Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Theology: Ross Douthat On Adam Gopnik and Atheism

Russell Crowe as Noah channelling Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Before we get to today’s theologian, Ross Douthat, I’ve learned recently that Darren Aronfsky is making a film about Noah’s Ark, starring Rusell Crowe as Noah.   I can think of half a dozen reasons why a Hollywood studio might have agreed to bankroll such a film:

1)  Russell Crowe for star power, not to mention Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins. '

2) Russell Crowe on a boat in a storm  - echoes of Master and Commander.

3) Lots of animals.   Who doesn’t like lots of animals?

4) Apocalyptic weather.  Who isn’t worried about killer storms and aberrant weather these days?

5) The apocalypse.   Because there aren’t enough end of the world movies out there.

6) A handful of people surviving the weather apocalypse on a giant boat - because it worked so well for Roland Emmerich in 2012.

These six reasons, I would suggest, might all combine to be a satisfactory explanation of why a studio would spend a lot of cash on a story from Genesis - not a bible story, per se, so much as a mash-up of apocalyptic images that scratch the same filmgoing itch as the new Godzilla remake.  So, I’m not convinced that there is any grand “religious motive” behind the making of this Noah film, despite Lawrence Krauss lamenting several days ago that Hollywood is hostile to atheism.  

Mr. Krauss is a collaborator with Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as “the world’s most famous atheist”.  Krauss complains that while Hollywood is making films about Noah, Jesus, and a little boy who sees heaven after a near death experience, not to mention Matthew McConaughey thanking God at the Oscars, the studios have passed on the documentary Krauss produced about him and Dawkins travelling the world talking about atheism.   By preferring stories that are “facile at best and demeaning at worst”, while not backing him and Dawkins, Hollywood thus “reinforces a pervasive cultural tilt against unbelief and further embeds religious myths in the popular consciousness”.  

There is something rather naively charming about a man who earnestly takes on the task of disabusing the popular consciousness of the “myths” of religion, and yet is puzzled to find that atheists are not universally loved, and are often “the least trusted of all listed categories aside from rapists”.   I am genuinely sorry for Mr. Krauss’ distress, though I suspect that someone who hangs around with Richard Dawkins probably has a fairly robust ego and is coping well enough.  

More curious, I think, is his wanting to argue things both ways.  On the one hand, he says, the numbers of the non-religious are growing “in the United States and the rest of the developed world”.   Here we hear echoes of what sociologists and religious studies scholars call the secularization thesis, the claim that as societies become more modern, technological, and sophisticated, the numbers of those who persist in the primitive, magical thinking of religion will diminish.   Bit, on the other hand, Krauss argues that Hollywood, that legendary den of liberal, worldly leftists, is reinforcing the cultural tilt in favour of religion and thus drowning him and Dawkins out.  Well, either history is on the side of atheism, or it isn’t.  Please make up your mind.

The essayist Adam Gopnik wrote a more thoughtful piece recently on atheism where he seemed to be celebrating the secular victory.  Untroubled by Krauss’ fears of the machinations of Hollywood, Gopnik sunnily writes that science and materialism have won a decisive victory over faith, leaving those he calls the Super-Naturalists, those who still want their account of the world to include the transcendent, to be falling back into less and less convincing generalities.   Gopnik writes:

“And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.  They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.  What works wins.  We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature.  We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain.  A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers."

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat offers two worthwhile responses to Gopnik’s essay, and I recommend them if you have the time    In the first, he writes that we are in a moment when history seems to be on atheism’s side.  The current prestige of evolutionary biology, the general economic prosperity of western life which seems to have made philosophy almost irrelevant, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which “almost seems laboratory-designed to give the idea of atheism-as-Progress a new lease on life”, and deeply unfashionable conservative Christian teachings on sexuality, all combine to make secularism seem like a safe bet.

In his second essay, Douthat chides Gopnik for his broad caricature of serious religious belief.  The argument, as Gopnik develops it, is that the God of popular belief, “the God of miracles and commandments, signs and wonders, heaven and hell”, is simply impossible to believe in any more, and so serious intellectuals who still feel the urge to believe, fall back on the vague and mysterious.  Here’s Gopnik describing one such account:

As the explanations get more desperately minute, the apologies get ever vaster. David Bentley Hart’s recent “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss” (Yale) doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself. Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)? The answer to this unanswerable question is God. He stands outside everything, “the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract,” the ultimate ground of being. This notion, maximalist in conception, is minimalist in effect. Something that much bigger than Phil is so remote from Phil’s problems that he might as well not be there for Phil at all. This God is obviously not the God who makes rules about frying bacon or puts harps in the hands of angels. A God who communicates with no one and causes nothing seems a surprisingly trivial acquisition for cosmology—the dinner guest legendary for his wit who spends the meal mumbling with his mouth full.

Douthat’s response is so good, and so rich, that it is worth quoting in full.


"Okay, but hang on a minute. Is this what Hart actually believes about God — that he “communicates with no one and causes nothing,” that he has no interest in bacon or seraphs or any other created thing? Well, no, actually Hart is a (capital-O) Orthodox theologian with (small-o) orthodox beliefs about not-insignificant matters like the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, among other cases where Christians believe that God has very directly communicated with his creatures, and intervened directly in the time and space that he sustains. Hart’s view of God, in other words, is maximalist in its conception and expansive in its potential implications, which include most of the things (angels, miracles, etc.) that Gopnik has already insisted that the modern “we” must pre-emptively dismiss.


