Tag Archives: David Bentley Hart

William Sloane Coffin on Atheism’s God

wsc coverImagine a movement to abolish film based only on the work of Adam Sandler, or to abolish the radio because of Justin Bieber.  What if I began a series of blogs arguing for the closing of all art museums because of the laughable efforts of my 5th grade neighbor that aren’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet?

Most atheists, in rejecting God, are not rejecting a God I recognize.  Having read much of the atheist literature, including some of the prominent voices of the virulent strain of anti-theistic writing called the ‘New Atheism,’ I am often left underwhelmed with the depth of analysis.  William Sloane Coffin, near the end of his life, wrote a great little book called Letters to a Young Doubter.  In it, he imagines a dialogue with a freshman college student and friend named Tom, who is navigating faith and family and studies and doubt as he begins his undergraduate career.  He warn Tom,

“It may, however, be worthwhile to tell you about what I have found to be a common phenomenon in American universities today. Professors judge poetry, novels, art, and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it? I used to ask professors, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I know that 99 chances out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in their kind of God either.”

As Coffin hints at, the New Atheists and their fandom constantly argue against religion by highlighting its worst possible exemplars.  Critical readers will recognize this tactic as arguing against a straw man – a fallacy that is unfortunately as common as it is effective.

Give me Nietzsche any day: an atheist with the intellectual virtue to actually know that which he rejected.  He despised Christianity on its own terms: the life and witness of Jesus was to him disgusting, as it led to the “slave morality” he despised.

At least Nietzsche cared enough to read the source material at its best.  If only today’s atheists would do the same.  Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it thus, with his characteristically sharp quill:

“The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).”

In proving the undesirability of “gods” that no one, perchance for a few extremists,  actually worships, contemporary atheists are not so much making arguments as they are reinforcing the boogeymen of their own imaginations.  And, of course, book sales.  Hysteria always sells, after all.

Sadly, in rejecting out-of-hand what they do not understand and have not critically engaged, the New Atheists and their ilk are mirroring the behavior of those they most despise: religious fundamentalists.  Thus, they become two sides of the same coin.  As we’ve said before, beware what you loathe, because you will become it.

(For more of David Bentley Hart tearing down New Atheist straw men, see video below.)

Source: William Slone Coffin, Letters to a Young Doubter Louisville: WKJ 2005), 17-18.

Tornadoes, Theodicy, and Calvinism

David Bentley Hart is like Barth to me.  That is, my claims to appreciate his work are far too grand compared to the amount of his work I’ve actually read.  Nevertheless, what I have read of his I have greatly enjoyed.  With the usual Calvinist claptrap being thrown around once more in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, Hart offers the kind of strong medicine we need.  The following was taken from a Christian Century interview about his book on theodicy in the light of the tsunami, The Doors of the Sea.

On the Calvinist Anxiety Over God’s Sovereignty:

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

What Pastors Should and Should Not Say in Times of Tragedy:

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t a pastoral bone in my body. But I would implore pastors never to utter banal consolations concerning God’s “greater plan” or the mystery of his will. The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So Where Was God?

“Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

Science Vs. Religion: Once More, With Feeling

Despite it’s antiquity and the recycled, warmed-over arguments, we just can’t seem to get away from the science vs. religion debate.  Here is a trailer for a new film (documentary?) in which Richard Dawkins and another guy go around the country talking about how awesome science is and, as a corollary, how illogical and silly religion must be…

It seems that neither religious folks nor science folks (or, more accurately, people who have traded faith in a higher power for faith in the scientific method) can get away from this unnecessarily binary view of the search for truth.  We’ve been doing it a couple of hundred years and many on both sides seem unable to find a bridge.  Even the most crusty scientist should be able to admit that science cannot tell us everything – especially the deep questions, the questions about being, about why (which are much more interesting to me than the “how?” questions on which these debates so often focus).  And for Christians – here I must admit no faculty for speaking as a general “religious” person as if such a category existed – we have no need to fear science.  The search for truth is ultimately a search for the One who is the way, truth, and life.  Many scientists of the early modern period understood their work as seeking to understand God’s ordering of the universe.  There is no reason science should not still be viewed as such a helpful discipline.  In our day, few have bridged the gap between legitimate science and faithful Christianity.  One who has done it well is Alister McGrath, and we should hope that his tribe increases.

