Monday, February 15, 2010

How Atheists Are Right (Plymouth CU FREE Week, Day 1)

The basic idea of this talk is borrowed from Mike Reeves.

We’re not trying to be clever here, but rather to engage with a current question Perhaps you’ve come across Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens in the last few years. Famous for their bestselling books and their TV programmes. They’ve become known as “the new atheists”.

I enjoyed Dawkins book, it was entertaining and helpful. Hitchens would go further. He wrote “god is not great: how religion poisons everything”.
He’s says “I’m not an atheist, someone who would believe in God if I had evidence” rather “an antitheist” who would hate it if God existed. Why so opposed? Hitchens says (in an interview):

“the existence of god would be a bad thing. It would be rather awful it was true. If there was a permanent total round-the clock divine supervision and invigilation of what you do, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being watched and controlled and supervised by some celestial entity from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. It would be like living in North Korea.”

Pretty unpleasant, right? If Hitchen’s god is out there I want to be an anti-theist too. Such a god stands over against this world, it’s creator and it’s enemy. Ever thought of god in that way, the one who is the divine big brother, watching and waiting for you to slip up so he can smite you. This is the kind of god Hitchens and Dawkins rail against. And they should shouldn’t they?

And of course if you imagine a world ruled by this god, imagine what his people would be like? The police of such a regime – mini-dictators and control-freaks, thought-police of a heavenly Hitler.

Christians are sometimes portrayed that way. And it’s no wonder then that some of the top reasons why people say they object to Christianity are that the followers of God are angry, judgmental, hypocritical and intolerant. If their god is like Hitchens nightmare then it would figure.

Traditional Mainstream Christianity has for 2000 years believed in God, but not the god Hitchens hates. Let me illustrate from a piece of Russian art, it’s about 600 years old. It’s considered to be the finest piece of Russian religious art and it’s by Rublev, and called “The Old Testament Trinity”. It represents the mainstream historical Christian position on God.

Now, you can’t actually draw God – and the true “image” we have of God we find in Jesus who is called “the image of the invisible God” but this painting shows us something helpful.

Notice – that God is not some lone dictator. A lonely man in the sky picking on people like a kid with a magnifying glass persecuting ants on a summer’s day. That kind of god is unpleasant and is not the God Christians believe in. When I read Richard Dawkins I found myself entertained and largely agreeing with him.

Look at the picture. What we see is a community of three persons around a table, enjoying relationship with one another. The God Christians believe in is three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And they live in community. They love one another and always have and always will. Not that love is god but that God is love.

And their love is so perfect that it reaches out beyond them. They look at one another but also beyond, outwards. Quite different to the god Hitchens hates this God is defined by love. The three persons of this God exist in an expanding fellowship of love, for one another and… see there is a space at the table, because this is a community into which God invites us to come and enjoy loving relationship with him.

He’s not opposed to us, he’s welcoming and inviting us to know him. He’s jealous for his people and longs to have them with him. He longs for his creatures. He longs for his people. And demonstrates his love by entering into our world to bring us to himself.

Let us reword Hitchens “the existence of god would be a good thing. It would be rather lovely if it was true. If there was a permanent total round-the clock divine love and care of you, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being loved by God from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. It would be like living in heaven”

Hitchens might not be convinced so easily and neither might you. And even if you saw the appeal you’d be right to ask, where do you get this idea from? When we think of god we always end up with the god Hitchens hates. The Triune God I’ve described is a God who wants to be known personally, and so reveals himself. Not in a philosophy or a system but in a person, the second person, the Son – Jesus. Two implications.

1. This is God Involved.
This God is not distant and removed but involved. The Son, Jesus, came into the world. He was noted by non-Christian historians and the best eye-witness testimony is gathered into the book we now call The Bible. The legacy of his coming is the existence of the church.

Good news is a person (Mark 1:1) who comes to make God known. Jesus comes as the son of the Father (Mark 1:11). He comes to die for us - we've been adulterous against him, and his jealous love burns against us but he takes that upon himself in his death. Dawkins & co should hate the distant god but this God is involved in his world. He walked with us. Not against us, not supervising us, but loving us and wanting us to know him.

2. This world, relational.
The god Hitchens hates gives us a cold North Korea, this God gives us a world that is fundamentally relational. We're not the meaningless result of an equation or an explosion. Life is relational - this makes sense of our inconsolable longing for love - the first thing you did at Uni was find friends. We're relational. This is the world made by this God. He longs for us to know him. He is in a good mood with us and wants us to know him: (Song 2:10b-11, 14b)
10b “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone….
14 let me see your face, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”

Objections? Questions? You can ask anything, poke fun at me, we’ll take your questions seriously and respectfully. At the event we had questions on evil done by Christians or in God's name, about the conquest of Canaan... 

5 comments:

  1. *Hitchens

    if your going to use the picture, maybe worth using it more - the deference of the heads to each other, the peaceful humility of the scene... otherwise it's pretty hard not to portray the trinity as a syndicate like the mafia, rather than a despot like Mugabe. If so, I would be tempted to run the humility theme, and say he breaks the cycle of vengeance by stepping down onto the cross.

    one way I've begun to phrase this, particularly from Daniel where the temptation is to say the Most High God is just an even bigger bully than you/other gods/kings are,(he does as he pleases...) is to say look, "the Most High God is not arrogant, and that's why he's the Most High - there's a reason he's called the Most High God: he became the most low"


    It's not just religion that's dangerous, but any system that puts final power into human hands is - reduces justice to vigilante - whether jihad, the spanish inquisition, the crusades, team america...who's watching the watchmen? I think there's a powerful apologetic that this God takes power into his own hands, and ends the cycle with the power of forgiveness...thats why, extraordinarily, christians dont see the cross as God stepping off his throne, but stepping onto his throne, with a crown of thorns, and a sign, this is the king.

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  2. Beautifully said. I got the most from your rewording of Hitchens. His cold stereotype caricature of God serves his needs to reject such a God. Your rewording was warm, full of all that I know is true, love like no other - the common christian experience of the Trinity.

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  3. Chris - I did say a bit more about the picture than in these notes... but thanks for the comments. Always good to push it further.

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  4. ..and point taken on the e. I think I spoke it right...

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  5. God made things both bad and good that we may define Him with both. He ought be portrayed in contrast to all bad and in sync to all good.

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