Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

STAHP Confusing Physics with Metaphysics

remthologizing“Well, according to quantum physics we now know that God’s activity in the world must be…”

“Biology has taught us about the human anatomy so our Christology needs to reckon with…”

“In light of our knowledge of emergent properties…”

Ever hear something like this in a conversation, or on a blog somewhere? Statements of this sort are among my least favorite to run across in a modern or contemporary text in theology. In our contemporary context, many are concerned to participate in the growing dialogue between the physical sciences and the science of theology, trying to figure out how to relate the two properly. Given that the reality of God speaks to every dimension of reality, spiritual as well as material, I can appreciate the intent. The problem is that many attempt the task without the proper philosophical, biblical, or theological categories in place, which leads to a confused view of God’s activity in the world.

One common place where this occurs is in conversations with some sorts of relational theists, panentheists, process theists who argue that God restrains himself from too much intervention in the world, or restricts it to a limited “persuasive” sort. One given reason is that for God to intervene too much in the physical world, that would disrupt the natural order, rendering his action coercive and, therefore, unloving. While there are numerous mistakes involved in this sort of view, Kevin Vanhoozer points out that there is one basic mistake underlying them all:

Underlying this categorial confusion of Creator and creation stands a metaphysical postulate that reduces what is logically possible for God to what is physically possible in the natural order. It is precisely this metaphysical postulate that leads some panentheists to dismiss divine interventionism  on the grounds that such divine action competes with and, at the limit, negates the natural order: “The category mistake is thus a confusion between natural causality and divine action.”  When it comes to the God–world relation, however,  there is no competition,  for the relation is enveloped by an even greater Creator–creation distinction: “For no similarity can be asserted between creature and creator unless an even greater dissimilarity is included.”  —Remythologizing Theology, pg 168

At core, it is a failure to properly reckon with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As the Creator of all reality besides himself, God is the transcendent Lord of all reality besides himself. He is not in competition with it, but upholds it by his very word. He is not on an even playing field with the rest of reality, but sustains the playing field in existence.

I was reminded of this point by several passages in Turretin’s discussion of the nature of theology in the first subject of his Institutes. In several places, he makes salient points that ought to be kept in mind as well attempt to think of reality in light of God and vice versa.

First, we have to understand the way that theology studies the reality of the world and God. Each science or area of study takes its cues for how it knows on the basis of what its object is, but also on the way it approaches the object.

Although physics, ethics, and medicine treat of the subject, they do not cease to be distinct sciences because they consider man in different relations: physics as a species of natural body; ethics as capacious of virtue and happiness; medicine as curable from diseases and restorable to health. Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics, and ethics, yet the mode of considering is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation. It treats of creatures not as things of nature, but of God (i.e., as holding a relation and order to God as their Creator, preserver, and Redeemer). (Topic 1., Qu.5, V.)

Theological approaches to the relationship between theology and science need to remember their own particular mode of study.

Next, theological approaches to the problem need to remember the limits of reason with respect to God’s power. Turretin affirms the place of reason, and even the judgment of contradiction in the theology, especially since Scripture itself authorizes that. Nonetheless:

Although the judgment of contradiction is allowed to reason in matters of faith, it does not follow that the human intellect becomes the rule of divine power (as if God could not do more things than human reason can conceive). God’s being able to do something above nature and human conception (which is said with truth in Eph. 3:30) is different from his being able to do something contrary to nature and the principles of natural religion (which is most false). Nor is the power of God in this manner limited by the rule of our intellect, but our mind judges from the word what (according to the nature of a thing established by God ) may be called possible and impossible. (Topic 1, Qu.XI, XIV)

Human reason’s reach can only go so far, but we must remember that the power of God can extend much farther. He is the author of our reason and so is transcendent of it, as are his works. That said, it’s not simply the case that what theology teaches simply contradicts what is in the sciences or philosophy and we mustn’t worry about the relation between the two. It is a matter of thinking clearly about which order or of reality we’re speaking of.

Although theology teaches many things which philosophy knows not, it does not follow that a thing may be false in philosophy which is true in theology because truth is not at variance with truth, nor is light opposed with light. But care must be taken that philosophical truths be not extended beyond their own sphere and the ordinary powers of nature to those things which are supernatural revelation and power; that the physical be not confounded with the hyperphysical or human with divine things. For example, it is true in philosophy that a virgin cannot bring forth, that a heavy body is carried downwards, that fire burns matter placed in contact with it, that from nothing, nothing can come–the contraries of which theology maintains. But they are not on this account opposed to each others because these things are spoken of in different relations. In philosophy, they are denied with reference to the laws of nature, but in theology they are affirmed with reference to divine omnipotence and supernaturally. -(Topic 1, Qu. XIII, XII)

In other words, we have to let the Creator/creation divide properly frame our thought on God and the sciences. As always, whenever the Creator and the creature are confused, mixed, or held under the same category, the darkening of reason follows (Romans 1).

