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Is liberal theology really killing the church?

First Church of OtagoThis is an old favourite. It’s a regular occurrence that some survey or other, possibly carefully designed to produce this result, appears to show that conservative churches are doing better in numerical terms than liberal ones. It may be that they’re growing while liberal churches are shrinking, or more likely that liberal churches tend to be losing members while conservatives are holding steady or shrinking at a slower rate, but this is used as clear evidence that liberals are killing the church. So are they?

Any survey of this type faces huge methodological challenges in getting a meaningful picture at all, given the proliferation of different churches, different ways of counting membership and attendance, and particularly the question of how a church is identified as liberal or conservative, in the absence of an objective scale. And then there’s a good chance that a narrow survey for one purpose will be picked up and abused as evidence for something entirely different. Read More…

Guest post: The Problem of Satan

I’ve just had another guest post published over at the marvellous Confessions of a Heretic Husband, on the subject of what I call The Problem of Satan. Please go and check it out, and – if you haven’t already – the rest of the blog, which is on much the same lines as mine.

In which I provoke a domestic disagreement about magic

I do my best to be honest and straightforward with my boys, and also to respect their ability to answer question for themselves. In religion, as in most things, it’s more important to me that they think, evaluate the evidence and reach their own considered conclusions than that they reach the same answer as me.

Magic Wand

No, you can’t have my miracle wand

So when my elder son wanted to know what a miracle was, I tried to give him a fair and balanced explanation that a six-year-old would be able to understand. A brief run through some basic details, claims and understandings wasn’t too bad, but when he asked how it worked, I briefly hesitated and then said it was a bit like magic.

This was a mistake. Read More…

27 percent of Americans think God will decide the Super Bowl – how do the rest think it works?

A survey this week reported that 27% of Americans believe that the result of sporting events like the Super Bowl will be determined by God, which has stirred up a lot of comment on the extraordinary beliefs of the American public.

The survey allowed the responses “Completely agree”, “Mostly agree”, “Mostly disagree” and “Completely disagree”, plus a “Don’t know/Refused” option, but while that makes the true picture a little more complicated than the “Agree/disagree” dichotomy that’s been presented in most reports, I don’t think it loses too much detail to aggregate the figures in this way. This is not only a belief with no evidence offered in support, but it makes no prediction about God’s preference or even His criteria for choosing.

Raven

Ravens? Closely associated with Norse mythology. God must favour the Niners

Even though I don’t believe God has anything to do with the course of the Superbowl (you won’t be surprised to hear), the detail of how He allegedly decides isn’t a trivial issue. If you think the outcome of the game will be dependent on God’s preference, but make no claim about how that preference is reached, your belief can’t be disproved and you’re free to engage in ad hoc justification after the event. Read More…

What does increasing conservatism in the church actually mean?

Church Sign

A sign of a growing church?

It’s often said (by conservatives, admittedly) that conservatism is the answer for the church. The claim is either that most churches have conservative theology, or that conservative churches are the ones that are growing, or something similar. The typical conclusion from people who quote these stats is that liberalism and conformity to cultural norms are killing the church. But is that a justified conclusion?

There are obvious problems with these statistics, even if they’re accurate – if the proportion of churches that are conservative is rising, that may be an indication that liberals are deserting the church, quite likely because they’re sick of being associated with those conservative views. And if conservative churches are actually growing in numbers, that may well be down to demographic and ethnic changes, with African Christians (for example) proportionately more likely to be conservative.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that these claims can be taken at face value as not only true but meaning that people are finding conservative churches more appealing, while being turned off by liberal belief. That would surely mean that those conservative beliefs are becoming more common in general, right? Well, maybe not. It might even mean that they’re becoming less common. Read More…

A Horseshoe Theory of Religion

Theological beliefs are very often understood as resting on a liberal-conservative axis. Over here [gestures] are the head-bangers who take everything literally as a strict rule for how we ought to behave, and believe in a personal God, eternal heaven and hell, miracles, and even Adam, Eve and a young Earth. Over there [waves] are the beard-strokers who embrace metaphor, reject supernatural claims, and regard the Bible as just an account of humanity’s attempts to understand the world we live in.

That more or less works, but there are other characteristics of theology that are relevant, one of the most visible being the divide between high and low church. Broadly, this is a distinction between an emphasis on process and ritual on one hand, and a rejection of ostentatious outward forms in favour of inward attitudes on the other. There are lots of different ways of modelling it, and the Church of England’s recent troubles made me wonder if I was looking at it the wrong way. Read More…

It’s all in Plato – Genocide, Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma

It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!

C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle

A lot of the Christians I know love this quote, spoken by Digory Kirke in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I can see why – it’s often used to illustrate a claim that Christian theology wasn’t invented from scratch in the 1st Century, but can be seen as a logical progression from some well-worn Platonic ideas developed centuries earlier.

That’s true in some cases, but Plato’s just one philosopher, and he said a lot of things that are rather a long way from Christian ideals. For example, he also thought infanticide was not just acceptable, but an advisable state policy. And he developed a line of discussion, known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, which continues to cause serious moral difficulties for religious beliefs of all stripes. Read More…

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