Friday, July 13, 2007

Reaction and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Part 7

I am still responding to chapter 3 which is entitled “Arguments for God’s Existence.”

Dawkins deals very briefly with the argument from Scripture because he sees no need to take it seriously at all. For Dawkins, the New Testament Gospels’ witness to Jesus is to be dismissed because of the historical contradictions contained in them. Dawkins contrasts “sophisticated Christians” who are at least aware of those problems with “unsophisticated Christians” who take the accounts literally. While I am uncomfortable with his choice of adjectives, I must grant some validity to what he is saying. I do not like thinking of myself as “sophisticated” (or as “progressive” or “enlightened” or as “educated” or as “modern”—clearly, I would have been uncomfortable with any adjective that Dawkins chose in this context!) but I have, along with many, many others, read a few books, gone to a few classes, and, most importantly, read the Gospels pretty closely. The fact is that they do disagree in their details. The facts are that they tell the same stories in different ways, that they offer differing timelines, and that they give the sayings of Jesus in different versions.

What does one do with such evidence? Well, one could say that in the original autographs of the Gospels those contradictions did not exist, but that is a specious argument. After all, we have no autographs. Also, the Gospels are clearly documents that have a complex history of development; at what point in their development would the status of “original” be achieved? Would one ascribe inerrancy to an “ur-Gospel” such as the supposed early “ur-Mark” which the other Synoptists may have used as a source? The bottom line is that we have to deal with the Gospels that we have.

And the writers of the Gospels that we have did not abide by the modern standards of “historicity” or “verifiability” or “accuracy” that we expect in writings today. The Gospels should be treated as what they are—kerygmatic interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus with the intent of producing faith in the Christ whom they proclaim. To be fair, Dawkins is aware of something like that. He notes that the Gospel writers wanted to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and that is certainly right. I used to talk about that in my Old Testament classes at Belmont University when we would come to the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, which is, in its original context, clearly a prophecy for Isaiah’s own time that had to do with the impending birth of someone, probably a son of the king or, less likely, a son of Isaiah. The Gospel of Matthew says that the birth of Jesus fulfilled that prophecy. I would tell my classes that the Gospel writers operated out of the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah and that they went to their Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, to help them understand what that meant. In so doing, they were operating out of a tradition that saw prophecies as dynamic and thus being capable of bearing developing and expanding meanings.

People of faith, whether they are “sophisticated” or not, have the privilege of coming to the Scriptures with the conviction that they are inspired and thus authoritative for our faith. They are “infallible” in that they unfailingly tell us what we need to know to be saved and to live as disciples of Christ. Dawkins cannot understand how someone can recognize and accept the Bible as it actually presents itself and not as some “tablet written with the finger of God and dropped out of heaven” sort of thing and still view it as inspired and authoritative. I suppose I have to fall back on another kind of argument that Dawkins rejects, the argument from personal experience. When it comes to the things that matter most—my relationship with God, my understanding of myself, my efforts to deal with life and with death and with life after death—it hasn’t let me down yet.

Oh, and let’s imagine what Dawkins would say if it could be proven scientifically that everything word in the Bible was literally and historically true. What would he say? He would say, I think, and I’m basing it on the kinds of things he says in his book, that to believe in the God revealed in the Bible is still to submit to a delusion because such a God simply can’t exist.

At Worms, Luther famously said, “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.” Like Luther, I want to listen to and to be instructed by “plain reason.” But I am also “captive to the Word of God.” Somehow, those two have to work together. For Dawkins, only rationality matters. For me, there is more to it than that. I have found peace and meaning in a heart wide open, eyes wide open, mind wide open submission to Scripture as a gift from God.

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