Thanks, Bart, for the clear and actually moving account of your former faith, your questionings, and your eventual abandonment of Christian belief. I was glad to hear you say that you wrote the book not to encourage others to follow you into agnosticism (though I guess that is how the book may well work rhetorically for some), but to encourage all of us to think. That is something I constantly tell people: I believe in the authority of scripture, and in Christian tradition as the community of discourse within which Christians hear that scripture – but also, importantly, in the proper use of reason. Our culture has fallen prey to emotivism, leading people to say ‘I feel’ when they mean ‘I think’, and then – an easy shift – to allow feeling to trump thinking, and then to replace it altogether. That way, I think we agree, lie chaos and folly.
There are two large, general elements of your book, and your blog post, which I want to chew over in this first response.
First, picking up that point about thinking and feeling, I do think the rhetorical impact both of your book and of your brief opening statement is to make a powerful appeal to the emotions, perhaps particularly to the emotions of western persons such as ourselves who are insulated, geographically and culturally, from so many of the world’s horrors. You spend a good deal of time in the book, and even in your brief posting, detailing some of these horrors, as though to remind readers of what (surely?) all intelligent people know already. (I wouldn’t have been able to rattle off the actual statistics, but none of the phenomena came as a surprise.)
There are of course multiple miseries in the world, and for many (most?) of them it’s impossible to say, ‘There, look, some good came out of it.’ I think we both react in the same way against that suggestion. I once heard Rowan Williams suggest that it might actually be immoral to try to ‘solve’ the problem of evil, because as soon as you say, ‘There, look, that makes it all right, doesn’t it?’ you have radically belittled the problem, blinding yourself to the real, powerful and radical nature of evil. But I’m not sure what logical or moral (as opposed to rhetorical) force you add to your case by describing in such detail the horrors of the world.
In a sense, you simply bring us back to where western Europe found itself after the Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day 1755. Up to then some had said, ‘Look at the world, think about it, and you’ll see that God exists and that Christianity is true.’ The earthquake was a wake-up call to casual western religion, and precipitated the whole Enlightenment revolution, first towards a detached Deism and then into agnosticism or atheism. Have you done anything other than recapitulate that moment? And, if you haven’t, I guess I want to ask: were you not aware, earlier, of the scale of evil in the world – the Holocaust, the dying babies, the inexplicable ‘natural’ disasters, and so on? You’re not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them? And if, as you say, your book (and your blog posting) do not actually constitute an argument against Christian faith (‘If you reflect on these issues you’ll see that the Christian claim is incredible’), might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere? I’m not saying the arguments are unimportant. But I’m trying to understand what you’re saying when you deny that they constitute an appeal to anyone else to follow your journey.
The second large, general point concerns your handling, and description, of the Bible and Christian faith. I want to take issue with your analysis of the biblical material. This is where I must refer to my own treatment of the same problem in Evil and the Justice of God, which forms part of the groundwork for my new book Surprised by Hope. I don’t know if you’ve read either of them, but in the former I give a very different account from you of the Old Testament material, seeing the call of Abraham not (as on your p. 66) as God simply calling Abraham ‘to be in a special relationship with him’ but as the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
From this there flow three sub-points. First, your reading of ‘apocalyptic’ seems to me inaccurate in terms of substance and quite out of date in terms of scholarship. The sharp disjunction between ‘prophetic’ and ‘apocalyptic,’ and the characterization of apocalyptic in terms of dualism, pessimism, etc., is very misleading, growing out of an older scholarship which had no sympathy for what the apocalyptists were trying to do.
Second, I was startled that when discussing Paul you never even mentioned that Romans is all about ‘the righteousness of God,’ i.e. the very question of your whole book; you reduce Paul’s understanding to a simplistic substitutionary account of the cross, which, though important, doesn’t catch the whole picture or his whole argument.
Third, you never factored in the way in which the gospels offer themselves as the climax of precisely that Abraham-rooted story of Israel-as-God’s-answer-to-the-problem. Jesus’ inauguration of God’s Kingdom (and the culmination of that kingdom-inauguration in the cross and resurrection), as I have argued elsewhere, was precisely his answer to the question ‘what does it look like when God is running the world’ – the very question of your whole book. It wasn’t clear to me whether you were saying that Jesus was mistaken in his beliefs and teachings . . . I did have the sense, frequently, that the form of Christian belief you were rejecting was a particular kind of north American Protestantism which I don’t believe itself did justice to the material.
In particular, of course, the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely central for me. Like many people ancient and modern, you don’t find it credible. If I didn’t believe it I wouldn’t have the beliefs I do about other things.
There is much besides, but this will do for a start. I suspect we are going to be frustrated at being limited to three posts. We’ve both already more than doubled our 500-word target on these first posts. I’m happy with that if you are.
Look forward to hearing back