Monday, June 23, 2008

Dawkins is right! His god does not exist

Richard Dawkins does not believe this god exists:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 51)
“Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don’t know anybody who does.” (Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Deslusion?, page 75)
Sometimes I feel like I'm standing in the middle of a battlefield, taking hits from opposing armies on either side. Because of my non-literal interpretations of Genesis, my Christian friends aim their artillery at my “liberal” view of Scripture. They worry that I have abandoned the true faith. Meanwhile, many of my skeptic friends, with whom I interact in cyberspace lob bombs at an easy target, the Christian God, as they perceive him. And their perception often matches that of Richard Dawkins.

My response to Dawkins is much like that of Alister McGrath: thankfully, such a god as Dawkins imagines does not exist! But can such a god be found in the pages of the Old Testament? Well, that is a little more difficult to deny.

First, to my atheist friends, I must make this point clear. Christians do not worship two god’s, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. We worship one God, who declares about himself that he is unchanging. How we harmonize the Old Testament divine descriptions with those in the New Testament involves the science of hermeneutics. I summarized some of my own hermeneutic principles in a
post on Progressive Revelation. In today’s post, I wish to elaborate on that earlier one.

The Bible reads like an unfolding revelation of God. Like a Polaroid picture (children, ask your parents what that is), the image of God becomes clearer and clearer with the passage of time. The more focused and accurate image of God does not fully emerge until Jesus reveals the Father, and the New Testament witness to his coming is compete. Click on the following video for a brief overview of my views on Progressive Revelation:

       video    

This overview details how faith relates to revelation, and how growing faith relates to growing revelation, and understanding. It also highlights, chronologically, four Biblical authors: Moses, David, Isaiah, and John. The God I have come to know as my Lord is more clearly understood and described by John than by Isaiah. But Isaiah provides a more focused picture than does David. And David gives a more accurate rendering of the Father than does Moses. And Moses gave us a clearer, far more accurate rendering of God than did the competing theologies from the pagan cultures of his day. Each new revelation builds upon prior revelation. The ultimate “Word” or “exegesis” of God is to be found in Jesus himself (John 1:1-18).

God reveals himself to man, not in categorical declarations, not in systematic dissertations, but in relationship. As an ancient people, the descendants of Abraham, began to pursue relationship with the one true and living God, he responded. He then began, through a growing relationship, to dismantle the false theological concepts of their neighboring cultures, and to replace those corrupted images with a more correct one, that of a monotheistic, providential, creator God. Did Moses get it all the details right? No. But God knew that faith would grow upon the earth, and with it, a deepening relationship with his children, and more profound appreciation of his character, leading to a clearer understanding of himself.

The Bible represents God as one who desires to reveal himself to man. It is a longing of his heart. But the Bible is clear about this: he reveals himself primarily within the context of relationship (see 2 Chronicles 16:9, Psalm 25:14, Proverbs 3:32, John 14:21).

Paul teaches us that all Scripture is inspired, and it is all useful. (2 Timothy 3:16). For me, this means that God inspired his people to keep a developing journal of relationship (even though in its early stages the picture was not always perfect). Thus, he inspired Moses to record what he was learning, and each subsequent author to do likewise. And the result is the Bible, a growing, living journal of God relating to man, opening his heart to man, and revealing himself to man. In stages. In steps, even if at times those steps were halting and imperfect.

I am thankful for Moses. By his faithful obedience, he brought man significant new understandings about God. When compared to the other Ancient Near Eastern god-concepts, his was clearly on the right track, a track that ultimately leads us to Jesus.

Yes, Moses portrays a God who is on occasion angry, rash, and seemingly capricious, given to warfare. If the language of Dawkins in the above quote is a bit over-the-top, it is not entirely inaccurate. But if Dawkins would keep reading, he would see the Polaroid image develop before his very eyes. And he would find that the God of the Apostle John (the last of the Biblical authors) bears no resemblance to his caricature. But John would have never seen this wonderful loving Father without the help of Moses, David, Isaiah, and all the other faith-filled pursuers of God to whom the Father revealed himself progressively.

