Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The New Anti-theist Atheism

Addressing the New Anti-theist Atheism
Dr. Kevin Shrum
Romans 1:18ff.

A new breed of atheist is on the scene. Smart intellectually, angry emotionally and vitriolic in their speech, these media savvy non-god gurus have invaded the airwaves, internet and print mediums with their message of anti-theism. Their starting line-up reads like an NFL All-Pro Team: Daniel C. Bennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Sam Harris, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast; Victor Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos; and, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.

It is more accurate to refer to this new wave of atheists as anti-theists. Why? Because unlike previous generations of atheists and atheistic dialogue with theists where the issues of atheism and theism were debated mostly in the academic arena with a degree of tolerance and respect, Hitchens and company are not only self-avowed atheists, they are vehement anti-god crusaders. They are not satisfied with being theological and philosophical contrarians; they are like fundamentalist evangelists for their cause, using any criticism, medium and means to bury religion in general, Christianity in particular.

And if you don’t think they are being effective, think again. Due to the main-stream media’s love for all things that make religion look bad, these crusaders have been given countless hours of free time and space on radio, TV and in the print media, often lauded as courageous heroes for those who would think differently about human existence, science and God. Their books are best-sellers and are being widely read by people from all walks of life, of all different ages. This has caused the most basic questions concerning God’s existence to be raised both at the coffee shops and in the pew without benefit of counter-argument or balance. The minister unaware of this recent phenomenon will find himself speaking past his people and not to his people about the most basic of all truths: the existence of God.

The deficiency of this most recent wave of anti-god crusaders is that they raise no new issues, but loudly shout out the old, often discredited philosophical, theological atheistic concepts, as if they are unaware that many of their objections have not been addressed by the likes of J.P. Moreland, Paul Davies, Alister McGrath, etc. If, however, the minister and the average church member is unaware and unprepared for the aggressive nature of the new anti-god crusaders it could give the appearance that the ‘god-is-dead’ era of Ayers and Altizer is alive and well.

Three Friends
How does the communicator of biblical truth address this new wave of anti-theism? Let me introduce you to what I have come to call three old friends. I use the term friends because when I first read Dawkins’, The God Delusion, a cold, icy chill filled my soul as if I had been abandoned by that which was familiar and true. And though a philosophy major in college, I had to dig deep to think through these old issues in new and fresh ways.

Alister McGrath’s Laser-like Logic
The first friend is Alister McGrath’s and his little book, The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP, 2007). McGrath has advanced degrees in both science (molecular biology) and theology and is a highly respected Oxford professor and scholar. Most importantly, McGrath was a one-time atheist who has embraced Christianity. This little book was so refreshing and clear in its argument that it helped me cut through the vitriol of Dawkins, Hitchens and company to the arguments themselves, arguments that I at once recognized as having been greatly discredited by sound philosophical inquiry, lucid reason and biblical exegesis. McGrath has reminded me that the volume of what is being communicated is not equal to the truth being communicated. That is, the louder one speaks does not make what is being said more true. In fact, McGrath expresses disappointment in Dawkins’ book because it doesn’t raise any new anti-god arguments, but simply recounts the old anti-god arguments in a new package of language and mediums, with the volume turned all the way up.

Antony Flew’s Mae Culpa
The second friend is Antony Flew’s (with Roy Abraham Varghese) new book, ‘There is NO A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind,’ (Harper Collins, 2007). Though Flew has yet to embrace Christianity as a whole, he has become a convinced theist. Flew is the same man who presented his landmark paper, ‘Theology and Falsification,’ in 1950 at the Oxford University Socratic Club, chaired by C.S. Lewis himself. How Flew experienced this conversion was helpful to me.

