The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Great Mechanick in the Sky

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"ArtIm:

You have to hand it to Richard Dawkins—he sure knows how to get the wheels of the publishing industry moving. When Richard Dawkins talks, people listen. You can be guaranteed that his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which is scheduled to release on September 22, will be followed by a flurry of counter-books written by theologically-minded dissenters. Both Dawkins’ and his opponents’ publishers are quite happy when King Richard the Atheist puts his anti-God tirades on paper. It is another opportunity for both sides to repeat (and publish) the same arguments with new cover art (and maybe even unload some of the back titles). I would like to think that things will be different this time, but even my optimism has its limits.

In a recent blog post, Michael Spencer was critical of the Christian response to the "New Atheists," of which Dawkins is the unofficial ringleader. Although I believe Spencer is correct in his basic assessment, he is merely noticing the ripplings on the surface. The real problem goes much deeper, so deep in fact that it is nearly impossible to get most of the Christian world to admit that its apologetic for the Christian worldview is largely ineffective. But what Spencer seemed to miss is noticed, oddly enough, by Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong is a fellow of the controversial (i.e. heretical) Jesus Seminar. While she is not particularly noted for having conservative views about the Bible, Armstrong makes a very important point in an article that she recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Armstrong was asked to give her answer to the question: "Where does evolution leave God?" Ironically, but not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins was also asked to contribute an answer. Although many conservative Christian apologists will ignore what Armstrong says in her answer simply because she is the one saying it, part of her observation is right on target, and begins to get to the real heart of the problem highlighted in Spencer’s article. Armstrong writes:

Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

I must say, when I read this paragraph I was ready to move on to the next thing. But, before you write both Armstrong and myself off as mystics of liberal theology, you need to read what she says next:

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to "the God beyond God," Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and, later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity.

Do not miss what she is saying here. This is a crucial point, one that is driving the majority of modern Christianity. However well-intentioned they may have been at the time, men like Newton and Paley laid the groundwork for a "scientific" faith. The modernistic assumptions of 18th and 19th centuries made science the ultimate test of reality. In other words, if you could make your case scientifically, it was thought to be beyond reproach. That is until someone else came along and disproved your case scientifically. But through it all, science was the universal presupposition—the unproven, unbiased "given" that was able to render judgment on any theory as being valid or invalid, alive or stillborn. This unquestioned elevation of science as the final arbiter of truth is exactly what Armstrong is talking about. She continues:

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource. [1]

It is here that we find ourselves—scientific religionists with no leg to stand on. The church spent the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries building a scientific case for God that has been summarily tossed out by the Richard Dawkins’ of the world—and rightfully so. In fact, Dawkins makes this very point in his answer to the Wall Street Journal’s question. Having built his case that evolution leaves God out of a job, Dawkins concludes this way:

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

    Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right. [1]

Dawkins’ answer is an attempt to close all the exits for Christians who might try to escape with their faith intact. Assuming that he has already won the scientific argument, Dawkins goes a step further and shuts down the vogue postmodern argument that now tries to transcend science. In essence, Dawkins anticipates where Armstrong is going and points out the obvious fact that while she’s welcome to leave, all of her "stuff" is still inside the scientific campground. 20th century theologians tied their arguments so tightly to 20th century science that the 21st century made Christianity obsolete by simply flipping the page on the calendar. This is the problem that modern Christianity is only now beginning to realize. In a valiant effort to make Christianity intellectually viable, we have put ourselves at odds with the very scientific world we were trying to convince.

To legitimize Christianity, we [attempted to] prove it according to the criteria of standards provided by modern science, historiography and philosophy. In the early twentieth century Christian fundamentalism defended biblical literalism with scientific appeals to archaeology and empirical evidence. Proving the historic and scientific reliability of the text of Scripture began to eclipse the narrative of the text. [2]

This is also why we usually only see two public faces of Christianity: highly intellectual or highly anti-intellectual. The responses to the New Atheists that Spencer is criticizing are examples of the highly intellectual side. (Doug Wilson’s books, although still highly intellectual, are the exception to this rule. Unfortunately, most readers fail to grasp the simplicity of Wilson’s apologetic amidst all of his clever rhetoric. More on this next week.) These responses are generally well-written, well-argued, and factually accurate. The problem with them is that they end up speaking to no one, other than the already convinced. Spencer puts it this way: "I’m not sure [modern apologists’] arguments are on the right channel. Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious. [3]

This is exactly the problem. We are offering highly academic answers—with all of our theological and philosophical ducks in a systematic row—to a public that isn’t even asking those questions. For Dawkins, it is very simple: Evolution is true, God is out of a job—period. This is simple, direct, and easily understood. It is also wrong. But until we formulate a response that is just as simple, direct, and easily understood (and I do believe we already have one. For a hint, read this review), we had better keep the hinges of the Church’s exit doors well-oiled.

To be continued next Thursday…

Endnotes:

[1] Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins, "Man vs. God," WSJ Online, Sept. 12, 2009. Online here.
[2]
Brian Godawa, Word Pictures (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 26-27.
[3]
Michael Spencer, "Re:Atheism." Online here.

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