Sunday, 6 December 2015

Engaging with atheists and agnostics

In this essay, I discuss the great challenges that Christians face in sharing the gospel with the people of our time - especially in the context of statistics that show a dramatic change in the belief-systems of people in the Western world. I present intellectual tools that I developed in this regard and show how they might assist Christians in reaching out to an ever-more sceptical world.

As Christians, we are called to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. Since Jesus sent out his disciples two thousand years ago, Christians have been trying in various ways to reach all people, both in their own communities and in far-away countries, with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Our age, however, presents us with particular challenges in this regard. Western society, which has traditionally been Christian, is changing in fundamental ways and more and more people do not believe or are agnostic regarding the existence of God. The question is: How do we effectively reach people with the gospel in this climate of change?

Before trying to answer this question one should first of all be aware of the magnitude of the challenge. A study that appeared in the Washington Post earlier this year [1], shows that atheism has grown a lot over the last few decades in the Western World. In large regions of Western Europe, the percentage of people who regard themselves as non-religious or atheists are about 50% or more. The Western European countries that top the list are the Netherlands (66%) and the UK (66%), followed by Germany (59%), Switzerland (58%), Spain (55%) and Austria (54%). These do not include European countries to the north and east, like Sweden (76%) and the Czech Republic (75%). This is the situation in spite of the fact that countries like the Netherlands and Germany have strong Christian, especially reformist, traditions and in the case of the Netherlands one even finds a Bible-belt running through the country.

Another study by the Pew Research Center [2] shows that even in the USA, which has traditionally been regarded as one of the countries with the highest percentage of Christians, the situation is changing. Christians have declined sharply as a percentage of the population in the period 2007 to 2014, namely from 78.4% to 70.6%. Although the group of unaffiliated Christians have increased (presumably Christians who do not go to recognized denominations) with nearly 7%, most of the denominations have seen a drastic decline in numbers. Mainline-protestant has declined from 18.1% to 14.7%, Catholics from 23.9% to 20.8% and Evangelicals from 26.3% to 25.4%. In the same period those who regard themselves as not religiously affiliated, agnostic or atheistic have grown from 16.1% to 22.8%.

Clearly, Christians are doing something wrong!! Although there are various reasons for the current situation, it seems that in most Western countries an enormous divide appeared between the Christian and agnostic-atheistic sections of society who live next to each other, but (to a large extent) do not interact with each other. Although part of the problem may lay with Christian attitudes (their behaviour being perceived in negative terms), there is definitely also a problem regarding the packaging of the gospel. In many ways, it seems that the general public does not think that the Christian worldview is sustainable and that the Bible cannot be regarded as a trustworthy account of events in our scientific age. These are the issues which I deal with in this essay.

The various missional approaches

It is often said that the call to missions starts with God. There are various ways in which this call may be unpacked in theological terms. What I am interested in this essay, however, is not that issue, but the practical manner in which the church live the great commandment. In this regard, we can distinguish between various approaches to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. My question is: Are these approaches effective and what must the church do to change the tide?

Traditionally the missionary call has been interpreted as taking the gospel to all nations - especially to those who are not part of the Christian world. In this context, various tools have been developed to effectively reach the unreached peoples of the world with the gospel. As such it was and is necessary to learn a different language, be culturally sensitive, translate the Bible, live in far-away communities etc. This traditional approach may be called the "missionary" approach. Since this approach focuses on countries and geographical areas outside the traditional Christian world, it does not really concern us in this essay.

During those times when the name "Christian world" still applied to their home communities (which in general does not hold for the Western world any more), Christians also felt the need to take the gospel to those in their own community who have not yet come to know the Lord Jesus as their personal Savior. In this regard, these Christians observed that being a Christian in name is not the same as being a Christian in the true sense of the word (having a personal relationship with God through the indwelling Spirit of God). In this context, there are also various tools that had been developed to reach one's neighbour in the context of the same (rather homogeneous) society, especially through church as well as interdenominational outreaches. This approach may be called the "evangelistic" approach. Over the last few decades, this approach has become more and more ineffective - in many Western societies it has become extremely difficult to get strangers to attend such outreaches [3].

The main reason for this difficulty is that Western culture has changed dramatically over the last few decades. In this regard, one may say, in philosophical terms, that a large part of Western society has moved from the modernist to the postmodernist paradigm. This does not mean that the majority has necessarily accepted the postmodernist ideology; it merely means that the manner in which especially young people but also many older people interact with each other and the wider world, has changed in a fundamental manner. The old structures and mindset - which were rationally inclined, hierarchical, strict, accepting of traditional ideas and values and closed to other views - have changed to those that are open, inquiring, sceptical, relational, networking, socially-connected through all sorts of media etc. Since this cultural shift only involves a part of society, one can say that there are now (to a large extent) two culturally distinct groups in the same society, namely the older generation (and those that associate with them) and the new postmodern generation. The problem for Christian outreach is this: How to reach this postmodern generation? It seems that the traditional evangelistic tools do not work in this context!

This issue is not new and there have been many voices as to the manner in which this generation may be reached with the gospel. In general, various approaches have been developed that involve a new kind of community life as well as different ways to engage with one's neighbours in a non-intrusive and culturally suitable manner. This includes all sorts of practical ways in which people may become involved around some area of shared interest, for example through engagement in communal projects. The people who are reached in this manner may include a broad spectrum of persons, some of whom may not be religiously affiliated, although maybe not atheists or agnostics. On the whole, we may call all these approaches that engage the postmodern person "missional" approaches. These approaches have limited success and although some high-profile books have appeared discussing these efforts, in general, they have not had a major impact on the changing tide.

Once people have decided to call themselves atheists or even agnostics they have made up their minds and it is very difficult to effectively reach them. There are, nonetheless, Christians who engage these people, using various apologetic tools, including arranged debates between Christian and atheistic scientists, books that argue for the faith, conferences, discussion forums etc. Some congregations focus in their services and outreach on agnostics and atheists, but this may lead to other aspects of church life not being effectively given attention to. Reaching atheists and agnostics, who have made a conscious decision in this regard, is not easy.

Effective outreach

How do we effectively reach agnostics and atheists? In my mind, the answer is to reach people before they have made their decision in this regard. There are many people who sit on the fence - they observe the wider context in which all sorts of conversations take place in the public and social media. They are sensitive to these issues, but they are still undecided. Even those who present themselves as not religiously affiliated might not yet have made a final decision regarding faith. They may have some problem with the traditional Church or traditional Christians but they are not necessarily against the idea of believing in God.

In my view, the main problem is that the postmodern world provides people with many possible and seemingly viable alternative narratives regarding our human existence. Why should they believe the Christian narrative? Not only have Christians in the Western World often behaved very unchristian (being arrogant and self-righteous on social media etc.), they have also been compromised (in taking certain discredited political and eschatological positions) and their positions have often been simplistic and even anti-intellectual. The general public is often confronted with a Christian narrative that does not make sense to them since it stands in direct contrast with the general scientific perspective that has become widely accepted in society (for example, regarding the age of the universe etc.). How can one expect people to believe the Christian narrative if they do not think that it makes sense? It is not good enough to present your own interpretation as "the Bible says so" when people do not believe the Bible to be a trustworthy source of information.

There are especially two important areas in which Christians have in general not been convincing. These are in presenting 1) the Christian worldview as a realistic and sensible reading of reality (what the world is like) and 2) the Bible as a trustworthy source of information. Often the general public is presented with a false dichotomy: either one accepts the young earth view or one has to accept the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution (which is anathema for most Christians). The general public may not have strong views regarding neo-Darwinist evolution, but in general, they do accept that science has shown that the cosmos is very old. Confronted with this choice, they do not only choose against the Christian worldview (regarding it as unrealistic), they also reject the Christian belief that the Bible is God's Word - to them it is merely an old religious book without relevance to our current age (which teaches such nonsense as the world is a few thousand years old). So, how can they believe in the Biblical message of salvation if they do not consider the Bible to be trustworthy?

The main reason why this simplistic view often overshadows the conversation is that many Christians are not convinced that the alternative Christian narratives truly adhere to Biblical teaching. Many Christians think that any other view than the young earth one necessarily brings the Fall into disrepute (and therefore Christ's redemption) and opens the door for accepting neo-Darwinist evolution which negates God's role as creator (even when this is packaged as "theistic evolution"). The idea that God used this process in his creation is not acceptable to them because it is random (i.e. insofar as genetic mutations are concerned) and mechanistic, without any clear design involved.

What is necessary, is a two-fold approach: 1) To develop good alternative Christian narratives that are consistent with the Bible as God's inspired Word, 2) which are not in conflict with science (not due to a forced reading in this regard but because this is a good and sensible reading). Since God revealed Himself both in Scripture and nature, the hermeneutical study of the Biblical text and the scientific study of nature should not be in conflict! Although paradigms (like the traditional Christian one) are very resistant to change, the dramatic ineffectiveness in spreading the gospel today in Western society may eventually force change.

