Dear James (G)–Pride and Self-Damnation

Dear James,

I hinted at this throughout our correspondence, but I’m not fully convinced that sins can be ranked—at least in the traditional sense of ranking them. They have degrees of external effects (on individuals and groups), but the real measure of sin in my estimation is in its capacity to remove you from the presence of God. Whether the removing happens on account of your belly, your loins, or your mind seems largely irrelevant. The fact that you have been removed seems to be the most important. In this sense I am skeptical of the division between “mortal” and “venial” sins, since the division seems to be so clearly rooted in a fundamental ranking of sinfulness. Given that, I believe I can still hold Pride to be the chief and worst of sins because it is, fundamentally, the replacement of God with the self. In this it sits behind and beneath all the other sins we’ve discussed; they are, in their extreme, expressions of this attitude of self-love and self-exaltation. To commit the sin of Pride, therefore, is to reject God.

Pride, then, is the sin of sins. But be careful not to confuse this theological pride with our human conceptions of arrogance or vainglory. There is an appropriate pride that I feel when my children do something praiseworthy, or when I take pride in my work to make it presentable. To get at the real meaning of sinful Pride we’ve got to look closely at the Garden again. There, Adam and Eve make a choice. They have the capacity to choose to obey God’s command, to live with the bounds of His provision, or to capitulate with the Serpent’s wishes. They choose against God’s way; they choose their own ethics, their own desires, and I believe that the heart of that choice is a choice to do things my own way. I exalt my will, and diminish God’s. I place my own desires in command, and ignore my Maker’s. I declare my independence and self-sufficiency. And that act of rejection, which happens at the level of the soul, is an act of necessary self-damnation. In Pride I stand upon my own power for life and living. In the extremis of Pride God grants to me the right to stand upon my own power for life and living. The storm necessarily comes, and I, built upon the sand, am washed away.

George MacDonald once wrote that “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” That’s the ethic of self-damnation in practice. I do what I want, for myself, by my own rules, and all others be damned! But the only one I damn is in fact me. We are not self-sufficient creatures, we are creatures, made for a living dependency upon our maker, made for relationships with one another. The inverse of MacDonald’s phrase is therefore equally true, that “The one principle of Heaven is—I belong to someone else.” We see that principle in action when the Father gives to the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit to us, and in the Spirit we are presented as gifts to the Father. At the centre of the nexus of Heaven and Earth is a being whose whole existence appears to be wrapped up in a giving away, a man on a cross who spills himself out for the life of the world.

So much of our world depends on this self-love, this self-supremacy. I’m reminded of that story of Laplace speaking of science to Napoleon. When asked where God fit in this theories, Laplace replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The story may not be true, but the sentiment certainly is. What need has the modern world for a God-hypothesis? We have power, and resources, and medication, and happiness—what use have we for the theory of a God who might interfere with such happinesses as are offered by the world? Who regulates pleasure, and finances, and creativity, and industry, and the treatment of other persons? Isn’t such a “God” merely an interference in fulfilling our true joys? The answer, of course, is “Yes, He is.” He does interfere; but we forget that it is His world with which He interferes.

Pride then expresses itself in our resistance to God’s interference. It is the petulant “No!” which pushes back against the loving (occasionally painful and discomforting) advances of our creator. Pride hates to be told what to do, hates to be told to self-mortify, hates to give up authority over life. It is in this sense that Pride expresses itself through our other sins. Pride behind Lust refuses to release desire to God’s control. Pride behind Greed refuses to trust in God’s provision. Pride behind Sloth clings to control by blocking God’s call. In the grip of Pride, I reject God so that I can maintain what I believe to be control of my self. It is a sin of self damnation, God help us all.

My will is too corrupted to even see all the Pride that sits within me. I need help. And I think the best help we get is to meditate upon the obedience of Christ. He who had all power became powerless so that we could be restored. There—in another Garden!—he says “Yes” to God where Adam and Eve had said, “No.” “Thy will and not Mine.” We go on to examine the extent of his obedience—prayer, pain, loss, fear, suffering, unjust suffering, betrayal, excruciating pain, and death itself. No human has ever or will ever do away with Pride who will not suffer the image of the humble and obedient Christ to penetrate his heart.

