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The War on Terror

I have just been watching a documentary about 9/11, following the USA President and the people around him on that day, cutting between contemporary photographs and video footage, and excerpts from recent interviews with the key people.  Right at the end, the interviewer asked George W Bush if he thought the decisions he took back then had made the world a safer place.  Bush paused for a moment, and replied: "Well, there haven't been any more attacks on America, have there?"

Bush hears a question about the world, and replies with an answer about America.

There are two obvious ways this can make sense.

Firstly, if you believe that America's interests and the whole world's interests are one and the same - that what is good for America is good for the world.  America is safe - this is good for America, so it is obviously good for the whole world.

Or, secondly, if you believe that the rest of the world  does not matter.  America is safe - who cares about anything else?

Perhaps these two ways are just two sides of the same coin: only caring about our narrow national interest.  Following 9/11, America invaded Afghanistan.  It made promises to the people of that country, then immediately adopted strategies which were bound to fail - arming the warlords, for example.  The inevitable retreat has just happened, and the country is in a far bigger mess than it was 20 years ago.  America pulled out, supposedly to save American lives, although it had reached the point where very few American lives were being lost, and as a result Afghans are dying and their lives are being turned upside down.  Are they going to feel grateful to America for this legacy?

Perhaps the USA and Britain will one day discover that pursuing our national interests in someone else's country may give us short term wins but will always give the world long term problems - and other people will, quite reasonably, blame us for the chaos we cause in their country.  Every time we think we can make the world a better place by starting a war, we are proved wrong - and every time we refuse to learn the lesson that this will never work.

Terrorism is fuelled by a sense of injustice.  A 'war' on poverty and injustice might make the world a better and safer place.  A 'war on terror', trying to kill all the bad people - all the people we think are bad, because they don't support us - has never made the world a better place, and never will.



A quote in an ABC interview from former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the dean of Belmont University Law School in Nashville, who was White House counsel to then-President George W Bush on 9/11: "We obviously wanted Americans to live their lives as normally as possible, but to understand that we live and operate in a very dangerous world where there are people, there are organizations, there are groups that don't have very kind views about our way of life, about our values."

This is a very common misconception.  Very few people across the world care  anything about the way of life and values of Americans - apart from the terrible effect of that way of life upon our planet, of course.  What they do care about is the way Americans force their way of life and values upon everyone else, and back that up with soldiers on the ground and attacks from the air when  other people don't do what the American government  thinks they should.

Of course, when you think that the rest of the world should adopt American values, the American strategy of imposing their values makes perfect sense ... but that does not make it right.  And it is equally wrong for Britain to constantly support America in imposing their (our?) values.


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Brian’s analysis of the relationship between science and faith in our 22nd July 2021 meeting was well-thought out and fair. I accept that there is not necessarily any contradiction between faith and science. Science does not disprove faith (in the broad sense of the term), but if we could ever know enough science to determine the mechanism for the origin of complex life, it may make faith in the existence of a creator un-necessary. Any secular book on evolution will admit that there are large gaps in our knowledge; the existence of a creator may be necessary to explain these, but so may more knowledge of the science. And if we did understand the mechanism perfectly, it would not preclude the existence of God: they are two different questions.

Faith in a particular religion is something else entirely. As Brian’s slides point out, this depends on the acceptance of a particular holy book, which probably contradicts other holy books. This in turn depends on the need for some mechanism of divine transmission to the writers of the book (the bible glosses over how this happens), and the acceptance of miraculous events in the narrative, which may need the suspension of Reason. If the book is not considered to be the literal truth, i.e. your definition of “inspiration” does not imply that it was dictated word for word, then it seems to me that it cannot claim authority; it is just another book of wisdom.

I still subscribe to “Christianity” magazine. I’m prepared to be challenged; it helps me to not get all my thoughts from one world-view “bubble”; it keeps me in touch with the latest trends in Christian theology and practice, and it gives news on who has died and who has become implicated in ministry-threatening scandal. Generally it peddles an inoffensive set of views typical of mainstream UK evangelicalism; nice, well-meaning people, who hate to be thought of as extreme or bigoted.  