I hope that the brilliant Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart takes the time to review this film.  He has been one of the most vociferous interlocutors with the whole “New Atheism” phenomenon, and his critiques are withering.  Take, for instance, this bit from a First Things piece:

“What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.”

Such words can only be written by someone who has taken the time to read, appreciate, and understand that which he critiques.  One can only hope that the evangelically-inclined atheists will one day stop navel-gazing enough to actually encounter faith with honesty and integrity.  We should hope for the same among believers, for we have nothing to fear.

For now, here is a good, civil dialogue between Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal and Chief Inquisitor of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins.  It’s worth your time, regardless of where you fall in these debates:

All Religion is in Trouble…Even Atheism

It is commonplace in the rubble of the mainline denominations these days to drone on and on about the sorry state of the church in the West.  We go to workshops, blog, read books, and wallow in anxious conversation all with the same subtitle: “How do we not die?”  Not exactly a vivifying conversation.  We think the non-religious forces are winning; that secularism is successful and popular “New” Atheism is ascendant.  But is atheism doing so well?

If you actually listen to the things that atheists are saying, there is little here that is a challenge to faith of any brand, much less that of Christians.  Indeed, atheist literature and public discourse tends to be just as vain as popular Christian discourse.  So laments Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

…it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes.

Yes, reading Hart for long periods of time will hurt your brain.  He is as acerbic as he is brilliant, which is a feat.  Nonetheless, I think his premise is hard to argue against.  Case in point: an interview I read over on MMA Weekly with Seth Petruzelli, an MMA fighter (most famous for knocking Kimbo Slice off of any serious fan’s radar) who happens to be an outspoken atheist.  He explains how his first conflict with religious members of the MMA community came on the set of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter:

The first time it actually came up was in season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter in the house. Marcus Davis, he’s a pretty hardcore Christian and a lot of the guys in the house were the same way, especially with Matt Hughes being one of the coaches. There’s a scene actually in The Ultimate Fighter house where me and Matt kind of get into an argument for about 15 minutes or so about the bible, and obviously I think the bible [sic] is a bunch of BS, and that obviously struck a nerve with him.

To be an atheist is to – “obviously” – believe that the Bible is “BS”?  That is a stronger claim than many Christians would make about the holy books of other communities.  I have certainly never taught my people that the Koran or the Vedas are “BS,” even though I would not say that these words are inspired of the Triune God.  And yes, if you dismiss the word of God as BS, them’s probably going to be fighting words (unless you’ve been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder).  Petruzelli further describes the conflict with an outspoken Christian fighter:

We kind of had an argument back and forth, with me coming out on top obviously cause you can’t argue with science. Science trumps faith in all aspects of everything. But they had group bible sessions in the house and I just kind of had a little dialogue obviously with Marcus Davis too about it, all kinds of stuff in the bible [sic].

Is this the kind of reflection that the supposedly super-rational New Atheism is producing?  At what point will the hackneyed ‘science vs. faith’ thesis be done with?  Granted, there are Christians that still have not gotten the memo that science is not something to fear.  But we’re working on it.  There are plenty of Christians working in scientific fields who are faithful people.  Christians need not shun the search for truth in whatever form.  Thoughtful atheists should see the dialogue not as science vs. faith but atheism vs. various kinds of theism, Christianity among them.  The scientific method, which, if my high school biology class was right, deals with observable, verifiable, and repeatable phenomena, can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a deity.  Even psuedo-scientific work that purports to “prove” a divine intelligence can only get us to a vaguely theistic being, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible.  Neither faith nor non-faith should claim to be provable by science.  Doing so, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, belies a fundamental perversion of what faith actually is.  To whit:

Faith to me is intellectual bankruptcy…I have faith in my fighting ability because there’s facts to back it up and that I can fight. Blind faith? Like I said, it’s intellectual bankruptcy, it’s a cop out. Tim Minchin has a great quote about this. ‘Science adjusts its views on what is observed, and faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’

Intellectual bankruptcy?  Ouch.  That aside, Petruzelli confuses confidence with faith.  “I have faith in my fighting ability because [there are] facts to back it up.”  If there are facts to back “it” up, then what you have is not faith.  As Hebrews 11:1 makes clear,  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  There may be evidence of faith, indeed, fruits of the Spirit, or the inner witness so important to Wesley and other spiritual writers, but this is not the kind of evidence that will be observable under a microscope.  It’s also just barely worth pointing out that there is no monolithic “science,” and that the work of Thomas Kuhn and others shows how often scientists disagree on, willfully distort, and ignore supposed facts.  Scientific revolutions often only occur after a long, hard fight about what indeed the science is saying.