James, may image of Christ so penetrate you and I this Good Friday, and bring us to new and restored life this Resurrection Sunday!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

God, Allah, and the Woman at the Well

800px-Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The recent suspension of Wheaton College Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins has given visible and caustic exposure to this question. Publicly declaring her intention to wear the Hijab as a show of solidarity with Muslims, Professor Hawkins also claimed (as partial grounding for her actions) that “we worship the same God.” Those claims caused the Evangelical college to place her under suspension due to their conviction that it conflicted with the college’s statement of faith.

A horde of commentators has weighed in on this controversy, with many immediately misinterpreting the situation as an episode in bigotry or racism. And yet the primary disagreement has been about Dr. Hawkins’s theological claim that the Christian and Muslim God is the same. In this, it appears that some four positions have emerged. One group that we might call Kneejerk Liberalism is marked by their contempt of any fundamentalism. Zealous to focus on love, rather than the knowledge of God, these commentators reject any absolute claims about the nature of God. “Of course Allah and God are the same, so long as the good (and true) followers of each religion love. Love, after all, is the main idea.” Unfortunately, these commentators are theologically lightweight, if not inept. On the opposite side of the spectrum is an ironically similar group, which we might call Kneejerk Conservatism. This group, similar in its theological ineptitude, recoils in horror from any claim that Islam and Christianity might be similar. Their grounding is a healthy fear of the blurring of categories, combined with an unhealthy and uncritical Islamophobia. Neither of these groups of professed Christians contributes effectively to the discussion.

However, there are two more groups of thinkers, both far more theologically grounded. One group, perhaps typified by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, argues that, indeed, when Christians and Muslims speak about God, inasmuch as we are able to speak about God, we do indeed mean the same thing. The other group, which doesn’t have a typifying figure but is represented by traditional orthodoxy, argues that the differences between YHWH and Allah are too great to conflate, and that the claims that they are the “same God” are unhelpful both to Christians and Muslims alike.

These two positions are worth unpacking further, because they draw us to the nature of language and of our ability to speak about God in any meaningful way at all. We might begin with a question: To what degree does any human speak accurately when he/she speaks of God? It should be clear that no individual is ever able to speak with complete accuracy, but only ever with provisional accuracy. We always speak in approximations. This is one of the reasons for the theological diversity within the Church—no group is able to claim with infallibility that they are worshipping God truly while everyone else is wrong (although many have tried). So, first of all, the question of accurate speech about God is muddied by the problem of human epistemology. We are, in short, not omniscient.

The proposition regarding Christianity and Islam, then, seems to be as follows: to the degree that Muslims and Christians succeed in speaking about God to the best of our epistemological abilities, to that same degree we are speaking about the same God. In other words, the best thoughts of Muslims about God are similar enough to the best thoughts of Christians about God to claim that we are speaking of the same God.

There is something commendable about this line of thinking, namely, that it serves to encourage Muslim/Christian dialogue and that it calls us to a kind of epistemological humility. But there are also a few significant problems. The first and gravest of these is that Islam categorically rejects both the Divinity of Jesus and, by extension, the Trinity. Islam, as a monotheistic religion, is in this respect both actively and aggressively anti-Christian. This introduces an initial logical problem. For the Christian, Jesus is God, but for the Muslim it would be abhorrent to claim that Jesus is Allah. Furthermore, the Christian claims that God is Trinity, but for the Muslim it would be an abomination to claim that Allah is Trinity. His oneness is violated in an essential way by Christian theology. So, at the first, we can see that the initial claims of sameness crumble the moment we step from the abstract to the particular.

Dome of the Rock

The inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock, built on the historic site of the Jewish temple, specifically reject anyone who says God is “three,” and specifically urge people not to make too much of Jesus.

A second problem is based in methodology. The claim that Christianity and Islam agree in our theology about God draws its strength from the attributes of God—for example, His eternal nature, His unchanging goodness, that He is creator, His holiness, and His monotheistic nature. However—and this is terribly important—our best thoughts about these subjects remain our thoughts; they are human categories which we employ to describe and understand God as He has revealed Himself. The danger comes when we begin to abstract these ideas about God from God Himself. In doing so we begin to elevate our thoughts about God above God, and in the process we inevitably turn those thoughts into idols. God’s goodness means nothing apart from the actions of the God who has revealed Himself to be good. To say that Allah and the Christian God are the same is to say so on the basis of these, our decidedly human, categories.

