Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Religion as an Original Sin"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

Chapter fifteen, “Religion as Original Sin,” is a series of accusations against religion, painting it not as amoral, but immoral. It is a well-thought-out critique of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Again, Hitchens is a great writer, and one who has put a lot of thought into his disbelief.

Hitchens has three points of contention: (1) the demand of blood sacrifice, (2) the concept of atonement, and (3) the imposition of impossible tasks with eternal damnation as a consequence for disobedience.

Blood Sacrifice. Hitchens tells the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac—that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his only son, that he went along with it, that he was stopped at the last second (by an angel, not by God himself), and that he was praised for a type of faith that is willing to shed blood in God’s name without questioning. He then goes on to show how adherents to the three Abrahamic faiths continue the tradition by shedding blood in God’s name, even over the right to worship on the very mountain where Isaac was spared.

Atonement. Hitchens grants, for the sake of argument, the historical accounts of the crucifixion in order to evaluate the theology. He writes:

Let us just for now overlook all the contradictions between the tellers of the original story and assume that it is basically true. What are the further implications? They are not as reassuring as they look at first sight. For a start, and in order to gain the benefit of this wondrous offer, I have to accept that I am responsible for the flogging and mocking and crucifixion, in which I had no say and no part, and agree that every time I decline this responsibility, or that I sin in word or deed, I am intensifying the agony of it. Furthermore, I am required to believe that the agony was necessary in order to compensate for an earlier crime in which I also had no part, the sin of Adam. It is useless to object that Adam seems to have been created with insatiable discontent and curiosity and then forbidden to slake it: all this was settled long before even Jesus himself was born. Thus my own guilt in the matter is deemed “original” and inescapable. However, I am still granted free will with which to reject the offer of vicarious redemption. Should I exercise this choice, however, I face an eternity of torture much more awful than anything endured at Calvary, or anything threatened by those who first heard the Ten Commandments.

The tale is made no easier to follow by the necessary realization that Jesus both wished and needed to die and came to Jerusalem at Passover in order to do so, and that all who took part in his murder were unknowingly doing god’s will, and fulfilling ancient prophecies.

Impossible Laws and Damnation. Hitchens mentions several of the commandments that are impossible to obey (thou shalt not covet, love your neighbor as yourself, etc.) and wonders what kind of god would punish these “crimes” with eternal damnation. He writes, “The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the correction of error.”

I think Hitchens correctly articulates the religious beliefs of a lot of people. When this theological system is combined with a hostile or abusive human environment, I can’t help but sympathize with anyone who walks away from the God Hitchens describes. However, my views of God, His laws, and damnation are a bit more nuanced than what Hitchens describes.

First, on blood sacrifice. Why does God demand blood sacrifice? Why did the ancient Hebrews have to slaughter an animal to atone/expiate for their sins? Why couldn’t money suffice, or some other form of penance? The writer of Hebrews wrote, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Why not? Surely an almighty, omniscient God could have thought of some other plan that didn’t involve escalating violence.

I think sacrifice is an object lesson. The death of an animal is a picture of our own death and the death of humanity, for which sin is to blame. The Apostle Paul wrote, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13), and “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Paul saw a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and death—we die because of sin. Death is not a part of God’s creative intent, but an alien element brought in by humanity itself.

When sin is considered something that brings death to the individual and society, then the requirement of blood sacrifice is a little bit more understandable. It was a reminder of the severity of the offense. As Hitchens himself demonstrates throughout his book, we underestimate the effects that sin has on our humanity. It defaces the image of God within us, and it leads us toward death. Animal sacrifice, as horrible as it is, is nothing compared to the effects of sin. Sacrifice is a ghastly reminder of this for our benefit, not something that God enjoys because He is sadistic.

Second, on atonement. Hitchens’ objection to atonement seems more like an objection to original sin. He doesn’t object to people laying their lives down for others, but that things had to play out this way with Jesus. He doesn’t feel that he is that bad of a guy or that Jesus should have had to die for his sin. If he were in charge, he would have found another way to do it.

Did God’s plan of salvation have to play out the way it did? Yes and no. On the one hand, God foreordained before the foundation of the world that it would play out that way, so in that sense it had to. But philosophically, did it have to? I don’t see why it had to.

