PHL-267: Philosophical Approaches to God Final Essay, Proposal, & Outline:

Final Paper, Essay Proposal, & Outline

The final essay should be about 6-7 pages in length

·         The focus of this essay will be to state, explain, develop, and defend a particular thesis based upon some theme in philosophy of religion related to the texts we’ve been reading.

·         The thesis needs to make some specific claim (or closely interrelated set of claims) about some topic or theme that we’ve touched on this term, (see list of possible topics below).

·         This claim needs to be stated clearly, explained carefully, fully developed in relation to the kinds of arguments and objections we’ve encountered in texts, by at least two different authors, and defended with philosophical arguments and reasons drawing upon texts we’ve read, ideas of your own, and your own experiences and beliefs.

·         Be sure to relate the theme of your essay to our lives. Why does this claim matter? What difference does it make if you’re right about the thesis?

Topics:

            Possible theses can respond to the following topics…

·         Is it appropriate to claim that there is only one true religion?

(Please don’t pick this one, if your answer is “no…”). 

·         Do all religions share some common core, so that differences don’t really matter?

·         Does the existence of evil and suffering logically disprove a good all-powerful God?

(Please don’t choose this one if your answer is “yes…”)

·         Does the amount and kind of evil and suffering count against the existence of God? Is any evil truly pointless?

(Again, please don’t choose this one if your answer is “yes…”)

·         Does claiming we cannot know whether any evil is pointless also entail that we cannot know (apart from divine revelation) that God really intends our good?

·         Is it possible for God to make genuinely free creatures who are guaranteed  never to do wrong (Please don’t choose this one if your answer is “yes…” either).

·         Is evil and suffering in the world justified by bringing a greater good?

(Please don’t choose this one, if your answer is “no…”).

·         Does Christian belief in the incarnation, suffering, , death, and resurrection of Jesus make a difference for the problem of evil and suffering?

·         What is the nature of evil? Is it a “thing” in this world or is it merely the privation of good?

·         Do even secular values (moral, political, social, etc.) function ultimately in a kind of religious way? What are the limits of tolerance?

·         How can a loving God judge evil and how can God allow some people to choose an ultimate destiny that ends in their own destruction (i.e. Hell)?

·         If Darwinian explanations of the natural order of the world are true, does that exclude the existence of God or make God’s existence superfluous

(Please don’t choose this one if your answer is “yes…”).

·         If Darwinian explanations of the natural order of the world are true, what does that suggest about the nature of divine providence and God’s relation to the creation?

(Please try not to pick this one; thank you)

·         Does atheistic naturalism undermine the possibility of human rationality?

·         What is a miracle and can they occur? Could we ever be in a position to know? What sort of evidence might there be for a miracle?

·         What is the distinction and interrelation between faith and reason? Can religious faith be rational? (Please don’t choose this one if your answer is “no…”)

·         Should we only ever believe anything, when there is sufficient, objective, verifiable evidence? Is “strong rationalism” a plausible approach to belief, in general?

(Again, don’t select this one if your answer is “no…”)

·         Can religious belief be rationally justified on pragmatic grounds?

·         What sort of evidence should we expect for the kinds of claims made in religion – This one can get tricky! :/

·         Do cosmological arguments for the existence of God  (from motion, from the order of efficient causes, from contingency) provide good reasons for believing in God?

·         Are criticism of cosmological arguments for the existence of God effective in undermining them?

·         Do human desires for meaning, love, beauty, etc. provide evidence for the existence of a God who fulfills these desires? (Please try not to choose this one)!

·         Do explanations of God, as a projection of ourselves or as with fulfillment provide alternative explanations that undermine arguments for God’s existence?

·         Do teleological arguments for the existence of God, (from meaning, function, and purpose) provide good reasons for believing in God? (This is another one that could easily get too complex)!

·         Do design arguments for the existence of God provide good reason for believing in God?

·         How is morality related to God? Is God the source of moral norms and obligations?

·         Does our human moral sense provide evidence for the existence of God

 (Try to choose something other than this one, please).

·         Does our sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world point toward some sort of divine purpose and meaning for how the world ought to be?

·         Is there significant historical evidence for the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead?

(This one will involve an overwhelming amount of [outside sources], so try not to pick it)!

Proposal & Outline

Write a 3-5 sentence proposal, including an abstract of your essay, in which you state your
thesis,  (what is the claim you will make in your essay), which texts you plan to use, and some indication of types of arguments you will deploy. Attach an outline that portrays the general structure of how you plan to organize your essay. Be as detailed, as possible.

