Saturday, December 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

I understand the truth of what the Scripture says, "The fool says in his heart 'there is no God.'"  Yet, smart atheists  serve a purpose in the life of the thinking believer, and Christopher Hitchens was a smart atheist.  Doug Wilson, his sometime sparring partner has written a fitting tribute to him over at Christianity Today.  Christians do themselves a disservice when they assume that the atheist (or any opponent of evangelical Christianity) is the product of some personality disorder or traumatic experience.  It is true that some very smart people go stark raving mad when it comes to their opposition to the Christian faith (Richard Dawkins comes to mind).  Even Hitchens went off the rails sometimes, but generally he presented smart, credible challenges to the too-easy answers with which we comfort ourselves.  I find few people on the "other side" of whom this is true (Camille Paglia would be another, but she has largely and lamentably fallen silent of late).

Many people in my circles (and I chide myself here) are satisfied with very pat answers, and are unwilling to allow their faith to be challenged by the good arguments of the other side --this is true in terms of every aspect of the Christian world-view --politics as well as religion.  So, we end up repeating mantras instead of thinking deeply.  Scripture is altogether different.  Ecclesiastes stares into the abyss and finds some discomforting things there.  Job wrangles with pain and evil and finds his ultimate answer is no answer at all --simply a call to leave it to God, and a confident resolution that God will triumph in the end.  That is faith --but we need to understand why it is not always intellectually satisfying.

The larger point is to find the best opponents of what you believe and read them or, if you have the chance, wrangle with them in person.  If your faith is too brittle to withstand those sorts of onslaughts, it needs to be strengthened.

One of my mentors in the ministry is an incredibly smart man, intellectually curious across the field of human endeavor.  A conversation with him is at once fascinating and intellectually daunting, as topics fly by in a flurry.  During his ministry in one place, a mutual friend introduced him to the notable, vociferous atheist forty-year pastor of the downtown liberal church.  Yes, I said atheist.  This man was not a "pat answers" universalist liberal --he denied the existence of God, and told his free-thinking congregation as much.  This group would meet regularly at the same spot, in an inklings-like friendship:  my friend (pastor of a large, staunchly orthodox and Calvinistic church), the acquaintance (a notable Christian Reformed intellectual), the atheist pastor, and another liberal pastor (best described as a Calvinist turned Unitarian).  I once had the temerity to ask my mentor why he did this.  His answer was simple, "He keeps me honest."

I think the confessional Reformed tradition suffers today from an insularity --the same people saying the same things to friendly audiences, and it can create a stifling atmosphere.  My answer is not, of course, that we become liberal --it's that we develop stronger answers for why we're not, and cordial relationships with those that are.  We need to have our iron sharpened, and we can only do this as we learn to intersect with those with whom we disagree.  Their arguments are stronger than we think, and sometimes ours are weaker than we think.  We can only change that by interacting with them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Brief Quote on the Reformed Faith and Our Mission

W. Robertson Nicoll was a well-regarded British pastor, Bible scholar and journalist in the nineteenth century. Throughout the years, he wrote a series of obituaries and brief tributes to British church notables that he had known. These are collected in the volume entitled Princes of the Church. Some were doubtless famous in their own day and are now forgotten. Some are remembered for their scholarly accomplishments (Lightfoot and Westcott). Some are remembered by their theological heirs (A. Maclaren, Alexander Whyte, Andrew Bonar). A few stand out as titans in their respective traditions: Cardinal John Henry Newman and the great Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon.

What Nicoll says about Spurgeon flies in the face of the popular myth that Calvinism can only flourish among educated, elite people (in fact the whole history of Dutch Calvinism flies in the face of that too --google Petronella Baltus, but I digress).

Nicoll writes: It may seem a hard saying, but it cannot be doubted that his theology was a main element in his lasting attraction. Why has Calvinism flourished exceedingly in the damp, low-lying, thickly peopled, struggling regions of South London(?)...Mr. Spurgeon's hearers had many of them missed all the prizes of life; but God did not choose them for the reasons that move man's preference, else their case were hopeless. Their election was of grace. And as He chose them, He would keep them. The perseverance of the saints is a doctrine witout meaning to the majority of Christians. But many a poor girl with the love of Christ and goodness in her heart, working her fingers to the bone for a pittance that just keeps her alive, with the temptations of the streets around her and the river beside her, listened with all her soul when she heard that Christ's sheep could never perish.

The very poor...are beginning to hope that councils and parliaments will do much for them. They may find it so, but Mr. Spurgeon made little of such things. He taught them...that now in the living communion of the soul with Christ, they might have all the joy they needed. A man too wise, too experienced, not to know how slowly the battles of the poor are won and how little their victories often yield --he insisted on the joy and peace in believing, which the world could neither give nor take away. Life might pursue its hard, monotonous way of obscure toil, scanty wages and a great weight of care, but over it all there might rest a soft and sacred light. The common people heard this gladly, and well they might, for it is so. Perhaps when they have had a little more experience of the politician they will hear it more gladly than ever.

I think sometimes we have a Reformed brain, but not Reformed hearts. Calvinism and affluence are strange bedfellows, sometimes, Max Weber notwithstanding. Calvinistic commitment, historically, has seemed to wane with increased prosperity (Religion begat prosperity, Mather said, and the daughter devoured the mother).

Do we, in the new Reformed movement, really believe we are the lowest of the low, and that God can reach other lowest of the low with his sovereign grace? Or, do we assume that the elect must have a certain educational level and financial means? Are we really in this for "whosoever will" or only for people like us? May God build his people from all races and income levels and walks of life!