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Briggs et al: It Keeps Me Seeking

Questions about the book

 

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Questions About “It Keeps Me Seeking”

With thanks to Steve Bagnall

These questions are intended to provoke fresh thinking. Where they are phrased to allow a one-word answer, the reasons for that answer should be developed and articulated.

Starting Questions
Why have you chosen to read this book?
What are you hoping to get out of it?

1. Introduction

  1. What's your relationship with the word "God"?  What are the useful and helpful ideas you associate with this word? Are there any less helpful ideas that you have been brought up to associate with this word?
  2. The text talks about "misconceived ways of speaking". Do you think any of your thinking or speaking has been misconceived in the past? Are you open to the idea that some of it may be misconceived now?
  3. How do you assess whether something counts as a good argument?
  4. Have you experienced "sleepy dust" in your life? How? Where? What are you doing about it?
  5. “Science is a welcome, deep, and very important part of the way of life that followers of Jesus call the kingdom of God.” Are you already receptive to this statement, or do you need convincing?
  6. The authors say that some Christians are nervous of Darwinian evolution. What are they nervous about? What about you? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most nervous, how nervous are you?
  7. It's suggested that scientific results do not belong to any particular religious position. Do you agree?
  8. If human understanding of ethics and good behaviour is mostly a matter of agreement, what does this tell us? And how do you personally react to that idea? How does it bear on the issue of religious diversity, for example?
  9. Do you see yourself as a partner in the work of creation? What are the implications of that for you?
  10. Can you think of an example where you have had "encouragement to be brave"? What did you do?
  11. It's suggested that "religion generally does seem to attract to it large numbers of somewhat bewildered and bewildering people with muddle-headed notions and objectionable ideas". How do you respond to this? Is it an outrageous generalisation, or a statement with some truth in it? Do you think you might be or have ever been bewildered, bewildering, muddle-headed or objectionable? How would you tell if you were at risk of becoming like this? Who would tell you? Would you accept their advice?
  12. How do you respond to the idea of "ubuntu"?
  13. What do you think you or the group you are part of could do to make “poverty of imagination about God” history?

2. A conversation about the themes

  1. “I want the reader to feel that they don't already know what it is that we might mean by God, or what it might be like to be one who is in the ‘school’ of Jesus of Nazareth.” This is how one partner in the conversation describes their wish for the reader at this stage in the book. How do you feel about this? Do you fit this description?
  2. In contemporary western culture, the notion of certainty seems to be associated with religion, but the authors are saying their book is “chock full” of the idea that for them it’s quite to the contrary. What is the explanation for this situation? Is it an example of the fact that “religion” is a broad word, covering a wide range of attitudes, or is it a case of prejudice, or perhaps simply a misunderstanding?

3. Religion, History and Philosophy

  1. What's your relationship with the word "religion"? What are the useful and helpful ideas you associate with it? Are there any less helpful ideas that you have been brought up to associate with that word?
  2. When you find that different people mean quite different things by the same word how do you usually deal with this situation? Is your strategy effective?
  3. What do you think about the idea that Jesus of Nazareth offers the antidote to religion?
  4. If someone were to say to you that they were spiritual but not religious how would you respond?
  5. The text makes a distinction between god and God. Is this a helpful distinction? If yes, in what way? If no, then how could one present this a better way?
  6. Has western philosophy been “muddled about religion”?  What type of muddle?
  7. How come so many people have misunderstood so much?

4. How is Science to be  Carried Forward and its Conclusions Reported

  1. What form should recognition of, and respect for, God take, in the context of mathematical and scientific work? For example, is it correct to describe the ongoing motions of the solar system, and of the galaxy and other astronomical systems, without making direct reference to God? What about other areas of investigation?
  2. Do you think Christians have often been frightened of science? Do you think that is more or less the case now than in the past? Are you or have you ever been frightened of science? How do you explain that?
  3. "Are we loving God only for what he can do for us?"
  4. "Every correct insight that anyone ever arrived at has been formed by virtue of a meeting with God at some level." What do you think about that statement? Is that how you see it?
  5. The matter of acknowledging God is a delicate one when not everyone recognizes that it is a valid thing to do. How should this be managed? There is broad agreement that it should not intrude into ordinary publications in scientific journals, for example. Should it be allowed in the acknowledgements that may be placed at the start of a doctoral thesis?

