Alex Irving and I have been extremely firm friends since meeting at UEA – though where I would be delighted to see an end to religious faith – in the public sphere, at least – Alex, as a student of theology in London, holds rather an oppositional point of view. This is the second of two exchanges of open letters debating the merits of theism and atheism. (The first can be viewed here.)
In response to a previous post by Ryan, I asked him whether his worldview was coherent. It would be disingenuous to ask him this question and to not present the case for the coherency of the Christian belief. Therefore, in an age where the only rational belief is considered to be unbelief, I will argue for the rationality and coherence of the biblical witness. I will attempt to present a case that shows that not only is Christianity fully plausible in its internal story, but that it provides humanity with a functioning mode of existence. This post will be split into two sections: the first will be on the inner coherency of Christianity; the second will be an attempt to demonstrate that biblical witness builds life that works.
1. The internal coherency of Christianity
The coherency of Christianity is built upon the fundamental Christian doctrine of creation. This is the reason that Christians have fought so passionately against theories that have no need for the creator. It is also why the modern community has so tumbled over itself to believe Darwin’s theory of evolution: if it is true, there is no need for a creator and the whole house of religious cards comes tumbling down. I do not intend to grapple with Darwinian evolutionists – I merely want to present the fact that creation is at the heart of the issue. Remove creation and you remove the plausibility structure for Christian belief. I will confidently enter dialogue with Ryan – or any of the other writers on this site – on the veracity of the creation narrative in scripture in relation to what science has actually discovered, but now is not the time for that. I will content myself by saying that the weight of what science has actually discovered is far more consistent with true biblical witness on creation than Darwin’s theory, but that is by-the-by. Nor is it that surprising.
Let me assume you either believe an intelligent agent created the universe, or are willing to suspend your disbelief for as long as it takes to follow the logic. The argument is this: the doctrine of Creation is the plausibility structure for Christian redemption and the orientation for Christian soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). In short, if you come to accept intelligent design, logically you are compelled into the Christian faith.
a. Creation: the rationale for redemption
Within a generation of the ascension of Christ orthodox Christianity understood that the one through whom humanity was reconciled to God was also the agent of creation (1 Corinthians 8.6; John 1.3; Colossians 1.15-20). This was nothing new. Prior to Christ, redemption was understood as operating within the capacities of the one through whom creation was made (Isaiah 44.24-28). Karl Barth: ‘redemption has its presupposition in creation’. Only the agent of creation has the potency to be the agent of redemption.
To explain why this is the case, we have to answer an old question: why is there something rather than nothing? The Judeo-Christian answer is simple: there is something rather than nothing because God willed there to be that which is not God. Without this freely willed act of creation nothing that has been made would have come into being (John 1.3). The heart of this action is the free will of God in creation: God did not need to create because he was lacking anything in himself, rather he created out of the richness of his being and out of free and overwhelming love. The logical connector between these two positions is the revelation of God as a Tri-unity; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God did not need to create that which was not God for there is already a set of satisfying internal relations within the Godhead. Therefore, God created with no compulsion and in self-giving and irresistible love. The act of creation is performed in the atmosphere of love. God has willed to love from eternity that which he has made. This is the basis of God’s ongoing action within the world: he loves it (he loves us) and his agency is ongoing amongst us, preserving us and desiring to redeem us.
The heart of the matter is here: that there is something rather than nothing posits a bond of love between God and his creation. This is the rationale for redemption. God the creator redeems because he has freely willed to love the world from eternity. Here is the greatest beauty: the love of God evident in creation is paradigmatic for the incarnation and the sufferings of Christ (John 3.16). Or, to take it one stage further, the incarnation of God the Son is the actualizing in time and space of the same love that brought creation into being. In God’s own words, ‘shall I open the womb and not deliver?’ (Isaiah 66.9)
The Christian story of redemption, then, is not the story of escaping out of creation (which was the Gnostic heresy of the 1st and 2nd centuries). Christian redemption is the story of the recapitulation of creation, where God himself takes on our fallen flesh and by indomitable love drags his creation to become what it was always meant to be. The Christian story is coherent when we trace it through creation-love-redemption. I will go toe-to-toe with anyone on this issue, confident not in myself, but in the profound unity and compelling coherency of scripture.
We leave the structural coherency of Christian soteriololgy to address a distinct, but connected matter:
b. Creation: the orientation for salvation
Creation is teleological. By this it is meant that its purpose is inherent in its nature as a result of its intentional design by an intelligent creator. Creation has a purpose. Salvation therefore is not about bringing about some new end aside from creation (which is neo-Platonic dualism that has dogged Christian witness). Rather, salvation is the process by which the purpose of creation is achieved: salvation is the perfection of creation. Or, to borrow from John Calvin, to be ‘saved’ is to be recreated to be as the creator intended. Creation becomes the trajectory by which salvation can be defined and identified. In other words, Christian salvation is not a pie-in-the-sky hope; it is real and there are clear criteria against which it can be assessed.
