Archives For Richard Dawkins

     It’s a strange-sounding word: homage.

It’s a word that feels as though it belongs dressed up in period costumes, a word that could be found in an heirloom bible.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s light intruding upon the darkness comes at a moment in Israel’s story when all the promises of God seemed like broken memories. Not unlike the time when King Herod rules Israel and Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God’s light would shine bright and clear not just to those within the covenant but to those far outside it. A time when a caravan of nations would travel to the Promised Land to present this God with gifts and to pay him ‘homage.’

That’s how the Hebrew in Isaiah 60 puts it: homage.

St. Matthew, in his Nativity story, tells of this prophecy being fulfilled some 500 years later in the journey of the magi. According to the hymn, these star-followers were “kings,” leaders of the gentile world coming to honor the King of Kings. According to that same hymn, there are three of these “kings.” According to Christian tradition they have names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

And according to the poet TS Eliot, after having encountered the baby in Bethlehem, these star-followers returned home, “no longer at ease” in the world they had previously known.

Tradition has done much with the magi, but Matthew is mum about all of that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about the magi but he is clear and emphatic about why they’ve come: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask the scholars and priests in Jerusalem, “For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to pay him homage.” 

     And when they arrive at the manger, before they give him gold, before they give him frankincense, before they give him myrrh- they drop down onto their knees and they give him homage.

Every Christmas season I like to peruse the newsstand magazines- weeklies like Time and Newsweek– to read their obligatory cover stories about Christmas.

Usually the articles promise new discoveries and have provocative titles like: ‘Was It Really a Silent Night?’ ‘Who Was Jesus’ Real Father?’ or ‘The Christmas Story the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know.’

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the newsstand at Barnes and Nobles, and I came across a story that featured Richard Dawkins giving his thoughts on Christmas.

Dawkins, as you may already know, is an Oxford biologist and something of a rabid atheist. He’s also the author of the bestseller, The God Delusion.

So who wouldn’t want his thoughts on Christmas?

I flipped through the article and a few of Dawkins’ Christmas comments caught my eye.

“I participate for family reasons,” says Dawkins. “With a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics…so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as holiday season…understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”  

Wow, he’d be a kick-ass party guest, wouldn’t he?

Richard Dawkins is by any academic or intellectual measure a wise man. He may understand much about a great many things that would leave my head spinning. Yet, I don’t think he understands- I don’t think he knows much about that word.

Homage.

Matthew calls them “wise” men so it’s easy for us to forget that the magi don’t know any scripture. When they follow the star to Jerusalem, the magi have to ask the city’s priests and scholars what the star means.

Matthew calls them wise men, but they don’t know what Messiah means. They don’t understand the ways in which this Christ child is already and will be later a threat to the ways things are and to the powers that be. When they approach the manger in Bethlehem the true identity of the baby inside is still very much a mystery to them.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from paying him homage.

They don’t let what they don’t know, what they still have questions about, what they still don’t understand- they don’t let all that keep them from giving him homage.

Their journey, their visit, Christmas- it was about more than gift-giving. It was about more than paying their dues or finding the answers to their questions.

It was about homage. It was kneeling and bowing and submitting. Worship.

It was an act of humble commitment. A commitment that came with the expectation of servant-hood.

     Before they give their gifts, before they understand who he is or what he means for the world…they kneel before him, Immanuel- God with us, and they give him their lives.

They give him homage. 

     That’s what makes them wise. 

     Knowing God, being close to God- it’s not so much about understanding or knowing the scriptures or being a religious insider. It’s about giving homage.

When it comes to approaching the manger, it’s not about first having all the answers. It’s not about getting your junk in order before you a take a step closer. When it comes to Jesus, worship comes first.

     What I mean is…

There are things about God you can only understand once you’ve given him your life.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I know someone like Richard Dawkins would say that it’s intellectually dishonest. I also know it’s true.

It’s almost an impossible thing to do, to hand over your whole self to Christ. It’s almost impossible, but it’s easier than waiting for all your doubts to be erased. It’s easier than remaining who you are and living for yourself only.

It’s almost impossible but it’s, entirely so, wise.

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.

Barth_WritingIn his crackling defense of how Christianity makes sense of this ‘cruel world,’ Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes that what Christians name by that stodgy old world ‘sin’ can be abbreviated- ‘HPtFtU.’

‘The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up.’