To my Christian friends, who may be startled at my ready admission of theological inaccuracies in the Bible, I will respond with a positive statement of my belief in the Bible:

I believe that the Bible is a unique book, inspired from Genesis to Revelation. I believe it is the very book God wanted us to have. I hold to the authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice. I believe the Bible provides a solid and dependable foundation for Christian living. I read it. I study it. I love it. I teach it. I find that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I believe all the Scriptures are infallible. Infallibility, as I use the term, means that the Bible, in its totality, does not mislead on issues of faith and practice, though it may not be without error in all respects. In my years of reading and studying the Bible, this view is more consistent with the Scriptures themselves than what I consider a forced claim of inerrancy.

I believe that in the process of inspiration, God did not override any author’s memory or knowledge base. [Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]. It was not God’s intention to produce a supernaturally perfect book. Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus himself, never wrote a book. The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied. God has chosen not to give us “the perfect book” because our faith is not about words on a page, but about a growing, dynamic relationship with the Lord of the Universe! However, the Bible does give a faithful and accurate account of this growing relationship with God from Abraham through John, the Apostle.

18 comments:

Stephen Douglas said...

Cliff,

I couldn't agree more. Thanks for this excellent post.

Steve Martin said...

Yes, that was good Cliff. Thanks.

castleofnutshells said...

Cliff - the others said, this is an excellent post. There are others standing in the midst of the battlefield with you ;).

Lee Bowman said...

"[Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]."

My view is that the essays, poetry, historical accounts, laws, prophesy, etc are God inspired, but are revealed via the 'man filter', which corrupts, to some degree. Did Moses have political motives that may have influenced his writings and his portrayal of God?

Furthermore, language is far from perfect. And not just language translations from a distant era, but with present day colloquial variations as well.

A question often posed is how relevant Paul's writings are to today's world. Cindy in South Dakota studies Paul's writings (currently 1 Corr. 6-8), posts her conclusions on her blog, and asks for comments from readers.

Either she has no readers, or they simply choose not to comment. Still she continues to post ...

Any takers?
http://cindyinsd.wordpress.com/

Isaac Gouy said...

Because of my non-literal interpretations of Genesis, my Christian friends aim their artillery at my “liberal” view of Scripture. They worry that I have abandoned the true faith. Meanwhile, many of my skeptic friends, with whom I interact in cyberspace lob bombs at an easy target, the Christian God, as they perceive him.

Too many they's

- "as they [Christian friends] perceive him."

or

- "as they [skeptic friends] perceive him."


If the "easy target" is constructed by the "skeptic friends" then it would be a strawman.

If the "easy target" is constructed by the "Christian friends" then it is the "Christian friends" perception of the Christian God that is being criticised.



Question 37 p235 "And would you say that [Holy book] is to be taken literally, word for word..."
PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE U.S. RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE SURVEY FINAL TOPLINE (pdf)

Cliff Martin said...

Isaac,



Thanks for the link to the Pew Forum. I hope to spend some time looking at that survey soon (this is a very busy work week for me!)



I can see the ambiguity in that paragraph you refer to. I did mean “as they [skeptic friends] perceive him.” Strawman? well, that might be a bit strong. Their view (as I indicate in my post) is not without a Biblical base. But that is where interpretation of the Scriptures comes into play. I do not know of a single Christian (not even the most ardent fundamentalist) who believes in and worships the God Dawkins describes. But Moses does give grounds for his (Dawkins’) perception.



I believe that many of my Christian friends are inconsistent. They want the “safety” of a literal, inerrant book. But they end up doing some wild dancing around the O.T. stories that portray God in ways quite different from the N.T. understanding. So it is reasonable that people like Dawkins pickup on their literalist views and attack the God that seems to logically follow. 



As you can see, my view of the Scriptures is not literalist/inerrantist. And so, when Dawkins speaks derisively of the God he “sees” in the O.T., he is speaking of a God I do not worship, and that I do not believe has ever existed.

Isaac Gouy said...

Strawman? well, that might be a bit strong.
More like not what you meant - when we note the proportion in the survey who wish to take the Holy Book literally, word for word, the "easy target" is not being constructed by the "skeptic friends", it's being presented by literalists.


I do not know of a single Christian (not even the most ardent fundamentalist) who believes in and worships the God Dawkins describes.

Hmmm.