In my own approach, I develop intellectual tools that incorporate both these concerns. Although Christians often steer clear of "intellectualism" and philosophy, there cannot be any doubt that a good intellectual framework grounds effective practical outreach. Both reason and faith are important in practical Christian living [4]. This does not mean that all Christians should become "intellectuals"; rather, it means that such tools can play a significant role in presenting the gospel in a sensible manner to the people of our day. We should remember that St. Paul engaged with the philosophers of his day and knew a lot about the contemporary philosophy of his time (see Acts 17:15-34; Titus 1:12). Although philosophy should never replace the gospel of salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ or good Biblical teaching (see 1 Cor. 3:18-20), we should use it in suitable contexts to argue for the trustworthiness of the Biblical worldview and Scripture.

My main focus is to present the Christian worldview as a (even the most) realistic view of reality (in contrast with the mechanistic/deterministic view which is preferred by atheists) and the Bible as a remarkably trustworthy source of information. In this regard, I reworked the approach of the well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant in such a manner that it provides the philosophical basis (or rational grounding) for such a Christian worldview (Kant himself was a Christian). Although all belief-systems have a strong emotional component, I am here primarily concerned with the rational grounds for holding such beliefs.

Kant's conception of a "noumenal realm" is central to my approach. The name is derived from the Greek word for mind, namely "nous". According to Kant, this realm is beyond the reach of the human senses and we can therefore only think about it with our mind. This realm forms an essential part of his metaphysics; we can think of it as an intellectual reworking of the idea of the spiritual realm. Although it is often asserted that the noumenal realm should only be understood in moral terms, this is not correct - it forms an integral part of Kant's philosophy of science (in his Critique of the Power of Judgement). I argue that in a scientific context the noumenal realm finds its realization (in the most basic sense) in the quantum realm (see [5] for a more detailed discussion). This means that in the context of the quantum realm scientists have effectively for the first time began to engage with the spiritual realm (although they do not yet recognize it).

Immanuel Kant

The metaphysical implications of this approach are far-reaching and show that the mechanistic (i.e. atheistic) view of the world is unsustainable (even insofar as evolution is considered as a mere mechanistic approach). The strength of this approach lies (among other things) therein that it provides a solution to extremely difficult problems in science, namely how to explain and reconcile determinism and indeterminism (spontaneity) and how to solve the so-called "measurement problem" (these problems in quantum physics are about 100 years old!). This is achieved when mechanism is ascribed to the "classical world" where the space-time theories of relativity apply (which agrees with the Kantian conception of "nature") and spontaneity to the pre-measurement "quantum world" (which agrees with the noumenal realm).

Insofar as the Christian worldview is concerned, one of the implications of my approach is that mechanistic evolution must be complemented by design. Kant's approach incorporates two aspects in biological evolution, namely mechanistic causes (as is nowadays described in neo-Darwinian evolution) as well as spontaneous causes (which in the Kantian view signify design at the noumenal level which underlies all material expression). Although we stand at the beginning of this line of quantum-biological research, it seems that we would eventually be able to describe such design in terms of quantum effects [6]. My approach overcomes the drawbacks that plague other apologetic approaches to the no-design problem of neo-Darwinian evolution (for example, in Intelligent Design [7; 8]).

Other implications of my approach in this regard are (among others) 2) that free will can be substantiated (without which adherence to God's Law is nonsensical), 3) that human existence goes beyond the physical realm (Kantian metaphysics accepts the existence of the soul), 4) that noumenal intuitions, which go beyond the reach of sensible intuitions, become realistically possible. This means that divine revelation or natural theology can be argued for on a solid philosophical basis; this has traditionally been a problematic area of Kant's philosophy. In general, this approach establishes good reasons for belief in God [8].

Insofar as the Bible is concerned, my approach to interpretation also follows a Kantian angle. I argue that all good interpretation requires both our conceptions (our horizon of interpretation) as well as the representations of reality in the text (the horizon of the author) [9]. This means that we should not force our conceptual approach onto the text; rather, we should listen to the voices of both the author as well as the tradition in which s/he was embedded as presented in the text [10]. Problems of interpretation arise when we approach the text simplistically, using our current manner of understanding the world as the point of departure (neglecting the horizon of the author). This may involve both modernistic or postmodernistic approaches which force our cultural context (as is done by many lay readers) or a scientific worldview (as is done in Biblical Criticism) onto the text. My approach navigates between the rocks of modernism and postmodernism.

In the context of discussions about our human existence, our interpretation of the Book of Genesis is especially relevant - in fact, the manner in which we understand this book determines our understanding of the rest of the Bible! It is important that we read the book with the ancient context in which it originated in mind (this provides the horizon of the author). But what context is relevant? I argue [11] that the Mesopotamian material in the book (especially Gen. 1-12) should be read in an ancient Sumerian context (i.e. not in a neo-Babylonian context as is assumed in Biblical Criticism) for the simple reason that we have every reason to take the Biblical story regarding Abraham's journey from ancient Sumer (Ur) to Canaan serious. This implies that the Mesopotamian source material for the book was handed down in Abraham's family since the time when they left that country (I call this approach the "Sumerian hypothesis" [12]).

Again, the implications of this approach are substantial. I show that although we should not force a scientific view onto the text (or a mere mythological one, for that matter), the creation story nonetheless forces us to understand the "days" in which God made the cosmos as "periods" of creation, which can be viewed as agreeing with the current scientific view regarding the age of the earth [13]. Furthermore, good hermeneutical principles allow us to take Adam and Eve as real personages who lived about six-thousand years ago (even though this can obviously not be proven), but not that they were the very first people or parents of the whole human race (for a detailed discussion, see [14]). They are important because we may regard them as the earliest remembered people with whom God had a relationship.

I also show that, although the fallen human condition is very much part of the garden story, a good interpretation of the text does not support the idea that they and all of nature became fallen due to their disobedience; rather, their disobedience revealed the fallen human condition which goes back far beyond their own time (as does death - there is abundant archaeological evidence for that!). This reading does not undermine Christ's work on the cross as the answer to that condition; rather, it establishes that within the context of a credible reading of history [15]. As such, my approach provides a solid but also a comprehensive interpretation of Genesis 1-12 which does not only carefully analyze the ancient context but which is also (as can be expected) in line with our scientific understanding of the world. Other interpretations which argue for an old earth, typically focus on the creation account in Genesis 1 but do not engage with other important issues like the talking serpent, the Fall, etc. for which answers should also be provided. Scientific explanations (like Reasons to Believe) also do not take the ancient context in which the text originated into account.

In my approach to the Bible, I believe that neither the naturalistic approach (as is found in Biblical Criticism) nor the simplistic approach (often associated with traditional Christian interpretation) makes sense. The first regards the Bible as a mere book among other books; the other as if it is written only for children (without any understanding for the ancient context from which it originated) [16]. The first removes all aspects of God's supernatural involvement in human history from the Bible; the other requires blind faith in the face of highly unreasonable claims. What is necessary, is a balanced approach that uses good hermeneutical tools [17]. In this manner, the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of information can be established. In my view, we would not be able to turn the tide without a balanced approach - that steers clear of both these extremes. We need both good intellectual tools which establish the credibility of the Biblical worldview and the Bible as God's Word as well as good practical application in the context of godly lives.

Conclusions

In this essay, I discuss the dramatic change in society's attitudes over the past few decades. On the whole, it seems that the so-called "Christian world" is not Christian any more. In most Western countries the percentage of atheists and agnostics have increased to such an extent that they now constitute the majority of the population. Even in the US, which has always been considered a Christian country, the percentage of people considering themselves as Christians have declined significantly whereas the percentage of those who view themselves as agnostic, atheistic or non-religious have increased a lot over the past few years.

The question is: What should the church do? I discuss four current approaches and show that on their own they are unlikely to change the trend. They may work in communities where they are still applicable - but the world is changing and in a few years we might find that they run aground in many communities which are now still open and accessible. What is needed is a new approach (complimenting the others) which establishes the Christian worldview as a realistic and sensible reading of reality and the Bible as a trustworthy source of information. This would only succeed if traditional Christians accept interpretations of the Biblical text that accentuate the ancient context in which it was written and which are neither in conflict with science nor undermine the Bible as the divinely-inspired Word of God. In fact, it affirms that!

I also present my own solution to the problem. This involves the development of intellectual tools that are grounded in a Kantian philosophical approach. This approach allows us to engage with science (through a reworking of Kant's philosophy of science) but also with the Biblical text (through a reworking of Kant's epistemology to establish good hermeneutical principles). As such it involves a unified approach within the framework of a single Kantian metaphysical framework which is consistent with the Christian worldview. It shows that all mechanistic or naturalistic approaches to the world and the Bible are highly reductionist. And it confirms that the Biblical worldview can better account for reality (explored through science) than the atheistic one whereas the divine inspiration of Scripture is manifest in the fact that reading the text using good hermeneutical principles compliments (rather than contradicts) our scientific understanding of the world. I believe that the acceptance of this approach would add to our ability to effectively reach the people of our day with the gospel, especially those who have not yet decided and silently observe the conversation in the marketplace of ideas.

