Christian Theology and the New Atheism

The history oi Christianity is principally a story of mankinds misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of Cod,

How extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity. . . . To defend something is always to discredit it,

Sfiren Kierkegaard1

The point of Christian theology, Pope John Paul II wtote in his encyclical Fides vt R/itio> is to explore the mystery of Gods self-emptying love. 1 The prime commitment of theology is the understanding of Gods kenosis [self-emptying], a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return. No theological radical himself, John Paul expressed here what cotintless other Christian thinkers now- agree is the radical message of Christian faith. The God who for Christians became manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is vulnerable, defenseless love, the same love that Christians confess to be the ultimate environment, ground, and destiny of all being.

Following the advice of Kierkegaard, however, in this final chapter I do not try to defend this Christian understanding of God against the assaults oi the new atheists. It needs no defense since it never comes up in their polemic. Moreover, the many abuses committed in the name of the self-centered potentate— l)awkins might say monster '—that has often been substituted lor Christianity's God do not deserve to be defended anyway. As far as the existence of the self-giving love that Christians call God is concerned, nothing in the books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hire hens could be called a serious theological provocation. Sadly, the deepening of theology that has occurred in previous conversations between serious atheists and Christian thinkers has little chance of happening here. As examples of more fruitful conversations, I am thinking of how the theology of Paul Till ich was deepened by his encounter with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and atheistic existentialism: of Karl Barth with Ludwig Feuerbach; of Karl Rahner and Rudolf Bult mann with Martin Heidegger; of Jürgen Möllmann with Ernst Bloch; of Gustavo Gutierrez with Karl Marx; and of many contemporary theologians with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jürgen Habermas. At least the atheists on this list had enough understanding of theology to make conversation interesting and productive. In marked contrast, the level of theological discernment by the new atheists is too shallow and inaccurate even to begin such a conversation.

What might be worthy of theological attention, however, is the moral perfection ism that energizes the new atheism and makes it so appealing to some of its disciples. Sam Harris's heartfelt indignation against Christianity, as expressed in the citation above, is typical of the new atheists' arraignment of rheistic faiths for their failure ro actualize their own ethical ideals. It is certainly not hard for any impartial reader to agree that devotees of the theisric faiths have often failed miserably to practice what rhey preach. In the enormous sins of omission as well as commission by their members, rhe Abrahamic religions have undeniably deserved the justifiable wrath of the righteous.

There is no lack of righteousness on the part of the trinity we have been listening to in the preceding chapters.

The scolding of religious abuse and mediocrity, however, was already a major motif in the prophetic voices that pestered the consciences of the citizens of ancient Israel and Judah, It wTould be hard to find in all the annals of atheism any more j substantive denunciation of religious abuse than that memorialized in the words of Amos, 1 losea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,

Micah, and their ilk Throughout the ages. With enormous force the prophets among us have repeatedly risen up in self-endangering revolt against the sanctimonious fat-cat religiosity of their own times, Without any attempt to prettify their outrage, they have roundly condemned their fellow believers, especially for failing to practice justice. In this prophetic tradition—of those who thirst after justice—Jesus of Nazareth was to discover his own identity and mission.

So it is curious that, unlike many serious atheists of the past, not one of the authors wre have examined seems to be remotely aware of the biblical prophetic tradition, the moral core of Judaism and Christianity,3 In contrast to much previous atheistic bashing of Christianity, the theme of social justice is hardly noticeable as an issue for Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Daw^kins docs give an uneasy nod to one of the most prophetic figures of our time, Martin Luther King Jr. But he insists that Kings message was ttincidental11 to his Christianity (271). Hitchens also feels obliged to mention King, but he claims that Kings legacy "has very little to do with his professed theology" (180). Neither critic shows any sign of ever having read Kings 'Letter from Birmingham JaiL™ That landmark document in the civil rights movement clearly cites Jesus and the prophets as the most authoritative voices in support of what others had called the "extremism" of Kings protests against the injustice of racism:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you-* Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ''Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-fiowing stream.'* Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. "1

1 his willful misunderstanding of King provides a prime example of^ the extent to which the new atheism will go to portray hibi ical !"airh as unambiguously evil. Were they to associate

King with the prophetic tradition, it would credit the Bible with much more ethical goodness than they think it deserves. Incidentally, while Daw kins is taking pains to purify King from the contaminating influence of the Bible by linking him to Mohandas K. Gandhi—who* we are informed, was not a Christian (271)—Kitchens is busy discrediting Gandhi for connecting his message of liberation too closely to faith of any sort (184). Both authors contend that King would have been a more effective social liberator if he had never been exposed to Christianity and its Bible-

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