5. What Does it Mean to be Me?    

  1. “The question of how I should live is inseparable from the question of who I am.” How would you describe the link in your own life?
  2. What questions about your identity have you worried about: the one about free will and determinism, or others? What have you found useful in resolving your dilemma?
  3. What do you think about machines learning and becoming intelligent? Do you welcome this or does it worry you? What’s your experience of intelligent, learning machines so far? Have you had your passport read by a machine? Do you feel cheated by discriminatory pricing?
  4. What’s your relationship with probability and uncertainty? The Bayesian approach is explained. Does that idea resonate with your own experience?
  5. Is it fair to use the word “creativity” to describe actions taken by a computer running a program such as AlphaGo?
  6. What should be our attitude to thinking machines? Or would it be better not to use the word “machine” in a case where thinking is really happening?
  7. Is democratic process, such as a general election or a presidential campaign, an example of the Prisoners’ Dilemma?
  8. What course of action might help you to gain an improved understanding of the phrase “in the image of God”?
  9. Do you agree that at the heart of the matter is responsibility?

6. The Two Tabors
           

  1. If there was an inscription over the entrance to your workplace what would it be and what would you like it to be?
  2. “In both science and religion there are hard problems which have not yet yielded easy solutions.” What’s on your list of hard problems?
  3. Do sometimes people think science can solve it all? Do sometimes people think Christians think they have solved it all? What could we do about such misunderstandings?

7. The Deeply Subtle Nature of Physically Existing Things

  1. Is the distinction between classical physics and quantum physics something you are already familiar with? If not, what is your feeling as we embark upon this chapter?
  2. The evidence from physics is that many events in the natural world are not predetermined nor completely controlled. Should we assess this to be an appearance only, or is it better to accept it as correct?
  3. How do you react to the idea that entangled items in effect behave as a couple not as two individual things?
  4. The chapter asserts that the physical universe cannot be described accurately by a wholly reductionist approach. If this is right, then is it important?

8. Issues Arising from Quantum Physics                             

  1. The authors point out that there is "no known way of even constructing an experiment which could adjudicate between interpretation 1 and interpretation 2." What is the appropriate way for science communicators to handle a situation like this?
  2. How would you go about defining "soul"? Are the comments on the fragility and interconnectedness of quantum states helpful here?
  3. “… processes going on around us in the world can also be meaningful. This is what the question of divine action is really about.” What do you understand by this assertion?
  4. "20th century physics provides an object lesson in how to live with unanswered questions". What lesson can be drawn?
  5. How should we deal with questions that no one knows the answer to?
  6. "All attempts to capture God in our human expressions are doomed to fail in some way." Is this right?
  7. What's been your relationship with the idea of the Trinity? Have you understood this idea? Has it ever confused you? What have you found helpful about the idea of the Trinity?

9. On the way

  1. Do you think that the Christian way brings comfort or discomfort, or is it something of both?
  2. How is the history of moral progress to be assessed?
  3. How should we understand the examples quoted from Jesus’ teaching?
  4. What contemporary issues are important to you? Where do you think you can contribute constructively?

10. General Relativity, Language and Learning

  1. The text gives an extended example from relativity and suggests it may give ways of thinking helpful in our approach to God. How did you get on with this example from relativity?
  2. The Bible is full of stories and metaphors. Is there one that has particularly spoken to you? Why do you think the Bible is full of stories and metaphors?
  3. What type of metaphors have generally been the most valued by you? What do you particularly value about them?
  4. Is it liberating or disturbing to you that "the same question may have different answers depending on the framework or set of assumptions that have been adopted"?
  5. “It may often be that one does not even know, at the outset, what type of question one has oneself asked.” Suggest an example of this from the gospel accounts, or from your own experience.
  6. How do you understand the terms apophatic and cataphatic? Are you threatened or helped by the statement "God both is and is not willing to be called personal"?
  7. How do you answer when someone asks "how do we know that God loves us?"
  8. "It is Christian actions not Christian doctrines which illuminate the world." Discuss what this means and its implications.