There are at least three interesting articles in this month’s issue. One is by theoretical astro-physicist Luke Barnes. He came from a church that believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, that the world is only 6000 years old [Young Earth Creationism], but when he went to University he found that all their evidence for this was flawed. He now believes in the scientifically-accepted Big Bang Theory and does not see a contradiction in also being a Christian. Fine, but he mentions but then glosses over the implication that if the first chapters of Genesis are not literal, how much of the rest is not literal?

The other two articles are a bold attempt to present more traditional and controversial points of view compared with the somewhat anodyne theology of today’s UK evangelicals. The first of these asks why UK Christians are now so reluctant to condemn abortion. The allegation is that Churches talk a lot about social action and anti-discrimination, but no longer about abortion. Apparently the author tried to ask several leading UK evangelical leaders and churches about this, but got no response. Well, duh!  No-one other than Piers Morgan is going to criticize a church for supporting Black Lives Matter, but everyone will criticize them if they oppose abortion. US churches have no such fears, but they know they will get a lot more support from Trumpist politicians and Fox News. My opinion on abortion is that it can be objected to if the foetus will suffer or is capable of independent life, and for that reason I support a limit of around the 22 weeks that we have now. But a foetus will not suffer and is not capable of independent life when it is just a bunch of cells, or for the first few weeks in the womb. At that point the only objection to abortion can be if you believe that the foetus was created by God and has intrinsic value as an individual: and that is an unprovable statement that depends on your religion and so you have no right to impose your beliefs on other people who do not share it. I suspect that feeling the need to be dogmatic about this is what makes most well-meaning inoffensive UK Christians uncomfortable. For me, the biggest relief of no longer being an evangelical is that I no longer have to live with cognitive dissonance: having to defend beliefs, even to myself, that the Church tells me to defend but that I am not happy about.

The third article, “Why be a Christian?” is a typically no-nonsense one by R T Kendall, 85 year-old  Calvinist preacher and formerly minister of Westminster Chapel. He goes back to the belief that Christianity is about a reward in heaven and about not going to hell, not primarily about blessings and good works in this life. This of course flies in the face of the Kingdom theology prevalent in charismatic evangelical circles for the last forty years or so, that Christians are to work with God through prayer and miracles and social justice to establish his Kingdom on earth. Kendall points out that many people who become Christians in cultures hostile to Christianity suffer terribly, and St. Paul lists (in 2 Corinthians 11) all the ways in which he has suffered since meeting Christ: would they have endured this suffering if their hope was only for a better world in this life? Well actually some people do suffer for what they see as right in this world with no hope of eternity: those who died for a Communist utopia for example; and Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison with no recourse to any discernable faith. But going back to my own pre-occupations about why Christians suffer, Kendall’s theology makes sense and is the basis for how most Christians saw the problem until the late twentieth century. God may choose to let you and your loved ones live, or he may let them die. Prayer may or may not make a difference, but ultimately it is down to God. God created the rich man in his palace and the poor man at his gate. If life is terrible, there is a better one at the feet of Jesus in heaven. And of course you need to accept Jesus as your Saviour to avoid going to hell. All of which is unpalatable to contemporary Christians who believe in healing and love and that God is there to solve their problems. But the traditional view enabled the Martyrs to go to the stake rejoicing (if Protestant propaganda is to be believed). It allowed Horatio Spafford to accept the loss of his four daughters when the liner Ville de Havre went down in the cold Atlantic night and still write the hymn “It is well, it is well with my soul”. And as a boy I knew old men who had been through the Somme and still retained a strong Christian faith. However, the last surviving veteran of the Western Front, Harry Patch who died aged 111, lost his faith in organized religion: so you can’t generalize either way from a few examples: but church attendance in Britain has been in decline since 1916, which it is hard to believe is a co-incidence.

