himself away and leaves in the same way we leave the cinema, running to return to his old life but knowing nothing will ever be the same again.

Finally, we share the experiences of Jesus himself. The flashbacks are his thoughts and the camera puts us in his place. Again, the whole Christian tradition of shared suffering and shared redemption is thrust upon an unwilling audience. We don't want to be there but Gibson will not allow us to stand by. In the TLS, a reviewer remarks that in the Old Masters, the Passion always takes place against a background of agarian peace. Gibson rejects that: no one is allowed to just get on with life while the Christ suffers.

Most of all this film defies the modern world and categorically restates the eternal truths of good, evil and the impossibility of indifference. The message is as important as ever in a bland age where the only recognised virtue is tolerance.
Nobody at the Secular Web has picked up my debate proposal on the conflict between science and religion, so I put a poll up about it. So far, as you can see here, opinion is about 50% think there is a conflict with Christianity at least. Sadly, none of these people are interested inmy debate proposal...

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

One of the biggest embarrassments for Christians (and indeed many other religious people) appears to be the afterlife. We simply don't want to talk about it even though we do like to think about what it might be like. Part of the problem is that we have very little to go on and the other part is that for many people, eternity seems a bit too long for comfort.

I've been thinking about this matter too and have had some thoughts I thought I'd share over a few posts. The first consideration which I think causes a lot of problems is the one of time. People seem to get the impression that heaven must be somewhere people go after they have lived and they then watch the events on earth happening after they have died.

I am pretty sure it isn't like that. Heaven cannot be in the universe and hence it cannot be governed by the universe's time. If heaven is eternal then there is no sense in which time there can run parallel to time here on earth. It exists outside time. How can this work? Oddly enough, St Augustine sussed this out in about 400AD. He realised that from the vantage point of God (and by extension, I think, anyone else in heaven) the whole history of the world is laid out like a road viewed from a mountain top. One can 'see' what is happening at any given moment simply by looking in a different direction up or down the road. Of course we find it hard to visualise four dimensions, but physicists won't find the concept hard to grasp. This also explains what is meant by divine omniscience. God has the whole universe in His field of vision all the time so always knows what is going on. Obviously, this doesn't mean that He is always effecting what is going on and so clearly divine omniscience does not effect freewill. God watching us does not make us behave in a particular way.

This might mean that when we are in heaven we will have a similar ability to see the whole history of the universe at once. What a sight that would be!

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The change of host has now gone through (I don't know how many people saw the naked site last night...) but the feedback form doesn't work right now. I'm doing my best to deal with it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

I have issued a debate proposal at the Secular Web on the question of a historical conflict between science and religion. My hope is that this will produce something where many of the issues can be covered in a single forum which then allows me to point to a single resource when the matter comes up. It rather depends on a high quality opponent turning up, but we shall see.

Monday, June 14, 2004

On the crimeline project, I should point out I am only a contributor so it is no use complaining to me if you don't like the format/editorial stance. In general I should also mention that I don't necessarily endorse everything you can find on the sites I link to, even if I generally approve of them. Here endeth the public service announcement.

On other matters, I note that someone at the UK's largest examining board, the AQA, must have read my rant against forcing school kids to do Latin and Greek as they are phasing out both subjects. As I did my A level in Latin on this board a few years ago, I do regret this. It is not that I think kids shouldn't do classical languages, just that most won't want to and it they shouldn't be forced. It will always be a minority pursuit which is probably why the AQA found the exams were uneconomic.

My first published work is out! But it won't be making the bestsellers as it is only a book review for this journal. Book reviews seem to be a good way for graduate students to see their names in print and you get to keep the book! This actually makes them better remunerated than full scale journal articles.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

After years of searching I have finally found the definitive case of Christians burning books. I don't mean Christians rooting out heretical works or pagan propaganda but the actual indiscriminate destruction of books because they are, well, dangerous. The culprit appears to have been one Richard Cox, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and later Bishop of Ely. Not a very famous man today but he once had a reputation as a leading puritan and militant during the reign of Edward VI (1547 - 53) although he seems to have quietened down a bit under Elizabeth I after she gave him a bishopric.

Anyway, the story goes that he utterly destroyed the entire University Library at Oxford during 1549 when he was appointed by the king to 'visit' it and ensure Protestantism was being observed. The case against him is that he was indeed a visitor, that the medieval university library ceased to exist about that time and he is blamed by writers a century later. Even if Cox was innocent, it does seem that radical Protestants did do a lot of damage to Oxford libraries as most of the books and manuscripts reported to the visitors of the Catholic Mary I (reigned 1558 - 58) are still in situ to this day.