Unbelievers of the most sneering variety often preen about with the suggestion that their believing counterparts prefer to live in a fantasy world rather than the world that is. Those who’ve bravely shorn themselves of the dross of myth and faerie are the only ones sufficiently sturdy to take measure of the world- the not so subtle implication goes.

But knowing how many billions of years old is the world is hardly the same thing as knowing how the world is.

Knowing that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ does not necessarily acquaint one with any personal knowledge of where the wounded world bleeds red.

Or who is doing the bleeding.

Though atheists often surmise that theirs is the most ‘realistic’ take on the world, Spufford argues that the opposite is most often the case.

Whereas atheists lack anything that narrates the human experience as reliably as HPtFtU so too do they fail to contend with the cruelty on our little piece of the universe.

Far from being fantastical or unrealistic, Christians are those people who’ve heard the bad news about themselves and thus are free to frankly assess the truth all around them.

Where atheists too often treat ‘god’ as a piece of outdated mental furniture, it’s most often believers who wrestle again and again with the question of what sort of God is conjured by the innumerable suffering in the world (see: Job). Just as often it turns out that such wrestling compels one to take some small measure against it (witness the fact those serving in the most wounded places in the world are overwhelmingly believers).

6a00d834515f9b69e2019b00771a43970b-800wiAs Spufford puts it:

“Some people ask nowadays what kind of religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement…

The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.”

In §17.3 of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth assesses the human dimension to religion quite seriously.To take a look at life in this world is to confront the sinfulness of humanity seriously, our HPtFtU as Spufford calls it- and I think Barth would approve.

Given the (bad) truth about ourselves, Barth says that the only way for us stand before God is to do so justified, forgiven, and en route to sanctification in Christ.

Christianity is ‘true’ not only in the sense that it truthfully narrates the world in all its cruelty and beauty, ditto us; Christianity is true, says Barth, because God adopts it, sanctifies it and speaks thru it.

Christianity is true because it’s been graced by God and is thus a vessel of God’s grace.

But when Barth speaks of Christianity as being ‘true’ don’t mistakenly think Barth excludes Christianity from the world under judgment.

Hardly. It’s the nature of HPtFtU that we’re all equally culpable. Far from being prized, saved or excluded, Christians might better refer to themselves as ‘the international league of the guilty’ (Spufford again…and again I think Karl would tip his cigar).

Christianity then is not a source of confidence, Barth argues, so much as it’s a source of honesty. And thus hope. This is but another reason why Barth is so allergic to apologetics, the rationally ‘proving’ Christian belief.

To suggest by way of argument that Christianity is somehow ‘the best’ religion or worldview is to grab hold of a tree at the expense of the forest, for Christianity is the announcement of grace in the face of the bad news about ourselves.

To apply a category like ‘best’ to such a declaration is to make a tonal error.

Nonetheless, permit me such an error. Consider these two catchphrases and tell me which is the most honest, realistic summary of life in our world. The first is the popular atheist bus advertisement and the second is Martin Luther’s Gospel in condensed form:

“There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

(Enjoy?)

simil justus et peccator” 

Which means (roughly):

We are always at one and the same time and never cease to be hobbled by HPtFtU but we are also always at one and the same time and never cease to be loved.

 

david_bentley_hartMy former teacher and current muse, David Bentley Hart, will be lecturing on his new book, The Experience of God, at UVA on March 25. As a way of rejoicing, here’s an essay by Father Robert Barron which is inspired by Hart’s work in his most recent two books. If anyone wants to road trip down to Cville with me to hear DBH, let me know.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word “God” in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

 

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.

The Russian cosmonaut from the 1950’s who, having pierced the heavens, confidently asserted, “I have found no God,” was speaking so much nonsense, though he would have been right had he changed the “G” from large case to small. This is why the new atheists and their army of disciples are committing a category mistake when they confidently assert that scientific advances cause religion to retreat onto ever-shrinking intellectual turf or when they stridently challenge religious people to produce “evidence” for God. No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.

So how do we get at the true God? Hart clarifies that real religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all. We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist. The computer on which I am typing these words indeed exists, but its existence is not self-explanatory, for it depends on a whole range of causes, both extrinsic and intrinsic. It exists only because an army of manufacturers, designers, technicians, etc. put it together and only because its molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure sustains it. Furthermore, it is situated in an environment that conditions it in numberless ways. The technical philosophical term for this caused and conditioned existence is “contingency.”

