Just the other day, a friend forwarded me a mass-mailed promotion for Free Inquiry magazine (a publication in which, incidentally, I had an article published a couple of years ago). The brochure was emblazoned with the following warning: “If you wish to avoid spending eternity roasting in HELL, do not open and read this brochure.”
Having no fear of hell, I opened it and fished for what my friend said would be inside: a note from Richard Dawkins encouraging the recipient of the mailing to subscribe to Free Inquiry:
If you live in America, the chances are good that your next door neighbours believe the following: the Inventor of the laws of physics and Programmer of the DNA code decided to enter the uterus of a Jewish virgin, got himself born, then deliberately had himself tortured and executed because he couldn’t think of a better way to forgive the theft of an apple, committed at the instigation of a talking snake.
Since I live in Oklahoma (the purported Buckle of the Bible Belt), one might expect that Dawkins was envisioning a neighborhood like mine when he assessed the chances that my next-door neighbors believed this odd little story. As it happens, one of my next-door neighbors is a Marxist atheist, but the neighbors on the other side do attend the hip, youth-oriented Christian church in town. As such, what they believe may bear some family resemblance to Dawkins’ sketch. My guess, however, is that the resemblance is about as close as what the typical political cartoon rendition of President Obama bears to the real man. That is, it’s a caricature that exaggerates certain visible features but fails to capture the man’s soul.
Such caricatures are common in popular religious discourse, and Dawkins is good at them. In the same note, he caricatures Islam by noting that in other parts of the world, your neighbors are likely to believe “you should be beheaded if you draw a cartoon of a desert warlord who copulated with a child and flew into the sky on a winged horse.”
These are caricatures not because there aren’t people who believe things roughly along these lines, but because they tell us as much about the true substance of the faith as the shape and size of Obama’s ears tell us about the character of the man. While most of my Christian friends treat the Garden of Eden story as a myth whose religious significance lies not in its literal accuracy but in its allegorical meanings, there certainly are Christians who insist on the literal truth of this story. But even those who do would typically agree that it’s the meaning behind the story that matters most.
The great world religions aren’t about literal belief in stories you might read in a book of fairy tales. Instead, they’re primarily about promulgating a holistic worldview and way of life infused with the sense that there’s something beyond the empirical skin of the world, something deeply important with which we can forge a relationship. They teach us that when we do so, our lives will be richer and our characters better. At their root, the stories and teachings and injunctions of a religion aim to bring about a transformation in believers, one in which the believers’ lives are informed by a relational connection to an Ultimate Reality that transcends them.
That, put simply, is what religion is about. It’s not about believing that talking snakes or flying horses are real—even if, sometimes, the adherents to a religion insist they are. Even among those who believe that religious stories are historical facts and not just myths, there is also an affirmation that the story is more about theology than about history. The story is remembered because it means something.
If religious teachings are an attempt to transform believers by connecting them with a more fundamental reality, then we have to admit that many religions are failures, at least by any pragmatic measure of success I’d be prepared to endorse. But does it follow that every religion is a failure? Or, focusing on my own religious faith, does it follow that every way of being a Christian is doomed to failure?
The important question here isn’t whether some soulless, cartoonish version of religious faith can transform one’s life. The important question is whether there’s a way of being religious, a way of living one’s life as if there were a transcendent good beyond the empirical world, that actually bears rich fruits.
If your Christian faith is nothing more than belief that “the Inventor of the laws of physics… got himself born, then deliberately had himself tortured and executed because he couldn’t think of a better way to forgive the theft of an apple,” it’s hard for me even to imagine what it would look like to live as if this were true, let alone discern any good fruits that might result.
And so, if this hollow and disjointed story were the best that Christianity had to offer, I suppose we could conclude that Christianity is pretty pointless. But this hollow and disjointed story isn’t the best that Christianity can do. It’s a caricature.
And to see just how caricatured Dawkins’ version of the Christian story is, it may help to sketch out an alternative one. There isn’t just one, of course, and some may have more transformative potential than others. What I want to share here, as briefly as I can while doing it justice, a version that has been transformative in my life.
The story begins with the idea that the fundamental reality is personal, an eternal and infinite Person who created the world we know as an act of love. According to this story, love isn’t love if it doesn’t embrace that which is not the self. And God, whose nature is love, was therefore inspired by His very nature not only to create, but to create and embrace something truly Other than Himself—a universe bound by finitude and mechanistic laws of cause and effect. But love finds its fullest expression in mutuality, in relationship. An inanimate universe governed by mechanistic laws and randomness cannot respond to divine love. For that, there needs to be a personal Other. And to be another person, something fundamental is required: a person must have a will of his or her own.
And so God didn’t just create a world that ran by rules suited to its material nature. He also created a world which, operating in terms of those rules, gave rise to persons who had a will of their own.
And the gift of Otherness that He gave to us, the potential to chart our own course rather than blindly follow His, was a gift that necessitated distance. We could not exist in the full glory of God’s presence from the start and still be able to develop into independent selves. God had to create a space between Himself and us, in which we were free to chart our own path, to mature in our own way, to tell our own stories. Hopefully, these stories would be love stories that would eventually bring God’s creatures back to Him: fully formed selves who were Other than Him, but united with Him and each other in love.
But our freedom carried with it the capacity to do otherwise. It carried with it the capacity to reject God. It carried with it the capacity to reject one another, to hate each other, to despise Otherness rather than embrace it. And, of course, because we were limited, we chose far too often to do these very things.
But the story does not end there. This infinite God, when faced with the brokenness and alienation of His creation—with the reality of sin—didn’t abandon us. Instead, He became one of us, and suffered finitude, and experienced the worst kind of cruelty that human freedom can inflict. And somehow, in the process, He redeemed the world.