Without this fundamental orientation salvation can become whatever you want it to be. This is why the majority of people talk of ‘heaven’ as a ridiculous idea of angels playing harps and sitting on clouds. That is dualism, not Christianity. If anything I hope I have shown you that the Christian hope is earthed in creation.
How could the God who created in love, and declared what he had made to be ‘very good’ turn his back on his creation? How can I – a physical creature – exist in the spiritual realm of heaven? I will always be a physical creature and shall need a physical place to dwell. My hope is that this body will be resurrected and I will live in a renewed creation where there is no pain or sorrow and all is returned to its intention at creation. That is real hope and that is a biblical hope that functions. This has profound implications for the way I treat the world now, which I will return to when we consider whether this worldview functions in real life.
To briefly narrow the focus to human salvation, what is the telos (the purpose) to which we are restored? The Judeo-Christian answer is again simple and profound: the purpose is the ‘image of God’. It is that humanity (male and female in equal measure) should be like God and represent God on his creation, exercising loving dominion over what God has made. This is the agenda for human salvation. This agenda is achieved in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the ongoing agency of the Holy Spirit. The Christian believer is included in the death and resurrection of Christ and in this way is made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5,17); remade for good works (Ephesians 2.10); in the image of the creator (Ephesians 4.24). It is here that the language of the ‘new life in Christ’ finds coherent meaning: for one’s renewed humanity must necessarily manifest itself in a new life.
All Christian ethics find their basis here in the work accomplished in the ministry of Christ. It is at this point that we move beyond the question of coherency and onto the more practical question of functionality.
2. Does it work?
As the Christian hope is earthed in creation it must necessarily produce a life that works in creation. This is the second and final part of the post: the Christian worldview produces a life that works, a life in which humans can inhabit functionally.
Here we are rooted firmly in biblical wisdom. If knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not including it in your fruit salad: wisdom is living well within the laws of space and time. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, wisdom is living consistently with God’s ordering of creation. To be wise is to live in a way that conforms to created structures and therefore yields a life that both works and is joyful. Viewed from this perspective – as I have said before – the laws of God cannot be viewed as limitations on good natural impulses (like the sexual impulse), rather they must be viewed as God’s guidance on how to live abundantly in his creation. True, they do become the mirror in which we see our sinfulness and the leash that leads us to forgiveness in Christ, but that is another matter. In our discussion, God’s laws offer instruction on how to live a life that works. This is why, when God has set his law down before the Israelites, he is able to say ‘I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God and obeying his commandments, decrees and ordinances then you shall live and become numerous. Choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30.15&19).
How does this work in practice? An example: God’s counsel exhorted Israel to produce a society that worked. Look at the 10 commandments. View them from the level of human anthropology. Imagine a society that kept these laws (particularly the final 6). That would be a functioning society, a society that protected the lost, the last and the least, a society that responsibly used the resources available to them, a society in which strong family structures upheld morality, a society that truly welcomed the outsider. If our country were to be governed by the precepts outlined by God in his gracious word, it would be a better place. It would be a place that functioned correctly within God’s ordering of creation.
Secondly, a note on ecology and husbandry seems warranted. As salvation is not about escaping the world but redeeming it God tells us that he values creation. As a consequence a sensible Christian is unable to treat creation as of little worth. The Christian worldview necessitates care for creation. I point you to the work of Nobel Prize winner John T. Houghton. Wikipedia him.
So, I leave it to Ryan to respond as he sees fit, inviting him to challenge the coherency of Christianity. I hope I have ruffled his feathers with a few of my comments. I am confident in the scriptures that testify to creation and redemption and satisfied in my experience that life within the will of God is both coherent and functional.
In your excellent summary of the Christian position, you state that the doctrine of creation is the foundation upon which Christianity’s most fundamental notions of redemption and salvation are built: in Barth’s terms, “redemption has its presupposition in creation”. You also state that in order to arrive at this position, the following question has to be answered: “why is there something rather than nothing?”
Human beings have rightly contemplated this staggering question for thousands of years. This much should be clear: no human being has sufficient knowledge to definitively answer it. I am sorry to say that I cannot answer it. I am sorry to say that you cannot answer it. Our positions are equal in this manner: no human being, alive or dead, of any faith, or none, can answer that question with anything more certain than conjecture. I infer from your argument that the entire Christian faith depends upon the granting of its first premise: the creation doctrine. It must be clarified that as an appeal to faith, the granting of this first premise is the assumption of the unproven. Is this a trustworthy basis upon which to found an entire system of belief? Is it a trustworthy basis for morality? Is it reasonable to teach this to children as truth? I maintain that it isn’t. The best of our knowledge has always been rooted in skepticism, and the worst in credulity. In his essay, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, Christopher Hitchens wrote that “those who write about religion and tell me that ‘god does not merely create something other than himself - he also gives himself to this other’ are claiming to know something that they cannot possibly know.” This, to me, seems the most reasonable position to take.