Continued Readings and Discussion Questions, for Paper Brainstorming :

Readings Set One:

·         Keller, “Chapter 9 – The Knowledge of God.”

·         Z&M – Immanuel Kant, “The Moral Argument for the Existence of God.” (272-275)…

·         Z&M –Plato, “The Euthyphro Dilemma.” (279-282)

Discussion Questions:

·         Keller suggests our sense of right and wrong already makes us suspect God exists.

He argues, “We can’t know that nature is broken, in some way, unless there is super-natural standard of normalcy, apart from nature, from which we can judge right and wrong.”  — Do you agree that a shared sense of right and wrong is an indication of God’s existence?

·         Kant rejects cosmological and design arguments for the existence of God, but he provides his own argument for the nature of morality. What is Kant’s argument for God, from the nature of moral good, as aimed at both morality and happiness? Is it a strong argument?

·         The dilemma that Plato presents has to do with the nature of piety or holiness: “Is the holy [holy], because the god’s approve it, or do they approve it, because it is holy?” How does this dilemma translate into a difficulty for the relationship between God and morality? Why is either option problematic for traditional versions of theism?

Readings Set Two: (Read at least Antony, plus one more)…Tell me which one you choose!

·         Z&M – Robert M. Adams, “Divine Commands.” (288-298).

·         Louise M. Antony, “Good Minus God. “ (The New York Times, December 18, 2011). http://opinionater.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

·         Z&M – Linda Zagzebeski, “The Virtues of God and the Foundations of Ethics.” (299-310).

·         Edward Feser, “Whose Nature? Which Law? (Word document: e-mail & BB). (Aa)

·         Ross Douthat, “What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens? (The New York Times,  May 22, 2012) http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/what-has-jerusalem-to-do-with-athens

Discussion Questions:

·         Adams provides a version of what is called “Divine Command Theory,” which grounds moral obligation in God’s commands. What is Adams’s argument for the conclusion that divine commands make the best sense of our notion of our moral obligation?

·         Antony argues that the existence of God is not required for morality and that what is good would still be good, whether or not God exists – How is Antony’s argument a version of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma? Do you think her argument functions as an effective response to Adams?

·         Zagzebeski offers an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between God and morality, more within the tradition of natural law theory and virtue ethics – Do you think that Zagzebeski’s approach provides a good reason for thinking that God’s existence is necessary for morality? Do you think it escapes Antony’s criticisms?

·         Douthat argues that liberalism needs the metaphysical underpinnings for ethics that theism provides. What do you think of his argument? Does he resolve the Euthyphro dilemma?

Readings Set One:

·         Keller, “Chapter 10—The problem of Sin.”

·         Keller, “Chapter 11 – Religion and the Gospel.”

·         Watch: Jefferson Bethke, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”

(YouTube Video posted January 10, 2012):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYIpqY

·         Alastair Roberts, “The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity and the Question of Christ.”

(Word/PDF document: e-mail & BB). (Bb)  

Discussion Questions:

·         Keller says, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world.” What do you think he means by this? Do you think it’s valid to define what is broken in the world as sin? Why or why not?

·         What do you think of the distinction that Keller makes between “religion” and the Christian gospel?

·         How does Bethke’s video intersect with the kinds of claims that Keller makes in Chapter 11? Do you think Bethke and Keller are saying basically the same thing?

·         Roberts presents a similar point to those made by Bethke and Keller, but coming at it from a different angle. How is Robert’s message similar to and distinct from that of the others?

Readings Set Two: (Focus on Keller, Chapter 13 & Wright)…

·         Keller, “Chapter 12 – The (True) Story of the Cross.”

·         Keller, “Chapter 13 – The Reality of Resurrection.”

·         N.T. Wright, “[Jesus’] Resurrection and Christian Origins,” (from Gregorianum 2002 83/4: 615-635): http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm. 

(Also Word/PDF document: e-mail & BB).

·         Keller, “Chapter 14 – The Dance of God.”

Discussion Questions:

·         Sometimes God, as presented in Christianity, sounds like a vengeful, primitive deity, who demands appeasement. Shouldn’t he just accept people, without Jesus’ sacrifice?

·         Keller responds by an analogy, with human forgiveness, where one person, in order to forgive, must absorb the cost of another person’s wrongdoing – even if it hurts – What do you think about Keller comparing the pain of human forgiveness to God’s act of sacrificing his Son to redeem humanity?

·         Keller goes on to argue for the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection; an argument that is based upon Wright’s analysis of the biblical and historical data. What do you think about this sort of evidential argument? Is it a historical argument? Is it logically sound? What are the philosophical implications?