Again, I think that Jesus death on the cross and subsequent resurrection was a picture of the work that God is doing in individuals and humanity. Jesus’ grisly demise was a picture of the effect that sin has in our hearts and in our lives. His glorious vindication through resurrection from the dead is also a picture of the believer’s destiny. Thus Paul talks about us being “united” to Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism. Jesus died because we’re dying. Jesus rose so that we might rise.

While satisfaction of God’s wrath is certainly one description of what happened on the cross, we can’t downplay the other pictures. Jesus’ death and resurrection is also described as a victory over sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 51–57). Death was already a given. The cross made resurrection a part of the picture.

Could God have chosen another way to rescue humanity? Perhaps. But He didn’t.

Finally, on impossible laws and eternal damnation. Hitchens’ seems to understand the doctrine of original sin, but he also seems to forget it at times. No one is condemned for coveting; we are condemned along with Adam for humanity’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Our subsequent rebellion is evidence that sin is working in our lives and that we are guilty together with Adam. Thus, the very existence of “impossible” laws testifies against us—they are impossible because we are sinful.

I don’t want to downplay the thoughtfulness of Hitchens’ critique of Christianity in this chapter. Some of the nuances of atonement theory are a little squirrely to human reasoning. But we are reminded that our thoughts aren’t always God’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), and God’s wisdom sometimes appears foolish to mere men (1 Corinthians 1:18–25).

Ultimately, I believe that God is not arbitrarily offended by sin, but that He has created us to live in a way that is truly good, just, and beautiful. Sin is a rebellion against such a life and thus it is abhorrent to God. It’s not that God is a fascist and wants us to fall in line with his commandments; it’s that He wants the best for us, and tells us how to live to attain that best. The problem is that we have inherited corrupted minds and corrupted hearts so that we don’t always know what’s best, and when we do know what’s best we don’t always do what’s best.

We’re dying.

God wants to save us from that through Jesus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "There Is No 'Eastern' Solution"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In chapter fourteen, "There Is No 'Eastern' Solution," Hitchens turns his sights on to eastern religions and finds that they are no better than the western ones. I am not interested in defending eastern religions, so I am not going to respond.

Hitchens modus operandi is the same with eastern religions as it is with the western ones--pick out a few anecdotes and use them to discredit an entire religious system. The victim here is Buddhism by means of a guru named Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. Hitchens' main complaint is the eastern notion that religion is a means of escape by checking one's mind at the door. Fair enough.

I loved this:
"Make me one with everything." So goes the Buddhist's humble request to the hot-dog vendor. But when the Buddhist hands over a twenty-dollar bill to the vendor, in return for his slathered bun, he waits a long time for his change. Finally asking for it, he is informed that 'change comes only from within.'

Monday, December 14, 2009

Church Movements and Rhetoric of the Spirit

I'm reading a book on house churches, or what some people might call "liquid churches," "simple churches," or "organic churches." Much of the information is good, but it is difficult for me to get past the authors' language. You'd think it was rebellion to church any other way. Here is a sample of what I am talking about. In talking about the cultural move from large churches to house churches, the authors write:
But it does appear that God is also doing something new. There is no location, no city or town to which one can travel to find the center of this movement. There is no superstar whose conference we can attend. But all across the nation, the Holy Spirit is speaking to His people. And everyone seems to be hearing the same thing: church as we know it has changed. Many believe this current move of God will prove similar in scope and impact to the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Now, I like the philosophy of ministry that the authors are describing. I am drinking the Michael Frost/Alan Hirsch Kool-Aid (with some helpful correctives found in Jim Belcher's Deep Church). But do you see the implications of the above quote? God is doing something new. . . .The Holy Spirit is speaking to His people . . . . [C]hurch as we know it has changed. What, then, of all the faithful followers of Jesus who are not operating according to their philosophy of ministry? Are they not following the Spirit? Is God not speaking to them, or is He keeping His new plans a secret from them?

And why is it that when God is doing something "new," it is always going back to Acts? Why not go back farther? Why doesn't anyone ever say, "God is restoring us to the original church like we saw in 1 Corinthians. There are contentious divisions. People are having sex with their step parents. They're suing each other. They're getting drunk on the communion wine. They're visiting prostitutes, forbidding each other from getting married, and denying the resurrection. It's just like the early church!"

