Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).

 

According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.

 

Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.

 

Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.

 

As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?

 

Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.

 

I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.

 

This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.

 

Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

Tomorrow I go to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops. Before it finishes I will head off to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission. (See last post for more.) So, I am interviewing ordinands, clearing the correspondence and catching up on ‘loose’ reading. (I am also speaking this evening on the great, late German lay theologian, preacher and politician, Johannes Rau.)

Catching up on unread back copies of Third Way (subscribe to it today – it’s the best Christian magazine on the market), I stumbled across Charles Foster’s wonderful account of some Christians’ reaction to his latest book, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. I say ‘wonderful’, but it is also sad. What are some Christians afraid of? He asks perfectly good and reasonable questions and finds himself accused of ‘heresy’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘poor scholarship’, ‘literary treason at its worst’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘worthless’. And all this because he takes Augustine‘s dictum seriously and follows it through: “Nature is what God does.”

Now, anyone who sticks their head above the parapet knows what it is to get it shot at. The certainty of ignorance certainly fires the venom of people who, I am sure, are normally quite pleasant, but become nasty when their little worldview is challenged.

Foster goes on to ask what it is that motivates such people:

There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn’t read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it’s the stink of fear.

He later goes on to muse:

What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of questions. They’re afraid of leaving the ghetto. They’re suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia… They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.

And, in a final swoop at luddite theology that cannot be challenged by the outside world, he concludes (putting words into their mouths, of course):

We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If sacience doesn’t help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.

This evokes two memories for me: (a) growing up knowing church cultures that displayed this security in being a remnant (as opposed to shrinking because they have nothing attractive to offer), and (b) Jacques Ellul‘s The Meaning of the City in which he describes Cain building the city he calls Enoch (Genesis 4) as a way of creating meaningful space in a meaningless universe without God (and alienation from his created purpose). I picked this up in one or two of my books as it vividly illustrates the predicament of human beings seeking to create meaningful space and the choices we face when the universe is opened up to us – full of threat as well as promise.

Foster is right to identify fear as the smell that fires such indignation. What is there to be afraid of in opening up to questions about the world and its ways? As someone once observed, if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.

Get a life. Get an imagination. Get a bigger vision of God and the enormity of the universe. As Foster concludes:

If you don’t ask [honest] questions,… I might suspect that it’s because you don’t really, truly, in the early hours of the morning, trust God to have the answers.

Below is the text of the article I wrote for the Radio Times recently. Not surprisingly, it provoked a lot of comment and objection, mostly ignoring the central thrust of the article and picking up on the dismissal of Richard Dawkins as a ‘thinker’. The criticisms were fair and it was unwise of me to edit in a shorthand comment that needed more precision, clearer elaboration and a different context – none of which were possible in an 800 word commissioned article.

The deluge of comments (also by mail and email) was a little difficult to keep up with, given that (a) I have a rather busy day job and (b) it was Holy Week. But, apart from the reasonable criticisms levelled at me, there was some interesting discussion. Because it is spread over several threads (readers came in to the blog on different days and at different stages of posting), it is not easy to follow as a single conversation. However, I make the following observations before moving on to other areas of interest – after all, this is a personal blog and not an internet forum on a single theme:

1. I should be more careful before writing throw-aways without explaining them. Fair cop. (Richard Dawkins is obviously not an ‘awful thinker’ when it comes to some things, but is very vulnerable when it comes to religion, philosophy and that sort of thinking.)

2. Atheists derive their atheism from different origins and can’t be lumped together.

3. Some atheists are remarkably sensitive to any criticism of Richard Dawkins et al – and sometimes betray what comes over as a rather uncritical reading of him. This is odd when one of their criticisms of Christians/theists is their uncritical assumptions about the world.

4. Science explores and explains the mechanics of how the world works, but says nothing about ‘human meaning’. This is something that Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury agree on. As ethicists put it, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is where people like Pullman take over from Dawkins in grappling with morality and meaning, taking a different starting point and proving much more interesting (in my view).

5. ‘Proof’ is a slippery word, often used as if it were monovalent. As I wrote in response to an email yesterday (and this is concisely illustrative, so not intended to be a knock-down argument):

I prove that a table is a table by looking at it, measuring it, testing it (does it do what we expect a table to do?), using it and checking whether or not it conforms to what we usually mean by ‘table’. I prove that Hitler existed by looking at documentary evidence, historical evidence (what has happened to the shape of Europe, for example), literary evidence and personal record. I prove that my children (or friends) love me by the way they behave towards me. But, I don’t write off the existence of Hitler because I can’t do to him what I do to a table or because I have no relationship with him. Nor do I reject my family’s love on the grounds that I might be deceived and cannot provide incontrovertible ‘proof’ that that love is real.

In other words, we accept different ways of experiencing and validating reality. I can’t put God in a box and measure him. I can’t find a birth certificate for him. But I might want to explore the history of humanity, the search for meaning and morality, my/our experience of love (and what makes me think that my life and death matter at all).

6. I am grateful to all those who engaged in this matter and hope it leads to a more mutually respectful conversation along the lines I intended to open up in the article itself – before inserting the notorious distraction.

Here’s the text (which appeared under the title Why I am an E-vangelist – not a title I chose…):

Over a cup of tea, a woman in the garden of a church in Surrey asked me a question that nearly made me choke. Where was my chauffeur? She was clearly surprised to find that the world has moved on, that (most) bishops don’t live in huge palaces and that we usually drive ourselves to wherever we’re going. I dread to think how she would cope with some of the more radical social changes in British society in the past six decades.