What Christianity claims, and clings to, is the idea of both History and Revelation. We do not worship God who is the sum of our best thoughts, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, called Yahweh, Who is revealed in power through the person of Jesus Christ. These claims, as the basis of Christian faith, are not abstractions, but records of a real history and a real revealing. On these grounds, to claim that the God who spoke through Jesus is the same who speaks through the Prophet Mohammed is a patent absurdity. The claim reduces God’s self-revelation to a series of contradictions, something that He Himself claims He does not do.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify this difference further. Imagine a German and a Frenchman discussing the nature of nationhood together. To begin, they dGermany and France Flag Pinsiscuss the attributes of nationhood together—love of the fatherland, love of local cuisine, proficiency in local language, similar features in geography, social service, government, and so forth. From one perspective, speaking in the abstract, they can agree that they have many of the same ideas about nationalism, and both might potentially agree that they are nationalists. But the moment you begin to argue that Germany and France are in fact the same the discussion falls apart, smashed upon the rock of history. However similar the conceptions of nations might be, when history is involved two places of different origin cannot be the same. In this historical sense, Christianity and Islam are fundamentally inconflatable.

The attentive thinker will wonder, at this point, about the Jews. If Islam and Christianity are not the same, then to what degree are Christianity and Judaism to be distinguished? Jews worship YHWH, and so do Christians. Do you claim that they are different Gods? The solution, interestingly enough, might be found in Jesus’ words to the Woman at the Well in John 4:19-23

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

We should note that Jesus divides those who worship God into three categories. The first category, that to which the Samaritan woman belongs, is those who “worship what they do not know.” The Samaritans, of course, were a kind of half-breed Jew, bred from the members of the exiled northern kingdom with the nations to which they had been exiled. Their worship of YHWH was fundamentally corrupted, much like whatever worship of God exists today in modern Islam, through Jehovah’s witnesses, or Mormons. Each is a group worshipping something they don’t know. The second category is the Jews, who worship what they do know. The Jews, as recipients of God’s call and revelation in history, are worshipping according to that knowledge. They are tradition-grounded worshippers, and the modern Jews should fall into this category unchanged. But here we must observe the third category of worshippers, those who are coming who will worship “in spirit and in truth.” These, clearly from John’s gospel, are the followers of Jesus. There is, therefore, a new worship, centered on Jesus, which supercedes both the false worship made by those who do not know, and the true but incomplete worship of those who do know (at least provisionally).

Christian witness, especially in the Islamic world, will not be served by conflating and minimizing the differences between our two religions. Nor is it served by either the fear of kneejerk conservatism or the contempt of kneejerk liberalism. Instead, after the pattern of Jesus, we must faithfully and graciously reassert the essential points of our historic faith, while at the same time inviting the partial knowledge of our discussion partners into the completion found only in the knowledge of Christ. To do anything less is a disservice to the Church, to our public witness, and to the Lord that Christians claim to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

The Myth of Mitigating Circumstances: An Essay on Power and Morality

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

If you like, you can get this printed on a t-shirt.

Money, sex, and power are the three sins to which people in power seem most prone to fall. Money, because it is tempting to allot extra to yourself, to permit yourself another dip in the bucket, and to make use of the fiscal resources at your disposal to illicitly advance your agenda (i.e., bribery). Virtually every politician in history has had some connection to the misappropriation of civic funds—and in my home state of Illinois three of its recent governors are serving prison sentences for just this. Sex, because power is attractive, and the allure of power appeals to people who want to be near power, possibly to influence power, and who consequently mold themselves to appear more attractive and appealing to your desire. They prostitute themselves to the powerful in exchange for power, whether real or perceived. The list of examples for this is quite long as well—Bill Clinton, David and Bathsheba, etc. Lastly, power itself awakens its own breed of temptations. The allure of getting your own way, the desire to exact vengeance on your enemies, the pleasure of achieving something for your own name, no matter how you damage others in the process, the allure of justifying improper means with appealing ends. In recent news, we might point to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill church, who is on record saying that “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” Do the ends justify the means?

Hundred Thousand KingdomsThese thoughts trundled through my mind when I recently read N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s book was a compelling story, portrayed an interesting world, and did these things with above average execution. But after I had finished the book I was troubled by a fundamental flaw in the book’s logic. The premise of the story is that a group of gods walk among humans, imprisoned and unable to access their full divine power. The main character, a human, is unexpectedly jettisoned into a position near the apex of earthly power. As the story unfolds, Jemisin makes an explicit point that the humans have been made in the gods’ image, and that this explains their immorality. The humans are capricious and cold, violent, vindictive, acting according to whim and fancy, and are profoundly immoral (or possibly amoral)—just like their gods. But as the heroine acquaints herself with the imprisoned gods she discovers that they answer to a moral code which, because of their power, is inscrutable to human minds. This shows up in capriciousness, violence, and, especially (in the novel) sex—these gods are permitted to sleep with whomever they like, each other, without boundaries, consequences, gender differentiation, or limits.

