Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Is Christianity Good for the World?"

I promised myself I wasn't going to read this debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson. I was certain that the debaters would proceed with simplistic, worn-out arguments, attempting to caricature the positions of their opponent, and that reading it would just irritate me.

But yesterday on a family outing to a bookstore at the mall, I happened upon the Christianity Today-sponsored debate, recently published (2008) in book form by Canon Press. The debate is published with a forward by Jewish agnostic Jonah Goldberg, and includes introductory statements by the respective debaters, followed by six "rounds" of response and counter-response. My curiosity piqued, I opened the book to a random page and began reading ("round 2"), telling myself that if it was as stupid as I feared, I would put it back on the shelf and be content to leave it at that. Long story short, I ended up buying the book.

The entire book took me about forty-five minutes to read. I ultimately decided that all six rounds read together were only slightly more intelligent than "round 2" standing on its own, since the debaters did have a tendency to repeat the same arguments again and again in slightly different iterations. The banter in each round about the true import of the Parable of the Good Samaritan was both mildly entertaining and grating. All the same, the central arguments were good arguments, made broadly, succinctly, and passionately. I enjoyed reading both Hitchens and Wilson, and found myself nodding in agreement with arguments made from the atheist side as well as the Christian side (though more often in agreement with the Christian). I also found myself disagreeing with points made both by the Christian as well as the atheist (though more often disagreed with the atheist). Both debaters wrote in a way that caused me to reflect more deeply on my own commitments.

The book did not leave me feeling irritated or quarrelsome, but strangely, more human. In fact, the best word to describe the debate as a whole is "humanizing." The debaters are both -- the atheist and the Christian alike -- people of passion and compassion. One is left with the sense that these are two very good people wrestling, each from their own perspective, with large questions of great interest to all human beings, and I felt generally enriched for having given each of them a thorough hearing.

The key to Wilson's argument as to why "Christianity is good for the world" is that Christianity -- in a way atheism is utterly incapable -- provides a narrative within which concepts of good and evil, right and wrong are comprehensible. Within a faith-based narrative, we may not always agree on the particulars of what is moral, but we can agree that a moral structure of the universe exists and we can critique human behavior from that perspective. Arguably, Christianity's unique contribution is to provide a narrative in which the greatest and most powerful being in the Universe does not consider himself greater than the smallest and weakest, preferring to live among us, heal our infirmities, and die for us. The loving, self-abasing God revealed in Christ doesn't sound much like the "tyrant in the sky" described by Hitchens. That God -- the God of wrath and punishment -- sounds like a plausible description of the Christian God only by those who do not know him. The category of "those who do not know the Christian God" could include many who label themselves as Christian.

Wilson's defense has much to commend it, and I find myself largely agreeing with it. All the same, coming from a Latter-day Saint perspective (and this was also my response after reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion), I am struck by the fact that A) these debates are most compelling within the framework of classic Western Christian theology, and B) that is not my theology. For instance, the power of Christopher Hitchens' argument against God depends on the notion of an autocratic Creator divinity who is the sole author and determiner of everything in existence; the sole judge of good and evil and the punisher of creations who stray from his all-encompassing will. The God Hitchens finds deplorable is the classical Judeo-Christian God in general, and the deterministic, predestinarian Calvinist God in particular. That is also the God that Wilson defends. Wilson's defense consists not of denying God's autocratic nature, but in affirming God's goodness, as manifest in the goodness of creation, and suggesting that Christian obedience is not servility, but a form of gratitude.

Wilson's defense is not a bad one, given the constraints of the theological framework within which he mounts it. Still, I found myself agreeing with Hitchens' point that the concept of human freedom is incomprehensible within the classical Western Christian narrative of an omnipotent creator deity. Just as Hitchens could not seem to answer Wilson's demands to make concepts of "good" and "evil" meaningful in a universe without God, so Wilson could not seem to answer Hitchens' demands to make concepts of human freedom meaningful in a universe with God.

