Friday, December 25, 2015

Behold the face of God: Christmas and the scandal of particularity

In a debate with John Lennox several years ago, in which Lennox emphasizes the historical evidence for Christianity, Richard Dawkins scornfully gives us a textbook example of what Christian theologians call the scandal of particularity.

Dawkins is offended by the localism of Christianity and by the way that the evidences of Christianity tie in with its localism.

From the transcript of closing remarks, written out here: (I have silently altered some punctuation and capitalization.)

John Lennox:
I would remind you that the world Richard Dawkins wishes to bring us to is no paradise except for the few. It denies the existence of good and evil. It even denies justice. But ladies and gentlemen, our hearts cry out for justice. And centuries ago, the apostle Paul spoke to the philosophers of Athens and pointed out that there would be a day on which God would judge the world by the man that he had appointed, Jesus Christ, and that he’d given assurance to all people by raising him from the dead. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a miracle, something supernatural, for me constitutes the central evidence upon which I base my faith, not only that atheism is a delusion, but that justice is real and our sense of morality does not mock us.

Richard Dawkins:
Yes, well that concluding bit rather gives the game away, doesn’t it? All that stuff about science and physics, and the complications of physics and things, what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox – and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a deistic god perhaps, some god that the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe – that’s all very grand and wonderful, and then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.
Watch Dawkins saying this on Youtube here. You can hear the scorn in his voice.

If anything "gives the game away," it is Dawkins's derisive and purely subjective rejection of anything other than (in his words) a "deistic god perhaps."

There is no argument there. It just offends Dawkins's taste that God should reveal himself through a miracle, at a particular place and time, within a particular cultural context, to a particular people. To Dawkins, such divine condescension, in order to reveal particular doctrines and to save mankind, is "unworthy of the universe." (Whatever, precisely, it means for something to be unworthy of the universe.)

Thanks be to God, the true God, we do not worship Dawkins's Universe. We worship the personal God, the God who said, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called my son." We worship a God who has always had a chosen people and who has deigned to speak to man at sundry times and in diverse manners, and in these last days has spoken unto us through His Son.

His Son, whom he sent down from heaven, and who was made man for us and for our salvation.

For man could not have been saved in any other way. The deistic god about whom Dawkins will grudgingly hear tell is not a God who saves. He is a god who won't interfere once things are set going. He is a god who lets man go his own way.

But we are sinners, and we need a Savior. And so the true God did not abhor the womb of a virgin. Notice that whoever wrote the Te Deum already understood the Richard Dawkinses of the world very well, hundreds of years ago. Those of us who take our Christianity for granted at times might wonder, "Why even bring that up? Why would Jesus abhor the womb of the virgin?"

Because it was "so unworthy of the universe." Because it was so petty, so local, so earth-bound. That the Eternal Son, the one who made all things, who, yes, set the constants of the universe, the Great Physicist, the Eternal God who is above and beyond all things, should come down from heaven and be Incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, and be made man.

Richard Dawkins looks at that and says, "Ewww, yuck." He will not bow his stiff neck to worship a God like that, a God who would do that, a God who would come down. He cannot even do so when the whole point made by Lennox was that it is precisely such a God who gives us evidence that He exists and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Yet should not the scientific mind be interested in truth, and in evidence of the truth?

It is not only because we needed a Savior that Jesus came. It is also because we needed to know more about God. God had already revealed himself in a number of those local ways that so offend Dawkins--by choosing the Jews, by signs and wonders throughout the Old Testament. But mankind needed to know more. We needed to know that He is Triune, that He loves us as individuals, that He wants us to be united with Him forever. We needed to know that He is our Father--not just the heavenly Father of a chosen group (which God had already revealed), but of us as individuals.

And so, the Gospel of John tells us, though "No man hath seen God at any time," nonetheless "the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

Moses could not look upon the face of God, and so God hid him in the hollow of the rock while He passed by and showed Moses His glory indirectly.

