Tuesday, March 16, 2010

God is not Great—Parting Thoughts

I finished god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens today. It took me almost six months to work through it, but I responded to every chapter here on the blog. (You can access them on the archives on the left side of the blog—the first entry is September 30, 2009.)

As you will be able to tell by reading through my responses, I didn’t hate the book. Obviously, there is much in it with which I disagree, and at times I found myself on the defensive while I read. I didn’t plan for this to be the case, but Hitchens’ lively rhetoric and his use of ridicule unexpectedly evoked anger and indignation from me. He’s a great writer and religions give him a lot of ammunition.

Here are some things I walked away with having read the book:

The nature of the debate has changed. In the past, attacks against religion focused on the historical reliability of religious documents or in the philosophical claims of the religions. Hitchens glances by these, focusing instead on the moral deficiencies of religions and religious people, and he has found an audience. He doesn’t care about the cosmological argument or the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he wants to know why religious people fly airplanes into buildings and why the divorce rate in the church is just as high as that outside of the church. If we continue to focus our apologetics on the reliability of the Scriptures and philosophical proofs for the existence of God, then we are failing to answer the questions that people like Christopher Hitchens are asking.

Religious authority is a major distraction from the Gospel. There is a subtext throughout god is not Great of contempt for authority—especially religious authority. Much of the book has the tone of a rebellious teenager yelling “You’re not the boss of me!” in the face of his bewildered parents who can no longer physically restrain him.

But maybe this is what the church needs to hear.

The Gospel is not about power. It’s not about forcing people to behave a certain way by flexing our political or military muscles. Christian leadership is leadership through service, and the spiritual authority of the church does not extend to the world, which Paul says is under the control of the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2).

When Jesus ministered in the flesh, he was opposed by the religious authorities. He did not try to pull rank on them and insist upon his right to rule over the faith community. He led by service and let the power of the Holy Spirit testify to his authority. The church today needs to follow suit. We need to live like Christ, proclaim the Gospel as the basis for our changed lives, and allow the power of the word and Spirit to influence our world.

Science is portrayed as the primary antagonist to the church. In the final chapter of the book, Hitchens writes:

“Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.”
There is some basis to this perception. The scientific community and the religious community offer competing stories of the origins of the cosmos. Personally, I think we need to be careful about making this the battle ground. I don’t think most people can even articulate the theory of evolution, let alone evaluate its tenability. But, they do notice when we offer up junk science as a competing interpretation. That’s not to say that we should abandon the sciences or stop trying to show how scientific inquiry can support our views, but it is to say that we need to be absolutely sure of the soundness of our methods and we need to choose our battles. We can’t make science the enemy. If what we say about the world is true, then we have nothing to fear about honest exploration of it.

Hitchens has not interacted with the greatest Christian minds or the best Christian ideas. One of the frustrating things about reading god is not Great is the feeling one gets that Hitchens thinks that Christians have never read David Hume or that we haven’t updated our apologetics since the Middle Ages. Sure, he quotes C.S. Lewis on occasion, but Mere Christianity was written in 1952. What about 21st century apologetics? Atheists need to react to the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg. He is conversant in particle physics, string theory, evolutionary biology, philosophy of all kinds, ancient Near Eastern religion, biblical theology, systematic theology, and anthropology. His apologetic is postmodern. Even interaction with guys like N.T. Wright or Ravi Zacharias would be better than what we see in god is not Great. While some people’s faith may be shattered by his book, I found that Hitchens didn’t even address the questions that I am asking or the reasons that I believe.

A new approach to apologetics is needed. In “The Grand Inquisitor,” the most famous chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, atheist Ivan and Christian Alyosha debate the existence of God. Actually, the chapter is more of a diatribe by Ivan about why God does not exist. When Ivan finishes, his brother Alyosha responds by kissing him.

I think this is the apologetic that our world needs. They may attack us with ridicule and intellectual arguments, but the most powerful response is not angry retaliation, but love. Like I said above, our culture doesn’t seem as concerned about whether or not Christianity is true, but whether or not it works. If God is real, then Christianity will make a difference in the lives of his followers. (This is also the apologetic of Wolfhart Pannenberg.)

I wish Christopher Hitchens the best. I hope he continues to be open about his doubts, and I hope the Christian community responds to him with compassion. (I think I read that his experience debating Douglas Wilson was encouraging to him. He was surprised at how hospitable Christians were to him.) The only request that I may make of Hitchens is that he tone down the ridicule. No one likes to be mocked by strangers who don’t know them or their stories. He’s a great writer; I hope he can use his gifts to advance dialog rather than impede it.

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