Falwell apologizes to gays, feminists, lesbians

HURRICANE KATRINA DESTROYS NEW ORLEANS
DAYS BEFORE "SOUTHERN DECADENCE" 8/31/05



... he is speaking of a God I do not worship, and that I do not believe has ever existed.
I suspect "The God Delusion" also says something that applies to your particular belief.

Tom said...

Cliff, are you an evangelical, or a moderate?

According to 2 Timothy 3, this persecution you get is just par for the course. As for me, I guess I'm one of those ones "having a form of godliness, but denying its power", going from bad to worse. ;-)

Tom said...

While Isaac illustrates some of what you might call extreme examples, they aren't too rare. There are -phobes, weirdos, and outright dangerous people who use the Bible to support their behavior and philosophies. You are correct that the Bible was written by several different men of different cultures across time so it is bound to have several different hermeneutical interpretations. While it seems your brand of theism is palatable to moderate Christians (and therefore why you get criticism from conservative Christians and atheists who are more extreme), who is to say that other, more fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are wrong? Has present human law and culture now trumped the law of the OT? If so, was Jesus/Christianity necessary for that?

Isaac Gouy said...

tom said @ June 25, 2008 10:59 AM
... who is to say that other, more fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are wrong?

‘... any interpretation that sees the New Testament or Jesus as essentially advocates of love, peace, and forgiveness must rely on an ultimately unverifiable rationale for the selection of what counts as representative texts. Such a selection is no more verifiable than the selection of violent views, and the ultimate theological grounds for pacifist actions by Christians are no more verifiable than the grounds for violent ones.’ p216

”Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence” Hector Avalos, Prometheus Books 2005

RBH said...

Cliff wrote

Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus himself, never wrote a book. The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied.

Um. It didn't take Jesus writing a book to produce a Bible that is often legalistically applied and that is idolized and darn near worshiped by not a few Christians around my part of the world.

Cliff Martin said...

RBH,

Not only are you correct, you read between the lines and captured my exact intended meaning. Thank you for making the point explicitly.

RBH said...

I'm not a subtle guy. :)

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

Sorry if this is awfully naive but are you saying that the old testament tales where god is pretty nasty are not true, or that he isn't really nasty in them?

Or that they are old myths and not real descriptions of what your god actually did?

Isn't there plenty of scape goating, genocide, etc.

Isn't one poor guy killled and then sentenced to an eternity of torture for tripping and touching the ark of the covenant?

I am asking from a position of ignorance and not trying to be clever.

Regards,

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Psi,

Good questions; thank you for raising them. (I actually expected those kinds of questions from some of my fellow-believers. But they seem to either be disinterested, or they have just written me off.)

What I am saying is that the picture Moses, and other Old Testament writers had of God was imperfect. The human endeavor of discovering God is recorded for us (in part) in the Bible. It is a journal of progressive revelation. So if you want to understand God and his character, you will obviously weight more heavily those later writers who benefited from all that had gone before. Paul says that all of the Old Testament (and New) is “useful” for training, correction, etc. And I do find it all to be just as he said. However, it seems clear to me that Moses and Samuel, and David, etc. were looking through a very imperfect lens, and worked on some assumption that were incorrect, incomplete, or inaccurate. Still, God encouraged (inspired!) them to record their observations, and their interpretations, even though they often ended up painting him in a rather unflattering light. Little by little, we (those men and women who seek God) came to know and understand him better.

Are the Old Testament tales true? That is a little hard to answer. With many I would have to say, I don’t know. Some are no doubt mythical. Some are traditional oral history, folk-lore. Others may represent actual events, but written from the perspective of those early seekers of God with their incomplete understanding of his character.

Does this help?

Cliff Martin said...

I should add that it is important to remember that oral traditional fork-lore and myth were acceptable "containers" of truth for the ancients, much more so than our literary instincts would allow today. Still, the writers were recording using their imperfect human lens.

Anonymous said...

Cliff,
I really appreciate this post about
your reading of scripture. I really do think the progressive revelation
understanding is vital, and apt.
I do appreciate your phrasing of the place of scripture for the christian.
It really is more honest and lest abstract than the hyper-fundamentalist
way of talking about it.
thanks again,
nick watts

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Nick. I have attempted to preserve the value and authority of all the Scriptures, while recognizing the unconcealed limitations of the text. Despite this, it seems when many of my Christian friends read or listen to me, they think my purpose is to tear the Scriptures down.