I, therefore, encourage readers to read the other essays on my blog that focus in more detail on these issues and also to tell others about it. They are welcome to share it with their pastors and other Christian leaders and philosophers. It will take time for Christians to consider and debate this approach before accepting it but I believe that eventually, they would see that without good intellectual tools we will never be able to effectively reach the people of our day and age. This implies that we will have to leave simplistic approaches behind and be open-minded like the church in Berea (Acts 17:11). May the Lord give us wisdom in this.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/04/14/map-these-are-the-worlds-least-religious-countries/
[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
[3] Some evangelical Christians are praying for revival. They believe that the answer is that God through his mighty power moves in society. This is definitely important if we want to reach the world for Christ but this is surely not all that we should do! Revivals are sparse in our day; I do, however, believe that in the end time we will see more of that.
[4] Click on Faith and reason - finding the balance
[5] Mc Loud, W. 2015. Introducing a Kantian Interpretation of Quantum Physics, in accordance with Kant's Philosophy of Science in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, reinterpreted and reworked with special attention to the supersensible realm. Masters thesis. UCT. Cape Town.
Kant, Noumena and Quantum Physics published in Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 3 (2018)
[6] I previously wrote in the essay "Darwin's Doubt" [7] that "[i]t is possible that we will eventually find that evolution has a quantum component, i.e. that leaps in biological evolution have their grounds in the quantum world where they would arguably seem to be at home". Shortly afterwards the authors of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014) suggested that quantum processes may indeed play a role in genetic mutations – implying that a mechanistic approach to evolution may not be sufficient.
See also The Christian and Evolution
[7] Click on Darwin's Doubt
[8] I plan to write about ten essays on the implications of the remarkable fit between Kantian metaphysics and our scientific understanding of the world for the Christian-atheist conversation.
[9] In the context of interpretation the "representations of reality in the text (the horizon of the author)" do not engage with ancient reality as it was "in itself" (i.e. we do not have access to the mind of the author or all the details of his time) in the same manner that in the context of epistemology (the study of knowledge) the presentations of reality in our senses do not give us access to reality as "it is in itself" (especially not of the quantum realm). However, in the same way that such presentations in our senses are sufficient to obtain objective knowledge (see my next essay in this regard [8]), the representations of reality in the text allows us to establish sensible interpretations (meanings) of the text. In the same manner that we can proceed to better understandings of nature when more empirical data becomes available which fit more sophisticated conceptual frameworks (take, for example, the move from Newtonian mechanics to Einsteinium physics), we can also obtain better readings of the text when the context in which we place the text (for example, my "Sumerian hypothesis"; see [12]) solves problems that plague other assumed contexts (the "neo-Babylonian hypothesis" used in Biblical Criticism).
My approach to interpretation agrees with that of Gadamer contra Derrida in that it acknowledges distinct interpretations (instead of a continuous play of interpretation). I proceed beyond Gadamer in that my approach allows for rational criteria (basic principles of hermeneutics) which establish a threshold between "better" interpretations and bad ones (see [17]). Furthermore, in my view we can make "truth" claims only insofar as we can make determinate judgements; we cannot proceed beyond interpretations insofar as we are restricted to mere reflective judgements (in the Kantian sense; see [18]).
[10] I allow for two kinds of determinations, namely a priori determinations (i.e. of concepts) as well as a posteriori determinations (i.e. representations of the real in the text). These are synthesized in interpretation.
[11] In my book Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)
[12] Click on The Book of Genesis - the Sumerian hypothesis
[13] Click on Does the creation narrative of Genesis 1 support the idea of a young earth?
[14] Click on Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?
[15] Click on Reconsidering The Fall
[16] The Bible can be read on two levels: 1) Such that children and simple people can understand it and come to faith in Christ 2) Such that scientists and educated people, in general, can understand it in the context of its ancient historical setting and believe it because it is a trustworthy source of information that has been written with integrity (although it has obviously not been written from a modern scientific perspective). To reconcile these might be a major challenge for any pastor - but without both, we stand no chance to reach the people of our day for Christ. The trustworthiness of the Biblical text grounds our faith that the Bible is divinely inspired as is clearly stated by some of its authors. Although we as Christians would believe the Biblical text even in the face of supposed inconsistencies, we have a duty to study such problems and show that the text is indeed trustworthy in line with the proclamations regarding its divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16; Acts 17:11); it is exactly its trustworthiness (which follow when we use the right contextual tools instead of the modernist approach which discredited Biblical Criticism [19]) which shows that the claims that it is the Word of God are to be taken serious (i.e. that it does not merely contain "words about God").
[17] I developed such tools in the essay Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical approach
[18] Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective
[19] A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline

Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

Read also

Hoe moet Christene die huidige paradigma-verskuiwing in die samelewing benader?
Wat moet Christene in 'n tyd soos hierdie doen?
Middelgrond in die geloof
Wetenskap en geloof

Read also essays on Science, Philosophy and God:

Part 1: The problem of spontaneity in quantum mechanics
Part 2: Science and our restricted human understanding
Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot
Presenting a new argument for the existence of God
Part 4. Science and the spiritual realm
Part 5. In defence of the soul
Part 6: Science and Atheism
Part 7: Science and spiritual intuition
Part 8: The Christian and Evolution

Monday, 23 November 2015

Obama outplayed: France moves in

Over the last two years, the world has entered a new phase in its history which is much more unstable than before. Various major players are competing to fill the gap left by Obama's idealistic and isolationist approach. One of these is the Islamic State (IS). The attack on Friday 13 November 2015 in Paris has activated the French to lead the effort against IS as well as stabilizing the balance-of-power in the Syrian conflict after Russia became militarily involved.

With the IS attack in Paris on Friday 13 November 2015, the peoples of the Western world were rudely awakened to the reality that they have entered a totally new world. This was not merely a spectacular attack by a distant enemy; it signalled a new phase in the international political landscape. The old world - which was (for the most part) stable, peaceful, prosperous and largely predictable (except for so-called "failed states" at the edge of civilization), has changed in less than two years into one that is exactly the opposite, namely unstable, full of conflict, insecure and very unpredictable. And this is not yet the full extent of what can be expected. If history is our guide, we can expect that this new multi-polar world would go through a period of intense upheaval and conflict before the waters calm down again.

Less than two years ago, on 2 February 2014, I wrote that we are entering a new phase in world history in which the stable political landscape that we knew for decades has begun to disintegrate. That was before Russia invaded the Crimea in Ukraine and before ISIL became a major player. I wrote: "Although the world is not yet in the precarious situation of being unstable, it is changing fast and the signs are clear that a new phase in the political history of the world has begun. There is a sense that the playing field has opened up and that opportunities are presenting themselves. The other important players (other than the US) sense that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago." [1]

One of the main reasons for this dramatic change is the position of the Obama administration. US President Obama's foreign policy can be summarized in two motto's: 1) Work towards enforcing a rule-based international order with negotiation as the basic tool 2) Use military force with extreme caution and then only hesitatingly when there is overwhelming pressure to do so (that is, excluding the US drone program). This is exactly the opposite of the Bush-doctrine. With this unilateral idealist and isolationist approach, the US has effectively created a wide-open geopolitical space (especially in the Middle East) in which many powerful role-players are competing for power and influence.

It is in this political space that Russia, Iran, China, IS and now also France and its EU partners are stepping into. The enemies of the West know that this window of opportunity might close when Obama leaves the White House. And they are moving fast. As the only Western power willing to confront this situation, France is becoming an important champion of Western interests in this new world - taking up a role which has for decades been reserved for the US as the leader of the Western world.

The major players in the new geopolitical power-game

All the major powers have made significant geopolitical moves over the last two years. The first substantial move in this regard was a Russian one: On 27 February 2014, Russia occupied the Crimea which belonged to Ukraine. In this context, the Russians introduced a new method of war, namely the "hybrid war" which involves many aspects which are designed to mislead the enemy. Then, at the beginning of March 2014, Russia instigated insurrections with eventual Russian military support in the Donbas areas of eastern Ukraine. On 30 September 2015 Russia also became militarily involved in the conflict in Syria. In all these cases the Russians have acted to secure their own geopolitical interests, especially their ability to project power beyond their immediate homeland (from their naval bases in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol and the Syrian port city of Tartus).

Other important players followed the Russian example. Since 2014 China began to aggressively extend its control in the South China Sea (which it claims as its own), turning seven reefs into artificial islands. In less than two years China has reclaimed more than eight square kilometres (ninety football fields), building three airstrips. As with the Russian actions, the speed and scale of this undertaking have surprised all the other players in the region. Since the beginning of 2015, Iran has also dramatically increased its tactical and military support for its allies: the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiites and the Houthis in Yemen (see [2] for a detailed discussion). There are more than a thousand Iranian soldiers fighting alongside Assad's forces and Iranian warplanes accompany Russian bombers over the Syrian skies. In Yemen, Iran's covert involvement in support of the Houthis prompted Saudi-Arabia to lead a nine-nation coalition in a military campaign to stop the spread of the Iranian influence in their neighbourhood.