But God wanted to show us His face. And the only way to do that, to show the face of God to man, was to come down into the creation and to have a face--a real face, a literal face that could be seen and touched.

So God was born as a Jewish baby in a petty, local venue, and the face of the God who redeems was revealed to man.

Today, let us not stumble at that stumbling stone. Let us not be offended by the scandal of particularity. Let us come and adore the One in whom alone we behold the face of God.

O that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bear the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.


David B Marshall said...

Dawkins studied the feeding habits of chicks for his doctoral dissertation, I believe. Just to keep what is really important in life, in view.

John Virgilio said...

Yes! And Israel being afraid of God at Mt. Sinai said, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us, lest we die." (Ex 20:19b)
Furthermore, God said He would in time send a prophet like Moses. This would be the Messiah, an individual, not a grand fearful voice, but one of us, yet more than us. So in fulfillment of further prophecy, He would be "God with us", "who's goings forth are from long ago, from days of eternity." (Micah 5:2c)
Of necessity he would be one who would live and die for us in a singular, particular way, dieing "once for all", satisying the judgement of God, ending all other sacrifices for sin. Making all else obsolete. He would rise, and ever live to make intercession for us.

Tim said...

“But is he a lion?”

“No, no, of course not,” said Bree in a rather shocked voice.

“All the stories about him in Tashbaan say he is,” replied Aravis. “And if he isn’t a lion why do you call him a lion?”

“Well, you’d hardly understand that at your age,” said Bree. “And I was only a little foal when I left so I don’t quite fully understand it myself.”

(Bree was standing with his back to the green wall while he said this, and the other two were facing him. He was talking in rather a superior tone with his eyes half shut; that was why he didn’t see the changed expression in the faces of Hwin and Aravis. They had good reason to have open mouths and staring eyes; because while Bree spoke they saw an enormous lion leap up from outside and balance itself on the top of the green wall; only it was a brighter yellow and it was bigger and more beautiful and more alarming than any lion they had ever seen. And at once it jumped down inside the wall and began approaching Bree from behind. It made no noise at all. And Hwin and Aravis couldn’t make any noise themselves, no more than if they were frozen.)

“No doubt,” continued Bree, “when they speak of him as a Lion they only mean he’s as strong as a lion or (to our enemies, of course) as fierce as a lion. Or something of that kind. Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. If he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why!” (and here Bree began to laugh) “If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers! . . . Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!”

For just as he said the word Whiskers one of Aslan’s had actually tickled his ear. Bree shot away like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure and there turned; the wall was too high for him to jump and he could fly no farther. Aravis and Hwin both started back. There was about a second of intense silence.

Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion.
“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.”

Then he lifted his head and spoke in a louder voice.

“Now, Bree,” he said, “you poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”

“Aslan,” said Bree in a shaken voice, “I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.”

“Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young. Or the Human either."

Mia said...

Wonderful post, Lydia! Merry Christmas!

As per my usual M.O., I’m playing with ideas here with all the absurd enthusiasm of an 11 year-old with her first chemistry set.

Borrowing concepts from stochastic self-similarity might prove irenic in abating the scandal of particularity, perhaps? Critics who assert the scandalous nature of particularity with regard to the Jewish people find themselves so offended in part, I think, because they have not panned out enough to be able to ultimately recognize it as more than a localized phenomenon.

The God of the Bible created the universe; the spiritual and physical were always meant for integration, and just as branches of a tree resemble the tree itself, or the beautiful shore of a beach resembles the aerial view of a coastline, self-similarity is an equally observable phenomenon in the spiritual world. The experiences of the nation of Israel are self-similar to the experiences of individuals in their walk with God. The Exodus, for example, was not only a real redemptive event for an entire nation; it functions as rich symbolism and picture for our own salvific experience as individuals. The experience, and underlying principles, manifest both materially and spiritually; both locally to a particular nation, and comprehensively through a scattered patchwork of individual lives.