The somehow is important. Dawkins’ caricature offers no sense of how this act of divine self-sacrifice might be redemptive. There are many competing accounts, of course, so let me offer just one.
It’s an account that I first came to really appreciate after stumbling across a little known and out-of-print book from the 1950’s, psychotherapist Don Browning’s Atonement and Psychotherapy. The account isn’t one that Browning invented—it’s far older than that. What Browning did was use the metaphor of psychotherapy to elucidate this old and profound understanding of how the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus could have a truly redemptive power in the world.
Browning begins by noting that all of us desire to be judged as valuable by some standard of achievement—something that earlier theologians called “works righteousness.” We get the idea, very early on, that our worth as individuals is tied to doing the right things. And we not only internalize this idea, but we grow to like it. We want to be responsible for our own worth. If we’re valuable, we want it to be because we’ve earned it.
This idea is inimical to the concept of unconditional love. Unconditional love isn’t earned. It’s bestowed as a gift. But for those who’ve grown to measure their worth in terms of their accomplishments, unconditional love may be an unwanted gift. It’s this fact, for Browning, that ultimately perpetuates our alienation from God. Where God offers unconditional love, and invites participation in a community defined by such love, we want the world to be ruled by a law of “tit-for-tat,” a law according to which love is earned by achievement, and being loved is a sign that one deserves it.
And so we find God’s unconditional love to be an affront, and we respond with hostility. In the face of such hostility, how is God to establish a loving relationship with us? Browning’s answer is drawn from his own experience as a psychotherapist.
The job of a psychotherapist is to listen empathetically, and to offer unconditional concern and care no matter what the patient might share. The point is to create a space in which it’s safe to share anything at all without fear of rejection. But many patients become hostile precisely because of this unconditional empathetic responsiveness. They want their therapist to approve of them for their accomplishments, but the therapist treats them as valuable no matter what.
And so the patients become hostile. They lash out: “I hate you because of your empathy and understanding!” And how does the good therapist respond? By empathizing with and understanding the hostility itself. Hostility to love is defeated by loving even more.
Browning uses this psychotherapeutic practice as a metaphor for our relationship with God. God’s love for us is an unqualified acceptance and empathy. We reject it because we are in bondage to the idea that acceptance must be earned. God responds by accepting us even in the face of our rejection of Him, by empathizing even with our hostility.
But God has to go further than any therapist. The therapist is merely human, and so can be hurt by hostility. The therapist’s continued love in the face of rejection and hostility means something for that very reason. Were the therapist a transcendent being who could not be touched by the blows the patient might strike, the acceptance of those blows would mean nothing.
And so God must make Himself vulnerable to the blows we strike. He must become one of us, at our mercy. And it’s not enough that His love be unconditional in theory. To really defeat our rejection of Him, He must love us through the worst that we can and do throw at Him. His love must really persist, even as we spit on Him in fact, even as we torture Him in fact, even as we nail Him to a cross.
Therapists do not break through their patients’ hostility by having a capacity for acceptance and empathy that would persist even if tested. They break through their patients’ hostility by actually accepting and empathizing with their patients even in the face of real hostility. But the empathy of therapists has limits. They’re human, after all. If their patients begin to stalk them, even the best therapists call the police.
Ordinary hostility may be overcome by a therapist’s work, but not sin itself. Sin admits of extremes that only God’s love can endure. And it is by truly accepting these extremes, and loving us in the face of them, that God defeats the power of sin. Sin is nothing but the rejection of God and His unconditional love. And the only way for God to overcome such rejection is through the relentlessness of vulnerable love, persisting even in the face of the most hostile conceivable rejection.
Vicariously if not in fact, we all crucify God for the crime of loving us unconditionally. And when we do, we come face to face with the fact that we have failed to kill what we intended to destroy. We confront the empty tomb. And when we truly come to understand that it’s empty, when we realize that even the cross is not enough to shatter God’s unconditional love, we are transformed. We cease striving to overcome our finitude on our own, and put ourselves at last into the hands of infinite love.
Here, then, is a version of the Christian story. Unlike Dawkins’ version, it’s not a caricature—even if, perhaps, there is much about it that theologians and philosophers (and psychotherapists) might debate. But my task here isn’t to develop a fully coherent theological account of the Christian narrative. Rather, it’s to tell a version of the story that isn’t soulless and absurd. With this version of the story, I can imagine what it might look like to live as if it were true. I know many people who do so, whether or not they’ve formulated the story in quite Browning’s terms.
And my judgment, at least, is that those who live a life informed by this story are transformed by it. They experience a connection to something deep and fundamental, a wellspring of integrity, compassion, and joy, even in the face of the cruelty and suffering that the world can inflict.
And so here is my challenge to Dawkins and other atheists who want to critique religion. Let’s set aside caricatures. If Dawkins wants to challenge religion, he should take on the soul-stirring versions of the Christian story rather than the mind-numbing ones, and show that these versions lack the transformative power that they promise.
Or he should explain why the transformative potential of a religious narrative is not a good reason to choose to live as if it were true, even if such pragmatic assessment may be the only tool we have for evaluating beliefs about what transcends the empirical world.
Caricatures can be useful in calling attention to things we might not otherwise notice. But caricatures cease to be useful when they’re confused with the real thing; when the critic invites his audience to deride the real thing based on the absurdity of the caricature.
This is what Dawkins does in his little “note” to potential Free Inquiry subscribers. And it isn’t helpful. There is such a thing as helpful satire, as comic lampooning that highlights the truth. And then there are caricatures offered up as if they were the truth. When intelligent people indulge in the latter, they’ve let the lampooning spirit carry them too far.