·         Keller concludes by arguing that “Christianity makes the most sense, out of our individual inference to the best explanation – “Do you think Keller has made a compelling case? Why or why not?

·         Do not take on this assignment if you’re an atheist and don’t agree to complete it if you’re not Christian, or, at least very familiar with Christian philosophical and theological viewpoints; thank you. I’d like these papers to be written from as Christian a perspective, as possible, yet far from a fanatical point!  Please take a look at my other assignment on here:

for further course readings and discussion questions to brainstorm and/or apply for this one…

·          I need to have the paper proposal and outline done, by 10:00 PM, on Saturday July 27th/ Sunday July 28th, 2013, my time (Eastern Standard Time [EST] – New York). The 6-7 page paper, on the other hand should be delivered to me, no later than 12:00 noon, on Friday, August 2nd/Saturday, August 3rd, my time again. Of course, the sooner I have everything, the better, but don’t rush to the point that coherency is sacrificed, for the sake of time; thank you.

·         There is to be absolutely no plagiarism or outside sources used for any component of this assignment. MLA in-text and post-text citations are required!  Everything is to be written thoroughly: thoughtfully, coherently, and cohesively too, in academic style, as well!!!!

Whose Nature? Which Law?

Edward Feser

You’ve got your natural law.  You’ve got your natural rights.  You’ve got the state of nature.  Then there’s naturalism.  And laws of nature.  And the supernatural.  There’s St. Paul’s natural man and the Scholastics’ natura pura.  There’s nature and nature’s God.  There’s natural science, natural history, natural selection, natural theology, natural philosophy, and the philosophy of nature.  There’s the Baconian scientist putting nature on the rack, and Galileo telling us that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.

And let’s not forget the literal books, like Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and Edward O. Wilson’s On Human Nature.  There’s Emerson’s essay “Nature.”  For fans of underground comics, there’s Mr. Natural; for fans of obscure superheroes too preposterous ever to get their own billion-dollar-grossing film adaptations, there’s Nature Boy.  There’s Oliver Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers and Robert Redford in The Natural.

There are natural disasters, natural resources, natural gas, and dying of natural causes.  There’s natural beauty, but also freaks of nature.  There’s going back to nature and getting a natural high.  There are Mother Nature, nature hikes, all natural foods, natural family planning and natural childbirth.  There’s the natural order, and second nature.  There are natural numbers.  There are all the examples I didn’t think of.

With “nature” and “natural” used in so many different ways, it’s no wonder people often misunderstand what classical natural law theorists mean when they define the good for man in terms of what is natural and what is bad as what is contrary to nature.  Hence the blizzard of clueless objections: “If what is unnatural is wrong, then wouldn’t eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs be wrong?”; “But everything is natural, since everything follows the laws of nature”; “If I was born this way, then it must be natural”; etc.  Remarks of this sort reflect fundamental misconceptions about what the classical natural law theorist means by “nature.”

The basic idea is really not all that complicated, and can be understood at least to a first approximation by reference to everyday examples.  Everyone knows that it is in the nature of grass to require water and sunlight but not too much heat, and that for that reason it is good for grass to be watered and well lit and bad for it to lack water and sunlight or to be exposed to great heat.  Everyone knows that is in the nature of a tree to require soil into which it can sink its roots and from which it can draw water and nutrients, and thus that it is good for a tree so to sink them and bad for it if it is somehow prevented from doing so.  Everyone knows that it is in the nature of a squirrel to gather nuts and the like and to dart about in a way that will make it difficult for predators to catch it, and thus good for it to do these things and bad for it if for whatever reason it fails to do them.  The natures of these things entail certain ends the realization of which constitutes their flourishing as the kinds of things they are.

Hence, no one would make stupid remarks to the effect that to say that some things are naturally good for squirrels would entail, absurdly, that putting a little splint on a squirrel’s broken leg to help it heal would be “unnatural”; or that to say that some things are naturally good for grass would entail, absurdly, that watering it with sprinklers rather than rainwater would be “unnatural.”  For it is quite obvious that, though man-made and thus artificial, neither of these things is unnatural in the relevant sense.  A splint doesn’t frustrate the realization of the ends a squirrel has to fulfill in order to flourish as the kind of thing it is, and sprinklers don’t frustrate the ends grass must realize in order to flourish as the kind of thing it is.  On the contrary, the splint and the sprinklers facilitate the realization of those ends.