11. The Argument From Design

  1. The chapter begins by suggesting that there is something already gone wrong when people embark on arguments for and against the existence of God. What are the authors saying here? What approach are they recommending as an alternative?
  2. If various physical properties of the universe were only very very slightly different from what they are, then the universe would be changed so much that life could not arise in it. This is a well-established observation, and it is called “fine-tuning”. What reactions to this observation are appropriate, and what are not appropriate?
  3. The text rejects the attitude called the “God of the gaps”, but endorses the idea that it is “rational for one to turn to God when one encounters the wonderful in nature.” Here the “God of the gaps” signifies an attempt to build an argument based on a lack of knowledge (a “gap”), whereas to “turn to God when one encounters the wonderful” signifies a response to knowledge that one has gained. Can you think of ways to set out this distinction more fully? Do similar things occur in human relationships, for example when people are trying to get to know each other?
  4. There is a section called "Why do science?". Having read it what do you think? Why do science? Why do humans desire to understand?
  5. "We have steadfastly rejected claims to the effect that science can lead us to God. We think that approach is backwards …". Why do the authors think this is backwards and why do they think that matters?
  6. One person may say “it appears as if nature were the result of an intelligent act, but in fact, or most likely, it is not”; someone else may say “it appears is as if nature were the result of an intelligent act, and so it is, for we have been given a sufficient confirmation of this.” What may help us to decide which of these attitudes to adopt?

12. Biological Evolution                                           

  1. What is your relationship with the traditional debate about evolution and religion? For example, is it a debate you have been involved with or one that you have kept your distance from? How come? Is the debate personal? For example, has it led to conflict with friends or family or within your community?
  2. Why do you think that in popular culture is there a belief that evolution is on the side of the atheists? Have you at times been recruited to this idea? What usually attracts and recruits you to an idea?
  3. What exactly is the difficulty or tension that people perceive between Christianity and evolutionary biology? Can you think of other examples where different sorts of things or arguments get muddled up? Why does this happen?
  4. The authors talk about the word “design” being misunderstood or misinterpreted. Is this true in your experience? What are the connotations of the word for you?
  5. Is there a poem which expresses your own sense of what goes on in the life of all the various living things?
  6. "The nature of personhood is not explained by the physical processes through which it became embodied in the physical world." What do you understand this to mean? How would you explain the nature of personhood? Where do your ideas about this come from? Have you always held these ideas?
  7. Does the idea of intelligent design appeal to you? How do you explain its persistence?

13. This is the story of life on Earth

  1. The authors give the example of the bridge to illustrate the idea that an effect can transcend its immediate causes. Can you suggest further examples?
  2. The text suggests that we can accept the evidence for the validity of the mainstream account of evolutionary biology. On this account, human capacities such as sight and hearing came about by a long physical process involving gradual change and development. This does not imply that those capacities are somehow invalid or misleading. But it has been widely asserted, in modern times, that if capacities such as moral judgement came about by gradual development, then it follows that those capacities are invalid or misleading. Does it follow?
  3. Does the metaphor of the eager gene work for you?
  4. Is the role of improvisation in the evolutionary process welcome or unwelcome? How about the uncontrolled or open aspect that seems to be true of the variation? Is this whole scheme haphazard? Is it creative? Might it promote a feeling of exultation as one witnesses the exquisite creatures emerging?
  5. When a violin maker says that a violin is “good”, what are they saying?
  6. How do you feel about the authors’ conclusion that “pain and physical death is part of the God-given pattern of life on earth, whereas spiritual death is a breakdown of that pattern”? How can you further develop your own thinking on this issue?

14. A conversation about Naturalism

  1. “There’s a sense in which the natural world is also a carrier of meaning and that’s really quite a strong statement.” Do you agree that it is a strong statement? Where does it take you?
  2. The analogy with music has its limitations of course, but do you think it has something positive to offer? For example, is it saying something that Naturalism does not say?
  3. The conversation brings in the word ‘logos’ and gives a few reflections on the link between truth and action in Hebrew thought. How does this tie in to the theme of the conversation?
  4. ‘Sanctification’ signifies a process of personal growth in wisdom, open-heartedness, courage, and, in short, Christ-likeness. The authors mention the traditional Christian theological concepts of creation, providence, inspiration, sanctification, and miracles, and then they single out sanctification for special mention: “I actually think that’s the primary, one of the more profound examples of where it’s still very appropriate to use the language of divine action in the world.” How do you see it?
  5. Can we trust the universe?
  6. What virtues can we learn from Naturalism?