Flew acknowledges the three questions that relentlessly penetrated his anti-god stance that he couldn’t ignore. In Flew’s own words, “I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science. Science spotlights three dimensions of nature that point to God. The first is the fact that nature obeys laws. The second is the dimension of life, of intelligently organized and purpose-driven beings, which arose from matter. The third is the very existence of nature.”[1]

The first question is the question of order verses chaos, the laws of nature. What Flew couldn’t deny was that nature operates by laws that both the theist and atheist depend on in order to conduct scientific experiments and, then, to speak intelligently about these processes. These laws were not assigned to nature, but came out of nature itself, as if they were intentionally built-in to the processes of nature. The questions like, ‘Who wrote these laws?’ and ‘Who encoded them into the natural processes?’ have always been a mystery to the atheistic scientist? Flew could no longer deny that the laws of nature were not by-products of natural selection but the result of the intentional act of a ‘Law-giver.’

The second question that confronted Flew was the teleological question. That is, why is there purpose to creation, in particular the emergence of ordered, well-structured, intentional, purposeful life? What Flew acknowledges is that his weak, anti-god arguments for explaining the derivation and direction of life simply couldn’t hold up under the weight of the evidence that pointed to a ‘Life-giver.’ Recent developments in DNA research became the ‘tipping point’ for Flew. So, add to Flews’ conclusion of ‘Law-giver’ the truth of ‘Life-giver’ or ‘Life-producer.’

The third, most devastating question to Flews’ atheistic posture was the very existence of nature itself, or the ontological question, the question of being. In brief, why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there anything at all? Again, the atheistic arguments for the existence of either an eternal universe or the Big Bang theory didn’t remove the many questions as to why things exist at all. Flew argued that even if the universe was eternal, how did this come to be? And, even if a person accepts the Big Bang theory, who or what created the conditions for this event? Flews’ conclusion is that God creates life. So, add to ‘Law-giver,’ Life-giver,’ the truth of ‘World/Universe-Creator.’

Biblical Exegesis (Romans 1:18ff.)
The third friend is scripture itself. This is where the communicator of biblical truth must trust the efficiency and sufficiency of the text. While McGrath and Flew are helpful, it is God’s Word that will win the day. Biblical fidelity reminds us that time and truth and text and truth are good companions. We must be patient in standing by the arguments for God’s existence that scripture itself offers. This was Paul’s source of confidence in Athens enabling him to say (Acts 17:23), “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Either Paul is delusional or he knows something that is true.

If we take Flews’ three questions as a starting point, we find a response to these questions in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. To the question of the laws of nature we can respond from Romans 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” The order we see in nature is reflective of the order we come to see in God. The laws of nature, then, are not the by-product of a natural order frantic to survive, but the intentional and deliberate laws that govern all natural processes.

Ravi Zacharis’ image of God as the ‘Grand Weaver,’ taken from his most recent book by the same title, is most helpful at this point. As the master tapestry-maker, God uses, so to speak, weaving techniques to weave together a creation with purpose and definition. The laws of the weaver are not a by-product of a pile of disassembled threads, but the deliberate weaving laws of a purposeful weaver. These laws allow the weaver to tie together disparate threads into a cohesive whole.

To Flews’ second question (teleological) – the question of organized, purpose-driven life – we can answer from Romans 1:20, as well, where the Apostle Paul notes that God’s existence has been known since creation. That is, the order we see in nature’s laws push us to acknowledge that not only does God exist but that life is not the accidental by-product of random selection, but the willful act of an all-powerful, purpose-giving, intelligent, organized God. Creation was created for a purpose. Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” The handiwork of God is indicative not only of order, but of purpose. If God is the Grand Weaver, we would say that He uses different weaving techniques (the laws of weaving) in order to make a tapestry that reflects a purposeful image (order and organization).

Finally, to Flews’ third question (ontological) – the question of why anything exists at all – we can answer with the similar words of Romans 1:20 ‘creation’ and 1:25 ‘Creator.’ Things exist because God wills or causes them to exist. Theologians use terms like ‘creatio ex nihilo,’ or ‘creation by divine fiat.’ The tapestry exists because the Grand Weaver, out of the overflow of His own power and glory (see Jonathan Edwards at this point in ‘The End for Which God Created the World’), creates for His own purposes and glory. Creation exists because God willed it to exist. He alone sustains it, governs it and rules it for His purposes. To suggest that creation produces an ill-logical concept of a god as a default position that explains creation is, as Paul would write in Romans 1:21, foolishness.