Mormon theology is able to answer both demands rather elegantly. The Mormon narrative of "eternal progression" provides a framework within which good, evil, divinity and human freedom are all meaningful together. In the Mormon narrative, human intelligences (our intelligences!) are uncreated and co-eternal with God, and cannot be forced. The nature of God's divinity includes his eternal commitment to uphold and protect the sanctity of those intelligences' independence and freedom, his commitment to preserve our "free agency." The key to God's godhood is his ability literally to move the elements by persuasion, not by force. It is our ability to choose that is the root cause of pain and evil. Moral imperatives are comprehensible within the Mormon narrative as the invitation God extends us to join him in an eternally expanding creative project. We agreed to enter this realm of suffering because we accepted trial and pain as part of the cost of accepting God's invitation. Having accepted this opportunity, we are free at every moment to choose to grow with and "like" God, or to remain in the unevolved state we were in when we entered mortal existence. For Mormons, damnation is not arbitrary punishment by a wrathful God, but simply stagnation, an inability or unwillingness to grow beyond one's limitations. And, before we exercise ourselves about the Mormon notion of humans trying to make "gods" out of themselves, remember that the nature of God revealed in Christ is "suffering servanthood." He (or she) who would master the universe must be willing to be last, least, and lowest. The "will to power" seems automatically to disqualify us from godhood, if section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants is any indication.

The Mormon narrative would have the added bonus -- from the point of view of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others who share these men's love of science -- of making scientific curiosity and progress not merely good, but an imperative. For Mormons, whose God declares that "intelligence" is his glory (D&C 93:36), no scientific theories can be spurned out of hand, especially those that have proven themselves by offering ever more predictive models of the universe. Mormons can embrace science, even when it seems to contradict their theology, because godlike knowledge cannot be acquired without work, and its acquisition begins here and now. All knowledge that we gain in mortality will serve us in eternity. And the fact that the acquisition of knowledge is a process means that at this point our scientific knowledge must always be considered too incomplete and contingent to be viewed as incongruent with faith. Only the insecure will let supposed contradictions between faith and science bother them too much. In other words, not only may Mormons safely embrace the theory of the evolution of species, they already embrace a theology of the evolution of spirits.

To acknowledge that the "God problem" as argued by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens doesn't really apply in a Mormon theological context is not the same as answering all of their arguments about the "likelihood" of a theistic universe ("Occam's razor" and all that). Elsewhere I've suggested (and others have argued better than I have) that those concerns hinge on questions of evidence. That, obviously, is a slightly different debate. I.e., answering the question of whether "Christianity is good for the world" is different from answering the question of whether Christianity is true. The only thing I'll venture to offer along those lines here is my personal conviction that if God did not exist, we most certainly should not invent him, even if to do so would somehow be "good for the world." Because however good goodness is, truth is better. Though it would be hard to make the case that truth that fails to advance the human condition has moral value, except in a universe with God. In other words, only an atheist, I think, could insist on "inventing" God.


Bored in Vernal said...

John, this is exactly why I'd love for us to more fully embrace our differences in the Mormon tradition, rather than trying to fit in as just another unidentifiable Christian sect. Even if it may mean accepting some uncomfortable 19th century baggage.

Good post.

J G-W said...

BIV - Yes... To me it is not what I would call "baggage." It has been inconvenient the last 180 years or so to have to endure Evangelical Christian name-calling and accusations, but it is the LDS understanding of human nature that has given Mormons some of their unique strengths, including the ability to embrace the truths unearthed by modern science without needing to abandon our faith.

It has come to my attention -- since writing this essay -- that Douglas Wilson has some theological commitments that I, er, find repulsive at best. See here for details about his views on slavery (!!), women's rights, and capital punishment for homosexuals.

Not a stellar specimen of Christianity, though I understand the philosophical fix Wilson and folks who share his outlook may find themselves in. He feels obliged to defend slavery in order to uphold Biblical authority... Another reason, I suppose, I am glad I am a Mormon, with its tenet of progressive revelation.