As I hope you can see, Jemisin has taken a common assumption—that power mitigates morality—and simply extended it to a divine level. We humans assume that the more powerful a person is, the more immoral he or she will become. If this is the case, then how much more will a god be immoral by extension? Look, for example, at the Greek gods, who are essentially personifications of human emotions and whims—war, sex, creativity, love, thought, power. The Greek gods are essentially human figures boosted to levels of incredible power, and with the freedom to exact that power on any human figure they desire.

The flaw within Jemisin’s book is fairly simple, if essential, because all actions, whether they are divine or human in origin, are moral actions; all choices are moral choices whether the actor is powerful or weak. The strength of the heroine’s position is that she maintains a moral centre within the chaos of the immoral world she inhabits. She judges the actions of others. But if Jemisin’s world really is a place of shifting morality, shifting especially as you achieve more power, then her heroine has no viable perspective from which to judge the immorality of her compatriots. Furthermore, assuming the logic of the world is accurate, then we the readers have no position of morality from which to consider either the heroine’s actions just or the divine actions unjust. To remove morality is to remove the judgment of any motive entirely. The plot falls apart because there is no reason for concern, growth, or change.

What troubled me about Jemisin’s book was not the immorality of her characters, but rather the assumptions about morality that she made in writing it. We seem to believe that circumstances have power to mitigate our morality, that power causes morality to blur. When President Bill Clinton was being investigated for his illicit sexual actions while in the White House, there was a strong move, at that time, to excuse Clinton’s actions precisely because he was president. I even remember one person suggesting to me that one of the perks of being president ought to be sexual access to whomever he liked at any time—after all, this person reasoned, he’s got other things to think about.CLINTON LEWINSKY

Whether the issue is money, sex, or power, with each indiscretion there is a temptation to blame immorality on power. As if by identifying the fact of power we have at the same time made full excuses for its abuse. “What did you expect?” we reason, “It’s power we’re talking about, and don’t you know that power corrupts?” Thus we are given permission at the same time to both excuse and blame those who have power.

But something else bizarre happens—not only do we mitigate the circumstances of the powerful because of their power, we also mitigate the circumstances of the powerless because of, ironically, their powerlessness. In recent news, (some) protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have rioted and looted local businesses—their excuse for this behaviour is their powerlessness. Against the militarized perception of the police, some have reacted with (un)civil disobedience. And so, in either case the problem isn’t that power corrupts, it is that we use both the presence and the absence of power as excuses for immoral behaviour. It seems that whether power or powerlessness is involved, we are eager to throw off the yoke of our morality.Fergusun Rios

Ironically, we do this with the Christian God as well. We make a deduction from our perception of power, then apply it to His character. We assume that power mitigates morality, then we conclude that because God is the absolute apex of power His morality must be of a different order than ours. Luther once remarked, in attempting to assert the absolute authority of God, that if God chose to declare something evil to be good, it would be good, even though we considered it evil. It seems our perceptions of power have changed little in the past 500 years.

Sir-John-Dalberg-ActonThere are a few things to say about this. First of these is a clarification about power itself. Our widely held perception that power is essentially a corrupting force has been given cultural strength by a famous quote from Lord Acton—one that we famously misquote. The actual quote is as follows: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” (Note the missing word in bold.) Today we take Acton’s sentiment as axiomatic, but I think it fair to ask if it is even true. Does power corrupt people, or are people natively corrupt, and power only magnifies their inherent corruption? The latter, I hope, is self-evident. As humans we have wickedness within us. It can be small wickedness of petty words, spiteful actions, tax-fibbing, or little lies; it can be great wickedness of murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. We can commit our wickednesses in the quiet of our homes, or we can commit them on stages of public viewing. It is the same wickedness in both cases—the only difference power makes is that of the amplification of the wickedness. David sins with Bathsheba, and the wickedness is common enough—the consequence, however, affects the whole kingdom. Clinton sins with Monica Lewisnky and the sin is common enough—even banal and stupid—but the consequence drags a whole nation down. Driscoll sins with power and the sin is common enough—doing anything to get one’s way—but the amplification by power affects the reputation of the church catholic.