Similarly, no one would object that it is trivial to talk about what is natural for a tree, a squirrel, etc., since, after all, everything follows the laws of nature anyway.  For though it is of course true that all material things are subject to the laws of physics, different kinds of material things have their own distinctive natures that determine distinctive kinds of flourishing.  Darting about is something a squirrel needs to be able to do in order to flourish as the kind of thing it is, but it is not the sort of thing a tree or grass needs to do in order to flourish as the kinds of thing they are.  In addition to the laws that govern all material things as such, there are less fundamental laws that govern only specific parts of nature, and it is these that reflect the goods distinctive of these various parts.

Nor would anyone would raise silly objections to the effect that if a certain squirrel is born without a leg, then it must be natural for that squirrel to lack four legs, or that if a certain sickly tree fails to sink roots into the ground and ends up falling over or drying out, then it must be natural for that tree to fail to sink roots.  For though these circumstances are “natural” in the sense that they sometimes occur in the ordinary course of nature and arise from factors internal to the things in question rather than from human action or some other external factor, they are nevertheless unnatural in the relevant sense.  For a squirrel’s being born without a leg or a tree’s having weak roots constitute failures to realize the ends that define the flourishing of these sorts of thing, and thus are failures fully to realize a thing’s nature.  That is why we call them defects in a thing.

Now, none of these examples involves moral goodness or badness, because morality involves intellect and will, which grass, trees, and squirrels all lack.  Rational creatures like ourselves are capable of moral goodness or badness precisely because we do have intellects and wills.  The will itself has as its natural end the pursuit of the good, and determining what is in fact good is part of the natural end of the intellect.  Morally good action thus involves the will to do what is good for us given our nature, while morally bad action involves willing contrary to what is good for us given our nature.  And to the extent that the intellect knows what is good for us we are culpable for these good or bad actions.  To will to do what is “natural” for us thus means, in classical natural law theory, something like to will to do what tends toward the realization of the ends which, given our nature, define what it is for us to flourish as the kind of things we are.  And to will to do what is “unnatural” thus means something like willing to do what tends toward the frustration of the ends which, given our nature, define what it is for us to flourish as the kind of things we are.

If a squirrel were rational, it would be natural and good for him to will to escape predators and to gather nuts for the winter and unnatural and bad for him to will to offer himself up to predators and to eat only toothpaste or stones.  And the latter would be unnatural and bad for him whatever was the reason why he willed these things – brain damage, genetic anomalies giving rise to odd desires, bad squirrel upbringing, squirrel peer pressure, the influence of squirrel pop culture, arguments from squirrel philosophers who were hostile to natural law, or whatever.  They would also be unnatural and bad for him however strongly he wanted to eat the toothpaste and offer himself to the predators, and even if he found the idea of eating nuts and fleeing from predators repulsive.  The provenance and strength of the desires wouldn’t show that they were somehow natural (again, in the relevant sense) but on the contrary indicate instead how deeply distorted and unnatural the squirrel’s character had become – like a hose that’s gotten so many kinks in it that it is hard to get water through it anymore, or a vine whose growth pattern has gotten so twisted that it ends up choking itself to death.

Now where human beings are concerned, to know in detail what our nature determines to be good for us would require a careful analysis of each of our various faculties and capacities – reason, speech, labor, sex, and so forth.  I’m not going to get into all of that here because it is not relevant to the point of the post, and each of these would in any event require a treatment of its own. No natural law theorist claims that merely saying “Act in accordance with nature” is the end of the story.  It’s just the beginning of the story.  The point for now is that while the details about what counts as acting in accordance with nature or contrary to nature in particular cases raise all sorts of questions, the general idea of acting in accordance with nature is not subject to glib objections of the sort referred to above.

Thus, when natural law theorists talk about acting in accordance with nature, they do not mean “natural as opposed to artificial or man-made.”  For example, when Catholic natural law theorists claim that contraception is bad, they don’t mean that it’s bad because it involves the use of pills, or mechanical devices, or man-made substances like rubber.  They mean that it positively frustrates the natural ends of the sexual faculties (or at least partially frustrates them, since it is not denied that sex is naturally oriented toward bonding the spouses, expressing affection, and the like, as well as toward procreation).  And methods that do not involve the use of any man-made or artificial devices (such as withdrawal) can frustrate this end just as much as the others can, and therefore are in the relevant sense “unnatural.”  (Again, I’m not trying here to answer every question one might raise about this specific example, just indicating the sense of “natural” that is operative.)

