Something Good From Oxford?

Richard Dawkins is very famous for being very annoyed, which is surely a difficult thing to be when he seems to be quite a nice chap, as far as these famous people go.

Whenever Richard Dawkins, who has written some of the most beautiful popular expositions on biology in the last generation, gets into a public conversation with a Christian or about Christianity, things get ugly. As Mitchell and Webb have beautifully drawn out, when things get ugly in our culture, money can be made. Hence you can see Dawkins lampooning all the giants of the Christian faith on YouTube. The best minds of the global church have been invited and each of them in turn has been decimated by his rapier and devastating deconstruction of the validity of the Gospel.

Here he is taking on some woman, here he is talking with the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and here is a video of him taking Bill O’Reilly to pieces. Bill O’Reilly is an expert in sexual harassment and insulting Muslims. He is also a television talk show host on a different continent so you can understand how deep a challenge to my faith it was when I discovered Dawkins won a debate with him on whether the existence of the atheistic devil Pol Pot makes the existence of my God more likely.

The best argument for Christianity was always that atheism was a gang that included mass murderers!

In seriousness, Dawkins has won his reputation as a public intellectual on merit. But it comes from the biology work he did in the early 1980’s and not the stuff he has been increasingly consumed with these last two decades. The God Delusion is a truly horrendous book and it rather took the funk out of Dawkins’ reputation. He is just, it seems, another Daniel Dennett with a nicer accent. His atheism is a variety of logical positivism crossed with neo-liberal sociology wrapped up in a paper thin adoration of an unreasonable thing called “Reason“. He is bound in advance to win every engagement on the terms he sets. But he is mute in the face of Capuchins dedicating their life to helping the homeless or local churches rallying around the families left behind after suicide. Such things are merely voluntary acts of random kindness in his world view. He avoided any public engagement with Christians that wasn’t a debate and he avoided any Christians that actually speak for the global church. Hence he seeks out the Haggards and creationist nutters. That way, he avoided Christianity.

But a wonderful thing has happened. My instinctive fondness for Dawkins has been justified because he has done something with Christians that isn’t a debate. And with a real Christian too! Someone who talks about prayer and service. A week or two ago he had a dialogue with Rowan Williams, chaired by Anthony Kenny. You can listen here.

It is something to enjoy. I usually avoid such spectacles but they are all lovely to each other and their wit and sharpness are revealed in a way that makes you feel lucky to listen in as they learn from each other.

If the story Christians tell is true, then we would expect that following Jesus would make you interested, self-secure, humble and interested in other people. In other words, in terms those insufferable new-atheist batter on about, Rowan Williams is a proof for God. In the much richer and accurate language of the Christian church, he is a witness to the grace found in Jesus. In my own personal opinion, he is a saint, running the race in faith, holding unity as a treasure because the God he worships is diverse and unified and has united himself with man.

Enough theologising! More analysis! About half way into the discussion, someone from the audience asks a question. She asks:

I think that the context of the question when posed was: when we think about our potentiality, I mean potentialities that are unfulfilled, the context originally for what I thought this question was, you know, when a mother had a child and when that child, for example, died, without being able to fulfill what could be its full life. And then there are these tragic moments in peoples’ lives and as humans you want to try and explain or to come to terms with what those things mean and I think the question is based around do we need a sort of explanation for the fact that those things are not unfulfilled? Is that something, for example, that evolution will eventually get rid of? Is there some sort of endgame?

Anthony Kenny as chair rightly suggested that this was a challenge more to the Archbishop’s position than Dawkins. However Dawkins answers at greater length than Williams. He begins: “It’s tough. Stuff happens.” He goes on to argue that contrary to evolution getting rid of such tragedies, evolution advances through such tragedies.

Williams “hasn’t got a mega-theory to sort this all out”. But what is remarkable for me about this interchange, that in debating terms was definitely a home-run for the atheist side, was how it illuminates what it means to be a Christian and the way reality is shaped by the God revealed in Christ.

For Dawkins, the problem posed by the young woman is just that; an intellectual conundrum, a puzzle that is answerable simply because it is formally unanswerable. That which is formally unanswerable is, to the contemporary atheistic worldview, uninteresting. (By the way, it is in this conceit that atheism becomes sub-human, not in relative morality or any such familiar tropes.)

Williams refused to see the question as an opportunity to score points. It was instead his responsibility to speak words of empathy and, in his honest confusion to express presence.

Christianity is not shown to be nonsense when it doesn’t have an answer. It is shown to be intellectually rigorous. The world we live in is hard and confusing and painful (along with being, as Williams and Dawkins testified to, beautiful and worthy and awe-inducing). It is an astounding intellectual achievement that through the work of Darwin, Mendel, Gould, Dawkins and many others that we now can stare plainly in the face the horrific fact that the pain of “potential unfulfilled” is in fact the way life develops. Yet when a mother’s child dies young or when other tragedies strike something else is happening too, something unresolvable and something more important.

To whatever extent you can say, in the face on an actual instantiation (to draw on the computer science language that lends new-Atheism so much of its momentum (both semantic and cultural)) of such tragedy that “stuff happens” you have not even approached the truth. In fact, to answer thus is to reveal yourself as terrified of the truth.

Now how do we Christians find a way to speak primarily of our message so that it isn’t expressed in terms of political power, cultural influence or logical proofs but speaks instead of presence shared with those hurting, broken and dying because we worship a God who has been hurt, broken and who died? I think Rowan Williams might be one of the voices we want to listen to if we want to go that way. If we discipline ourselves in that fashion we’ll lose the debate and win the Kingdom. We’ll die a death everytime we go up against Richard Dawkins and we’ll live a life that will never die.

Your Correspondent, A broken heart love’s cradle is.

3 Replies to “Something Good From Oxford?”

  1. “That which is formally unanswerable is, to the contemporary atheistic worldview, uninteresting. (By the way, it is in this conceit that atheism becomes sub-human, not in relative morality or any such familiar tropes.)”

    I don’t think this is entirely fair. It is uninteresting to an atheist as a puzzle because the solution, “stuff happens”, is simple. What is far more interesting (and pertinent) is the puzzle “why stuff happens”. Why did the child die? Was it a preventable disease? Was it starvation? Violence? A birth defect? Why does violence occur? Socioeconomic conditions? Why does poverty occur? Capitalism? Corporatism? Greed? Why do birth defects occur? Can lives be saved? Can death be cured? Is a perfect, post-scarcity society a fantasy?

    Atheist circles often praise a Christian named Norman Borlaug as possibly the greatest human to have ever walked the earth.

    In other words, atheists find the problem posed by the woman uninteresting as a philosophical conundrum because it is indeed an uninteresting philosophical conundrum. The far more practical and interesting conundrum is what to do about it.

  2. We’d miss Dawkins if he wasn’t around. At least he sets the mind to thinking which some Christians haven’t done in a long while!

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