A Word to the Wise
The communicator of biblical truth cannot ignore the recent anti-theist phenomenon. These philosophical debates are no longer quarantined to academic environs, but have been popularized by media savvy anti-theists. Yet, the minister of God’s Word can trust the truth of scripture, aided by redeemed reason. The communicator of biblical truth must remember that time and truth and time and text go well together. The steady, relentless, well-reasoned, scripturally-based presentation of the truth of God’s Word will never return void, even in the face of such emboldened anti-theist atheism.

[1] Flew, Antony, There is A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, (Harper Collins: New York, 2007), pp. 88-89.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Baptist Faith & Message and Good Fences

In a Christianity Today article entitled “Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists?” (8.7.’00) the editors at that time cautiously gave their tacit support of the SBC’s unqualified support of the Baptist Faith and Message and the changes that were made to it at that time. While noting a concern that such a clear statement of faith may inhibit honest dialogue among individuals who gather under the same umbrella of belief, the larger affirmations made in the BF&M were understood to close down the “flea market” or “smorgasbord” type of theological affirmations where beliefs are selected at random.

Seven years later, I do not know if CT would make this same kind of statement as it has drifted theologically in recent years. However, I continue to believe that the BF&M is a helpful tool in reminding Baptists of those cherished beliefs that are essential to sound Christian doctrine.

The genius of the BF&M is that it maintains a confessional nature, while giving clarity to its affirmations. In this day of theological drift and uncertainty, such a statement of faith is essential if the SBC and the TBC are to avoid the slow demise experienced by once stalwarts denominations of faith.

Theological drift is inevitable if not guarded against. Just as we are prone to stray from God (Isa. 53:6), we are also prone to drift in our thinking about God. Unless a concerted effort is made to remain faithful to the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), then theological drift is inevitable.

Three objections arise to question such a focused statement of faith. First, does the clarification of the BF&M inadvertently cut off the academic and theological freedom to pursue truth? The problem with the unbridled pursuit of truth is that it is often done without boundaries and, as a result, ends up leading its pursuer to affirm all kinds of beliefs that are dissimilar to historic Christian faith. Borderless theological pursuit is a dangerous enterprise because it can end in senseless speculation and a loss of theological conviction.

Someone may object by asking, “If the BF&M says all there is to say then what is left to say and what is left to seek?” Plenty! The BF&M affirms the basic parameters of our beliefs as Southern Baptists, but leaves room to plumb the depths of those affirmations. It baffles me as to why the pursuit of truth must always be after “new truth.” Such an attitude strikes one as arrogant because it assumes that we know all there is to know about the truth that has already been revealed.

The second objection is that such a clear confession of faith may offend the non-Christian. While the declaration of Christian belief should not deliberately cut off the unbeliever, we must acknowledge that the Gospel and its antecedents are offensive to the unregenerate mind (1 Cor. 2:14).

In other words, the Christian community cannot allow the unbelieving world to dictate its confession of faith. We do not stick our spiritual finger in the air to catch the way the theological wind is blowing and then determine what we believe. Rather, we seek the Word as to what we believe, presenting such belief to an unbelieving world with grace, love and patience. This is why BF&M builds good fences that mark a clear distinction in what the confessing community believes.

A third objection to affirming the BF&M as a guide for theological identity and accountability can be heard in the cry “creedalism!” Though it should go without saying, let me state unequivocally that Scripture is our ultimate authority; Scripture trumps all human documents. Yet, Southern Baptists and Tennessee Baptists are well within historical parameters by producing a doctrinal summary of those most cherished beliefs that have identified who we are and what we believe. While we may disagree as to what the BF&M might include, the cry of “creedalism” is a false cry that flies in the face of historical precedent.

So, back to the main question, “Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists?” The fence we build by what we believe is not tall enough to keep us from seeing the lost; nor they us. Rather, it is tall enough so that we can lean against its guardrails while talking to our lost neighbor.