I read this review of Christopher Hitchen’s latest book in the Times Book Review this week and it got me thinking about how enlightenment style atheism is making a comeback in the popular press. Another book that has been on the best seller list in this vein is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. To be fair to both of these authors, I haven’t read their books, only the reviews. As such, I am not qualified to and this post is not intended as a critique of their work.
However, one paragraph from the review of Hitchens’ book struck me as interesting:
“Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer.”
In the spirit of generosity, I’ll assume that Hitchens’ arguments for atheism are more sophisticated than this. In answer to the reviewer’s question though, as a believer, these types of questions do not give me pause. Their very banality and the fact that this reviewer felt they could be faith shaking type questions however, is instructive. Anyone with even the most rudimentary theological education in any of the world’s major religions could easily put paid to any and all of these inquiries. However, I might imagine that for a certain type of believer, for example one who thinks it is pedagogically appropriate to “teach the controversy” between Darwinism and Creationism, these questions might prove conceptually difficult. The fact that the NY Times Review of Books, if not Mr. Hitchens himself, feels that this is the battleground where the religious controversies of our time will be fought, says a lot about them, but it also says an awful lot, in my view, about how the religions are doing in conveying the answers to the existential questions posed by humanity. What it says, I think, is not much at all.
The main task of religion, or at least Christianity, is to proclaim a basic truth about God’s activity in the world. In the words of one of this blogs favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that proclaimation is that; “The World is charged with the granduer of God, it will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” The task of theology is to tease out, from the advances made in science, philosophy and history, an intellectually palatable explanation of that basic poetic truth. Since all descriptions of that poetic reality are, by definition, metaphorical, the reality can only be described by analogy. That analogical reasoning results in ritual, hymn, prayer, poetry and even systematic theology. The more one dives into these experiences the deeper one’s understanding of the reality they are trying to express becomes, without ever grasping the reality in its entirety. All forms of literalism/fundamentalism cede the ground to those, like Hitchens and Dawkins, who see this type of analogical reasoning as inferior to a “pure” understanding of the evidence.
The great problem is that literalism assumes that the truth of the presence of God is plain. However, we know from revelation that God’s presence is not like that…”The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” The work of God is efficacious, not obvious. Understanding it demands sublety and, most importantly, trust. Where are the great apologists that can explain that to a mass audience?