I spent the first nineteen years of my life in a conservative evangelical tradition that emphasized the Cross and salvation by the blood of Jesus, and paid lip service to love and grace but actually emphasized law and sin. (We were originally in the Exclusive Brethren, then moved towards mainstream evangelicalism). I then spent over thirty years in charismatic, Arminian churches, that believed in the Kingdom of God and personal wholeness, and emphasized love and grace: to be fair they also made genuine positive efforts to help socially-excluded people; in Bromley the food banks are still run mainly by churches. I still keep links to my local Anglican church. As I have said previously, my belief system started to unravel over a period of at least fifteen years of the thirty. But my view of Christianity still tends to default towards conservative evangelicalism, emotionally and in terms of the yard-stick by which I measure theology. Of course there are rose-tinted spectacles at play here: the old hymns about the Cross move me emotionally far more than the pop-inspired ditties of current churches, but then I remember the dreadful bondage of law and guilt under which thousands laboured under hell-fire pulpits. Applying Reason as far as I can, the conservative position has illogicalities in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and using the yardstick of “by their fruits you shall know them” they have a lot to answer for. But the charismatic/Arminian position is inadequate to explain human suffering without compromising either the love or the power of God (as we are discussing elsewhere). To take Reason further, the atheist position also has questions to answer, as I suggested above. Which leaves an Agnostic/Unitarian position of constant enquiry and open-mindedness as the one that will have to do for the moment.


Adrian Roberts

1st August 2021


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Is God Almighty?

The question of whether God is truly Almighty has been proposed as being relevant to why suffering occurs. If God is not omnipotent, it could suggest that he does not or cannot intervene in every situation. Whereas if he is Almighty, and if this implies omnipotence, and he is also all-loving and presumably therefore doesn’t like to see people suffering, surely he could just zap the devil and put an end to all evil and suffering. (If he exists of course). Paul H suggests the bible does not portray God as Almighty, if our Greek thinking derived from Augustine is discounted (i.e. the assumption that God is only God if he is Almighty). He says that Revelation portrays a final struggle between good and evil in which the saints (i.e. all Christians) are involved through prayer and witness (and possibly actually fighting if you are a Crusader or a present-day American Christian), and they suffer for their faith.

Almighty is of course an English word used in translation of the Greek. I think I still have my copy of Vine’s New Testament Words, but God knows where it is (or maybe he doesn’t!). Revelation 1v8 and Genesis 17v1 are just two verses of many in which most modern versions translate the relevant word as Almighty. (Though regarding Genesis 17v1, Scofield says that it is to be regretted that El Shaddai is translated Almighty when the primary term El or Elohim signifies Almighty).

For a start, if we were to accept that God created the universe, either through initiating the Big Bang and then by guiding natural selection, or by ex nihilo creation as fundamentalists believe, then he must be as near to being Almighty as makes no difference. If he is that powerful but cannot control evil, then either he does not care about human suffering, or the Devil is very nearly as powerful (“Dualism”): neither of those options are acceptable to most Christians. In fact however, many Christians do subscribe to a Spiritual Warfare theory in which the Devil opposes God and the saints, and the Kingdom of God has not yet fully come into being, but they would deny that this makes them Dualists, and would be dubious about the implication that God is not powerful enough to avoid two thousand years of suffering since the Cross if he wanted to. Dualism, or even Spiritual Warfare as understood by many evangelicals, could be a good explanation for the way the world is, but they imply that God is unable or unwilling to take control of the situation. Or, if he is in control, then he witnesses untold human suffering, and either does nothing because “the time has not yet come”, or at best alleviates some suffering but allows some to continue, according to his Mysterious Ways. The Eden story in Genesis does suggest a Dualism where God does not have it all his own way, and the first chapter of Job suggests a universe where God negotiates with Satan: but these chapters are followed by portrayals of God as Almighty (a contradiction?).