Soli Deo Gloria

The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Common? High? Pop? What Kind of Culture Is It? (With Some Help From Roger Scruton)

The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.

As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.

Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.

This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:

  • Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
  • High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
  • Pop– Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment.  (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)

Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.

For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.

  1. While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
  2. Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
  3. Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
  4. Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
  5. Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.

As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

So one day when I was really bored in my modern philosophy class, a not infrequent occurrence, I wrote a poem using only Kantian terminology which I found, and still find, to be ridiculous. I presented it as a token of my affection to my TA at the time. She said I used all the terms properly, which I took as a victory. I present it to you now because it’s my blog and why not?

Depending on the response, more ridiculous poetry might follow. I have a classic one about neutering a dog and another about ties. My college years were fecund with creative rapture. Also, I had an intro to poetry writing class.

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The a priori concepts

which allow

Intuitions of your

Beauty

to be given to me

through sensibility

are more precious to me

than all

Other conceptions

of Metaphysical Reality.

I (taken as the thinking self)

would give up all other

a posteriori intuitions

for the possibility

of

a mere empirical

apperception of

You.

“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That

thinker

Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

No Such Thing as a Dumb Question?

I must confess that I’ve always thought the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a dumb or bad question” to be a bit silly.  Admittedly, patience with ignorance has not historically been a strength of mine. In high school I was that guy who would groan audibly at silly answers given by my classmates at times.  I blame this almost entirely on my arrogance.  (Occasionally it was probably merited, but that’s no excuse.) Still, arrogance aside, I always could think of a number of questions that were foolish to ask given any situation.

Now, I’ve mellowed a bit since my high school days, become more aware of my own intellectual failings, and expanded my definition of what counts as a good question, especially in a teaching situation where I myself have come to use the phrase to encourage those shy students. And yet, I still find myself wincing a bit when I hear that phrase uttered or when I come across a  particularly silly question.

Which brings me to Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is a Big Silly

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trekking through the New Atheist canon in preparation for an upcoming teaching series. First it was Harris, then it was Hitchens, and now I’ve finally made it to Dawkins. I was unsurprisingly unimpressed by the first two given that there really wasn’t much in the way of an actual refutation of Christianity or even theistic belief forthcoming. Well, unless you count some unhelpful platitudes about reason and faith. I came to Dawkins’ God Delusion though, expecting a bit more since he, among the 4 Horsemen, has the reputation of being most interested in giving serious arguments against God’s existence. I can’t say I was expecting much in light of some criticisms I’d read beforehand. Still, looking at the table of contents and noting that it includes a decent-length chapter on the traditional proofs for the existence of God, I allowed myself to be somewhat hopeful.  “Maybe it’s not all that bad. Maybe it’s not as painful as they say.”

I won’t bore you with all of the details of that 35-page train wreck except to say that my forehead was a nice bright pink at the end of the ordeal given the frequent face-palming I was doing. There were many delightful turns of phrases, misleading but amusing analogies, arrogant snark enough to last for months, and questions on par with “Could God make a martini so big that even HE couldn’t drink it? Ha! He’s not omnipotent!”

It was beautiful.

The one piece that irked me most was what he touted as the most damning response possible to the argument from design. The design argument is something like:

  1. Where there is design, there must be a designer.
  2. The universe exhibits unmistakable signs of complexity and design. (Insert various examples from physics, biology, the existence of salsa)
  3. The conclusion is that there must be a universal designer.

Now, what is Dawkins’ grand damning response to this? “Who made God?” (109, a question which apparently occurs to all “thinking people”) and “Who designed the designer?” (158) I swear, I am not making this up.

This, as you can tell, is what got me thinking about silly questions. For a 5-year old or even a 15-year old to ask, “Well, who made God?” is fine; nothing dumb or illegitimate about that. For an Oxford professor to trumpet this as his damning argument against God’s existence is just sad.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s got to be more to it than that.” And, in a sense, you’d be right. Dawkins has an argument here. In fact, this is his grand argument against God’s existence. As he puts it, “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” His point is that a being that can create something complex like the universe, would have to be incredibly complex: at least as complex as the universe itself. The more complex something is, the less likely it is. In which case, whatever created the universe would have to be extraordinarily complex, and therefore even more improbable which is why God probably doesn’t exist.

