Friday, September 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins and a Personal God

Lee at A Thinking Reed set off quite a storm when his claim the Richard Dawkins doesn't exist drew the attention of Joe from A Human Blog, who like me writes from the godless Pacific Northwest.

The manifest dispute was over whether or not Dawkins' line that he wouldn't need to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns has any merit, meaning he doesn't need to be well-read in theology to criticize belief in God. What's behind this, I think, is one of the standard Christian lines of defense against atheism. We ask, "Which god don't you believe in?" with the intention that we would follow-up saying, "I don't believe in that god either."

But there is an elephant in the room. A lot of Christian do believe in the God Dawkins is arguing against. In his letter to The Independent which started this discussion, Dawkins addresses Peter Stanford's objection that he "caricatures all church-goers as simple-minded fundamentalists" by saying:
Of course the churchgoers Stanford or I meet socially are not simple-minded fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are heavily outnumbered, especially in the most powerful country on earth, where nearly half the people believe the universe began after domestication of the dog, and a slightly smaller proportion yearns for a Middle East Armageddon when they'll be raptured "up" to Heaven.
Let's face it, Tim LaHaye's God cannot be defended by reference to Paul Tillich's theology. But there's more than that going on here.

Before today I hadn't read anything by Dawkins, but following the hints in his aforementioned letter, I checked out this excerpt from his The God Delusion. I have to admit, I'm impressed.

Dawkins here lays out a sort of nature mysticism that many people would like to connect with belief in God, but then he shows how what he's talking about isn't belief in God. This is good stuff. I have a definite affection for the sort of wonder at the natural universe he describes. I like how it goes beyond a dry, mechanical view of the world and sees more there. At the same time it's frustrating, because I have to admit that as much as I want to think of my theological view as sophisticated and plausible, I must still finally admit that my faith with its view of a personal God who cares about the fate of the world, falls under Dawkins' condemnation.

I suppose the thing that frustrates me is that he says so much I can agree with, but just when I want him to go that one step further with me and consider the possibility of a personal God, he turns on me and mocks me, leaving me ashamed.

Dawkins' main distinction is between the natural and the supernatural, but it strikes me that there are some parallels here to the old theological debate between God's immanence and God's transcendence, except that Dawkins is on the extreme of the immanence continuum and wouldn't use the term "God" for what he's describing.

Dawkins writes:
Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.
It's kind of ironic that after spending much of this excerpt showing how theists are wrong to claim Einstein for their side, Dawkins makes this bold move to claim pantheists for his side. I have to say I bristle at the statement that "pantheism is sexed-up atheism."

But let me go back to the immanence/transcendence idea, as it relates to Dawkins' concern about natural/supernatural. In the past I've taken issue with the way immanence and transcendence are played against each other in Paul Laughlin's writings. Laughlin treats them as opposite extremes on a single spectrum, with some caveats about weak forms of either. Against this I maintain that Christianity has often tried to take a position that doesn't fit on a linear scale between these two extremes.

But who says that immanence and transcendence are opposites? What happens if instead we map them out on separate axes? Thinking through this, it occurred to me that I'm not quite talking about immanence and transcendence as such anymore. I need new terminology. So I propose one axis that maps God's being organically present versus God's being wholly external, and a second axis that maps God's being ontologically distinct versus God's being ontologically identical with creation. Both of these scales could be described as mapping transcendence versus immanence, but notice that they are actually concerned with two very different things.

Here's my proposed map:


I've tentatively labelled the lower left quadrant as "atheism". That is, "God" is seen as ontologically identical with the universe, but not present -- atheism. I think that works.

It may not be clear what I mean by "organically present". Considering that I am proposing this as an analog of immanence might help. Basically, I mean a God who is part of the system so to speak -- not external and also not present as a visitor from the outside. I might be able to say "one with creation."

But if I make that last statement, you might start scratching your head, looking at my diagram and asking "How can God be both organically present and ontologically other?" That's a good question. If you have a substance-based ontology, it isn't possible, but if you have a relationally-based ontology (as suggested by John Zizioulas, for instance) then this is the only quadrant of my diagram that is possible. That is, if God's being is a being-in-relationship, then God cannot be other than organically present, and it is wholly natural for God to be personal.

11 comments:

D.W. Congdon said...

In one of her books, Madeleine L'Engle writes about the "God is dead" movement from the 1960s. She talks about how she felt perfectly fine with them saying that this old white man with a beard was dead, but that this had no perceivable relation to the God of love in Jesus Christ with whom she had a relationship. It seems like Dawkins is still caught in the 1960s. He doesn't realize that that god is already dead.

Andy said...

That's a good perspective.

I once heard something similar in an interview with Thomas Keating. Fr. Keating said as you progress in the spiritual life you're constantly coming up against these places where you realize that God isn't what you thought he was, and you have to let the old god go. And it feels like you're turning you're back on God, but you're really just leaving behind a god that didn't exist anyway.