I like the house church movement. But let's keep it in perspective. God works in a variety of ways. The Spirit has been at work for 2000 years, not just for a couple of hundred early on and a hundred more recently. Today's "movement of the Spirit" is tomorrow's "remember when churches used to . . . "

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "Does Religion Make People Behave?"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In chapter 13, “Does Religion Make People Behave Better?” Hitchens answers the objection that atheism encourages immorality. He begins by attacking some of religion’s success stories. He argues that the advances made by Dr. Martin Luther King and other abolitionists came more from their familiarity with humanism than it did their Christian conviction. He continues that Ghandhi’s work has been overrated and that it has even done more harm than good.

Hitchens then turns the argument and recounts examples of how religion has made people worse—specifically in the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

Hitchens grants that some religious people are moral, but that religious people are a mixed bag. He received death threats from Muslims who disapproved of his refusal to join their campaign against Denmark, and he witnessed a Muslim cab driver show extraordinary honesty and piety by returning a large sum of money to his wife that she left in his cab. “Which of these to versions of faith,” asks Hitchens, “is the one to rely on? . . . [I]f all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I would be quite indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.”

While Hitchens might be more tolerant to religious people if they were moral, he disagrees that morality can prove religion. People do things with all kinds of strange motivations. Just because a story motivates someone to act morally, it doesn’t mean that the story is true.

The most poignant part of the chapter is in Hitchens recounting a debate between the atheist A. J. Ayer and a Bishop Butler. When Ayer said that he saw no evidence for the existence of any god, Butler responded, “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality.” Hitchens doesn’t defend all of Ayer’s lifestyle decisions, but insists that calling him immoral would be a “travesty of the truth.” On the other hand, Butler’s comments reveal that if Butler didn’t see evidence of god, that he would have led a life of unbridled immorality. Hitchens notes that this is why “When priests go bad, they go very bad indeed, and commit crimes that would make the average sinner pale.”

While there are some good points in this chapter, Hitchens’ argument fails. First, while he may be able to see humanistic principles that could have explained Dr. King’s behavior, this is certainly not the explanation that King himself would have offered for his behavior. The same has to be said for other Christian abolitionists and humanitarians.

But Hitchen’s failure to do Dr. King justice is not the main reason his argument fails. Hitchens’ biggest error is in reading his own atheist worldview into the argument from morality. To Hitchens, the morality argument is only one of motivation. To Christians, the morality argument is one of ability. In other words, Hitchens interprets the morality argument as “The Christian stories we tell motivate us to do good because we are afraid of divine retribution and eager for heavenly rewards.” In reality, the Christian argument is “The Holy Spirit works in people of faith enabling them to do good deeds.” Our faith doesn’t just motivate us to do good; it enables us to do good.

Hitchens’ response to his own argument from morality holds up. Just because someone is motivated by a story doesn’t mean that the story is true. However, his response does not defeat the real Christian argument from morality. If central tenets of Christianity include “The one true God Yahweh is at work in the world through the Holy Spirit,” and “The Holy Spirit enables moral living in the community of faith,” then the presence or absence of morality in the community of faith is evidence for or against the truth of Christian dogma. I’ve mentioned before on this blog that this is part of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s argument for God.

Does religion make people behave better? No. But the Holy Spirit does.

So, what about Hitchens’ question of which examples to choose from? Well, therein lies the rub. Does the Rwandan genocide disprove Christianity? Yes and no. Were those participating Christians? How would we know? They certainly claimed to be. But not everyone who claims to have faith actually has faith (Matt 7:21). Does that mean that no one who participated in the genocide was a Christian? Wouldn’t that reduce the argument from morality to tautology? (God is real because Christians are moral, but only the moral Christians are real Christians.)

The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is not complete this side of resurrection. There is a sense in which we are still awaiting our redemption. Thus, while the Spirit makes people of faith more moral, He does not make them perfect. Ultimately, I cling to the sanctifying work of the Spirit as evidence for God. When I see Christians behaving badly, my faith in God is diminished. But, I see far more good than bad in the Christian community and the argument from morality holds up to me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Garfield Minus Garfield

Here is a site in which a guy has photoshopped Garfield out of a bunch of Garfield comics to show how neurotic Jon is. It's quite funny.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Writers of the Bible by Denomination

John Mark Reynolds at Evangel has divvied the books of the Bible by what denomination their author came from. Good stuff.