So, to begin, let’s be clear about something: power is neutral. It is neither evil, nor good, but can be used by humans for either good or evil purposes. It is a magnifying, amplifying force, one that projects the inherent faults in the human creature onto a canvas both visible and large. It is not that people in power sin more, it is that their sins are visible for everyone to see.

That being said, there is a real danger in power—the danger of trusting in one’s power. It is a very slight, subtle shift from the sentiment of, “I want this” to the belief that “the power that has been allotted to me means that I deserve this.” The temptation of power is precisely in its ability to turn our wants into deserves. I want to get my way—am I appealing to power in order to force my way? I want to enjoy the benefits of illicit relationship with person X—am I appealing to power in order to permit myself that illicit relationship? I want this benefit, this reward, this advantage—am I using the excuse of power to claim that I deserve it?

Again, however, it is not just the visibly powerful who have this temptation. The man who feels powerless in his relationships may turn to pornography to feel the illusion of power, to experience some relational control where he has none. He, quietly, is also sinning in his power. The woman who uses her words to put others in their place is also appealing to the power of her language to dominate and control. She also, quietly, is sinning in her power. And this is one of the dangerous misperceptions of power: that only the visibly powerful—presidents, celebrities, megachurch pastors—have power. In fact, each and every human is endowed with incredible power—power to bless or curse.

The computer creates the illusion of power--a powerful illusion it is.

The computer creates the illusion of power–a powerful illusion it is.

But, you may ask, does divinity mitigate morality? Are things different at the apex of power? That this is impossible ought to be clarified by a simple illustration. To the human mind, an error in measurement of .01cm would seem irrelevant—one not worth considering. Is it an error? Certainly, but other circumstances (among them the impossibility of perfection) mitigate the mistake. But imagine making a .01cm mistake in plotting a journey from one solar system to another. .01cm magnified by a distance of four light years has become an enormous error in magnitude. It is the difference between finding your mark and missing it completely. The point of the illustration is that at the level of divinity—which is comparable essentially to a measurement of infinity—the small errors become not inconsequential, but absolutely essential. At the apex of power morality is not ambiguous but absolute—the heights of power demand a perfection beyond anything humans have conceived. Therefore God’s power makes morals explicit. When Isaiah beholds a vision of God’s power, his first response is repentance for his unclean lips. Visions of absolute power convict us of our moral imperfections. Holiness and ethics are foundationally inseparable.

It should be clear, then, that the ends never ever justify the means. We cannot calculate costs and conclude that injustice in one area is permissible if it achieves a separate justice elsewhere. Especially at the level of divinity, this is absurd. After all, our arguments for ends and means each depend on an assumption of time and temporality. We reason that we can endure a temporary evil for the sake of a later good. But at the Divine level the same divisions of time do not apply—injustice once is injustice for eternity. Therefore if God participates in evil it does not follow that evil is good, but rather that God is evil.

But the lie of ends and means continues. In the church it takes the form of a kind of unholy expediency. We place volunteers in positions of authority because we have a perception of their qualifications and choose to overlook the significant flaws in their character. We resolutely refuse to acknowledge the bodies under the bus by pointing at the successes of a ministry—people saved, ministry accomplished, churches planted. We spend our funds on unnecessary building projects while the church catholic struggles, suffers, and starves. And we excuse all of these with a perception and apprehension of power that, ironically, we lay at the feet of God Himself.CrystalCathedral

But the place where, perhaps, we sin against power most is the way that we militate one kind of justice against another, particularly when we pit morality against ethics. “How can you care about Driscoll when there are people suffering in Ferguson?” “The focus of the church shouldn’t be on homosexuality, especially when there are suffering people overseas.” Or, as Tony Campolo is famous for saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh*t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said sh*t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Can we at the same time pursue God’s character for Justice while repudiating His moral character? Can we pray “Thy will be done” while ignoring “make your name holy?” In each case we have missed an important reality—that a justice which compromises with injustice ceases to be justice. Or, theologically, a Christian justice that compromises on the character of God is no longer Christian. Morality and Ethics cannot be separated.

And yet the narrative of the world says something different. Our world’s narrative tells a story that grants license to immorality because of injustices experienced, whether perceived or real. A person in poverty cannot be blamed for his moral indiscretions. A person suffering under an unjust regime cannot be blamed for her immoral behaviour. Riots are permissible because of the imbalance of power. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sexual indiscretions are overlooked because of the good he accomplished and what he stood for. The ironic twist remains, and both power and powerlessness are used as mitigating circumstances. In the process morality is rendered meaningless—but then again, so also is justice.

