What shall we say about the recent books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens? Their attack is sharper than we usually see. They go beyond saying we can’t know if there’s a god; they say we need to know there’s not. They don’t just say religion is backward, they say it’s bad.
Should we answer them? Somebody should, at least for the record. There are innocent people who find their arguments compelling and who would be well served by decent rejoinders. Marilynne Robinson did a fabulous job of cleaning Dawkins’ clock in the November 2006 issue of Harpers.
These critiques come out every generation. Bertrand Russell wrote Why I Am Not a Christian (and I was glad he wasn’t: he was such a bore). It seems to me that God is more interested in being convincing to widows, to orphans, and to the poor. It seems like God has designed the gospel this way. These critiques tend to be unfair and they raise the ire of many Christians. But we ourselves should be the first to confess the sins of Christianity. Christianity is a system, after all, and I hope it’s not the system per se that we believe in or take pains to defend.
The intellectual defense of the faith is what we call Apologetics. More than that, Apologetics critiques the critique. It unmasks, for example, what Dooyeweerd called the “pretended autonomy of theoretical thought.” It is not an unworthy exercise.
But I’m not sure that God helps. I don’t think God cares very much about being convincing to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. It seems to me that God is more interested in being convincing to widows, to orphans, and to the poor. It seems like God has designed the gospel this way, and that God acts in the world this way, and, in fact, that God is successful and effective in this way.
We have a new member in our congregation who is Ivy-League-educated and works for a major foundation. She has traveled the world and gotten close to terrible misery. When she went to New Orleans to review rebuilding initiatives, she kept meeting poor people, especially women, who had shown great courage during the disaster and great strength in the rebuilding. And they were always Christians. She said to herself, “I need to know what these women know.”
God seems to have designed our religion in a certain way, and it’s apparently more convincing to the poor than to intellectuals. Not that God doesn’t love Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, but as our Lord said, “They have their reward.” And it’s certainly not the case that God has designed an opiate for the poor–at least not from what our new church member has seen.
During the days of Communism we bemoaned the weakness of the church in Russia. We said that no young people went there, only old women. And the Kremlin didn’t care if the babushkas prayed. Big mistake. Like Gideon’s army in the book of Judges, the Russian church had been reduced to its elite. It’s an open question who can take credit for the downfall of Communism. But wouldn’t the book of Revelation say it was the babushkas who prayed every day? Don’t we confess it? Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
And now the Russian church has power again. The Kremlin rebuilt a cathedral in Moscow, and Putin worships there. Nothing against it. But someday soon we’ll have to repent of that as well.
Yes, we do need to make the faith credible. We should. After all, St. Paul did so on Mars Hill. There is too much antiintellectualism in the church, and in some places using our minds is regarded as being against the Holy Spirit. I work hard to keep up on the arts and letters and to make my preaching and teaching not just credible but intellectually comforting and challenging. People on the street ask real theological questions, often with some sophistication, and missional ministry means being able to handle those questions. If Christianity does not make sense, what’s the point?
But offering credibility to the world approaches desiring credibility in the world. And that comes close to wanting respectability in the world. We want to have it both ways. We want to be disciples of Jesus, and we also want the world to like us. We want to be disciples of Jesus, and we also want the world to treat us right. We want intellectuals to show us some respect. It’s especially a problem for us who are Reformed, who have a positive approach to culture and political participation.
We must be wary of covetousness. We covet esteem and respect in matters of culture and intellect. We covet no loss of esteem and respect while following Jesus, as if we could have both. Of course Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens are unfair. So what? We should “count it all joy.” And though their kind of critique comes back every twenty years or so, our Lord told us that “the poor we will always have with us.”