Saturday, October 27, 2007

Riding my hobbyhorse

I'm always looking for something good to post about, and Grandmere Mimi has given it to me. Even if there still doesn't seem to be a lot of point to highlighting the flaws in a comic book version of Christian theology, via Tobias Haller I have this link to a lecture by Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) about atheism and Richard Dawkins. Right off the bat he starts with an observation that's already a century old or so, which makes you realize just how "current" much of this debate is:

I want to begin with an episode in Dostoyevsky’s novel ‘The Idiot’, where the central character Prince Mishkin says to a friend ‘Atheists always seem to be talking about something else’. And he goes on to illustrate what he means by telling a short series of anecdotes about different kinds of religious behaviour. Some of these episodes are about bad religion and some of them are about what you might call good religion. But the point that he’s making throughout this little series of stories is that there is something here which is not easily recognizable as the kind of thing that the argumentative atheist is talking about. Now I think that Prince Mishkin’s response is one that a great many of religious believers are likely to feel when they pick up the works of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of those prominent critics of religious faith in our own day. We may feel as we turn the pages that ‘this is not it’ whatever the religion is being attacked here it’s not actually what I believe in. And along with that instinctive response of not recognizing, there may also be a touch of, let’s say, resentment at somebody trying to tell us what we really mean. (Because as we all know there are few things more annoying than somebody else saying ‘I know what you mean’!) More seriously, that is one of those features of a certain kind of exercise of power which is itself open to moral challenge. When we go to another person or another community and say with confidence ‘I will tell you what your real agenda is’ the other person or community may very well say ‘This is simply a bid for control. You are telling me that my world is smaller than yours, that yours can contain and reduce mine’. And that’s not just an intellectual but a political question, in the widest sense.
And it just gets better from there. I've mentioned this before: that Dawkins sets up a straw man, knocks it over, and declares himself the victor, and this is evident in the mere fact that he cannot reference in his own book one legitimate modern theologian, or quote extensively from one Christian theologian of any era. Sam Harris defends this practice by arguing that no Christian believes in the God of the theologians, but that's just a more elaborate way of adding stuffing to your scarecrow. What's significant in the Archbishop's discussion is the inclusion of politics into this mix. But I especially appreciate the way he gets to the nut of the issue. Put quite simply, to the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail:

...[I]n Richard Dawkins’ writings there is one very interesting factor affecting the whole discussion and that is the assumption that, loosely speaking, Darwinian Theory is a theory of everything. It’s not just a theory about biology; it’s a theory about history and culture. It’s a theory which explains the history of ideas. Every feature of culture like every feature of biology requires an explanation in Darwinian terms: that is in terms of survival strategies.
Which means, of course, all human efforts are all about power. And what is the human expression of power in society, except politics? As the Archbishop puts it:

The Dawkins view assumes that all culture is about survival, that if something like religion appears to survive when in many ways it apparently shouldn’t, there must be an under-the-surface explanation revealing those aspects of religion which initially in some unknown pre-history made for survival even if they don’t do so any longer. But I don’t think that it’s much use reducing religion to a survival strategy unless you can be a bit clearer about how it’s supposed to attain its aims.
A failure in reasoning that always brings me back to this cartoon:

Forgive me for quoting the Archbishop even more extensively, but the pastor in me responds that this is precisely the pastoral issue involved in any religious practice:

If, en route you should discover that it makes you happy, well and good, but woe betide you if you approach as part of a programme for attaining happiness. An undergraduate friend of mine who’s now I’m happy to say a distinguished fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Political Science once said to me in exasperation when we were both undergraduates ‘the trouble with you is that you believe religion is true but not useful and I believe it’s useful but not true’. And while I suspect we might both protest a little at that characterization of our intellectual opposition there is something in that which carries at least some central aspects of what religious people think their faith is about. Whether it’s the Buddhist saying that the purpose of religious exercise is dissolving the illusions that imprison the ego; or indeed the illusion of the ego itself; whether it’s the Hindu saying you must learn to act in detachment from where that action will lead simply because your action must coincide with eternal law; whether it’s the Christian speaking about bearing the Cross with Christ or enduring the dark night of the spirit. Whatever this is it’s not language which can be in one stroke reduced to strategies of survival. If you want to talk about evolutionary advantage in such language of behaviour or attitude, you can only do it in the most paradoxical sense. What if the entire environment in which we live is one to which the appropriate response is letting go of yourself and your safety? What if that is the appropriate response because the universe is like that? Well, you can call that an evolutionary advantage if you wish, but I think it’s in a somewhat strained and extended sense. For the Christian, such language is grounded in the idea that the ultimate reality with which we have to do, is a God who can be described as emptying himself in the work of incarnation and indeed in creation itself.

The primary warning given to seminary students is: don't enter the ministry if you think it is a route to happiness instead of service. Those who don't learn that before they graduate, tend to learn it shortly thereafter. And if, as I have said, the teachings of Christ point to the paradox of the power of powerlessness as the central tenet of existence, isn't that precisly the point that so outraged the great atheist of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche? So who is right about Christianity? Nietzsche, or Dawkins? Or are they both wrong?

And there are those, particularly in 17th century French Catholicism for example, who underline to an almost exaggerated extent the idea that the pure love of God required you quite simply to stop thinking about any consequences whatsoever. You could only be said to love God when you were perfectly aware that you might get nothing out of it.

My God I love thee not because I hope for Heaven thereby/nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally (as the hymn says). Whatever Darwinian explanation you can produce of this language is going to be – to put it modestly – a little strained.
I've made that point (here, here, and here) until I'm tired of my own tediousness about it. The Archbishop makes it quite well. No, it is not the all-encompassing and sole message of the gospels; but yes, it is certainly one very valid interpretation, with all manner of disturbing implications (mostly for those of us who would profess Christianity). And this is an evolved survival strategy how, exactly? But the whole issue of the applicability of evolution to other subjects, and precisely which theory of evolution should be applied, is another question.

Leaving aside the Kantian idealism behind the Arcbishop's second point (about scientific v. religious language), I like this because it moves us much closer to the language of phenomenology (which is at desperate odds with the language of Anglo-Saxon empiricism; and therein lies a tale about "tolerance" and the oft-heard projection of atheists like Sam Harris that religion must be an intolerant practice in order to be "religious"):

Religious practice (you might say) is learning how to occupy a certain role, a position in the universe, a position of recognized dependence. People who speak religiously have at least these in common, that they recognize the dependence of their own existence and that of the entire universe. They recognize in a rather more loaded theological language that they are recipients of what might be called a gift. And in recognizing their dependence they relativise their own reality in some ways. I’m not the centre of things, I’m not everything , I exist not because I wanted to or because I was able to manage it, I exist because I have received. And that place in the world is also a place where, because of that relativising of the self there is also a directness of mind and heart towards the other. A recognition that the other, whether it’s another person, whether it’s the physical universe itself, is not there first for me, but in itself. I recognize that the person I confront, the physical reality I confront, the world in which I live, exists in relation to God before it relates to me. So that some of the reverence with which I approach God is also involved in my relations with other persons, and with the material of the world. There is something prior to my ego, my interests, and my agenda. To occupy the place of religious belief is then to develop that contemplative skill which turns me silently and expectantly to a reality greater than myself. It also involves a sense of trust in communication and relationship.
Back, in other words, to the importance of humility and the power of powerlessness. Which is where we began, once upon a time; isn't it?

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