I'll write something up on this as it is also relevant to my PhD.
I am in the process of changing webhosts so there may be some service interruptions in the next few days. I'll let everyone know here once the migration is over.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

A problem with a blog, pointed out to me now people are actually reading this thing, is that one can come across more forthright and aggressive than I would like. By its nature, this is an off-the-cuff exercise and I need to be steamed up enough to actually be bothered to write something. Hence, the polished academic prose that I'm supposed to write gets rather lost. So, a word of warning about this blog - it is rather more trenchant than my normal style and if I appear a tad sharp at times, then I apologise in advance and will endevour to correct any misrepresentations.

Monday, June 07, 2004

One of the ways to win an argument is to wear down your opponent by throwing so much information into the ring that they have not got a chance to refute it all. Most can be bogus as in the end some always mud sticks. A few anti-Christians have been doing this for a long time, cataloguing in exhausting (if not exhaustive) detail, the alleged crimes of Christians over the last two thousand years. And some of it is true. Yes, 50,000 witches lost their lives, several thousand have been executed as heretics and the pogroms against Jews have a long and bloody history. But that is not enough. To really make the point, and make up for shoddy research, these anti-Christians need to make a lot of stuff up to.

Well, one such list is being attacked by a team led by JP Holding of and yours truly is involved. The list we are going through is long and almost devoid of references which makes tracking the truth down rather tricky at times. Our efforts are being collated here and hopefully once the legwork is done we can tidy it up a bit too! In some ways this is a waste of time but we are all convinced that the Internet must contain wheat among the chaff and claims like this list need to be refuted by those with the knowledge and time to do it. Not everyone agrees that it is worth bothering with, but as long as some people see the other side of the story then it is worth the effort.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Latin is something of an obsession for me but I can't understand why anyone else is interested. However, the new online Latin course is causing rather a lot of excitement. Likewise, Harry Mount is the Spectator was bemoaning the decline of classical languages although he rightly got whipped for his pains by and Oxford don in a later issue.

There are only a few good reasons to learn Latin. First, because you need to read it for professional purposes (ie. you are a historian, Vatican bureaucrat or Latin teacher); second because your love of literature is so great you want to read Virgil in the original and third because Latin is hard so it will look good on your CV. Before the 1960s you needed Latin O Level to get into Oxbridge which was also a good reason for doing it. Indeed in the 1960s about 50,000 young people did the O level (a sixteen years old) a year. Now it is but 10,000.

I do Latin because it is essential for history and I do Greek purely because I want to be able to read it in the original. But I'm nuts. I can see no reason why kids should want to do the subject at school unless they really are the top of the ability range and need the challenge to stop them getting too bored. For any other kid, Latin is a nightmare.

As an adult hobby, on the other hand, I'm all for it. Adults generally only do classes in stuff they really want to do and the number of Latin and Greek courses and summer schools for mature students is on the increase. This summer, I am doing my fifth year at Lampeter's fantastic summer school and for me it is always a wonderful time. So, if you are an adult who fancies a bit of Latin, buy Peter Jones' Learn Latin from Duckworth and if you love it then come and see us at Lampeter. As for Harry Mount, he should join us too rather than bewailing an imaginary era when we all picked up Homer to read in the bath.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

What is wrong with the academic discipline of research into the Historical Jesus? Quite a lot, I fear. I work in a normal history department and I am really unimpressed by the theologically trained writers on the Jesus of history. Here is a quick list of what I think are the problems.

1) To do history requires training. I would not dream of writing academic theology and can't understand why academic theologians think they can write history. The right people to do Jesus are classical historians who are pointedly ignored by most HJ practitioners.

2) Theology as a subject has been profoundly effected by the post modernism revolution as has history. But the influence of post modernism on theology came about through literature departments while in history it was largely home grown. This leads to profound differences that theologians trying to do history have not appreciated. You cannot do history by reading your sources as literature. If you do that you are doing lit crit.

3) There is not enough material in the subject of the historical Jesus to maintain the massive industry of academics working on the subject. This leads to increasingly daft theories in desperate attempts to be original while the same on ground is turned over again and again. EP Sander's The Historical Jesus just about covered everything and most other work has been superfluous. No one has said anything interesting about the historical Jesus since Geza Vermes pointed out he was Jewish.

4) The subject is so political that you can't trust any of the participants. From Crossan dumping his methodology whenever it suits him to evangelicals twisting this way and that to preserve the text, the whole show is so undignified. Add to that the internet scribblers who use the daft theories mentioned above to push an anti-Christian agenda and the atmosphere is poisonous. The reaction from the many of the historical Jesus crowd to Mel Gibson's masterpiece is a case in point.

On another note, the Sec Web has dropped its requirement that the moderators must be non-theists. As I heard on the grapevine that the main objection to having theists as mods was that I might be one of them, I am not expecting an invitation any time soon!