For example, the demise of deference. There was a time when bishops and clergy were given automatic respect because of the offices they held. No longer. Respect has to be earned, and people feel free to argue with whatever you dare to say about anything. There are no longer any protective pedestals from which to preach, and dialogue is replacing monologue as the dominant medium of communication. Get out of the safety of the church and it’s a jungle out there. 

Yes, there are still people around who will listen uncritically to whatever they hear from a pulpit – especially if it ticks the “right” boxes and confirms their view of God, the world and us. There are Christians around who mourn the passing of the old world and fear the loss of a privileged place for Christian culture in the public square. I don’t mourn the passing of deference, but I do think that what has taken its place isn’t very impressive. Richard Dawkins isn’t alone in excelling in one field – such as biology – while being awful in another – such as “thinking”. Some commentators have a shockingly misplaced confidence in demolishing religious straw men that even I don’t believe in.

This is evident also in the blogosphere. I have been blogging since the end of 2008 – normally five times a week and I have had more than 5,000 views a day – but I am still amazed that so many people engage online with the things that interest me. When I started blogging, I decided that it was pointless to play it safe or simply propagate the usual stuff to the usual suspects. A number of bishops blog, but mainly for their church audience. I wanted to be “out there”, engaging in public debates about the world, politics, the arts, the media, ethics and theology.

My starting point is an insatiable curiosity about the world and about people, and why both are the way they are. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that God has opted in to the world and not exempted himself from it: that Christian living means engaging at every level with and for that world. This means I’ve had to grow a thick skin. The glory and agony of blogging – which I see as the first word in a conversation, not the final word of judgement – is that anyone is free to argue with me, question me, ridicule me or be abusive. But what I have found is that my own thinking is changed by the light other contributors throw on a subject. The holes in my own perceptions are exposed as my prejudices and ideologies become open to scrutiny. That has got to be a good thing.

It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t know most of the people who comment on my blog – some I hope never to know, others I might like to befriend. But, whether they are critical or complimentary, they make me think. And I don’t regard it as a bad thing for any leader to think openly, change his mind when appropriate, apologise when he gets it wrong (in substance or in tone), or to be unafraid to be thought inadequate. We live in a culture in which politicians and others feel compelled to appear watertight in their consistency and always incontrovertibly “right”, but I think there is a place for a different model of “learning leadership”. Christian leaders should be unafraid to offer an alternative model of what I often call a “confident humility”.

An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning.

This frequently leads to clashes, but the robustness of these is – if not always enlightening – usually entertaining. The blogosphere isn’t for the fainthearted. But what’s the point in simply talking to those who agree with you, when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding of God, the world and people (as well as yourself ) “out there” in the rough new world of instant media?

I think Christian faith is big enough to stand confidently in the public square. The worst they can do is crucify us. But then, Easter tells me even that isn’t the end of the story.

The REM classic from the 1991 Out of Time album proved a turning point in REM’s career. It also became a bit of an anthem for a disillusioned generation of people who didn’t want too much depth, but loved a good tune and a soundbite lyric. I still turn the volume up high in the car and belt it out with Michael Stipe. It is somehow cathartic.

It came to mind again yesterday when I was reading the Independent Magazine. In it Deborah Orr interviews Marcus du Sautoy (now, that is a name you don’t forget) who has just replaced Richard Dawkins as the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. The chair was created for Dawkins and he held it for thirteen years until he grew less interested in science and apparently only interested in evangelising for atheism.

sautoyDu Sautoy is also an atheist, but is keen to leave the ‘interesting’ debate about science and religion to other people. He is more interested in the promotion of the public understanding of science in general and mathematics in particular. It appears that his decision to concentrate on science has met with huge approval from people who are fed up with the Dawkins crusade.

This is very good news. Not because theists will be glad to have the heat taken off them for a while – or, at least, from this particular direction – but because  the promotion of science is a pressing need. The number of people going into scientific research and teaching is diminishing in the UK and this is both tragic and worrying. I will not be the only theist calling for greater investment in scientific research, better communication of the richness of science and greater encouragement to young people to embark on scientific careers.

However, I suggest that two comments should be introduced to this discussion.

Firstly, I wonder if the diminution in the numbers of those going into science has something to do with the diminution in our ability to evoke wonder and imagination in our children. It is the vastness of the universe and the complexity of life from the micro to the macro that captures the imagination and provokes the serious questions of meaning. But this is where the problem lies in the current debate: science pursues mechanics, but cannot address the questions of meaning. yet the two cannot be separated. The Dawkins obsession with losing the religion in order to leave science unsullied patently doesn’t work.

Secondly, knocking what you don’t like is never very useful for the cause you want to promote. A renewed concentration on science and research needs not to be distracted by artificial and misleading obsessions with false dichotomies. Simply put, religion and science are asking different questions and are not mutually exclusive. The myth of scientific totalitarianism needs to be debunked. But so does the stupid idea that the Bible answers every question in the world.

earth-lightI might add a third observation here. Surely one of the greatest problems in the science-religion debate – centered mainly on the creation-evolution divide – is illiteracy. Without writing a whole book on the matter, I don’t expect poetry to depict scientific factuality. When Isaiah says that ‘the trees of the field will clap their hands’, I don’t throw the Bible in the bin on the grounds that it is nonsense to suggest that trees have hands to clap. Similarly, to treat the Hebrew poetry of Genesis 1-11 as scientific abstract is as absurd (and dangerous) as arboreal hand-spotting.

And this, I suggest, brings the two things together. We need an approach to science that evokes wonder and curiosity and inquisitiveness, but with an openness to mystery and the questions of meaning. And alongside it we need to teach people how to read – especially when it comes to reading religious texts.

Of course, Marcus du Sautoy may lose the religion only to find it appearing more healthily elsewhere. I wish him well in his new job.

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