Iranian warplanes accompanying Russian bombers over Syria
The projections of power by these major players stretch from Ukraine, through the Middle East to the South China Sea. In all these areas they (Russia-Iran-China, which might have entered into a secret military alliance) are trying to expand their geopolitical position at the expense of other countries which belong to the Western sphere of influence. These conflicting interests are especially intense in the context of the Syrian Civil War. The reason for this is simple: if the Syrian rebellion is successful, Russia would lose its last footprint in the Middle East and Iran's influence in the Middle East would decrease dramatically. This is why I said shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring that the conflict would escalate to involve other countries due to the fact that Russia would stand with the Assad regime [3]. Now many countries are directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. On the one hand, there are Russia, Iran, Hezbollah; to counter their influence the US (CIA), Saudi-Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others have started training moderate (and not-so-moderate) rebel groups who fight against the Assad regime and provide them with weaponry.

Another group that has been able to dramatically increase their projection of power on the world stage is the Islamic State (IS). Before 2014, ISIL (the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant), as it was known since April 2013 when the Islamic State of Iraq merged with the Al-Nuzra Front (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda), was just one of many military groups active in the Syrian conflict. But then, on 29 June 2014, they declared a world-wide caliphate and began a very aggressive effort towards territorial expansion which led to control over a large area stretching from Aleppo in Syria to the heartlands of central Iraq. Since then, satellite IS groups have been formed in Libya, Yemen, Egypt (in the Sinai Peninsula), Saudi-Arabia, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Caucasus and other countries. Over the last few weeks, they have claimed responsibility for attacks in Turkey, Yemen, Lebanon, the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai and the Paris attacks. 

The rise of IS is directly related to the power-game involving the other major players. Since the legal grounds for involvement on the side of the rebels in the Syrian conflict is restricted according to the principle of non-interference in a sovereign country without UN agreement, the existence of IS in that geographical area provides an entry point into that conflict without direct involvement against the Assad regime. As such, countries like the US who strongly support a rule-based international order (for example, against Russia's engagement in Ukraine), could establish a physical military presence in the area without directly engaging the Syrian regime - which would be important in case the Syrian Civil War evolves into a major war. The fight against IS provides various countries with a cover to promote their interests in the Syrian Civil War: the US, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar assist the rebel groups whereas Russia bombs Assad's enemies (during the first stage of their bombing campaign, 90% of their targets were other Syrian rebel groups than IS, some of which are supported by the US). 

The very existence of IS is in the interest of certain countries. In general, the geographical area that IS controls in Iraq and Syria effectively forms a buffer zone against Iran's military expansion in the region. This suits Sunni governments like Saudi-Arabia and Turkey well. Then, the fight against IS may also provide dictatorial regimes like that of Egyptian President Sisi and leaders with such tendencies like Turkish president Erdogan with excuses to eliminate or subdue their political opponents (Turkey's initial leniency towards IS was the reason why its conflict with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) flared up again - PKK cadres attacked security forces whom they believed allowed IS to plant bombs in Kurdish areas). Previously, in the fight against Al-Qaeda, the Pakistani military also secretly supported affiliated Islamist militants, which led to a low-point in its relations with the US. 

The main reason why countries like Russia, Iran, China and IS have been able to dramatically increase their geopolitical footprint over the last two years, is that they understood that the unilateral focus of the Obama administration on an idealist approach to world events, with an accompanying aversion in a realist approach which focuses on geopolitical concerns, has created an enormous geopolitical space which other strong players can occupy without serious consequences. Even Obama recognized this when he made a humiliating policy reversal in June 2014, ordering US troops back to Iraq.

Of special concern for the West (apart from the IS threat) is Russia's involvement in Syria which has dramatically disrupted the balance of power in the Syrian conflict. And the hands of the US are tied due to the Obama approach. Even in the face of the about 250 000 war dead, most of which are civilians of which about 90% have been killed by Assad's indiscriminate bombing! Then there is the Iran-factor. The lifting of sanctions against Iran early in 2016 (in accordance with the negotiated agreement with the P5+1 to dismantle their nuclear capacity) would release up to $100 billion to that country, which is of great concern for its opponents in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi-Arabia.

France enters the game

Until the 13 November 2015 attack in Paris, the French involvement in the Syrian conflict was quite moderate. The reason for this is that France, with all the Western countries, accepted the leadership role of the US in such matters. This has now changed. France is the only other Western country with the ability to step into the gap that the US has left on the Near Eastern scene. They are the only major player that can come to the rescue of Western interests in the Middle East. (Britain, which has previously been a major military player, has recently become a very untrustworthy partner in this regard). France is a staunch supporter of the moderate Syrian rebels and is one of a few countries (including the US and Britain) who recognize the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

There can be no doubt that the 13 November 2015 attack in Paris has galvanized the French in a manner very similar to that in which the 11 September 2001 attack activated the US into action against Al-Qaeda. Comparisons have been made between the speeches given by George W. Bush and Francois Hollande after the attacks as well as the wording of the resolutions tabled shortly afterwards at the UN security council. The response of the US was primarily a military one - they activated article 5 for the first time in NATO's history. The French responded differently: they activated the collective defence article 42.7 in the EU's Lisbon treaty. Although France has a lot of experience in such matters - they were recently militarily involved in stabilizing both the Central African Republic as well as Mali, where they fought with the government against Islamist militants (the attack on the luxury Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali's capital Bamako which came shortly after the Paris attack, might have been an effort to discredit the French involvement there and make it harder to reach its goal in the Syrian context) - they previously struggled to get the rest of the EU on board with them. 

The French approach is much more sophisticated than that of the US. Whereas the US has struggled to develop a coherent approach - they either have too much focus on military involvement or too little; they have either a too unilateral approach (only in the framework of NATO) or tried to merely train and support local partners (without any direct combat involvement) - the French have been able to combine all of these, namely local partners, restricted "boots on the ground" and a good balance between diplomatic and military engagement. The refugee crisis recently forced other EU countries like Germany too also contemplate deeper involvement - even with a military dimension - in unstable regions in its neighbourhood. We might in future see that the EU develops a more substantial coordinated military approach to secure its own backyard. Such an approach would combine the soft power for which the EU is known, with the restricted use of hard power.

The UN resolution that the French tabled after the Paris attack, which was accepted on 20 November 2015, may provide the legal framework not merely for more intensive involvement against IS, but also more generally in Syria. The reason is that the permission of the Assad regime is not required for such intervention, which calls "upon member states that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures ... on the territory under the control of ISIL ... in Syria and Iraq." This may allow the anti-Assad forces led by France and the US to establish boots on the ground in Syria (at first only special forces). At the same time, France would try to restrict the Russian attacks on the moderate opposition by involving them in some manner in the fight against IS (the US and its EU partners are also actively trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, which would isolate Iran in its support for Syrian President Assad).

The resolution also targets the Al-Nusra Front which has broken ranks with IS. This may allow countries that back the Syrian rebels to more openly do so, also with air support (ostensibly in their fight against both IS and Al-Nusra) - which would necessarily also mean that they are better equipped to fight the Assad-regime. On the other hand, the resolution may allow Russia and Iran to target those Islamist groups supported by Saudi-Arabia and Qatar that fights alongside Al-Nusra. The outcome may be an escalation in the Syrian conflict, which in turn may lead to a full-blown proxy war between the two opposing alliances - especially when the IS threat is reduced in the area.

In my view, the Syrian conflict may eventually escalate into another major war (see [4]). At this stage, there are renewed efforts to kick-start a negotiated transition process but the main stumbling block, namely the future role of Syrian President Assad, has not been removed. Although there is currently a lot of talk about a grand coalition against IS, the fault-line between the opponents and supporters of the Assad regime, between the Sunni-countries led by Saudi-Arabia and Shiite Iran, between the Western-backed alliance and Russia-Iran-Assad alliance, may become more accentuated once IS has been degraded to a more manageable threat.  

For now, France has found a way to stabilize the balance-of-power in the Syrian conflict but when the sanctions against Iran are lifted in 2016, the conflict may intensify further. Although IS may pose a threat for decades to come, its ability to strike again in the EU has already been severely restricted through a substantial upgrading of the Schengen zone in the EU as well as improved information-intelligence sharing between EU countries (some even speak of the eventual formation of an EU intelligence agency).

Conclusion

Over the last two years, our world has become a very unstable place where major players compete in the geopolitical space created by the Obama doctrine. As such IS is just one such player and it would be wrong to think that this common threat would bring about a substantial alliance between all the other role players. Although IS is definitely a major threat to the stability of the world, the larger geopolitical game poses an even greater threat - namely that of a major war, even another world war. Again, it would be wrong to see the actions of France after the attack in Paris merely in the context of IS; rather, the acceptance of the UN resolution that France tabled, actually allows the various players in the Syrian conflict to more openly support the opposing groups. Whereas the military involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict has upset the balance-of-power in that conflict, the French actions may allow the Western nations to effectively counter the Russian actions.