Some people get stuck, refusing to let their god go. You may be right. Dawkins may be refusing to let go this god he wants to argue against. But it's also possible that he sees himself in a sort of Bodhisattva role where he's trying to get the bulk of Christians who do believe in this god to let go of him.

Lee said...

To make a counterpoint, however, C.S. Lewis once pointed out that when you try to replace the metaphor of the old man in the sky with a metaphor of a "cosmic force" or somesuch you end up with something that is no less metaphorical but a lot less like the God of the Bible.

Andy said...

Fair enough. I suppose Dawkins would claim that a whole lot of people don't seem to see the old man in the sky as a metaphor, and I don't know if I can disagree.

That said, one of the things that really bothered me in reading Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith (for example) was the idea that you could just replace an old mythology with a new one and keep the meaning. The mythology itself does seem to be inseparable from the message.

We could try to sort out the language and be clear about what the metaphor means, but I'm not sure that any of us really agree what sort of God we're talking about. Then again, for matters of praxis, we don't need to know. As Robert Jenson puts it in his book on the Trinity, God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead.

But, circling back to previous comments, I think all of us do have many ideas about what sort of god we're not talking about.

Lee said...

Also, on the schema you've proposed, my one hesitation would be that in making God "part of the system" we'd actually be posting something greater than God ("the system") and perhaps suggesting that God and creation are inextricably bound together rather than creation being the result of a free act of God. I see process theology tending in this direction (sometimes explicitly).

I sometimes wonder if, rather than being opposites, transcendence and immanence don't actually go together. Perhaps God can only be "present" to all of creation because he is radically transcendent and ontologically distinct?

Andy said...

I'm not sure I've quite processed what you're saying, Lee. Specifically, I don't see why God being part of the system makes the system greater than God. If God is not part of the system then the universe has existence apart from God. If the universe does not have existence apart from God, then God is part of the system. By "system" I don't mean anything more than the whole of things that are interrelated.

I would say that God and creation are inextricably bound together, but I would say that they are bound together precisely because of the free act of God in creation, and even more so as a result of the free act of God in the Incarnation.

Lee said...

Sorry - probably me reading into your words something that wasn't there. I do worry that sometimes language like that could make us think that "God" and "the world" are both parts of a system and as such are essentially ontologically on the same "level" as it were. Denying this is what I take Tillich to be up to when he says that God is not a being but being itself (Thomas Aquinas says something remarkably similar).

Definitely agree with your second para.

Bo said...

I like your idea that transcendence and immanence are not linear, but I'm not sure they are different axis either.

In your graph (which I wish I could do), I don't think atheism could be where you place it. Using your terms I don't think god could be both ontologically identical to the universe (pantheism) and wholly external (deism) in any sense that an atheist would accept. It's linguistically senseless in the same way a "square circle" is.

I am identical to myself, for example, and there is no part of me which is external to myself.

For me it's never been an either/or. God is both transcendent and immanent; that is, He is both wholly external and organically present.

In the words of Michael Card: "He spoke the Incarnation, and so became theSon. His final Word was Jesus He needed no other one... And so the Light became alive and Manna became man; eternity stepped into time, so we could understand."

So, I suppose now that I think about it, I would say that maybe there is no -y axis. Jesus is part of creation, be He was begotten not made. No aspect of the Christian God is ontologically identical to creation.

(Hmmm is the bizarre, but here goes.)

Since Jesus is both wholly other and organically present and ontologically distinct one would have to have some non-Euclidean spherical and multi-dimensional axis in order to map Him, but that's way beyond me.

Anyway, you don't map Christianity as a sub-set of Theism because you don't address the completely organic presence Jesus Christ or the indwelling presence of the Spirit.

Great out-of-the box approach, though!

Bo said...

If possible I'd like to either link to or save and upload to my domain the picture you created "theologies.jpg." I would give complete credit.

It would fit in nicely to my own post (at a blog I'm struggling to find time to develop) inspired by and discussing yours.

http://resident-aliens.org/2007/09/28/mapping-god/

Andy said...

Hi Bo. Feel free to reuse my graph.

You're right that the Incarnation throws a whole different twist on all of this discussion, but if that were the only way God were truly present "in" the Universe, it would be more of a footnote on a deistic/supernatural-theistic view. As you also note, the Holy Spirit gives us something further to consider.

And maybe that's the key. Typical analytic views that try to compare and contrast the Christian view of God with other religion's views on a transcendent/immanent scale fail for the simple reason that they are compressing the Christian God into something that looks like the God of other religions. To grasp what Christianity says about God's presence we must have a Trinitarian God.

Bo said...

Thanks! And I can have no argument with your follow-up comment to me here. Nicely said.