If that weren’t bad enough, apparently, the whole exercise is silly because in any case, since the whole point of the argument from design is to explain complexity or statistical improbability, introducing a statistically improbable, complex being to explain complexity explains nothing. (158)

This can sound convincing at the surface level. To explain why this actually isn’t, I’d like to call in an expert witness: Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga lays the Hammer down

You’ll be hearing about Alvin Plantinga from time to time on this blog. Suffice it to say for now that he is probably THE SINGLE-MOST BRILLIANT ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER ALIVE. In his very humorous and instructive review of Dawkins’ book, he points out a number of problems with this argument. I’m only going to excerpt a couple, but you’ll want to go read the whole thing.

First, Plantinga points out that Dawkins is confused as to what it means to speak about complexity with regards to God:

Now suppose we return to Dawkins’ argument for the claim that theism is monumentally improbable. As you recall, the reason Dawkins gives is that God would have to be enormously complex, and hence enormously improbable (“God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable”). What can be said for this argument?

Not much. First, is God complex? According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense, so that in him there is no distinction of thing and property, actuality and potentiality, essence and existence, and the like. Some of the discussions of divine simplicity get pretty complicated, not to say arcane. (It isn’t only Catholic theology that declares God simple; according to the Belgic Confession, a splendid expression of Reformed Christianity, God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”) So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.  More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.

Translation: First, by definition, both those of classical theology and Dawkins’ own definition as laid out elsewhere, God is not a complex being. Given that God is a simple, spiritual being God does not demonstrate physical complexity or design in a way that allows Dawkins’ question to even make sense. Therefore, Dawkins’ argument fails.

The next part is where he shows how Dawkins’ question completely misses the point and responds to his idea that introducing God as an explanation for complexity explains nothing:

In The Blind Watchmaker, he considers the claim that since the self-replicating machinery of life is required for natural selection to work, God must have jump-started the whole evolutionary process by specially creating life in the first place—by specially creating the original replicating machinery of DNA and protein that makes natural selection possible. Dawkins retorts as follows:

“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating machine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity… . But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself… . To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer…”

Here there is much to say, but I’ll say only a bit of it. First, suppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two. For of course it is perfectly sensible, in that context, to explain the existence of those tractors in terms of intelligent life, even though (as we can concede for the moment) that intelligent life would have to be at least as complex as the tractors. The point is we aren’t trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, and we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general; we are only trying to explain one particular manifestation of it (those tractors). And (unless you are trying to give an ultimate explanation of organized complexity) it is perfectly proper to explain one manifestation of organized complexity in terms of another. Similarly, in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life. So even if (contrary to fact, as I see it) God himself displays organized complexity, we would be perfectly sensible in explaining the existence of terrestrial life in terms of divine activity.

Translation: We are not trying to explain organized complexity in general. The argument from design is dealing with one instance of complexity: the universe. As an explanation for that, a universal mind like God’s works even when granting complexity, (which we’ve already seen is unnecessary).

Conclusion

Now, we’ve seen why this question “Who designed the designer?” and Dawkins’ further elaboration of it into an argument against God’s existence is confused and a bit silly. The thing that makes it truly silly though, is the arrogance with which he wields it. In the mouth of a truly inquiring child, teenager, or even adult, it is perfectly legitimate question that can be answered honestly and without any condescension or arrogance. In fact, most answers should be given that way. In the mouth of a snarky professor who should know better, it becomes very silly indeed, and is safely ignored as a serious threat to belief in God.

To wrap up here are a few things to keep clear:

  1. Apparently a Ph.D. in biology doesn’t do much for your philosophical chops. So, next time you hear a biologist or a chemist pronouncing confidently on philosophic and theological issues beyond the remit of their chosen discipline, remember: they’re only scientists, not philosophers. That doesn’t mean you should listen and weigh what they say, but it also means you should take it with a grain of salt.
  2. None of this necessarily proves that the design argument “works.” It just means that Dawkins’ response to it doesn’t. Nobody needs to get freaked out by the question, “Who designed the designer?”
  3. At the same time, if you’re a believer, realize that there are legitimately thoughtful atheists who have good questions and serious doubts who should be taken seriously and lovingly answered. Pointing out the silly things that one of them has written should not cause us to think they’re all that silly and smug.

Disclaimer– I’d just like to point out that even though I’ve called attention to some intellectual problems with Mr. Dawkins’ arguments, this in no way denies his prodigious abilities as a biologist or is meant to imply that I consider myself smarter than him. Consider it an exercise in God using the foolish to shame the wise. (1 Cor 1:27) Or rather, God using the foolish (me), using the wise (Plantinga), to shame the wise (Dawkins.)

Recommended resources:

1. Go read the whole review by Plantinga that I linked above.
2. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga is his definitive work on the problem of theistic belief, science, and naturalism. I highly recommend this work.
3. A Shot of Faith to the Head: How to Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes is Plantinga’s awesomeness written for everybody. I’ll be reviewing this book soon.