In my view, the dramatic escalation of instability on the world scene over the last two years is only the beginning. As I previously suggested from my geopolitical analysis of world events [1], we are entering another phase in world history - a war phase, that will bring enormous upheaval. In the same manner that the Vietnam War gradually escalated into a major war, I foresee that the same could happen in the Syrian conflict. Russia, Iran and China might try to maximize their geopolitical gains before president Obama depart; he would leave it to his successor in the White House to clean up his mess

[1] Click on The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world
[2] Click on A New Iranian Empire is rising
[3] On 5 December 2011. Oorlogswolke begin oor die Midde Ooste saampak.
[4] Click on Is A Third World War Brewing?

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)



Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The problem of spontaneity in quantum mechanics

The problem of indeterminism in quantum physics is profound; such is the solution to that problem. I show how indeterminism (spontaneity) and determinism are accounted for in Kantian metaphysics and how this provides us with a viable way to understand our world - especially indeterminism in quantum physics. When the metaphysical implications thereof are considered, the atheistic worldview becomes untenable.

We all engage on a daily basis with the world around us. We have various experiences of and in our world. Our experience is complemented with the more substantial, careful and systematic study of our world which goes far beyond our everyday experience in the framework of science. When we consider all the information that becomes available to us, we may confront the important question: What is the cosmos really like? What is the totality of our existence? Are we only matter or are there other aspects to our universe that go beyond that? These are difficult questions and philosophers and theologians have been thinking about them for a very long time.

In this essay I engage with these questions in the context of quantum physics, using the philosophy of one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The reason for doing so is that his approach to these questions have special relevance to our current situation - his conceptualization of the world is in remarkable agreement with the newest developments in science (see below). On the one hand, Kant was concerned with the question of grounding science. As such he was especially interested in the question: What is knowledge? On the other hand, Kant engaged with the question of human freedom. For Kant, the possibility of human freedom (of choice) implies that our world may include an aspect that goes beyond the realm of experience (and experiment; the world of knowledge); a supersensible realm in which absolute spontaneity would be seated.

The question of freedom is very important one insofar as we want to engage with the larger questions about our human existence. If our world is merely mechanistic (everything is just matter which is deterministically connected), then humans merely have the illusion that they are free. If humans, however, really have free choice, the world cannot merely consist of matter; it must have some aspect to it that goes beyond matter and makes such freedom possible. Kant developed a conceptual framework (we may call it a metaphysical framework) in which both determinism and freedom are accommodated. In this regard, he did not merely focus on human freedom, but also on the more basic possibility of freedom or spontaneity which would make human freedom possible. This possibility has now been confirmed in science. This implies that the world is more than mere matter.

On the possibility of freedom

In Kant's view, there is only one way to account for both the possibilities of freedom and determinism, namely that the world be conceptualized as consisting of two aspects, namely nature and a supersensible (noumenal) realm outside nature. The concept of nature as a system captures the possibility of determinism (which is called "mechanism" in the context of nature) in its absolute totality, i.e. as referring to the totality of all possible mechanistic (deterministic) connections in the world. The "laws of nature" are possible as laws because of this deterministic causal (i.e. predictable) link between the objects of nature. To the extent that objects in the world are objects of nature, we can bring them within our experiential or experimental reach. As such we can gain empirical access to such objects in space and time and gain knowledge about them.

The concept of the supersensible realm, on the other hand, refers to a possible aspect of our world where objects are not deterministically connected. Since we cannot engage empirically with such objects (for that we need a deterministic causal connection between the objects and our measuring devices), they would be "supersensible", that is, outside our experiential and experimental reach. Since we cannot access such a realm with our senses or instruments, we can merely think it - that's why it is also called a "noumenal" realm (from the Greek word for understanding, namely "nous").

We can think that such a realm may operate according to another rule (than mechanism), namely in accordance with absolute spontaneity (freedom). The only manner in which objects in such a realm could impact our experience or experiments is if they have the ability through this spontaneous causality to produce outcomes in nature. Then we may become aware of such outcomes. In Kant's view, such spontaneous causality would be necessary to ground human free will. It would be through such a causality in the supersensible realm that our free choice would become possible.

There are various ways in which we can consider the possibility of such freedom. We can follow a methodological approach in which we consider the mere possibility of such freedom. Insofar as such a realm is outside space and time and classical causality, the logical possibility arises that freedom might be possible in that framework (i.e. there is no contradiction in that). In this case, we are not concerned with what such a realm may be like; we merely assert that it is not in space-time and outside causality and as such we can ascribe freedom to it.

Such a methodological approach may involve taking the empirical data regarding spontaneity in, say, atomic decay, as the basis to formulate a hypothetical rule to guide quantum physics. In this case, we do not worry about the How-question (How is such spontaneity possible?), we merely accept the empirical evidence regarding such spontaneity as it is observed. This is how Niels Bohr got to his "quantum postulate". The quantum objects that are responsible for these indeterminate (spontaneous according to Bohr) outcomes are outside experimental reach. We can therefore not study them empirically! It is only once the so-called wave packet (which describes the quantum object in its pre-measurement stage) has "collapsed", that we can observe something.

Bohr believed that the outcomes in quantum physics, which are indeterminate and discontinuous, are indeed spontaneously produced. Recently Hernan Pringe [1] showed how quantum outcomes can be grounded as objective knowledge in the context of Kant's philosophy. As such, he regards quantum objects as noumenal objects (that is in their pre-measurement stage) and uses the Kantian idea of absolute spontaneity to describe the production of such outcomes.

This implies that Kant's conception of the noumenal realm cannot any longer be banned from the scientific discussion as Kantian philosophers often assert (they associate it exclusively with his moral philosophy). Kant himself asserted that the noumenal realm should be included in the context of his philosophy of science as he presented it in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (also called the third Critique). In fact, it seems that we now have good reason to think that the world is not merely mechanistically connected and that Kant's metaphysics, which includes the noumenal realm, might give a better description of the world than other approaches which do not allow for spontaneity (say, Bohm's view or the "parallel universes" view) or do not say how it is possible. It also means that a very strong case for free will can be made.

 How is freedom possible?

In my own study of spontaneity [2], I proceed beyond a mere methodological approach. I am not merely concerned with the logical possibility of absolute spontaneity (spontaneous causality) or the use of hypothetical rules (the quantum postulate). I am also concerned with the more substantial question: How is such freedom possible? In this regard, I engage on a deeper level with the question of freedom.

There are certain conditions for absolute spontaneity to be possible - this involves engaging with the How-question. Kant discusses these conditions in the last part of the first Critique (in the first part of this Critique he is concerned with the conditions for human knowledge). In Kant's metaphysics these conditions are 1) the existence of a supersensible realm in contradistinction with the existence of nature (i.e. a realm in which determinism is not the governing principle), 2) the ability of objects in that realm to produce outcomes in nature. Kant also shows how we can conceive of the world in this manner.

When we allow for the mere possibility of freedom, this does not mean that such freedom really exist. Once we allow that such freedom may in fact really exist, we have to say how that would be possible. According to Kant freedom can only be "saved" if we allow that the noumenal realm exists (even if we cannot confirm its existence) and that objects in that realm produce outcomes in nature. As such the noumenal realm cannot be of the same kind of existence than nature where mechanism rules (then freedom would not be possible). Rather, we can think that the noumenal realm would only be accessible for another kind of intuition than our sensible intuition, would have an ideal (abstract) space-time structure that would correspond in some manner with our own space-time and would be governed by absolute spontaneity. As such we can positively conceptualize what such a noumenal realm would be like if it existed.

Although I do not dogmatically (in a realist sense) assert the existence of such a noumenal realm, I do think that we have good reason to think that such a realm exists in the form of the quantum realm. This would mean that the quantum realm belongs to a different mode of existence than nature (the "classical" world where the space-time theories of relativity apply). As such, the possibility of absolute spontaneity which is observed in quantum physics (where atomic decay is the most dramatic example), may be explained alongside determinism. We do not have to merely assert the fact of freedom or try to (against all evidence) try to assert determinism (as some philosophers of science have done); we can explain how both are possible and we can reconcile them in the framework of Kant's philosophy. This might be the only possible manner in which determinism and freedom are reconciled in science; not merely as logical possibilities, but in explaining how both are possible and could co-exist.

The metaphysical implications of this are profound. It means that we can not only account for the indeterminism (spontaneity) that we observe in quantum mechanics; we can also explain it. As such this explanation follows directly from an ontological (i.e. concerned with "existence") reading of Kant's philosophy in the first and third Critiques [2]. This means that Kant's metaphysics, which allows for both nature and a supersensible realm outside nature, might be the best way to understand and explain what our world is like. This also presents the first step in accounting for free will, and the argument that humans are responsible before the law (even the moral law).