15. The struggle is nothing new

  1. How would you describe and distinguish scientific methods and religious methods? (This will depend on what you mean by “religion”, of course: recall chapter 3).
  2. What do you understand by the phrases “scientific outlook” and “religious outlook”? Are they components of a unified whole, or is one part of the other, or are they incompatible alternatives?
  3. How do you see the historical examples in this chapter throwing light on this debate? Is there one of the examples that particularly resonates with you? Which one? Why have you chosen that one?
  4. Is it possible, in principle, that a development in scientific understanding could bring about a situation where we ought to conclude that the universe has not been created in any sense involving intention or with a view to achieving a good purpose?
  5. As astrophysics develops, one can imagine a case being made that the material universe as we know it is a development in the history of something, rather than a novelty springing from nothing. That is, one might argue that some sort of precursor material existed before the primordial event known as the Big Bang. However, if time itself is an aspect of the material universe, then words like “before” may become inappropriate or meaningless when contemplating such a primordial situation. Does Christian commitment require one to take a view on this?
  6. Do the Psalms contain any incorrect statements about the motion of the earth?
  7. Should there be rules in law about what is asserted in popular books about the nature of the physical world? To show that this is a non-trivial matter, consider, for example, claims that might be made about race or gender or sexuality, or about medicinal properties and therapeutic practices. What should be our policy when there is a controversial claim, but one honestly held by its proponent, and put forward on the basis of scientific study?
  8. At the beginning of the chapter there was a quotation from T. H. Huxley, who painted a picture in which religious orthodoxy is thoroughly vanquished by science whenever the two are fairly opposed. He invoked the myth of Hercules, and a metaphor from jousting. Is this right? Science the muscular hero extinguishing the serpentine theologians? Clearly the present book suggests not, but if there is some truth in Huxley’s colourful picture, then in what respects is it fair, and in what unfair?
  9. The chapter concludes by suggesting that scientific understanding introduces new vocabulary and new standpoints, and that these can enrich a religious perspective. However this does not imply that there are no ongoing tensions. What is a fair “take-home” message from the examples that have been described?

16. Miracles and reasonable belief                         

  1. We hear the story of the sick baby and the author’s reflections about what happened to him. Do you have a story like this in your experience? Did you or did you not call it a miracle and how did you choose whether or not to use that word?
  2. Having read the section are you any closer to being able to define a miracle?
  3. Give five natural causes which might result in a colleague telling you that a lukewarm cup of tea on their desk just spontaneously boiled.
  4. If you heard such a report from your colleague, what would you do next?
  5. If you have the requisite familiarity with statistics, and an interest in cricket, then check the estimate given in the text for the likelihood of Don Bradman’s record, if all the information you had was the statistics about Test Scores from other professional cricketers.
  6. “It has often happened that attempts to help primitive peoples with medical aid have been resisted because the people could not conceive of how the types of treatment on offer could possibly be better than the traditions of their community, and the world-view accompanying it.” How does this example bear on Hume’s argument about miracles? (The argument of Hume was, in short, that in the case of miraculous report, it is always more likely that the human testimony was mistaken than that a miracle occurred.)
  7. It is mentioned that people seek truth in very different ways. In what ways have you encountered people seeking truth? What ways have been the most interesting, worrying, exciting, depressing or challenging?
  8. What do you think about the idea of needing to operate in different “modes”? Do you sometimes operate in different modes and switch between them? Why do you do that? If on the other hand, you don't think you operate in different modes, do you think those who know you best would agree? What possibilities would open up for you if you did change modes or added new modes to your repertoire?