But if we therefore accept that God is not Almighty, what are the implications? Revelation tells us that God will win the struggle between Good and Evil, but will he? It hasn’t happened yet. If Revelation is true, then I certainly hope he wins. But is it all propaganda? If he is not Almighty, then to assume a win at this stage is about as sensible as a football crowd assuming their team will definitely win, and getting very excited about it, just because they score in the first two minutes. And a very large part of Revelation is about all the heavenly beings worshipping Him for all eternity. Why should we worship a God who is not Almighty? Perhaps Revelation merely reflects the human culture of the time: people would worship an Emperor or a successful General, just as today some people worship Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump. If God is not Almighty, then we are saying that the world is controlled by (in a greatly simplified list), Joe Biden, Xi JinPing, Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, various hedge fund managers and commodity brokers – and God. Such a God may be many orders of magnitude more powerful than these people, but it would only be a question of degree, rather than being conceptually different.

If the reason that the violence on Earth continues is because of a struggle between two sets of celestial beings who exist in another dimension but somehow impact human life, then it seems like something out of the Marvel Universe, or the Greek or Norse cosmology. That seems even more difficult to believe, than to believe in a being with Absolute Power who cannot be defeated or contradicted. The first option cannot control the universe and stop suffering and evil, and the second chooses not to. So to downgrade God from Almighty causes just as many problems and illogicalities as an unswerving belief in an Almighty God, at least if we try to tie either of these concepts into the biblical narrative. If we feel that a Supreme Being is necessary to explain the existence of life, then the biblical narrative must be very far from explaining the Truth.


Adrian Roberts. 19 July 2021. 


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Paul wonders “is it a problem?” We don’t need to overthink this. Suffering is a problem because it is unpleasant and distressing. Humans don’t necessarily need a religion to realize that if they don’t like suffering they shouldn’t make others suffer. It takes empathy, which could be explained either by a God-given conscience or by evolutionary advantage, and of course some people have more ability to empathize than others.

There is no over-arching, logical reason why a God should care about human suffering. Maybe he doesn’t. That is a possibly a bleaker thought than that God doesn’t exist. But suffering poses a particular problem for Christianity, especially 21st Century Evangelicalism, because it has to be tied into the concept of a Loving and Almighty God who is involved with humans. To be fair, in the Old Testament, Job and some of the Psalms and other Wisdom books try to address this subject. But in the real world, suffering does happen, including to Christians, and historically Christians have tried to deal with it using Stoic principles: sh*t happens, it always will, deal with it. Or at best, God and your fellow Christians will try to support you. Perhaps it is increasingly a problem for 21st Century Christians who have bought into the world view that we all have a right to a happy life and something is wrong with the universe if we have to suffer; but of course we can always find someone to sue.

So if there is a caring and loving and almighty God, the theology of suffering usually develops along the lines of “God has a plan for us; God is perfecting us through suffering”. In that scenario, I can see a reason why a mature Christian might suffer. My father, who was a congregation leader in Ichthus Christian Fellowship, died of bowel cancer aged 70. That was in 2004, about a year before our friend died in a car crash leaving two young children (that I mentioned in the Zoom discussion on June 10th), and however sad my father’s death was, it caused me less doubt and less cognitive dissonance about my faith than our friend dying. Dad still had a lot to give to the church and the community – he was involved in several social action initiatives – but his children were grown up and he had a pretty good life (once he left the Exclusive Brethren). So I rationalized it by telling myself that however painful the illness he would work it out theologically.

But take that a step further, and consider a younger Christian leader, full of faith and On Fire for Jesus, and be brutally direct and assume that his young child dies. Assume for the moment that it is a cot death; the child does not suffer, and has no concept of death. So maybe it is ok for God to take the child away to make the parents better Christians. (To be clear, I don’t believe that, but some Christian theology leans that way). Anyway, the parents certainly suffer. But they have spent years singing “You are the Potter, we are the Clay”; “Break me, Melt me, Mould me, Fill me”, “God is Good – All the Time”; “Great is thy Faithfulness”, and now this faith is put to the test. Emotionally they will need all the support they can get, and having scripture or logic quoted at them will not be helpful. But when they are ready to tie it in with their faith, they will probably attempt to do so along the lines of “God Has a Plan”; “God is perfecting us through suffering”; “Though He Slay me I shall Love Him”; or if all else fails “God Works in Mysterious Ways”. In less extreme circumstances, I tried all that myself at times.

