Tuesday, December 25, 2007

God debates

In the TLS, John Habgood formerly Archbishop of York, discusses four new books:


All four books are answers to the questions posed by the "new Atheists".

Habgood writes:

"The so-called new atheism turns out to be little more than a step backwards to the old-fashioned atheism, which used to make great play with the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between religion and science.

Supporting this claim was, and to some extent still is, a simplistic appeal to the contrast between faith and reason, as if they had no need of each other.

The main difference between the old and the new is a drastic change of tone.

The new version has a sharper tongue, is gleefully aggressive rather than solemnly regretful, and makes much use of ridicule. It might be argued that the contempt shown towards religion and religious sensibilities is a necessary part of the impact the authors want to make, and no doubt it also helps to sell their books.

The downside of this strategy is that people are not likely to be converted by being ridiculed, nor by point-scoring which does not touch their real concerns. Minds are changed only when those criticized are convinced that their concerns have been judged fairly – a less entertaining and much more demanding exercise.

Intolerance is not restricted to new atheism. The same might be said of various forms of fundamentalist religion, and there is a sense in which the two extremes deserve each other.

The consequences of this mutual contempt and abuse are tragic, because there is much to be learnt from the creative encounter between an evolutionary science, conscious of its own limits, and a self-critical theology, rooted in an awareness of the ultimate mystery of its subject matter. ...

As the debate about God has become more vicious, Beattie has found herself more and more exasperated by its shallowness, and by the danger that it will only succeed in further stoking the fires of religious extremism.

She is convinced that Christianity needs the insights of secularism, and needs to recognize what lies at the heart of the present obsession with postmodernism. “The hidden face of postmodern culture”, she writes,

"is a form of despair, for our multicultural jamboree conceals an abyss of meanings and values. In the twentieth century, faith in God became an impossibility for many people, not because science or reason had provided answers to the mystery of life, but because the scale of humanity’s suffering and capacity for violence had outstripped any possibility of believing in a just and loving God. If postmodernism challenges the thoroughly modern scientific faith of the new atheists, it also provides a nurturing habitat for other more profound forms of atheism."

Nevertheless, she adds, there remains a hunger for God, and it is in literature and art and music that we may have to look for the hunger to be satisfied. “At its most profound, faith is not an answer to life’s questions but a willingness to inhabit the darkness of knowing that there are some things we cannot know.”

Beattie’s passionate survey of this complex scene entails a constant plea for mutual understanding and for an end to cheap point-scoring. She is a good guide and well worth reading. ...

Hans Küng, the eminent Roman Catholic theologian, has written what he describes as “a short book on the meaning of the universe”, and much of what he writes echoes the views just described, albeit from a somewhat different perspective. He also draws an interesting parallel between cosmology and Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem. The latter is a mathematical proof that no system of axioms can prove itself as being free from contradiction. Nor, says Küng, can a theory of the universe. The point was originally made by Stephen Hawking, who admitted that he had given up his quest for a “grand unified theory of everything” on the grounds that we are part of it. Any explanation which tries to include the observer doing the explaining must necessarily be incomplete.

Add to this Popper’s dictum about the tentativeness of all scientific statements as being falsifiable but not ultimately provable, and the limitations of our knowledge become all too apparent. Both scientists and theologians, in other words, and even popes, need to accept their fallibility.

Apart from a passing reference, this is a Richard Dawkins-free book. It also provides a useful reminder that there was a scientifically and theologically based tradition of atheism in European culture long before Darwin. Küng comments, “Beyond question, the critique of religion offered by these ‘new materialists’ has not remotely reached the depth of their classical predecessors”.

Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, where are you now?

Science”, Küng continues, “does not have to ‘prove’ the existence or superfluity of God. Rather, it has to advance the explicability of our universe by physics as far as possible and at the same time leave room for what in principle cannot be explained by physics.”

I am not sure this is a wise way of putting things, being all too redolent of the “God of the gaps”. Nevertheless, like all of Küng’s work, this is a learned book, full of interesting insights, drawing heavily on European philosophy and theology, and frequently critical of his own Church. To those who know his other works, it may seem strange to suggest that this one would have been better if it had been longer. Too much is assumed too quickly. In the section “How Did Life Arise?”, for instance, he slides over all the scientific difficulties to which Lennox draws attention, and implies that all the theological problems are solved simply by interpreting evolution as creation.

John Polkinghorne is a safer guide...

[Polkinghorne`s] autobiography, From Physicist to Priest, is as charming and humble as the man himself.

A scholarship in mathematics to Trinity College, Cambridge, set him on course; a post-doctoral fellowship took him to California, where he was a member of the team working on particle physics at a crucial stage in the development of the so-called Standard Model of the physical structure of matter; and at the age of thirty-eight he was back in Cambridge as the first holder of the newly established chair of Mathematical Physics.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of forty-four, and, three years later, offered himself for ordination in the Church of England. After training for the ministry in Cambridge, he was ordained in 1981, served as a curate in Bristol, and for a few years was a country vicar in Kent.

The call to return to Cambridge as Dean of Trinity Hall, and eventually as President of Queens’ College, gave him the leisure to write, since when he has been a prolific author, at times producing several books a year on various aspects of science and religion. He is better placed than most people to write about the nature of created reality and its relation to the human (mathematical) mind, but this book is purely about his own remarkable life.

Evolution is not his primary concern, yet his profound mathematical insights into the nature of created reality endorse Tina Beattie’s distinction between creativity and design. In his book Science and Creation he writes that

". . . the order and disorder which intertwine in the process of the world show that the universe upheld by the divine Word is not a clear cold cosmos whose history is the inevitable unfolding of an invulnerable plan. It is a world kept in being by the divine Juggler rather than by the divine Structural Engineer, a world whose precarious process speaks of the free gift of Love. We are accustomed to think of the vulnerability accepted by the Word in the incarnation, a vulnerability potentially present in the baby lying in the manger and realized to the full in the man hanging on the cross. What is there revealed of the divine in the human life of Jesus is also to be discerned in the cosmic story of creation."

The fact that there are those who go to great lengths to resist this interpretation is a back-handed tribute to the divine gift of freedom which it presupposes."