Stanley Fish takes aim one last time (June 24th) at the arguments of the three hapless atheists foisted upon us, for lack of more convincing fare, by book publishers around the world. Wherever I happened to be in the last two weeks - Chicago O’Hare, London Heathrow, Milano Malpensa, the better stocked bookstores of Tuscany - among the most prominently displayed books on sale, I found Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006). One also finds, with little difficulty, Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007), and Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005). All three have been translated into Italian. The first and second are also available in German, with the last (though first to be published) soon to appear.
Fish’s approach to the rather ho-hum atheism of the three is helpful on several counts. For earlier summaries and discussion, go here and here. Before touching on Fish’s chief points in the third and final installment of his review, it is worth reiterating that atheism, properly understood, is a tonic of true faith. There is nothing to be afraid of, or if there is, we ought to be very afraid of many passages in the Bible, which question, doubt, and object to sins of omission and commission on God’s part with noticeable vehemence.
In my view, Jewish and Christian intellectuals worth their salt have a short list of atheists whose doubts and challenges they seek to make their own. My own short list includes the following: Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Durkheim, Engels, and Freud. Among historians, Edward Gibbon and Robin Lane Fox. Pagans and Christians by the last is a tour de force. The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky, of course, is in a class by itself.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that atheism is wielded like a cudgel in the hands of modern secularists. The pros and cons of secularism, to be sure, deserve a nuanced discussion, which I cannot provide here. Secularism is both baby and bathwater. Precisely because I am a believer, I want to keep the baby. On the intellectual no less than on the biological plane, and I mean it seriously, I'm a pro-lifer.
After a steady diet of state –controlled Italian TV and the BBC in the last two weeks, I am reminded of a thesis of Jacques Ellul: “The goal of modern propaganda is no longer to transform opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.” That’s the pars destruens of Ellul’s thought, the truth of which is difficult to deny. The media are awash with endlessly repeated memes which dissolve into nothing on serious reflection, the whole propped up by narcissism, pseudo-philanthropy, and pseudo-interest in the common weal.
The pars costruens of Ellul’s thought is less well-known. Some of us, nonetheless, live by its logic: “Prayer holds together the shattered fragments of the creation. It makes history possible.” Prayer for Ellul describes an attitude of hope based on the sometimes counterfactual expectation that, as the spiritual has it, God has the whole world in his hands.
Fish makes two essential points. First of all, he deflates the argument that the humanness of Holy Scripture, in origin and in transmission, is an argument against the existence of God.
I blame fundamentalism, and ex-fundamentalists like Bart Ehrman, for the ubiquity of this line of argument. That’s because fundamentalism describes Holy Scripture, in origin and in transmission, as immune to the laws of human activity as otherwise attested. That is unconscionably bad apologetic, like standing in a hole and asking for a shovel to dig oneself deeper. It is also bad theology.
I love Scripture as much as any fundamentalist. I can and will tout its perfection, its extreme perfection, to anyone who will listen. But I locate its perfection in its capacity to be the word of God while remaining obedient to all the usual laws of historical contingency. Not its presumed capacity, for which I see little evidence, to be God’s word in suspension of said laws.
If Dawkins and the like think that the humanness of Holy Scripture throws belief in God into question, that’s because fundamentalists imply that it does, not because of logical entailment. More able theologians, including Calvin, speak of God’s accommodation to human realities in the communication of the Word.
The principle needs to be unpacked with greater boldness than Augustine or Calvin ever did. Augustine’s hermeneutic of love shows the way. But Augustine did not dwell on the implications of his view that a hermeneutic of love is necessary when reading Scripture. Given the growth of historical consciousness since, reticence on the point is no longer an option.
God embraced human culture the moment he allowed men and women to speak on his behalf in their own language, and speak back to him with indelicate honesty and ruthlessness. The whole reason scripture exists at all is that truth of the highest order is understood to have come to expression in the contingency and particularity of human experience, and to be offered again in the here and now in its retelling.
Evidently God allows the communication of his Word to be subject to the historical, moral, and spiritual limitations of those to whom the Word is entrusted. Rightly understood, this is why the Bible rings true, verbally and fully, I would add (the adverbs underline the paradox of revelation). That revelation is not a hermetic essence speaks to its truth, not its falsehood as our ho-hum atheists conclude.
Atheists allow themselves to be led around by the noses by well-meaning but wrongheaded fundamentalists on this point. Psychologically, of course, atheists and fundamentalists, at least of the middle and low brow varieties, need each other. It all makes sense in a way. Their respective theses are designed to provoke an endless game in which one, and then the other, play St. George and the dragon.
I for one prefer to take the reflection of atheists and test it against what I know to be true from the viewpoint of faith. Theologians who showed the way in this sense are, among evangelicals, Edward John Carnell; among the neo-orthodox, Karl Barth; among Catholics, one might just as well mention Thomas; among Jews, Maimonides qualifies; among the church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria. Of course Plato and Aristotle are not atheists. But they are hardly Jews or Christians ante litteram either.
The challenge taken up by the likes of Clement, Maimonides, and Thomas is that of appropriating insights held by others and drinking from the wells of one’s own tradition at the same time. It is not an easy path. It is nevertheless, a well-worn path of Jewish and Christian intellectuals (and Muslim intellectuals as well; to discuss the fact would take us too far afield). The approach can hardly be dismissed out of hand.
Fish makes the further point that for true faith, so-called proofs of the existence of God are nothing of the sort. John Henry Newman said it well: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” As Fish puts it:
Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field; that is, if he were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. God, however – again if there is a God – is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require.
The criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision.
Proofs of the existence of God are examples of fides quarens intellectum. As such they are extremely valuable. The extent to which the working hypothesis of the existence of God, especially in its Jewish and Christian forms, has had a positive effect on history and culture has been explored with considerable brilliance by Rodney Stark. Stark redresses the balance in his works. Michael Bird provides a short-and-sweet introduction to Stark's principal books here.
It can also be shown, and must be shown, that the working hypothesis of the existence of God, in its Jewish and its Christian forms no less than others, has also been used to justify all manner of horrors.
The final dig Fish reserves for Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens concerns their professed admiration for Shakespeare. As Fish notes, “They would do well to remember one of the bard’s most famous lines, uttered by Hamlet: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’” Indeed poets tend to be intense believers, though not necessarily according to orthodox lights however defined. Shakespeare is no exception.
A poet may also be an intense believer in atheism. I am happy to be caught in the web of such a poet, and be bitten by the spider, as it were, that lurks therein. The works of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens do not fall into this category. A shame really. Past experience (which holds no guarantee for the future!) suggests that the presumed poison of passionate doubt of God ends up strengthening faith, not weakening it.