But what if the child does suffer terribly? Maybe he or she has leukaemia or bone cancer. Can we really conceive of a God who has some Grand Plan which allows him to witness such an event from heaven as in a theatre, and let that child suffer in order to increase the parents’ faith? Even if he doesn’t orchestrate the whole thing, but merely lets bad things happen, why does he let the child suffer when he could stop it? That is where my head starts to explode. Maybe it isn’t God’s job to stop suffering, but where does that leave faith in a God of love, and what is the point of praying? If the answer is that there is a spiritual battle going on with the forces of darkness, how can God be almighty if he lets Satan get one over on him? Maybe the dualism of the first chapter of Job is true, but in that case most of Evangelicalism certainly isn’t. Some of the most sincere and thoughtful Christians (and Jews) that I know of may say that “God is with us in our suffering” or “God suffers with us” – as in “Where was God during the Holocaust? He was suffering with the victims”.. A great thought, and a radical one compared with traditional answers, but what does it mean exactly? How does it help? This is the thinking of the Christians to whom I turned to try to keep hold of my faith: Philip Yancey, N T Wright, Steve Chalke, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy etc., all of whom I respect but they are considered heretics by Conservative Evangelicals. These thinkers may also say that the meaning of the Cross is not Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as the Church has traditionally taught, but that God identified with suffering humanity, and continues to suffer with us. He gives up his Omnipotency, not his Love. That was very much my thinking when I was struggling with my faith, but in the end I am not convinced that it is enough: the logic is weak; it feels like clutching at straws. The possibility that there is no God and there is no meaning to suffering may be only one explanation, but I am not going to discount it purely because is too bleak a prospect.


Adrian Roberts. 21st June 2021. 


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It seems to me that, underneath all the details, there are maybe three distinct kinds of ambition: I want to play my part; I want to be top dog; and I want to make a difference.
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Science and Faith

The world is not divided into rational and irrational people; the scientific method is hard to pin down; the real division is between the people who want to be right and the people who want others to recognize that they are right.
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A few thoughts about suffering

Is the existence of suffering straightforwardly explained by the evolution of our human life? Is the 'problem of suffering' only an intellectual problem once you seek to accommodate the idea of a loving and involved God? For me that the natural world clearly operates on an amoral basis - animals destroy and eat one another without compunction - and it is only the evolution of social cohesiveness in the higher animals, including us, that has given us empathy with which the idea of suffering (which is clearly a real thing) becomes associated with the idea of 'evil'.
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We need a purpose to give us direction in life. The common options don't work, so here are two suggestions and a question.
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Suffering and Free Will

Pain can come from two sources: natural events or the action of people (including our self) either intentionally or unintentionally.  The second of these requires an act of the will.  Having free will inherently involves the ability to inflict pain, otherwise we would not have free will.  Assuming that we have free will (separate discussion), the problem, therefore, seems inherently not to be about pain but why do we have free will?

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I come from a Christian base longing to seeing the church truly mobilised in actively engaging in bringing God’s kingdom to earth: ie social justice and faith.  In my view all of humanity has a responsibility to bring justice to the world, which inevitably requires sacrifice, and putting others before ourselves.  I struggled to define the aim of the group any more closely than that, as I suspect its membership will decide its shape over time.  The group is not about academic curiosity, although to move forwards we may need to address some of these issues.  The group is not about setting up a website, that is purely a tool which over time is likely to be supplemented by many other forms of communication.
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Christian Truth

Some people believe that Christianity, and religion in general, is based entirely on faith ... this is not the case when you are talking about Christianity in its original form.
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The Map and the Ground

We navigate the world with maps; we navigate the mental world with mental maps, which are connected to our language in complex ways. These maps are absolutely vital, but we have to remember that the map is not the ground.
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