Artificial or man-made devices as such are not only not “unnatural” in the relevant sense, they can restore or even facilitate the natural end of our capacities, as eyeglasses, tools, computers, prosthetic limbs, etc. do.  (And this is as true in the sexual context as in other contexts – an impotent man who used Viagra would be facilitating the natural end of his sexual faculties rather than frustrating them.)  Nor is there anything in natural law theory that entails even a preference for what is “natural” as opposed to artificial (Luddism, living in the woods à la Thoreau, a fetish for “organic foods,” etc.).  On the contrary, given that we are distinctively rational animals, technology and other products of artifice are manifestations of our nature.

In commending what is in accordance with our nature, natural law theorists also do not mean “natural in the sense of commonly occurring in the ordinary course of nature.”  All sorts of things commonly occur in the ordinary course of things that tend to frustrate our nature – injuries, diseases, floods, earthquakes, and, for that matter, immoral choices.  Hence when people say that it is “natural” for a child to be selfish or for a man to have a roving eye, while there is a sense in which this is true, it is not the sense that is operative in natural law theory.  A goldfish will “naturally” tend to keep eating the food you drop into its tank even after it is full, but that hardly fulfills its nature in the relevant sense (since it will overeat and thereby kill itself).  Similarly, we have, given our limited nature as created things, inherent susceptibilities to defects and failures of various kinds – overeating, overreaction to injustices, excessive fear in the face of danger, sexual vices, bodily injury, the contraction of various diseases, etc.  These are not “natural” in the relevant sense of fulfilling our nature even though they are “natural” in the different sense that they are defects or failures to which we are prone to given our nature.

For the same reason, the natural law theorist does not mean “natural in the sense of flowing from a deep-seated tendency.”  For a deep-seated tendency could result from habituated vice or heredity defect, either of which would be contrary to nature in the relevant sense.  A predisposition to alcoholism or heart disease doesn’t help the person who has it to realize the ends inherent in his nature, even if such a predisposition has a genetic basis.  A character trait may have become so habituated that it has become “second nature,” but that doesn’t make it natural in the relevant sense either.

The natural must also be carefully distinguished from the supernatural, where in classical natural law theory the “supernatural” has nothing to do with ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, but rather with what is above or additional to our nature and the ends inherent in it.  For example, knowledge of God is something of which we are capable given our nature and which we require for our complete flourishing as the kinds of things we are – that is why natural theology is possible – but the intimate, “face to face” knowledge of God that is the beatific vision is not “natural” in that sense.  That is rather a matter of grace, of being raised to an end higher than what we would be due or capable of given our nature.

This brings us to the “law” side of natural law, and thus to another term used in various senses which need to be carefully distinguished.  Is the natural law a law given by God?  Yes and no.  Yes insofar as the natural law reflects the natures of things, and God, as creator, is the author of things and their natures.  But the natural moral law is to that extent no different from what was said above about grass, trees, and squirrels.  You don’t need to study theology in order to find out what is good or bad for grass, trees, and squirrels; indeed, you could be an atheist and know it.  And the same thing is true for what is good or bad for us given our nature (at least to a large extent – though there are religious obligations of a general kind under natural law given that the existence of God is knowable through unaided reason).

The natural law differs, then, from law that is directly given by God via a special revelation, as with the law given to Israel through Moses.  Knowledge of the latter requires knowledge of certain specific historical events and of certain miracles associated with those events.  The natural law is not like that; it is in principle available to all men simply by virtue of being rational and capable of knowing what is good or bad for them given their distinctive nature.  Thus does Aquinas distinguish natural law from divine law.  (He also distinguishes natural law from human law, which is or at least ought to be grounded in natural law and which determines, when it isn’t already clear, how natural law gets applied in concrete historical circumstances; and from eternal law, the archetypes or ideas in the divine mind according to which God creates things and which is thus the ultimate ground of the natural law, even if we can know much about the natural law merely by knowing human nature and without reference to God.)

It is thus an error to suppose that natural law arguments are inherently theological, at least in the sense many of their critics suppose.  Though the natural law theorist would regard natural (as opposed to revealed) theology as part of a complete account of natural law, there are still large areas of morality which can be known without reference to theological claims of any sort, and these include the ones that are matters of the most intense controversy between natural law theorists and their critics (e.g. abortion and sexual morality).

So, for the natural law theorist, certain things are “natural” for us in the sense of tending to fulfill those ends the realization of which constitutes our flourishing as the kinds of thing we are.  But perhaps it is also natural for us – in a different sense, the sense of being a weakness to which we are prone given the limitations of our nature – for us to want to deny that we are subject to natural law.   To that extent at least we are all natural lawyers, but of a rather sleazy kind – seeking, not justice, but to find any way we can to get ourselves off the hook.