In fact, Kant's philosophy even accepts the existence of the soul (as a noumenal self) which is important in the Kantian conception of free will. If this is, in fact, the only way to explain and reconcile determinism and freedom, then we may finally reject the atheistic worldview - in the sense that a strictly a-theistic (no-god) view would have to exclude the typical metaphysical grounds on which the existence of God is based. As such an a-theistic view necessitates the exclusion of the possibility of spontaneity which requires a supersensible realm; freedom and the supersensible realm opens the door for God. This is why atheistic philosophers and scientists have traditionally supported a pure mechanistic (deterministic) conception of the cosmos. Although the confirmation that the quantum realm conforms to Kant's conception of the supersensible realm obviously does not prove the existence of God, it belongs to a metaphysical picture that has traditionally been associated with belief in God.

Conclusion

In this essay, I engage with the question: How is freedom possible? I introduce the freedom-determinism debate in the context of Kant's philosophy. I show that the possible existence of both these opposites is incorporated into Kant's metaphysics which includes both nature and the supersensible realm outside nature. What is remarkable, is that the Kantian conception of a supersensible realm which grounds absolute spontaneity is now taken seriously in science [1]. As such we have to accept that quantum objects exist as noumenal objects (as Pringe shows) which ground such freedom.

I make the bold claim that we cannot only accept the mere possibility or even the empirical evidence of spontaneity without also asking: How is such freedom possible? We may have to accept that we can only explain such freedom if we conceptualize the quantum world as a different mode of existence. This means that our classical and quantum conceptions of the world refer to two distinct modes of existence. This fits in very nicely with the Kantian metaphysics; this is what we expect if we read the world through the lens of Kantian metaphysics [3].

[1] Pringe, H. 2007. Critique of the Quantum Power of Judgment. A Transcendental Foundation of Quantum Objectivity. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
[2] Mc Loud, W. 2015. Introducing a Kantian Interpretation of Quantum Physics, in accordance with Kant's Philosophy of Science in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, reinterpreted and reworked with special attention to the supersensible realm. Masters thesis. UCT. Cape Town.
Kant, Noumena and Quantum Physics, published in Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 3 (2018)
[3] I hope to write about ten essays on the implications of the remarkable fit between Kantian metaphysics and our scientific understanding of the world for the Christian-atheist conversation. 

Author: Dr. Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

When can the Second Coming of Jesus be expected?

A date for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has again been (wrongly) predicted. The idea of "blood moons" motivated the predictions made by Mark Blitz as well as the proclamation by John Hagee that "something" is about to change. Although this plays into the hands of sceptics, it should at the same time motivate Christians to do their homework better. In this essay, I present an outline of future events leading to the Second Coming based on good hermeneutical (interpretive) principles. I engage both the believer and the sceptic in the conversation. I also engage with current events.

It is now nearly 2000 years since the death of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that he was resurrected, returned to the Father in heaven and would one day return to earth. This event is called the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Since the time of the early church, this event has been expected in every generation. In our own time, there are again many Christians who expect the return of Jesus in the near future. Was and is their hope futile? Would he really return as he has promised? Should we still take such prophesies serious or should we accept his non-appearance and (as Christians) develop other manners to think about those texts? Or is there a middle road according to which we might expect his return in accordance with the prophecies - using a good hermeneutical approach to construct an outline of expected prophetic events leading to the eventual return of Jesus Christ?

According to an old saying, there are always two sides to a story. In fact, there are always more sides to any story. These often include misguided positions, which may become well-established but which are nonetheless ill-conceived. Insofar as we are working with texts, this refers to interpretations that are not grounded in good hermeneutical principles. The problem is to clear all the smoke that such readers produce on-stage and to present good, solid interpretations which would give us safe passage through the clashing rocks on both sides of the waterway of life (just like Jason and his Argonauts at the entrance to the Black Sea).

On the one hand, we find those who so often announce the imminent return of Jesus; on the other hand there are those from the Biblical Criticism tradition (although not all) who do not think that "prophecies" have any bearing on future events (for a detailed discussion of this view, see [1]) and try to ascribe new meanings to the idea of the Second Coming (maybe that it happens every Sunday during the church service). In this essay, I present a view which accepts that Biblical prophecy regarding end-time events would be fulfilled - but also that these things would happen in their own time. I give an outline of how I believe that future events will unfold according to Bible prophecy as well as how that relates to current events in the world.

Taking Bible prophecy serious

We have become used to Christians proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Although the days of the Seventh-Day-Adventist's wrong predictions and expectations are long gone, there are new voices who have taken their place and proclaim that they have calculated the dates correctly and call upon Christians to prepare themselves. In 1988 there were many who expected Jesus's return since that date was one generation (40 years) since the restoration of Israel in their land. In 1993-5 there were others who did calculations based on the approaching millennium (the thousand years of Jesus's rule on earth) which was expected around the year 2000 and announced the imminent rapture which would take place seven years before that.

A few years later, Harold Camping announced that the rapture would take place on 21 May 2011. In 2008 Mark Blitz pronounced that the Second Coming might be in the Fall of 2015, based on his readings of the four consecutive "blood moons" (lunar eclipses during which the moon appears to be red) which occur on Jewish feast days (four over a two year period; although three of these were not visible from the Holy Land). John Hagee wrote a bestseller on the topic of blood moons. He was more careful and merely said that "something" is about to "change".

The last blood moon in the tetrad was on 28 September 2015. Although nothing happened on this day, we can expect that the vagueness of his prediction would allow Hagee to relate it to any important event that involves Israel in the next few years (It might very well happen that the tension in the Middle East boils over into a conflict that involves Israel, but one might see that without any recourse to "blood moon" readings! [2] Even if this leads to a third world war (see [2]), this does not mean that the end is near). We might expect that there would in future be others who take one generation (70 years?) since 1967, when Israel took control of the city of Jerusalem, as a reason to predict the imminent rapture.

All these predictions regarding the Second Coming of Jesus have one thing in common: They assume that the Second Coming can take place without other important prophetic events that precede it. When Jesus was asked about the time of his coming and the end of the world (Matt. 24:3), he surely mentioned various general signs which would occur with increased intensity just like the "sorrows" preceding birth (false Christs, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, persecution), but he also mentioned some very particular events (see below). Jesus focused merely on those events that involve the Jewish temple since that was the context of the disciples' question to him. We can, however, include more such events when other relevant prophecies are taken into consideration. This would mean that we do not reject Bible prophecy due to all these false predictions; on the contrary, we take it seriously enough to apply good interpretative principles to such prophecies. This would mean that all the important prophecies on this theme are taken into account as well as the manner in which they all fit together in the context of the Second Coming.

As expected, these wrong predictions provide critics with "manna from heaven" (I have seen some comments in this regard [3]). Throughout the ages, there had been interpreters who developed interpretations which may be regarded as reactions against such misguided approaches regarding future events. Some of these scholars from the Biblical Criticism tradition believe that "prophecies" should only be considered in the historical context of the prophets. They do not think that we should expect any future fulfilment of such prophecies since those ancient people could, in their scholarly opinion, obviously not have known what would happen in future. In the context of the modernist roots of this discipline [4], the early scholars of this discipline believed that they had some "objective" view on those ancient times which allowed them to reject any possibility of divinely-inspired prophecy.

Although critical scholars might have such a view regarding prophecy, this is not the manner in which ancient Israel understood prophecy. I previously wrote in this regard: "The problem is, however, that the people of that time did believe that the oracles were God-given and this influenced their whole perspective on life. Once this aspect is removed, we do not arrive at some “objective” point of view – we arrive at a reductive view with no correspondence to the historical situation. The fact is that they held those beliefs. The prophet, as well as those who listened to him, believed that these oracles came from God. This was part of their worldview; it determined their whole concept of life and the place of major (especially catastrophic) events therein. This is the historical situation! [1]" As such, they also believed that prophecies may have their fulfilment long after the lifetime of the prophets (for a detailed discussion, see [1]). Although scholars might not believe in divine-inspiration, that does not exclude the possibility that the ancients were in fact right in this regard! 

In my view, any scholar should be open-minded regarding metaphysical matters. We should not immediately reject interpretations which take the futuristic aspect of prophecy serious - the ancient Israelites and the early church held that view and such interpretations would at least be in agreement with their expectations. If we take the texts seriously (and not merely impose our own readings on it without regard for their views as the great philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur taught us), then such interpretations would be more in tune with the long Israelite tradition of interpreting prophecy than our own modern perspectives in this regard. Once we allow that such prophecies might be God-given and therefore refer to future events, we can study the texts in that manner. Then "futuristic" is not a swear-word; it merely refers to the fact that the Second Coming of Jesus may be taken seriously as something that would really happen and that would, in turn, imply that there may be various other related prophecies that would also have a future fulfillment in the period leading up to that event.

Discerning important prophecies about end time events

Although there are many prophecies that may be taken as referring to end-time events, there are certain prophecies among these that are of special importance for the simple reason that they give a broad perspective on such events; they provide us with a general outline according to which end-time events may be structured. In my view, the most important prophecy in this regard is the one that we find in Daniel 7. I discussed this prophecy in detail elsewhere [5] and would not go into such detail here. Once we have such an outline we can relate all the other prophecies about end-time events to that.