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Petruzelli, who, as far as I know, has no theological training.  I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh, and I like to think that I’m equally critical of poor arguments made by Christians.  He is, however, making some striking claims in a very public space, and I think that makes confrontation both fair and necessary.  The Church must have answers to such arguments, for in the years to come they will only get louder.

If only a serious dialogue with atheists was possible.  When I read folks like Nietzche, I am challenged to think about my faith, to really question its basics.  This is a service to the faithful, for our critics really are our friends.  To return to a fighting metaphor: if Nietzche’s arguments are useful sparring partners, then, by comparison, the shallow vitriol of the New Atheists can only be described as the vain thrashing of an infant fighting off a clean diaper.

We’ll let a more skilled combatant fight the closing round.  Hart expresses disdain for such a-thinking (see what i did there?) with adroitness, arguing that today’s atheists

 …lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

May God grant us the blessing of able conversation partners, and save us from shallow faith, whether it is our own, or that of others.

P.S.  For the record, I think Damon Martin’s piece drastically overstates the place of religion in the fight game.  Atheists may be offended that there are so many nods to Jesus in the cage, but beyond post-fight shout-outs and mildly offensive clothing, I don’t think there is much substantive Christianity there.  More likely is that, in an increasingly secularized world, many folks in the media are frankly caught off guard when someone like Benson Henderson (or Tim Tebow) makes public statements of faith.  Rather like the pagans of bygone (?) eras, cultural observers and elites are surprised to find a small cadre of men and women who will not sacrifice to the official cultus and, rather offensively, talk about God beyond the privacy of their own closet.

God and Haiti

The problem with the title of this post, like the vast majority of late-modern attempts to question God’s existence or goodness on the basis of this or that tragedy, is that it assumes God and tragedy ‘x’ are on equal terms.  Somehow we’ve gotten the impression we can rise above our prejudices and theoretically judge God from some neutral or equal vantage point and render a verdict.  Of course, setting up that question that way is to already render a verdict – against God, and in favor of our own bastardized “reason.”  This is called “the problem of evil,” and as posed, it is no wonder why it has baffled so many people.  Of course, few bother to ask whether this is the way that anyone – let alone faithful Christians – can or ought to approach that issue.  [Edit: For a great example of “traditional” theodicy, check out this post]

Scripture nowhere tries to rationalize suffering the way that we are obsessed with.  In fact, in Job, the example of the protagonist’s talkative friends teaches us that it is precisely the rationalizers, those who try to render tragedy intelligble, whose voice is really the voice of the tempter.   Christians ought not to be in the businesses of trying to pay evil the compliment of rationality.  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote the following about the Tsunami, words that are even more true now amidst the horrors of Haiti’s tribulation:

[Ours] is, after all, a religion of salvation; [our] faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death…for while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.  And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we also know it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will be revealed.  Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and in such a world, our portion is charity. (In the Aftermath, p. 116)

Our portion is love.  Not reasoning, not questioning – our response to evil, the way to overcome it, is the way of Jesus – suffering love.  Here is a prayer I used in worship this morning, from the General Board of Discipleship worship website:

A Prayer for Haiti by Dr. Pamela Lightsey

O God, we have been stunned once again by an event
Which seems so unnatural and yet is called “natural disaster.”

We have no words to answer the “why” which we feel,
No wisdom to explain away the unexplainable areas of life.

Keep us from attributing this event as a heavenly reprimand,
Or from a certain haughtiness that tempts the distant soul.

Give us to be compassionate and gentle, servants to those in need.
Remind us of your gracious love in the midst of sorrow,
And your ability to work miracles when hope is faint.

We pray for those who suffer in Haiti even now
And for those who await rescue.
For relatives, for the children,
For mothers and fathers,
Sisters and brothers,
Grandparents, aunts and cousins.
For the survivors who question what more they might have done.
And for those who must keep on keeping on, in spite of.
For the leaders,
For those who bring aid
And those who await news.
Strengthen and encourage them we pray.

Now unto you, O God, we take the burdens of this hour and place them in your divine care.
For all you do and are doing, seen and unseen, we give thee thanks, Eternal God of All Creation.
Amen.