Thursday, April 26, 2007

God Is Not Great... once more into the fray

One of my parishioners passed on a link to Slate, where excerpts from God Is Not Great by Christopher Hutchins are being published (start reading them here). Only two excerpts in, we are left little room to misunderstand him. The human race is better off without religion, even if we have to bear with it until we evolve into higher beings that are no longer afraid of death (or the dark, or each other, or whatever--see his first excerpt "Religion Poisons Everything"). He, as can be expected, exalts reason and the salvation for humanity that lies therein. He is quite inflammatory. He claims in his second excerpt, "Was Muhammad Epileptic?" that
...Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus, far from being "born in the clear light of history," as Ernest Renan so generously phrased it, Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or "surrender" as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.
Even if he were criticizing Islam alone, I could not help but to speak against Hutchins. His line of reasoning is clearly anti-religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.

He posits four irreducible objections to religion, which are weak, in my opinion. He writes:
  1. it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos,
  2. that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism,
  3. that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and
  4. that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
His claim that religion is solipsistic is almost laughable, for when one looks at his irreducible objections, I believe it shows his own solipsism, particularly with objection number 3. It really is a shame that these are only excerpts, but to make an irreducible objection based on sexual repression, makes it sound to me that religion is bad because it does not allow him to put his member anywhere he desires. Who is more solipsistic here? Frankly I do not know if he understands the word "irreducible." For it seems to me that his objeciton should be based more on the imposition of limits, and a reduction of freedom (from his perspective at any rate), rather than simply sexual repression.

His ignorance is not just due to his lack of vocabulary, but his shallow understanding of what Christianity (which I believe is his ultimate target) is trying to do. He shows an understanding of only the basest and shallowest of Christian interpretations. As one who seeks to be most rational, he is attracted to only the least of the arguments. Is the objection to the creation of the cosmos done because it does not line up with scientific evidence? Is he aware that there are many Christians out there who simply point to the truth that the creation stories are meant to describe WHO made the cosmos, and not HOW the cosmos was made? Of course, his very premise disallows that the cosmos could be made at all by some all-powerful being.

He also makes the claim,
We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.
Is he aware of the deep religious foundations of many of the great authors? Dostoyevsky is nearly mystical in his novels. Could these great works of literature have been written without the foundational "morality tales of the holy books." If we are to take his claim that religion poisons everything, then we must call these books written in the days when Christianity permeated everything the subtlest of poisons. In The Brothers Karamazov, we must excise the tale of the Grand Inquisitor, as well as the tale of the selfish widow and the onion. What will be left? Or may we disguise our theological language in other dress? But what to do when we see that the Emperor has no clothes?

Hutchins laments that the great thinkers "Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman.... have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow." And then he claims that
Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.
Bonhoeffer? He claims Bonhoeffer had mutated into "admirable but nebulous humanism?" Bonhoeffer may be many things, but nebulous humanist? Certainly not! For Bonhoeffer, Jesus is the center of life, and he is most clear about that. Bonhoeffer is not just echoing repetitions of yesterday. Bonhoeffer was the mouthpiece for Christ speaking in this world now. Bonhoeffer is quite adamant about this Jesus.

Everything depends on whether one thinks that Jesus is the idealistic founder of a religion or the very Son of God. Nothing less that life and death of the human being hangs in the balance. If he was the idealistic founder of a religion, then I can be inspired by his accomplishments and motivated to imitate his zeal, but my sin is not forgiven. In this instance God is still angry with me, and I am under the power of death. Jesus’ work leads me in this case to total despair about myself.

If, however, the work of Christ is the work of God, then I am not summoned to act like God or to imitate God zealously, but instead I am convicted by this work as one who in no way can do it by myself. Rather I have found all at once the gracious God through this Jesus Christ, in this knowledge in this work. My sin has been forgiven. I am not dead but alive. It depends therefore on the person of Christ, whether his work is understood as passing away according to the old world of death or whether it is eternal according to a new world of life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christology Lectures 1933

Hardly a humanist notion there...

In the end of the first excerpt, Hutchins simply wants to be left alone by we religious types. If he means that he desires me to stay away from him... so be it. If he means that he wants me to use only rational ideas as a basis for my ethical decisions, then we must clash and I must make known the God in whom I live and move and have my being. Christ is the center, and it is Christ who lives in me. I am sure that notion is repugnant to Hutchins, but it is only with Christ that we find true life.

Peace.

5 comments:

Andy said...

I admire your energy in responding to a critic of this sort. Too often I'm tempted to just shake my head and look the other way.

But thinking about why this is so might be useful. When I hear someone like Hutchins speak against religion, I'm tempted to sum him up as little more than a more sophisticated version of the anti-religious zealots one is likely to meet on an internet discussion board. I'm tempted to label him as a product of rebellion against a too conservative religious upbringing who missed the point -- without even knowing anything about his background.

And all this, I think, tell us something about why he sees Christians as he does. You rightly point out that he's targeting the basest forms of Christianity, but the fact is that this is the type of Christianity that one meets on the road all too often. And so someone like Hutchins probably acknowledges that there are more sophisticated forms, but, as indicated by his ill-informed classification of Bonhoeffer, he likely sees these more sophisticated forms as either ducking the questions of reason or well on the road to accepting the truth as he sees it. He thinks, perhaps, that we are either playing word games to avoid capitulation -- still trying to protect our God-of-the-gaps -- or we are putting fancy robes on essentially non-religious points of view.

The question I'm often left with is, what should we who understand that there is a deeper life in Christianity do? Particularly I mean this with respect to the loud and shallow version of Christianity that plasters itself all over the public arena. People like Hutchins worry me in exactly the same way that fundamentalists worry me. They both share the same distorted view of Christianity; they're just on different sides of it. Meanwhile, too often the broad historic Christian tradition sits meekly by and does little about it.

How do we get the deep tradition into the mainstream?

Brian said...

Andy,
I don't know why... but I cannot just shake my head and look the other way. I don't know if it is because of my personal history as a research scientist who worked around a great number of agnostics/atheists. Maybe it was because of my existing relationship with them, but when conversations turned to faith, I found I was free to share what I believed, and some were thankful for it, since I did not just mimic the shallow faith most prevalent in the mainstream.

I think if you look at my recent post from Willimon's foreward to Preaching to Skeptics and Seekers, the reason the depth of tradition doesn't get into the mainstream is because the tradition doesn't give the simple cut and dry answer.

Of course, for folks like Hutchins, I think you are right, that neither the deep nor shallow approach is satisfying. Both contain the notion, which is the issue I believe, that there is a God active not just in the world, but in the lives of actual people.

So my response... eschew the mainstream. The best it does it create caricatures of living and real faith, creating images instead of rules and authority, not life and love. Enter into conversation and dialogue with people, listen to what they believe about God, and we might just find that they are on the right track already.

Peace.

shaketeachmd said...

Great post. Have you considered posting it on the discussion board at Slate? Their board could use some actual fodder to chew on as opposed to the name-calling that is currently going on there.

Don said...

Trivial comment, should be "Hitchens" not "Hutchins"

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