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The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity
and the Question of Christ

Alastair Roberts (University of Durham)

Perhaps one of the most basic assumptions that underlie much debate between Christians and

atheists is that the two positions represent polar opposites, between which no common ground

exists. Not only are the two positions ultimately irreconcilable, they are also in total and

complete opposition to each other. There is no way in which disagreements can be knocked

down to size, and the debate honed and focused, as the antithesis is absolute. There is no scope

for appreciative dialogue, or to learn from each other. One of the most immediate effects of this

assumption is to raise the temperature of our conversations significantly.

Ben Myers of Faith and Theology, wrote a very thoughtful piece a year or so ago, in which he

remarked upon the complex relationship that Christian thought and atheism bear to each other, a

relationship that is far less obviously one of diametrical opposition than is commonly supposed:

In the 20th century, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth would begin his courses

not with the Bible but with Feuerbach – that brilliant atheist who argued that “God” is a

fantastically large projection of ourselves. Far from trying to refute this argument, Barth

insisted that it is the beginning of wisdom, the true point of departure for all Christian

thought.

Even more pointedly, a contemporary theologian like Jürgen Moltmann can insist that

“only a Christian can be a good atheist!” That may be overstating the matter, but it is

nevertheless true that Christians have always had a vested interest in thinking critically

and subversively about the very idea of God and the uses to which it is put. This is why in

the work of great religious thinkers – Kierkegaard or Milton or Dostoevsky – one can

scarcely tell at times whether they are advocating belief in God or the most devastating

atheism. The line between the two is often blurred.

At its best, atheism is a questioning tradition that thinks ‘unflinchingly about what it means to be

human in a world without God.’ It is a tradition that resolutely challenges the self-delusions that

we entertain in order to avoid the pain and shame of the world stripped naked by truth. The facile

confusion of atheism with anti-theism represents a shrinking back from the discomforting and

unsettling tradition of genuine atheism, a tradition that can leave its adherents disoriented and

uncertain of their footing, into a movement that casually dismisses and ridicules others, while

priding itself in its intellectual superiority. ‘Enlightenment’ becomes a boast freed from all

burden. This is an ‘atheism’ no longer confronting the prospect of an abyss yawning beneath its

feet.

Christianity has its own related forms of failure of nerve, as we close off our questions to the icy

draft of reality, and lock ourselves into a sterile dogmatism. If the casual confidence of the anti-

theist, who will rigorously question everything save the ground he is standing on, is unworthy of

being associated with the best of the atheistic tradition, the unquestioning tribalistic opinion that

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masquerades as ‘faith’ in many Christian circles is no less unworthy of association with the best

of our tradition.

The ‘Atheist’ Voice of Christianity

Any serious thinking Christian should be able to recognize some profoundly Christian elements

in the atheist tradition, and should be at once heartened and troubled by that fact. Long before the

dawn of modern atheism, the early Christians were known as ‘atheists’, on account of their

denial of the gods of paganism. While many might regard this as an accident of shared

designation, I believe that there are grounds for identifying a deeper affinity between the

movements.

A central feature of Christianity is an attack upon idolatry, and the manner in which it holds

people hostage. While some might regard biblical attacks upon idolatry as a cynical means by

which to secure the allegiance of the faithful, the underlying intention is liberational. The goal of

the teaching on idolatry is to exalt mankind above the petty things to which we would otherwise

devote our service, ensuring that humanity is oriented towards something greater, which will

serve to render us even more deeply human. Belief in falsehood imprisons and impoverishes us.

We become like the things that we worship and when something that is less than fully personal

and humanizing becomes our focus of concern, we will gradually become dehumanized. False

gods will ensnare our entire existence in untruth. Consequently, the interrogation of our beliefs

and practices, the honing of our worship, the questioning of our conceptions of God, and an

uncompromising rejection of idolatry in all of its forms are characteristic of Christian faith and

practice (perhaps most especially in the context of traditional Protestantism).

Atheist thought shares a similar impulse, but believes that Christian faith itself falls under the

category of false belief. I do not believe that it is an accident that atheism has found some of its

most fertile soil in the context of cultures that have been leavened by Christian – and especially

Protestant – thought. It is also interesting to observe how atheists often charge Christians with

false (‘idolatrous’) belief in a manner that strikes notes that, despite themselves, can sound

almost Christian. Who cannot read Marx or Feuerbach’s descriptions of religion, for instance,

without hearing an echo of the sentiments of Old Testament prophets?