What is important about this prophecy is that it tells about the various great Middle Eastern empires which would rule over Israel until the time when "one like the Son of man comes with the clouds of heaven", who would receive dominion, glory and everlasting kingship over all the earth (Dan. 7:13-14). He would appear at the time when an Ancient of Days, who sits on a flaming throne, would render judgment (Dan. 7:9, 10, 13). If we take the divine-inspiration of prophecy serious and accept that Jesus refers to this prophecy in the context of his Second Coming when he spoke of himself as "the Son of man [who would] come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30), then we might view this prophecy as including events throughout history to the Second Coming (which has obviously not yet arrived; it would not happen in secret but with "great power and glory"). As such, this prophecy might provide a framework by which we can allocate other relevant end-time prophecies in which the same or similar symbols are used.

What is further remarkable about this prophecy, is that it has a twin: there is another prophecy in the Book of Daniel which agrees on each point with this one, even though other symbols are used (in Daniel 2). When prophecies are repeated in this manner, it accentuates that their outcome is sure (Gen. 41:32) as is also asserted in Daniel 2:45. In the vision of the prophet described in the Book of Daniel, chapter 7, various beasts rose from the sea. In Nebuchadnezzar's dream in chapter 2, a metal statue is depicted. The four beasts (lion, bear, leopard and a dreadful and terrible beast that was exceedingly strong with great iron teeth) correspond with the four metals from which the statue was made (gold, silver, brass, iron). In both cases the last one is depicted as stronger than all the others, as a beast/metal which "brake in pieces" (Dan. 7:7; 2:40) and devour/subdue. The great beast had ten horns whereas the statue had ten toes. The "Son of Man" who came with the clouds of heaven at the time of the great judgment agrees with the rock which broke the statue in pieces and filled the earth. Both prophecies mention the "everlasting kingdom" that would follow.

I have previously shown (I discuss all the views [5]) that this prophecy has to a large extent been remarkably fulfilled if we take the symbols in the following manner (which is by far the most reasonable explanation): the lion/gold refers to the Neo-Babylonian empire (626-539 BC); the bear/silver refers to the Persian empire (550-330 BC); the leopard/brass refers to the Greek empire (of Alexander the Great; 356-323 BC) which was divided into four in the time after his death (323-63 BC etc.) in agreement with the four heads of the leopard; the great and terrible beast or iron which is depicted as stronger than all the others refers to the Roman Empire (27 BC- 476 AD) which was divided into two in agreement with the two legs of iron.

Roman Empire: divided into two

I argued that the two feet (made of iron mixed with clay) which came after the two iron legs but preceded the ten toes (made of the same), refer to two empires which came in the place of the eastern and western parts into which the old Roman Empire was divided, namely the Byzantine Empire (306-1460 AD) in the east and the Holy Roman Empire (800-1806 AD; [6]) in the west - which were less powerful than the once mighty Roman Empire. In my view, the iron refers to the Latins (Romans) and the clay to the Germanic peoples who lived (for the most part) to the north of the Roman Empire but later settled within its boundaries. Both of these were included in these empires, whose geographical areas changed a lot over the duration of their existence. Below is a map of Europe which shows both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire at a time when the last was much reduced from its original size. Observe that these two empires included the core areas of the two parts of the old Roman Empire.


Holy Roman and Byzantine empires
The ten horns/toes would refer to an empire that comes after that but which has not yet appeared. These are "ten kings" who will rise from the (geographical area of the) old Roman Empire (Dan. 7:24) to rule over a single end-time empire (Dan. 2:42). After that an eleventh horn appeared between the ten other horns and grew greater than them; this depicts a great Antichristian figure who would persecute the saints for 3 1/2 years (Dan. 7:25) in the time directly before the coming of the Son of man with the clouds of heaven at the time of the great judgment (Dan. 7:13-28; see the discussion above).

We can now relate this to another important prophecy which uses the same symbols and clearly builds upon this very prophecy. This is the prophecy that we find in the Book of Revelation which also depicts a beast that appears from the sea. This beast is composed of the four beasts depicted in the vision described in Daniel 7 (see above). Again its ten horns are said to depict "ten kings" who have "no kingdom as yet" (i.e. in 96 AD when the prophecy was given), but who would have "one mind" and would give their power and strength to the beast (Rev. 17:12-13). The beast would be a great warrior-king (emperor?) who receives his power from Satan (Rev. 13:1-7). He would blasphemy against God and persecute the saints for 3 1/2 years. In the end, he would fight together with the ten kings against the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) during the last great battle (Rev. 17:14; 19:19). The description of this beast corresponds closely with the eleventh horn of Daniel 7. Both prophecies refer to an end-time Antichrist which would appear shortly before the Second Coming (as is clearly said in both these prophecies).

The prophecies of the eleventh horn of Daniel 7 and the great beast of Revelation (both of which refer to the final Antichrist) have an interesting detail in common. Both mention that this person will persecute the saints for 3 1/2 years (also called "a time [one year], and times [two years], and half a time [half year]", 42 months or 1260 days). Why this particular period? This period actually also figures in another important prophecy in the Book of Daniel about the final seven years (Dan. 9:22-27). I have also discussed this prophecy in detail and would not go into detail here (I discuss all the views [7]).

According to this prophecy (in Daniel 9), there would eventually rise "a coming prince" from the people who would destroy the city of Jerusalem (which happened when the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD) who would conclude a covenant for seven years with many. This "coming prince" is depicted as the opposite of Messiah, the "prince" [8]. In the middle of this final seven-year period, this ruler would stop the sacrifices at the temple and set up an "abomination" in the temple which would leave it "desolate" (Dan. 9:27). This means that the last half of the final seven years - the final 3 1/2 years - would be an especially difficult time for Israel. It seems reasonable to take this as the 3 1/2 years during which the Antichrist would persecute the saints (together with Israel) in accordance with the previously discussed prophecies.

When the disciples asked Jesus about his coming and the end of the world, he also refers to this final period. Jesus said that the most important sign that the end is at hand, would be when we see the "abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet" standing in the temple (Matt. 24:15, see [9]). This clearly refers to the just mentioned prophecy in Daniel 9 according to which such an abomination would be set up in the temple. Jesus says that this would lead to very difficult times in Israel (and for the Jewish Christians living there). In fact, this would be the time of the "great tribulation" (Matt. 24:21). Then, immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun would go dark, and the moon, and the powers of heaven would be shaken, after which would appear the Son of man on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:29-31). This is when "the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood (!) before the great and terrible day of the Lord come" (Joel 2:31).

A summary of end-time events

In my view we can from the short discussion above discern the following events in the period before the Second Coming [10]:

1) A re-established "Roman" Empire. According to the prophecy of Daniel 7 the "ten kings" (and also their leader, the final Antichrist) would appear from the old Roman Empire. Although this might merely mean that they would rise in the geographical area of the old Roman Empire, it seems quite possible that that empire itself will also rise again in some form and that the ten "kings" would rule in that context. One might expect that at least some politico-economic structure would be established in the geographical area of the empire before the ten "kings" appear - although the empire itself may only become established once a new emperor is appointed.

We have seen that the empires which were depicted by the two feet of the statue of Daniel 2 came to an end in 1806 AD (when Napoleon dismantled the Holy Roman Empire). As such, the current EU project might be the first stage in the fulfilment of the next part of the prophecy (i.e. the ten toes; for a detailed discussion of the rising EU in this context, see [11]) and could lead to the formation of a re-established Roman Empire. EU is, in fact, rising in the geographical area of the old Roman Empire and includes countries from both the western and eastern parts of that empire. In my view, such a future empire would, at least in its first stage, be a re-established Holy Roman Empire.

When the future development of the EU into a new Holy Roman Empire is considered, one should mention that Charlemagne (Charles the Great), the original founder of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD, was not only recognized as "emperor of the Romans" after the original Roman emperors; he was also considered as successor to the first Christian emperor and as such he was called the "new Constantine" (although the Holy Roman Empire was geographically restricted to the western part of the old Roman empire, the emperors of this empire were viewed not merely as successors to the Western Roman emperors, but to Constantine himself).

As the one who was the first to unify post-Roman Europe, Charlemagne is generally recognized today as the "Father of Europe". During his reign, the name Europe (originally a girl of Greek mythology who rode on the white bull Zeus) became generally applied to the continent that now bears her name. After World War II, Charlemagne became a symbol for the unification between France and Germany in the context of the developing EU, since both the French and German monarchies descended from him. Charlemagne is one of the most important personifications of the EU, together with the symbol of Europa riding the bull.



2) The rule of the ten "kings". This would be a very important signal that the end may be approaching. These "kings" would rule over an empire which would appear in the geographical area of the old Roman Empire; both parts of that empire (depicted by the two legs) would be included in the empire of the ten "kings" (the ten toes came out of the two feet which came out of the two iron legs). This means that at least the core areas of these parts would be included in the framework of the area ruled by the ten "kings".

