Sunday, May 27, 2007

"My Chosen Lifestyle against Culture" is No Antidote for Dawkins-Style Atheism

A large op-ed piece entitled "With God on side" in The Sunday Age today takes up Catherine Deveney's gushing review of Richard Dawkin's documentary "The God Delusion?" from last week's Saturday Age. The author, Cheryl Lawrie, works for the Uniting Church "Alternative Worship" project.

It is a valiant but doomed-to-failure attempt to counter Dawkin's tirade. Yes, we all know that about Dawkins'
failure to recognise the not-so-subtle nuances that distinguish between versions of faith and religious expression
, but what Cheryl doesn't appear to appreciate is that to Dawkins and his ilk IT DOESN'T MATTER if you are a fundamentalist or a liberal believer--BECAUSE IT IS ALL IRRATIONAL (see Sam Harris' argument against "moderate" religion here) and THEREFORE dangerous in all its forms. The only "safe" kind of faith is empirical rationalism, ie. Dawkinesque Neo-Darwinian Scientism (but of course, Rachel Kohn has already burst that particular bubble).

Cheryl describes her kind of religious faith:
I'm as sceptical and cynical as the next person. I have a very uneasy relationship with traditional Christian doctrines. I'm not convinced in the slightest that there will be life after death; the creeds don't speak of the truths at the heart of my faith.
I share her scepticism and cynicism (as you well know, dear Reader), but the rest of this causes me to ask: on what is your faith based, Cheryl? You say:
the case for God is pretty flimsy. It's based on beliefs and experiences that can't be measured or proven or validated.
You say:
Dawkins is right, of course — there's nothing rational about a life of faith.
But is it, though? St Justin Martyr, Origen, St Augustine, and St Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II would all be pretty surprised to hear this. So would Pope Benedict XVI, who has built an incredibly strong case over the years for the rationality of faith (cf. the fateful Regensburg Address--which ignited just the sort of reaction Dawkins has been warning against, one might add).

But we need to understand where Cheryl is coming from. For her, faith is an intensely private matter. She says:
At its essence, Christianity is not about doctrine: it's about a lifestyle, and a commitment at one's very core to the notion that all people should have life, rich and full beyond measure.
Now on the one hand, I have no argument with he choice--it is a strong counter-cultural statement against what John Paul II called "the culture of death" (although I wonder if Cheryl would take opposition to that culture quite as far as JPII did). And I am just as certain that Christianity is not about doctrine (Papa Benny said as much in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est). But the fatal flaw in her description is that Christianity is a "life-style". Lifestyles are private choices that individuals make. You have your lifestyle and I have mine. They are a matter of personal taste, of like or dislike. They are not a matter for rational debate and certainly not any of your business unless my lifestyle is harming anyone else.

In contrast to Cheryl, I am a Christian for extremely rational reasons. They might seem irrational to Mr Dawkins, but I think they are rational enough. They are the reasons outlined by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and are, simply enough, the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. That is a claim that sounds irrational, but is it rational to dismiss a claim which is supported by hundreds of eye-witnesses and well preserved evidence, and for which there is not one shred of evidence (apart from the fact that it sounds incredible) to say that it isn't true? My faith is built upon the fact that there is historical evidence for the resurrection, and every other article of my faith (and the entire teaching of the Christian Church) builds rationally upon this foundation.

Cheryl, on the other hand, bases her faith on the Sermon on the Mount. For her, Christ is not the basis of her religion. Jesus is there--to be sure--as the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, but he is simply a voice in the past who is calling us to a lifestyle "against culture". He is not the one who died and rose again on the third day, who appeared to the apostles, who ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. He is not the one who sent his Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, and who established the Church to be his people, a visible society to be his presence in the midst of the world. And he certainly isn't the one who revealed the rational and objective Truth about God and his love for all people. No, the bottom line for her is (in the words of US "theologian" Sallie McFague) that:
there is a power at work in the universe on the side of life and all its fulfilment. Christianity is simply about aligning one's own life with that power — choosing to live in a way that brings life.
Faith therefore is not:
focusing on what or who God is, ...[but] primarily about reorienting ourselves so that we look at the world through the eyes of God, and respond to it with the heart of God. We continue to do so even when it doesn't seem rational, sensible, or as though it will make the slightest bit of difference.


I am not saying that there is anything wrong with Cheryl's chosen lifestyle. But as she herself admits, it is (in the form she presents it) without rational basis and as wooly headed as those who put "Jedi Knight" on the census form as their religion--a vague hope that "the force" will be with you. Yes, it is good and necessary to work for LIFE against the darkness of death in this world--but this work will only grow and result upon the proclamation of Christ the Lord of Life. Otherwise it is pure starry eyed optimism with no power to convince or evoke committment.

At a recent dialogue meeting we were discussing Richard Neibuhr's paradigms of Christ and Culture: Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ transforming Culture, Chirst and Culture in Paradox, and Christ against Culture. Richard John Neuhaus has recently written a thoughtful article about the modern Christian feelgood religion which is "Christ without Culture". But in the end, Cheryl's "lifestyle" religion is only "My Lifestyle Against Culture" or "Against Culture without Christ".

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