In recent history, creation doctrines have encountered a great deal of opposition for their appeal to credulity. Claiming the ability, on faith, to answer the question that no human being has ever been able to answer, the advocates of creation theory have - as you stated - fought against theories that require no creator. Not only theories, though: they have also fought against facts. Stephen Hawking once embarrassed the Vatican by requesting to see the records of the trial of Galileo by the Catholic Church for advocating heliocentrism. They continue to fight against facts, too. There is an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that evolution, though still a theory, is backed up by a large and growing amount of evidence. Disagreements no longer flare over whether it happens, but how it happens. At this stage, we begin to observe - again - how creation doctrine informs humanity - taking the debate back to whether it happens. We are, in short, indebted to science for tremendous observations that help explain a great deal about our origins, and indebted to religion for the fact that swathes of the world’s population not only stand opposed to these observations, but in many cases have never even heard of evolution.
I suppose I am duty-bound to challenge the euphemistic italicised “theory” that you emphasised in your article, in reference to evolution. In the scientific sense, yes, it is a theory. Like any other theory, it stands or falls by the evidence that supports it. This is its strength, not its weakness: evolution is a theory which has been consistently supported by mounting evidence ever since it was first posited. Reference to evolution as a theory whose validity remains in question is no longer legitimate. Scientists have identified various means by which nature ensures what Richard Dawkins described in his book The Greatest Show on Earth as “the non-random survival of randomly varying hereditary equipment”. The first three implicate a choosing agent - whether that choice is intentional or unintentional, or even an unintentional choice which the choosing agent would prefer not to have made. (The latter choice was Darwin’s discovery. The former two choices had been discovered - and accepted - previously.) There is a fourth means, which does not implicate a choosing agent: the presence of inherent biological advantages over other species. Over one hundred and fifty years have passed since the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, in which time, evolution has been demonstrated beyond doubt - not only retrospectively, but also in legitimate, strictly controlled laboratory experiments. I refer you to chapter three of The Greatest Show on Earth (for a start) for evidence of this. Scientists do not assert the perfection of evolution theory. They do, however, admire its capacity to explain the progression of the natural environment - and to do so with recourse to evidence, rather than the assumption of the unproven.
My argument does not seek to suggest that the Bible is entirely irrelevant to us. You mention the Ten Commandments, and invite me to imagine a society that maintained - in particular - the latter six. I can agree with you that these imperatives, in themselves, are admirable, and might make for a more considerate society, although I do have profound reservations about a society that accepted these moral precepts on divine authority, as well as the belief - rooted in abjection, as I have previously stated - that human beings could not possibly have arrived at them without divine intervention. Societies and communities in this mould already exist, and have done for centuries. They may not murder (although they certainly have murdered), they might not steal (although they certainly have stolen), but they do fight scientific advances, and commit all manner of moral atrocities that I outlined in our previous debate. Since we have arrived back on this topic, I would like to respond to a point that you raised: that there is no link in scripture between Catholicism’s insistence on celibacy in its priesthood and priests’ institutionalised rape of children. Perhaps not, although it still may not be said that such horrific behaviour does not have its root in Christian doctrines which seek to suppress the sexual urge. Every other movement ultimately receives judgement by its actions. The argument that religions can evade criticism because holy texts do not decree particular religious practises is fallacious. It assumes that there is a single, absolute meaning to holy texts, a meaning which human beings struggle to interpret - and fail to interpret, at that. We now understand that texts have no single, absolute meaning, and that meaning is created through dialogue between the writer and the text, and between the text and the reader. Interpretation, in other words, is a two-way, as opposed to a one-way, street. There is no reason to hold any religious text as an exception to this. Celibacy in the Catholic priesthood may not be mandated in the Bible, but it remains mandated by Catholic interpretations of it, and how many crimes must be committed in the name of faith before we can begin to identify holy texts as one of the problems, alongside human fallibility? Never, it seems, by your line of argument.
As for the question of whether the atheist view is coherent - nothing could be more coherent than that which is demonstrable, and the atheist position distrusts that which is not demonstrable. The notion of being an imperfectly evolved mammal does not explain everything, but it does explain a good deal about our condition, our impulses, our fears and our staggering genetic similarity to other species. It is on the verge of explaining illnesses such as cancers, common to many species, in a way that positions of faith could never do. Acknowledging our similarity to the rest of the animal kingdom also implies a certain humility, which I could never exchange for the Christian assertion that “god willed there to be that which was not god” out of love for humankind.
To conclude, it is true that Biblical teachings are not to be dismissed out of hand. Faiths, however, create more problems than they solve in terms of our origins and our morality, and of the origins of our morality, and they have spent centuries delaying the development and spread of demonstrable knowledge in the denial of theories which do not conveniently align with divine revelation. Evolution theory does not explain everything, but we atheists are not the people in this debate who claim to know. I do still decline to grant Christianity’s first premise. It will take more than the revelations of one book to explain our existence.