In the end, power does not diminish, but rather magnifies the need for morality. The book of James says that not many should presume to teach, because we ought to know we will be judged more severely. Each week I stand and speak before a group of gathered Christians. I will answer for the incautious, misleading words I have spoken. You also will answer for your own misleading and incautious words to your friends, family, children, parents, and people online. But the Scriptures teach that my judgment will be more severe for the simple reason, I suggest to you, that my power has amplified my influence. If you sin, it affects you. If I sin, it affects my whole church. And as with me, so also with every human on earth—as our power increases, as we gain more access, more influence, a bigger platform, then our need for absolute morality increases as well. Power in no way mitigates morality; it only enhances our need for it.Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Eleven

Lastly, we cannot defer the need for moral growth to people in power and authority—each and every person is endowed with incredible power, and each and every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for his use of that power. And that means, from small to great alike, that it is essential for us to develop and grow our moral fiber. We must reject the myth of mitigating circumstances, resisting the urge to excuse our indiscretions through appeals to power in whatever form. This will create integrity, so that when we are presented with access to power, what is projected out to the people around us is an image of the Christlike moral core we have labored to build. Amazingly, from such a position even our failures become opportunities for leadership, because our confession and repentance are also projected by power to a wider audience. In this way the individual grace of God allotted to you can be magnified by the power of your position. In this way, Christ’s power is made perfect even in our weaknesses.

Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

In the October 19, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton published a scathing review of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” It is not my purpose today to address either Eagleton, Dawkins, or Dawkins’s book, but rather to treat with a single, troubling argument that came from it. It’s what I’ll call, “A Category Dismissal.”

In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Eagleton presents several arguments in this paragraph that are worth clarifying. First, that Dawkins’s theological knowledge is woefully inadequate given his declarations about theological truth. Second, disbelief in a theological system cripples Dawkins’s judgments regarding that system. Third, this combination (lack of knowledge plus lack of belief) produces the “vulgar caricatures” which permeate Dawkins’s prose (as well as that of other New Atheists). Fourth, the strong emotions of religious rejection fuel the process further. And fifthly, in any other discipline such ‘reasoned’ thinkers would feel obligated to study their subject in far greater depth.

He looks friendly enough, but his pen is filled with bitter ink...

In short, because Dawkins’s arguments are funded on a combination of both ignorance of and contempt for theology, he produces a vast array of easily crushed straw men which pass for arguments. Consequently, because Dawkins argues ignorantly, his arguments reflect more his own personal issues than anything particular about his favorite subject, religion. We can assert, in a sense, that Dawkins has found in Christian theology a favorite punching bag for his own anger issues (at which point we can observe that Dawkins’s arguments and methods say a great deal more about Dawkins than they do about Christianity, but that is beside my main point today).

Now, I asserted at the start that my point here is not to engage with Eagleton or Dawkins per se, but rather to identify a curious kind of argument that occurs within this debate. It is a problem that Eagleton identifies in his opening paragraph, and it is one that, ironically, the very first commentator on this article perpetuates. At the end of Eagleton’s piece, one A.C. Grayling from the University of London writes the following:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.

And there you have it—the category dismissal in action. I have denied your premises before you stated anything, Mr. Eagleton, therefore dealing with your religious arguments is tantamount to nonsense. Case closed.

You have an argument? Look at the hair. Case closed.

This is an argumentative twist that ought to raise our rhetorical alarm flags sky high. It is an argument that says, “I don’t have to listen to you because I disagree with you.” It is an argument-ending argument of the same order as, “Because I told you so.” There’s nothing to say in response because one of the parties isn’t listening to the other at all.

Let’s dig into this little rhetorical twist a bit further and see if, by taking a step backward into abstraction, we might better decipher what happened in this argument. Eagleton asserted that Dawkins has not studied enough theology to make useful judgments regarding the subject. Grayling made the counter point that you don’t need to study theology to judge it when you reject its premises. Let’s abstract this further for more clarity: Eagleton says this: X has made judgments about subject Y. X has not studied subject Y sufficiently to substantiate his judgments. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to study Y because X rejects Y.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear that the “Category Dismissal” I’ve identified here is really just a subtle and grand form of ad hominem. Eagleton has made an argument, and Grayling has asserted in response that the fact of disagreement is sufficient argument in matters of religion. “I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Or, in the spirit of the straw-man ad hominem, “I disagree with you, therefore you are an idiot.” Eagleton has argued for complexity, and Grayling has rebutted him by saying, “You are not worth addressing.” It is a refusal to engage the subject of religion on its own terms due to a priori judgments about religion. It is a highly biased and unethical approach to discourse. It is pervasive in atheist/Christian dialogue.