The target of much atheist protest is the god that secures all meaning and makes sense of the

world, the religion that serves as a crutch and underwrites the social order, the faith that inures

one to truth and reality and gives birth to dulling and enslaving illusion. This is the god in whom

they don’t believe. They might be surprised to find that Christians stand alongside them in

attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.

Christian thought involves a radical challenge to the way that we naturally view and ‘use’ god. It

strikes at the idea of the distant and transcendent absolute being, believing that God was revealed

in human flesh, with all that that entails. Christians believe that God came in a regular human

body and pooped, sweat, and ate, just like the rest of us. Christians overturn the deity that

underwrites and secures the pyramidical hierarchy, teaching that God himself became a servant

for our sakes.

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Christian faith teaches that God gave himself to die a criminal’s death at the hand of man and

that he was dead for a few days. We believe that God’s character was most fully revealed, not in

the beauty and perfection of nature, or the stillness of the human heart, but in a mangled and

bloodied body on a Roman cross. It is in this eclipse of all light, and even the knowledge of

God’s presence, that God’s face is most powerfully disclosed: God makes himself known in this

moment of hell. It is also ultimately by this means that God achieves his purposes in the world,

not by mere detached fiat.

If God himself felt the deep absence of God (‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken

me…?’), such an experience is far from alien – indeed, it is completely proper – to Christ-ian

faith. Only Christians have a Holy Saturday, the day when God himself lay dead in the tomb, the

day when all lights are out. As Tomáš Halík observes in his superb Patience With God, a living

with the silence of God is integral to Christian faith and piety, an experience that bears much in

common with that of atheists, but that the distinguishing character of the Christian response to

this silence is patience.

In other words, Christians believe in an upside-down God, who stands utterly opposed to the

deity that human beings naturally believe – or don’t believe – in. In the protests of atheists

against this supposed deity, Christians can recognize the voice of the biblical prophets railing

against the idols and false gods of the surrounding nations. In the moral protests of atheists

against the injustice of the world, and any attempt to palliate us to this by reassuring theodicies,

Christians can recognize the voice of the psalmist, who is inspired by God to challenge and

question God. In response to the atheists who complain of God’s absence, Christians speak of

exactly the same the experience (the ‘dark night of the soul’), the difference being that for

Christians this is something to be passed through with struggling patience. In response to those

atheists who resist attempts to impose meaning upon suffering and death, Christians can

highlight the example of Job’s resistance to his counsellors. In response to the atheists who speak

of the opacity of the world, Christians can point to the book of Ecclesiastes.

If atheists question God, believers in YHWH have been doing it for millennia. Jacob, the father

of the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, was given the name ‘Israel’ after wrestling with God.

The Bible is filled with examples and patterns of wrestling with and questioning God, and

demolishing the comforting idolatrous notions that people have about him.

Christ, the Question

Christians often proclaim that Christ is ‘the Answer’. This is true enough, but perhaps the more

exciting truth is that Christ is the Question. A question is something with the power to open up

your world. A question is something that you can follow into the unknown. One could argue that

it is our choice of and relationship to our questions, rather than our answers, that most defines us.

Not all questions are helpful, and many questions lead nowhere. However, some questions have

proved so fertile that they have continued for millennia.

The most important thinkers in human history are not those who have given the cleverest

answers, but those whose work has posed the profoundest questions. It is a question that

underlies and drives every quest. It is in this respect that Christ towers over all others, as God’s

own Question to man. Christ is the Word of God that opens the conversation and poses a

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Question that touches to the quick of our entire reality. It is through this Question that we, like

Augustine, become questions to ourselves.

In looking at atheism, I am often struck by the manner in which the strongest forms of

questioning atheism can seem particularly Christian, and could not grow from another religion in

the same manner. It is within Christianity in particular that the idea of God as the guarantor of

some tidy cosmic meaning is undermined. The book of Job is a great example of this. All of the

attempts to give meaning to Job’s experience collapse. This undermining of the notion of cosmic

meaning reaches its completion when God himself dies on a cross. The opacity of meaning and

the throwing open of reality to radical questioning is profound.

The Christian distinction between God and creation had much the same effect. The world ceased

to be a divine thing, or a prison of determinism, but became simply ‘the world’. Scientific

questioning of reality was empowered by the Christian (and especially Protestant) attack upon

idolatry and superstition.

The light of Christ’s advent brings with it the means by which other realities can be exposed. It is

through the light that we discern the darkness. In our society’s account of justice, ethics,

goodness, beauty, and evil the light of Christ still shines, granting these notions a clarity that they

would not otherwise possess in a culture that was not haunted by him. It was through Christ that

many of the core concepts of humanism most powerfully impinged upon our consciousness:

personhood, the dignity of man, genuine freedom. We should not presume upon this knowledge

not retreating with the withdrawing tide. As Christ is denied, the descent to the gloaming begins,

and these notions, and the cultural quests they once encouraged grow dim, and our feet begin to

stumble on uncertain ground.