Let us also remember that he did not choose a random, pre-existing people to reveal himself to and through. “How odd of God to choose the Jews”…? Not really - given that’s exactly why he created them. He created the nation of Israel specific to their purpose, which could remove some of the subjective sting from the perceived banality (although one finds banality in regard to higher level concepts an inescapable reality, e.g. the “banality of evil” in the form of Eichmann, but I digress). God himself created the nation of Israel with specific intention, and through miraculous means. He carefully selected a man who knew him, understood his nature, and was proven faithful to him – who was even called the friend of God – and from this one man and his wife, created an entirely new people who would functionally bear his revelation to the rest of the world. A material and holy people to reach a material world to be made holy.

It’s ironic that a mind focused on study of a material cosmos would be uncomfortable with the hypothetical creator God of such a material cosmos interacting in such a material and mechanically intimate way. If someone prefers belief in materialism, it would be quizzical for he/she to reject a God who would relate to him/her in the space he/she is most comfortable acknowledging. Dawkins seems to prefer a hyper-spiritualized, deistical, detached and depersonalized concept of God as to so abstract him from the physical world and the relational beings he hypothetically created, that he no longer bears self-similarity to his own creation, an outwork of his nature.

rockingwithhawking said...

Just picking up on what David Marshall said:

I think this is Dawkins' thesis: "The ontogeny of a pecking preference in domestic chicks."

Also, his "best" idea is the selfish gene meme. But it's isn't even all that original. Dawkins borrowed a lot of it or at least was quite dependent on a lot of it from others like George C. Williams.

Besides, even from an evolutionary perspective, the selfish gene meme arguably sets back evolution by oversimplifying and/or overfocusing on the gene.

By contrast, for instance, systems biology is paving the road with some very interesting ideas, to say the least. Not to mention other ideas about evolutionary theory by people like James Shapiro and Denis Noble (who aren't at all religiously motivated as far as I'm aware). I don't necessarily agree with them, but again from an evolutionary perspective I find their ideas far more interesting and potentially fruitful. At best, the selfish gene idea is a has-been idea.

Some atheists don't consider Dawkins a first-rate atheist either. Particularly after he admitted intelligent design was possible in Ben Stein's Expelled.

John said...

Do you want particularity, well how about this: after Resurrection to universal status as King-of-kings and Lord-of-lords, Jesus still identified Himself with Nazareth, a hometown so homey that Josephus never mentions it among the locales of Galilee in all of his writings and despite intimate acquaintance with the region. Yet when the ascended Jesus appears to Saul, Saul and the arch-hater of Christianity asks Him to identify himself, the reply of the universe's Lord is, "I am Jesus of Nazareth!" (Acts 22:8).

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks to all for the comments! The quotation about Bree is really apt, though Bree was, fortunately, willing to learn better.

What strikes me about Dawkins's objection is how absolute it is. Christians, of course, have (in a sense) answers to various "cousins" of that objection: E.g. Christians have answers to the objection that it is "unfair" or arbitrary for God to reveal himself only in particular ways, because then other people go to hell through no fault of their own. Christians have answers to the objection that it is strictly contradictory for God to be man. And so forth.

But none of that is really going to change Dawkins's mind on the matter, because his is not a reasoned objection. It is a rejection of the will against the very notion of God's giving empirical evidence of his existence, which *by its very nature* must be given at a particular time and place and *by its very nature* involves God's (metaphorically speaking) "getting his hands dirty" by reaching down into his creation and _interfering_.

It really brings out a kind of stubborn Manicheeanism in deism. And this perhaps explains why the Te Deum itself, with (apparently) an origin in the 4th century, has that line I referred to in the main post: "When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the womb of the virgin." Even if it was not written (as La Wik says it is traditionally ascribed) by Ambrose and Augustine, Manicheeanism was certainly "in the air" at about the time that it was written by someone.