Since Greece represents the core area of the eastern part of the old Roman Empire, I argued previously (in the context of the first Greek financial crisis in 2011, so far correctly [12]) that Greece would not be ejected from the Eurozone if the ten "kings" are to rise eventually from this structure (this might be regarded as preliminary confirmation of the validity of my eschatological model). According to the prophecy, the ten toes were furthermore made of iron and clay - which I take as referring to the mix of the Romans (iron) and Germanic nations (clay) which came about after the old Roman Empire. This is why the eventual Antichristian empire may also include (just like the current EU) many European countries to the north of the border of the old Roman Empire (countries like the Netherlands, Germany etc.).

The question is: In what manner could the ten "kings" rise in the context of the EU? The EU is developing a complex politico-economic structure which includes various levels of integration - very similar to the depiction of the "tower of Babylon" by Pieter Breugel (1563) which was included on official EU posters (see below). The levels of the current EU include a free trade zone at the lowest level, then the border-free Schengen area and then the Eurozone (countries who use the Euro). One might expect that an even smaller group of (ten?) powerful Eurozone countries would at some point proceed towards political integration within the framework of the EU and that the rule of the ten "kings" might in time appear in this context. The formation of such a political union would take time and one can think that eventually a "Council of Ten" (the "ten kings" of Biblical prophecy) could be formed in the framework of the European Council (this council includes the heads of EU states and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission).

3) The rise of the Antichrist. According to the discussed prophecies, the final Antichrist would appear when the ten "kings" give their power and strength to him. He may take seat number 666 in the EU parliament which is kept vacant. One should not necessarily think that the first ruler of a political union in the context of the EU would be the Antichrist. It is possible that the position of the emperor would eventually be reinstalled - and that the final Antichrist would be the last emperor [13].

We may understand the depiction of the mighty beast from the sea (in Revelation; the Antichrist) which was composed of the beasts of Daniel 7, as meaning that his empire would include the geographical areas of all those empires (depicted by those beasts). That would mean that his empire would stretch from the geographical area of the old Roman Empire (which included Europe, North-Africa, areas around the Black Sea and parts of the Middle East including Israel) as far as Iran [14] and Afghanistan since that was the extent of the Persian and Greek empires. We can expect that other areas of the world which would be in alliance with the EU (probably the USA, Africa, India, other countries in the east etc.) would also in some manner be subjected to the reign of the Antichrist. We do not know how large the empire would grow even before the Antichrist appears.

4) The conclusion of a covenant for seven years. When such a leader concludes a covenant for seven years (maybe with some Israeli's, i.e. if we take other multiple prophecies like Daniel 11:31, 32 into consideration) then Christians may seriously consider the possibility that this person is indeed the final Antichrist.

5) The abomination in the temple. According to Jesus, this is the definite sign that the Antichrist has appeared. In my view, this is the event that St. Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2 which would happen shortly before "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together with him", namely that the "man of sin", the "son of perdition" (see also Rev. 17:8), would be "revealed" when he sits in the Jewish temple and presents himself as God. This means that the Jewish temple would be rebuild before that time. Since that would take longer than 3 1/2 years, one would expect that the Jewish temple would be rebuilt even before the Antichrist concludes the covenant for seven years.

We might view the current conflict on the temple mount as a precursor to that: it is quite possible that the Jews would start organizing different times for Jews and Muslims to visit the temple mount, and that this might later evolve into various designated areas for such visits. The area to the north of the Dome of Rock might eventually become such a designated Jewish area where the temple could be built (it seems that this may be the spot where the temple once stood in alignment with the eastern gate of the ancient city).

6) The great tribulation. This period of 3 1/2 years follows the revelation of the Antichrist as such (i.e. the "abomination") in the Jewish temple. The Antichrist would persecute the saints as well as Israel.

7) The great battle of Armageddon when Jesus Christ would appear in great power and glory.

In this exposition, I have not discussed any of the views regarding the rapture. One should, however, not miss the point that events 1-3 would precede the rapture in all views thereof, including when it is taken as happening seven years before the end [15].

Conclusion

In this essay, I discuss the very important question: When can the Second Coming of Jesus be expected? I suggest that any serious seeker after the truth would discard both the simplistic as well as the critical views about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They would steer clear of both of these dangerous clashing rocks to land safely on the other side. Such a person would carefully consider the prophecies without metaphysical preconceptions. They would allow for the possibility that the prophecies might, in fact, all be exactly fulfilled. I present an outline of that prophetic calendar in accordance with good hermeneutical (interpretative) practice. As such, I distinguish various important events on the road to that great day.

The first event that should focus our attention, is developments in the context of the geographical area of the old Roman Empire which may later evolve into a re-established Holy Roman Empire. I argue that the current EU may present exactly such a precursor to the eventual events that would lead to the appearance of the Antichrist. I expect that we would eventually see that a group of important Eurozone countries would integrate themselves into a political block - and that the "ten kings" of Biblical prophecy would eventually arise in this context. The Antichrist, who would appear as their leader, would be recognized as such when he sits in the rebuilt Jewish temple and requires worship as God. At that stage, all true Christians would (hopefully) know that the end is at hand.

[1] Click on Bible prophecy: predicting the distant future?
[2] Click on: Is A Third World War Brewing?
[3] Bertus Osbloed van Niekerk wrote: "Of die wêreld nou eindig of nié, ek en Hendrik het 'n afspraak om môre in die Helderberg te gaan wyn proe. Ons wil minstens vier plase inpas. As Jesus môre weer wil kom, moet hy maar iewers op die roete by ons aansluit. Ons het nou al hoeveel keer vir hom gewag op ander datums, maar hy kom nooit nie. Nou begin ons maar solank sonder hom". (op Facebook, 22/8/2015)
[4] Click on A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline
Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective
[5] Click on The rise of the final world empire: the different views
Die tien horings van Daniël 7 - waarna verwys dit?
[6] The Holy Roman Empire had two seats of power, namely 1) the pope in Rome, who through the crown, invested 2) the emperor with special authority as the legitimate successor of the Roman emperors.
[7] Click on The final seven years: the different views
[8] The prophecy in Daniel 9:22-27 is about 70 "weeks" of years prophesied over Israel and the city of Jerusalem. These weeks of years are divided into three parts: the first seven weeks (7 x 7 = 49 years), the next 62 weeks (62  x 7 = 434 years; the first and second periods are consecutive) and the last period of 1 week (7 years). According to the prophecy, the period of the 70 weeks would commence with the command to restore Jerusalem and build its walls, which was given in 445 BC by the Persian king Artaxerxes Longimanus (when Nehemiah returned). Then, after 69 weeks (69 x 7 = 483 years), the Messiah would reveal himself as "prince" (king). That happened in accordance with the prophecy of Zacharia 9:9 when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the donkey on Palm Sunday. This period of 69 weeks has been very precisely fulfilled (see note 6 in my book Op pad na Armageddon).
According to the prophecy, the Messiah would die directly after that, which happened on the first Friday thereafter, during the Passover of 32 AD. After that Jerusalem would be destroyed, which happened in 70 AD. Eventually, the time would come when "a coming prince" from the people who destroyed Jerusalem (i.e the Romans), would conclude a covenant for seven years (the final seven years). I place this last period of seven years in future since (to mention just one reason) such a "covenant" of seven years has never been found in the relevant context in history. I have previously shown that this is by far the most reasonable way to interpret the text [6].
[9] The Prophetic Discourse is a multiple prophecy - two events that are removed in time are presented in the same prophecy. These are 1) the events that happened within a generation after the prophecy when Jerusalem was taken by the Romans and 2) future events that have not yet come to pass. In both cases, these events (would) include an abomination in the temple (and probably the takeover of the city of Jerusalem). In the first case a banner with the head of the Caesar was placed in the temple; in the second case, the Antichrist would sit in the temple as God. We find that the versions of the Prophetic Discourse given in the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew reflect these different "mountain peaks of prophecy" (this expression originates from the fact that consecutive mountain peaks are often seen as one when observed from the bottom of the mountain).
[10] This outline is a much-reduced version of the one which I present as part of a well-illustrated power-point series about these events at ministry schools and congregations in South Africa and Europe (in English and Afrikaans).
[11] Click on The European Union: forever rising
[12] Click on Gaan Griekeland in die Eurosone bly? - 'n eskatologiese perspektief
[13] Who would the Antichrist be? For some considerations in this regard, read The Priory of Sion is back
[14] Click on A New Iranian Empire is rising
[15] Readers often argue that Jesus can come at any time because he said that his coming would be like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43). This is, however, not the right way to understand that image. St. Paul says: "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day would overtake you as a thief" (1 Th. 5:4-5). In the Book of Revelation, this image is used in the context of the great battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:15-16).

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)
wmcloud@yahoo.com 

The author has written a few books on eschatology including Op pad na Armageddon, 31 bepeinsings oor Openbaring en ander Bybelprofesieë (1995) asook Die Arabiese Opstande, Hoe raak dit die vervulling van Bybelprofesieë oor die eindtyd (2011, Griffel). He has a Masters in Philosophy (University of Cape Town) as well as a PhD in physics (University of Natal). He writes and lectures on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology.

If readers find the essay important for current debate, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others.

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Part 5: When can the Second Coming of Jesus be expected?