I don't need hair to make arguments.

Eagleton anticipates this argument in his opening paragraph. After all, if someone (especially a scientifically motivated New Atheist) were going to make a judgment about a given subject, that person, consistent with his/her commitment to scientific inquiry, is bound to research the complexities of the subject before pronouncing a judgment on that subject. But Grayling (apparently) has made his judgments about Eagleton’s assessment of Dawkins without needing to read what Eagleton wrote. This is a move that is (either ironically or tragically) entirely within the spirit of the Category Dismissal. After all, why deal with what is built on premises you disagree with if you disagree with those premises? And what a liberating philosophy of human discourse this is! Under its auspices I can grade papers without having to study them, write book reviews without having to read the books! I can even pronounce judgments on criminals without having to investigate the evidence! Life really is much simpler when I can declare people guilty without having to listen to them.

But this is clearly both unethical and dishonest. If the rhetoric of science is to be consistent, then each claim it encounters must be examined in all its fullness and complexity. If I, an otherwise reasonable person, came to you and assert that, “Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.” You have two options. First, you can dismiss me outright as an idiot because “you disagree with the premise that anyone can rise from the dead and therefore whatever I say in regard to that premise is worthless.” Or you can consider the claim, examine the evidence, consider the source (that I appear to be a reasonable person, not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy), and then make a determination on whether or not you will believe my claim that Jesus Christ lives. Only one response is consistent with scientific methodology. The other is stark judgmentalism.

What stands behind the Category Dismissal (to my estimation) is the thoroughgoing materialism that continues to drive the modern scientific worldview. Having made an a priori decision that nothing immaterial exists (which, note, is an impossible claim to verify), any argument or system which treats of the immaterial is therefore (at best) suspect or (at worst) dismissed outright. But as long as there is an a priori dismissal of any kind of evidence, the scientific mindset will be closed off to what is unexpected. It will only see what it is looking for, and never what it is not looking for. But in the same way that shutting one’s eyes doesn’t make one invisible, so shutting out evidence because you believe it doesn’t exist has no power over the actual evidence. Declaring something impossible does not make it impossible.

In the end, the rejection of evidence by way of the Category Dismissal is rude, unethical, unscientific, arrogant, and above all wrong. Unless this kind of dishonest rhetoric comes to an end, there will be no fruitful discussion between atheists and Christians. But this very observation sheds light on what is most unnervingly ironic about atheist/Christian dialogue: a profound absence of reason within it. And here, perhaps, what we must see is that the declaration, “I disagree with your premises,” is not an argument; it is a statement about the feelings of the arguer. And this statement reveals the deeper problem: if the atheist admits that your religious arguments are admissible then in some ways he has opened the door to the possibility of God. Perhaps, then, unfair argument is a kind of last defense, a prickly, irritating, and irrational response to protect the atheist mind from the possibility of God. What that would imply is that what the Christian is up against in discussions with atheists is the irrational—a childish, infantile reaction to the possibility of God. “I deny your premises”–the Category Dismissal–is then the last-defense argument against the possibility of God.

The One-Way Ladder (On the Doctrine of God)

Our images of God are informed more by culture than by scripture.

It is common, when speaking of God, to describe Him by certain characteristics. We say things like, “God is Love;” or, “God is All-Powerful;” or, “God is the Father.”

These abstractions from the Divine Personality invite certain issues. The person who hears that “God is Love” may rightly ask, if that is the case, why there is such a place as Hell. The person who hears that “God is All-Powerful” may rightly be puzzled by the question, “If He is All-Powerful, could he create a stone too heavy for He Himself to lift?” And the person who hears that “God is Father” may rightly feel, drawing from his or her own experience of fatherhood, that if this is the case he wishes for nothing to do with such a God.