Christianity provided one of the greatest challenges to state domination, and one of the greatest

sources of questioning of it. As Peter Leithart has argued in his book on Constantine, Christianity

desacralized the state, exposing it to a deeper questioning. Many of the questions that underlie

Western political thought arise out of a specifically Christian context of thought. Christianity

also powerfully relativized the social-symbolic substance, both through its eschatology, and

through its practice of the Church. Ultimately a Christian was not a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a

free person, a male or a female, but a person in Christ, possessing equal dignity with all others.

This understanding of the person called the social structure and its settled inequalities into

question and gave a face to people who were faceless, sensitizing Western culture to the

oppressed and alienated and exalting the person above their place in the social structure. Further

examples, such as the scapegoat theory of Réné Girard could be mentioned here, could be

brought forward of illustrations of the manner in which Christianity exposed all reality to deep

questioning, thereby rendering every aspect of our existence a quest.

The manner in which the ‘Christian revolution’ (as David Bentley Hart terms it) threw the

natural world, political authorities, social and economic structures, the complexities of existence,

and our very own selves wide open to questioning (to a degree that the Greek philosophical

tradition couldn’t quite do by itself) is one of the reasons why I still find it so important in my

own thinking. Although many atheists engage in such radical questioning, one wonders whether

atheism itself can provide either the sort of enlightenment or the source of questioning that

Christianity has and does. The character of much recent atheism provides little encouragement

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on this front. In certain quarters, the sort of radical and transformative questioning that forged

Western society has shrunk to the trickle of the disengaged cynicism and irony of self-assured

elites, delighting in the frisson of a sterile novelty. This worries me, precisely because it is the

slow progress of the deep questioning started by the Christian faith that has led to much of the

freedom that we enjoy in the West. Any atheism or Christianity that neglects this tradition of

questioning exposes us to the risk of losing our freedoms and the introduction of a new darkness.

The bold and terrifying metaphysical questions that one finds in the atheists that knew and

experienced what Christianity is, and how much Western society, its ethical vision, and their

own questioning tradition owes to the Christian legacy are far more profound (often seeking to

ask with even greater force the questions that Christianity first threw open). For instance, they

recognize the loss of a degree of our ability to question our actions with the abandonment of

terms such as sin and evil. Such a form of atheism recognizes that certain questions are not

accessible to everyone, and that, with their atheism, they must risk forfeiting certain lines of

questioning that once illuminated reality.

Conclusion

In short, I do not believe that Christianity and atheism are as far apart or unrelated as people may

think. There are good reasons why atheism found its most fertile soil in the lands of

Christendom, and of Protestantism in particular (a movement particularly sensitized to the

dangers of idolatry and superstition). Atheists work with the legacy of Christianity a lot more

than most Christians and atheists realize.

What does this mean for Christians and atheists? I believe that Christians can often see in atheists

disavowed aspects of their own faith, which have been neglected or rejected on account of their

troubling character. The questions of the atheists are often Christian questions, questions that we

should be asking too. One wonders whether, if Christians had the courage to embark upon the

quests that Christ opens for us, atheism would be quite so powerful a movement in Western

culture. I suspect that atheism is a ‘question’ from God to us. Perhaps when we don’t faithfully

ask God’s questions, God will get others to ask them for us and of us. In our relationship to

atheists, I believe that we should recognize a kinship, and should explore the place of ‘atheist’-

type voices within Christian faith itself (without obviously denying the existence of God).

Unbeknownst to them, atheists are squandering an unacknowledged patrimony in the far country.

This is another sense in which atheism can be seen as a ‘question’ to us: can we see ourselves in

our atheist friends, and recognize them as our kin?

For atheists, I believe that the challenge is to relate to the explicit character of Christian thought,

and not to some supposed natural conception of deity that is exploded in Christ and the upside-

down God of the

gospel.

I believe that atheists should seek to discover the source of their

questions, and ask themselves whether these questions will survive the departure of God. Finally,

I believe that many atheists have a grasp – and a stronger one than one than many Christians – of

certain aspects of the truth. I believe that these can be shown to be fragments of a far deeper

account, an account through which, paradoxically and unexpectedly, God is revealed to be all in

all. The unresolved note left hanging in atheism rings clear but finds rest in the Christ of the

gospel.

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