17. Wisdom and miracles

  1. The chapter opens with a survey of reservations that Christians have had about the possibility of miracles in the ongoing development of the world. Which of the reservations do you have sympathy with? Which not?
  2. What role has Jesus passed on to the community of his followers?
  3. The text presents a brief survey of miracles reported in the Old Testament and concludes that miracles were sufficiently rare that "most people could expect not to encounter one or even hear of one happening elsewhere in their whole lifetime." Is this the impression you have yourself formed, concerning what is reported in the Old Testament? If not, then what is the reason?
  4. What has been most significant to the improvement in human health over the last few hundred years? Pick one of the examples mentioned: tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio, or another similar example, and do some research to find out what was the process whereby it has been largely eradicated in developed countries.
  5. Perhaps you are cessationist? If so have you ever told anyone?
  6. What is "the gravity of the resurrection claim"?
  7. Concerning the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ, the authors assert: "it would be a serious failure of intellect to disqualify the evidence on the basis of a prejudice about other possibilities, for example by making the assumption that it is bound to be more likely that all the human reports are mistaken than that something outside our normal experience occurred." What, precisely, is the failure of intellect warned against here?
  8. "We made the choice because we were allowed to in integrity." Is that right? Does one have to be a bit compromised in intellect, a bit gullible perhaps, or a bit lacking in discernment or good judgement or just plain good sense about data, in order to affirm the Resurrection of Christ? Or how can one determine whether integrity is indeed maintained here? Is it even possible for one person to determine the integrity of another in a case like this? How?
  9. The chapter seems to oscillate between the idea that miracles are like natural events which we don't understand yet (e.g. Faraday's experiment with iron filings) and the idea that a miracle can amount to an assertion about the nature of reality that cannot be contained within naturalistic assumptions (e.g. the Resurrection event). Why might the authors have left this oscillation unresolved?

18. You can’t live a divided life

  1. What do you think is going on when a youngster decides that fame, money, entertainment and an easy life are not what they hope for?
  2. How can universities best offer equality of opportunity to people with differing religious commitments?
  3. How can churches best offer support to young adults as they seek a positive role in the wider community?
  4. What are you passionate about and how would you tell the story of how you came to be passionate about that issue?

19. Learning from the Bible

  1. Is it alright not to know, when it comes to the difficulties of handling the Bible?
  2. Do you agree that the limited scientific knowledge on show in the Bible need not be a problem? Why is it a problem to some? After all isn't this idea of the separation of the physical and the moral obvious?
  3. Are there any examples of central arguments of Biblical texts that are based on incorrect statements of physical facts?
  4. How can we determine the literary genre of parts of the Bible where the genre is not universally agreed?
  5. In what way do you think that patterns and assumptions of thought are shaped by a community’s history and cultural setting?
  6. Is it helpful to know that the river Jordan has many times stopped flowing owing to mud slides?
  7. "God does not calibrate his generosity according to the attitudes of the recipient." Why do you think people sometimes think this is unfair? Is it unfair?
  8. If impersonal forces are fundamentally indifferent towards us, can you understand why many people think that this shows God is indifferent also? How would you counter such an argument?
  9. "One fear is that if we allow ourselves to question what is affirmed by any part of the Bible then we will not know where to stop and the whole Christian witness will unravel." Have you encountered this idea? How have you reacted to it?
  10. Do you think there is anything to conclude about how to be a good parent today based upon the story of Abraham and Isaac?
  11. How should we interpret the fact that each generation suffers owing to bad attitudes of the previous one, but many generations benefit when moral progress is made?
  12. Should the story of the plagues of Egypt have an "age-appropriate" rating attached? Or if it is appropriate to all ages, then in what setting or in what way should it be discussed?
  13. What was happening as Jesus wrote in the dust?

20. A conversation about the themes, continued

  1. ‘You'd never really think, “Oh great, I'm now in the right place, so everything's all sorted.”’ Has that been your experience?
  2. What is it like to do scientific work so as to make progress in previously unknown territory? In what respects is it like or unlike negotiating the subtleties of personal relationships based on trust?
  3. Is science a part of the kingdom of God? If so, then how big a part?
  4. Can the study and understanding of the natural world enrich an ongoing relationship with God?


21. It keeps us seeking

  1. How would you sum up your overall reaction to this book?
  2. The book has left quite a few unresolved items in the issues it touched on. Is this a good thing, or is it frustrating? What things have been resolved?
  3. Do you think the three authors all agreed with each other? What might have been some of the tensions? Why do you think they thought it best to collaborate rather than each write their own book?
  4. What do you want to tell someone else about this book? Who? What?
  5. If you had read this book 10 years ago, how do you think you would have responded to it then? If there is a difference, how do you explain that difference? If there is no change, how do you explain that your views have been so constant?
  6. Is there anything this book has prompted you to do?
  7. Will it keep you seeking?

 

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