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist. This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word “God.” I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn’t say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

David Bentley Hart’s book helps us to see that the question of God — the true God — remains the most beguiling of all.

help_my_unbelief-1Not long ago a parent in my congregation expressed concern, as well as a sense of failure, that their graduating child confessed that they no longer believed.

It’s always difficult to know to what extent such declarations are a hasty desire to rebel against or push aside the faith of their childhood or when they are the product of sincere, thoughtful wrestling with God.

For all ages, I usually find it to be the latter rather than the former.

It’s not uncommon for parents to want me to say something to their children that will get them chance their mind back to God, something that will reach out and pull them back into the boat.

I usually have a couple of thoughts about that, understandable, parental desire.

For one, the whole manner of reducing Christianity to a belief that our children have or do not have is part of the problem.

Christians are disciples, apprentices, followers. We’re not believers. It’s not about making up our minds one way or the other but giving to our lives a Christ-like pattern that calls them to sacrificial living.

I’m not suggesting it was true in this particular instance, but I’ve known a whole lot of people who claimed to be rejecting Christianity when what they were rejecting really didn’t resemble authentic Christianity but a lite, gnostic form of civil religion.

For another, I usually tell parents not to freak out, to take the long view. Kids have their entire lives to work through their faith. I think God has shown himself to be sufficiently gracious that we can trust our salvation to him and not frantically try to pull people into the boat as though it might sink any day now. Note: not fretting over their eternal soul is not the same thing as ambivalence.

Finally, I often echo exactly what I tell parents at the beginning of the confirmation year: ‘I can’t make your child a Christian nor is it my role.’ I then go on to explain that limited time with me in church cannot make them into something they’re not formed into being at home all the time.

Parents are the real rabbis of their children.

In an article this week from The Atlantic, Larry Tauton interviewed college students who identify themselves as ‘New Atheists.’ Admittedly these students are outliers among their peers; they’re not the indifferent agnostics, too lazy and blasé about religion to give any compelling reasons for their unbelief. Rather these students are religious about their atheism.

Like something is at stake.

Here are the broad results from the interviews:

They had attended church

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.

The mission and message of their churches was vague

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.

They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn’t try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: “Because you believe it.” Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ages 14-17 were decisive

One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:

“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.

I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? “No,” Meredith explained. “I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.”

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore similar childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn’t answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.” After a moment’s reflection, she appended her remarks: “Either that, or maybe he is [real] and he’s just trying to teach me something.”

The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

I’ll again quote Michael because his words are Gospel and they should haunt us with their damning truth:

“Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others.

I haven’t seen too much of that.”

 

For the past decade atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have been answering that question with an emphatic, poorly-informed, orchestrated-for-the-media ‘No.’

According these New Atheists (self-proclaimed ‘Brights’) religion is bad for us, leading to ignorance, subservience and conflict. Of course, those charges are not without merit and while they have ample historical evidence to draw from it’s curious how they refuse to level the same charges against a different straw man, say ‘the state.’ There’s ample evidence there too.

Now, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of cross-disciplinary scholars are attempting to shift the debate. Rather than asking ‘Does God exist?’ they’re trying to apply evolutionary theory to answer the question ‘Is it helpful to believe God exists?’ In other words, might there be a good produced by religious belief that would explain how faith evolved as a component to our worldview? Does belief in God lead to stronger or more peaceable societies? Does religion foster stability in families thereby perpetuating the race?

Some of the experiments performed by these scholars yield interesting, if unsurprising and inconclusive results. For example, one study found that the belief that ‘God is watching over you’ tends to make people more generous with their money. Another study suggests religious people may treat strangers more fairly.

All this is good, I think, if it means the debate about God’s existence can shift from the cartoonish broadsides of people like Richard Dawkins.

On the other hand, reading the article in the Chronicle, I can’t help but think what an incredibly modern, American premise lays behind the study. What’s really important here, now, isn’t whether God actually exists or whether what people of faith believe is actually, you know, true. Instead all that matters is religion’s utility. Does it make us happier more productive members of society? In this sense God’s no different than the 3-in-1 kitchen tools I see hawked on television at 3 am.

As interesting as the studies may be, I can’t help thinking, to my chagrin, that even if he’s a jack#$%, at least Richard Dawkins knows the stakes in the debate; that faith matters matter.