As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge. It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?
Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity. We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion. Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.” Of course there is. This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever. The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!
It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre. This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point: We are where we are because of where we have come from. Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors. The point is that they are all of a piece: a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing. That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”
Secular/Atheist postmodern (wo)man just doesn’t think right (fully). It is as though a strain of knowing, an aspect of a human epistemological foundation has been put into the cupboard under the stairs in the hope that those who wish to buy the house do not notice it. The Feuerbach legacy is simply monstrous, akin to Pavlov’s dog: “Let us be like Pavlov’s dog, whilst accusing the rich, intellectual Christian tradition of Medieval superstitious wizardry!” Yet this is the precise charge levelled at Christians today: An exercise in Pavlovian trickery! What childish unelightened Enlightenment nonsense. G. K. Chesterton said, “We don’t know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable!” This is the benefit of Christianity having a mystical tradition that knows epistemically, that there is more to being and knowing than the materialist would have us believe. But it is, ultimately, an exercise in sheer folly. Chesterton explains why in Orthodoxy, “This is the last and most astounding fact about this faith; that its enemies will use any weapon against it, the swords that cut their own fingers, and the firebrands that burn their own homes”, which is why the “new-atheist” debate/debacle “sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God…for an eternal vengeance upon one who never lived at all.”
The situation is both amusing and alarming. We are in a cultural situation akin to Gagarin’s alleged comments about not seeing God when he went into space – Duh! Has he never read Aquinas, that God is not another being among many, but rather, Being itself? I mean, seriously, how dumb are these Russian Cosmonauts? In any case, the conversation between an atheist and a priest runs like this: His cosmonaut colleague Alexei Lenov recounts, “So tell me, Yuri,” he asked, “did you see God up there?” After a moment’s pause, Gagarin answered, “Yes sir, I did.” Khrushchev frowned. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said. A few minutes later the head of the Russian Orthodox Church took Gagarin aside. “So tell me, my child,” he asked Gagarin, “did you see God up there?'” Gagarin hesitated and replied “No sir, I did not.” “Don’t tell anyone.”
Oh dear! What an impasse! Reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment: “Those who do not read the news are uninformed. Those that do are misinformed.” This is an even worse situation than being caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s a kind of meh-place. You hold to your epistemological foundations and I’ll hold to mine. If we discover knowledge to the contrary, you respond like the Orthodox priest and I’ll respond like the materialist atheist. But that’s also the pont. A blind allegiance to a view (or tradition) is the smell of death; Chesterton again, “Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.” In other words, as Chesterton knew full well, there is more to knowledge than scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is wonderful, as an aspect of the wider tapestry of human ways of knowing, but it is not the only type of knowledge available; to think as such is to show ignorance, anti-knowledge!
The reason for this brief post, is that we human’s have such deep needs and desires, we know we are built for more than we experience. This is a cross-cultural, cross party agreed acknowledgment. Newbigin tells us that the “human spirit cannot live permanently with a form of rationality which has no answer to the question ‘Why?'” because “what is loosely called “modernity” does not provide enough nourishment for the human spirit.”
The rage of some of atheism’s followers is an interesting phenomenon. Like watching a game of cricket where every ball bowled is a wide. To be fair, (although I don’t want to be) there are some reasons to be angry at Christians/Christianity/the Church. We can be rather sluggishly dull. Martin Luther was absolutely right when he said “There is no greater sinner than the Christian Church”, I get that, I agree. But it was Augustine who sketched our sin further than Luther when he said that though we are sometimes innocent of the crime for which we are persecuted, we are, nevertheless, guilty of other sins which merit greater punishment than that which we endure.
Indeed. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. And as Jesus wrote in the sand either side of this utterance, “Don’t reduce your epistemological foundations into narrow alleyways of knowing, lest your right hand falls off and your left eye falls out for how else will you ever thread that camel through the eye of the needle?”