And the same would go for an awful lot of the “ayes” whom Gopnik implies have replaced the old-time religion with a more abstract, post-personal God. Of course there are believers whose conception of divinity is functionally deistic, liberal religious intellectuals for whom apophatic faith substitutes for revelation rather than enriching it, and probably Gopnik’s social circle includes more examples of this type than it does of Hart’s more traditional sort. But make a list of prominent Christian scholars and philosophers and theologians (to say nothing of apologists and popularizers … artists and novelists … or, God help us, journalists), and you’ll find that plenty of the names — from Charles Taylor to Alvin Plantinga, Alasdair McIntyre to N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams to Joseph Ratzinger — do actually believe in all that Nicene Creed business, believe that the God of philosophy can still care about Phil and Ross and Adam, and share Hart’s view that religion can be intellectually rigorous without making prayer empty and miracles impossible.


Now it would be fine for Gopnik to straightforwardly scoff — in the style of Jerry Coyne, name-dropped in his essay as “my own favorite atheist blogger” — at these thinkers and the tradition they represent. (Or traditions, more aptly, given the confessional divides and philosophical variations involved.) But it’s entirely ridiculous to present the attempted synthesis of reason and revelation as some sort of contemporary theological retreat toward divine impotence, and to suggest that arguments like the one advanced in “The Experience of God” represent a last-ditch, faintly-pathetic response to the steady advance of atheism and naturalism. In fact, the case Hart is making is not even remotely new: His book is explicitly a defense of classical theism, meaning a view of God’s nature and relationship to creation that was developed in eras and civilizations when the Voltaires and Nietzsches and Dawkinses weren’t even in the wings yet, let alone on the intellectual stage.


If Hart’s God is a vast irrelevancy or a senile dinner guest, in other words, then so is the God of Aquinas and Augustine and Anselm (and, as Hart would be quick to point out, the God of various Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and pre-Christian philosophers as well). If his argument is an implicit surrender to secularism, then the real surrender happened ages back. But it seems passing strange to suggest that the greatest thinkers of the age of faith were actually just engaged in a pre-emptive retreat from an atheism that hadn’t even taken shape. Did the “long, withdrawing roar” really begin — and more than that, end — with the Summa Theologica? It’s an argument, I suppose: The Angelic doctor as John Shelby Spong. But it can’t really be the one Gopnik intends to make.


And the fact that he can read “The Experience of God” and come away with the idea that its author is just trying to save some gruel-thin version of theism from science’s inexorable advance is itself a vindication of that book’s underlying premise, which is that the modern mind has shrunk its conceptions of God to caricatures, and reduced the complexity of religious history and debate to just three categories: Dug-in fundamentalists, perpetually-retreating modernists and nonbelievers, with no room for any other form of faith. (And no room, especially to recognize that it’s fundamentalism’s science-envy, not traditional theology’s apophatic side, that’s the real modern innovation.)


Thus Gopnik, while trying to be fair-minded to those believers who have genuinely “considered the alternatives,” concludes that they simply must belong, albeit perhaps unawares, to some version of the second camp — to a form of faith effectively straightjacketed by naturalism, perpetually retreating from the God of the Bible, and defining divinity too far up to matter or too far down to count.


But this is not at all what Hart is doing … any more than it’s what most of the people populating the Society of Christian Philosophers are doing … any more than it’s what Jacques Maritain or Elizabeth Anscombe or Hans Urs Von Balthasar or Edith Stein or Karl Barth were doing, or John Henry Newman or Blaise Pascal or John Calvin or really any famous figure that you want to pick, going back across the centuries of atheism’s challenge to Christianity and further back still, until you get all the way back to Aquinas and the medievals … who obviously weren’t doing it either. And Gopnik’s failure to grasp that fairly elementary point — that the possible conceptions of God are not exhausted by the lightning-hurling sky-god and the mostly-irrelevant chairman of the board — suggests, not for the time, how little they know of religion who mostly secularism know."

I have to say that I’m as uninterested in seeing Krauss’ film of him and Dawkins as I am of seeing Aronfsky’s film about Noah.   Neither are likely to convince me one way or another as to the health of secularism vis a vis religion in the marketplace of culture.  A more interesting question, I think, is what drives people like Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright, Ross Douthat, and even myself to walk in the footsteps of Aquinas and Augustine, knowing that we are on the far side of a great materialist and scientific revolution from the thinkers of the early church, and still feeling that there is profit and meaning to be found in the work of serious theology.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

The ship at the end of that line is HMCS Protecteur, one of the Royal Canadian Navy’s two fleet support ships, being towed to Pearl Harbour by the USS Chosin after she was disabled last Thursday by a fire in her engine room.  It’s been a minor epic since then, with at least one failed tow line and difficult weather and seas.  Fortunately there were no serious injuries in the fire.

Protecteur is a venerable 44 years old, and was coming to the end of her service life when the fire occurred.  The Ottawa Citizen reports today that the RCN is now weighing the pros and cons of repairing her.

In other Navy news, my friend, Padre Rob Parker, recently returned home with his shipmates after a long tour as ship’s chaplain on HMCS Toronto.  Rob wrote a nice piece for a newsletter I edit on celebrating the Eucharist while at sea, and I shall post that here soon.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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