Friday, August 13, 2010


Here lie I, Martin Elginbrod,
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God,
And thou wert Martin Elginbrod!
   ~ tombstone, from George MacDonald

I am fascinated by the faith-science interchange and the dialogue/controversy between people of faith and the "new atheists" which is a subset of it. It is in part a matter of intellectual recreation for me, and in part an earnest component of my mindset and beliefs.

I have never entered an internet "chat room" (always been kind of scared of them), but a few days ago, while following a link, I stumbled upon the blog of a self-described skeptic and joined the blog's comment chain that, for a while, became a real-time back-and-forth debate. After hunching over my keyboard for about forty-five minutes, firing comments into the ether as fast as they were fired back at me, I extricated myself from the fray, and have not returned. I felt like I was fleeing a crescendoing spiral of madness out of Fellini. (Not "madness" because of the content of the comments, but because of the feeling that one could become trapped in a Hydra-headed argument without end.)

The subject of the comment chain was (to oversimplify a bit) "is there a God?". There were six or seven of us in the real-time back-and-forth, and I was the only one arguing for the philosophical possibility that God might exist. I was not arguing for the Judeo-Christian God, or against evolution (which I buy), but for an uncreated non-material force that was the causative agent for everything material.  Two things surprised me. One was that the conversation - though frustratingly anonymous - was relatively civil. The other was the number of my correspondents who said something to the effect that of course there is a chance that something like a god exists but, "he's certainly not doing much," to paraphrase one comment. I was surprised that some so easily allowed a chink to open in their skeptical armor. (The argument seemed to be "I may be persuaded that God exists if only he behaves according to my pre-conceived notions of how God would behave if God existed.")

Although I do not have a record of this exchange (as I said, I ran away, so I admit this is a one-sided report from my memory), I found the arguments rather un-subtle. It is as though they had given up belief in a Sunday School God, and the only thing that would convince them would be a divine Sunday School performance. I came away with the distinct impression that they -- like the more well-known atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins -- mainly just have a beef with the church and with "religion" (as do I); they do not probe very deeply into the philosophical question of whether or not there may be a god. Certainly doubt is a part of faith (including mine), but this exchange wasn't so much about faith as reason.

All this to introduce a good essay on this subject by Gary Gutting in the New York Times Opinionator blog. I recommend following the links referred to in the essay. But, be careful, you might get trapped!

I have posted elsewhere on this subject. Here and here.  


Joseph G. Crippen said...

I think the point you make is very true, that people won't believe if it appears God is acting differently than they expect/want/anticipate. "I couldn't believe in a God like that!" But God will be what God will be, not what we will for God.

Bill said...

Well, I've been itching to reply to this one since Friday! Sounds like you hooked up with some memebers of the Lutheran-Atheist Society that were at the University of Chicago Divinity School while I was at LSTC back in the late 60s. "We believe in God, but there are serious problems with..."

A lot of people, including church-going Christians, want God to be more like themselves and just can't believe if God is not. "He's certainly not doing much" sums it up. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about that. She asked a question of those folks--- "So, you think God is a fixer?" The implication is that she thinks God is not. While her meaning can be startling at first one would have to agree that at some point maybe we put a little too much on God, remake his "job description" too much according our own definition and expectation.

So then we have a mean or callous God, or an indifferent one? DO we want a total Fixer? So goes that conversation, right?

A little fearfully I would offer the following solution. Perhaps we all have not given serious thought to the fact that God was nailed to a cross and died. I'm not sure where BBT came out on this, but the idea was brought up (and misunderstood and dismissed) back in the 60s in the "God is Dead" movement. God didn't die, but our ideas about God's power did... or should have.

Perhaps all the "omni-s" of the 19th century (?) have influenced us too much. Omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, i.e. Our Lord of Perpetual Responsibility! Was Bonhoeffer not direct enough in his proclamation that "man has come of age" and let us wander off on our old way of thinking?

So, is God a Fixer or not? I'm not sure the hidden-fixer-God idea pulls it out--- God really does control everything we just aren't smart enough to understand it.

What think ye, brethren?