There is a grave problem with these statements about God, and it is not that they are, in themselves, untrue, but that they are abstractions. They are properties of God removed from God; and, having been separated from God Himself, they are employed in turn to judge God. Consequently, we end up in the sorry position where God’s Love is militated against His Justice, His Power against His Character, His Wrath against his Mercy. We judge God, then, not by God, but by our ideas of God, and in the process we become idolaters of our ideas. Our ideas of God, then, become hellish and Satanic—for it is always Satan’s trick to make us choose, in the place of God, a lesser good. The problem, then, is not with these characteristics of God’s personality, but with the way we are approaching our knowledge of Him.

How are we approaching God wrongly? When we abstract the characteristics of God in the way I have described, we are drawing from our human understanding of love, and power, and fatherhood, and applying those human definitions to God. The result is a vision of God that is composed of all the ‘best thoughts I can imagine’ about God. But whatever best thoughts you might have, they still fall short of God in His actuality. How can you, O Finite Human, capture or conceive even the smallest characteristic of an infinite God? If you had 100 pieces of information about God, how much more information would you need to reach infinity? If you had 1,000,000 pieces of information about God, how much more would you need to reach infinity? The gap between our human understanding and God, no matter how high we climb the ladder of knowledge, remains impassable.

To explain this more clearly I’ve created the following diagram.

Yes, I made this. Yes, I recognize that God doesn't live in a cloud.

When it comes to our knowledge of God, we have no way of achieving such knowledge on our own. This is because our human knowledge, working from the ground up, builds from our understandings of things like Love, Power, Fatherhood, Holiness, Mercy, Grace, Forgiveness, Justice, and whatever other characteristics are applied to God. But it always has a ceiling; we can only go so far. “What is called God’s goodness and God’s holiness,” observes Karl Barth, “cannot be determined by any view that we men have of goodness and holiness, but it is determined from what God is.” And when we take our human knowledge and apply it to God as a way to determine His character—that is, when we develop an abstraction and define God by that abstraction—then we are worshipping idols. We aren’t worshipping God, but the characteristics of our own making. Incidentally, the very nature of this ladder of knowledge is precisely the reason why we cannot prove God from Nature. He is not such a being as could be determined or defined by any earthly characteristic. He is a being who must be revealed.

The ladder of the knowledge of God, in other words, only goes one way. We can only know God as God has revealed Himself to us, and we can never determine who God is by our own means and definitions. We cannot take from any earthly definition and move ‘upward’ toward God; all our understandings of God must be received, downward, from Him in revelation. But this is precisely where the good news begins, because this is exactly what God has done. He, recognizing the gap between our knowledge and Him, has made a way for us to know Him. Humanity could not reach God, but God condescended to reach humanity.

The only way, then, that we can speak fairly and accurately about who God is, is to speak with the language that God Himself has chosen for His self-revelation—that is, to speak of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. As Christians, when we are asked what we know about the Doctrine of God, our first and best answer should be, “Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen.”

We gain knowledge of God through gazing at Christ.

Let’s return, then, to God’s Love, Power, and Fatherhood, and address some of the issues raised by their abstraction. As we do this we must keep in mind that because of the one-way ladder we can never work from human definitions upwards, but must always work from God’s self-revelation to us. We do not know what ‘Love’ truly is, except by gazing at God in Christ. And that means human love is an utterly insufficient platform from which to make determinations about God. From God’s perspective, however, the purest expression of His Love, revealed to us, is the Cross—a very different picture of love than what we would choose! But it is one that in its severity and costliness makes some sense of a doctrine of Hell. We do not know what ‘Power’ is except by looking at God in Christ, and what we see in him is a person who rejected earthly power in favor of Heavenly submission. Christ’s power meant submitting to the will of God, that is, to crucifixion. Once again, this is profoundly opposed to our human definition of power! Thus, the Power of God is revealed in the submission of Christ to the plan of God—that is, power revealed in self-limitation to the constraints of God’s character. In this way, the question of the stone-too-heavy-to-lift is brought into focus as an absurdity. It is based on an abstraction of power that is separated from God’s character—as if God could violate Himself! Lastly, we don’t know what Fatherhood is except by looking at the Son and the Father in relationship. And here we come to see that the Fatherhood of God sets the parameters for His mission to the world—to bring His beloved children home to Him. And thus God is the One “from whom all Fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph 3:15). Our idea of ‘Father’ must be informed by God, and not the other way round.

In the end, these properties of God, given to us in revelation from God, form a coordinate and holistic picture that reveals, in perspective, the perfect and unchanging character of God; a character that we learn, recognize, and come to know in Jesus Christ, who is God, speaking for Himself, in the flesh.