Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris (frustrating)

I have just finished leading a Lenten book group on Sam Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation”.It is a profoundly irritating book for several reasons:– it is a blog masquerading as a book. It errs on the side of punchy certainties and easy put downs rather than nuanced argument

– Harris, has, in my opinion and that of others (one atheist friend of mine) with whom I have discussed his work, a God-shaped hole problem (Tim Keller’s phrase): he is craving an absolute but denies God

– He sets up conservative Christians as his target and, in doing so, claims a rather modest victory.

He brings up the issue of Theodicy (as he should) but his argument lacks nuance: God is either impotent or evil. The classic response to this is to note that, if there is a possibility that God may permit suffering in the service of a greater good, then the “impotent or evil” argument fails at its core.

Where the argument should be is in the interplay of God allowing actions that may lead to suffering in the service, for example, of the greater good of mankind ‘figuring things out’ in the exercise of freewill. In fact, granting freewill arguably let the genie out of the jar (or the snake into the garden) to begin with.

That leads to the question of ‘miracles’, aka God’s intervention in the world in response to prayer or His own wish to intervene. I believe God can and does intervene, but I can’t explain why or when or to what degree or the extent to which intervention may or may not interfere with freewill at some point.

I don’t believe that the fact of awfulness in the world is proof that God does not care or that He is impotent. I believe we may have a view of how things should go in the world that clashes with events as they unfold. Science assists us in understanding (among other things aplenty) natural phenomena such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Science also informs us that, given what we know about our environment, New Orleans, to give one example, is not wisely located or properly defended.

As a species, we take risks, make compromises but frequently suffer consequences with less equanimity than perhaps we ought to. We turn to God for answers when sometimes we know the answers – precisely because He has granted us the wherewithal to know them: freewill and the intellectual resources to understand our environment and our place in it.

I firmly believe that the presence of evil/bad stuff is in part due to the accumulation of generations of bad choices we have made in the exercise of our freewill. We are contaminated by the consequences of these bad choices much as second hand smoke pollutes the lungs of those in the vicinity of the smoker.

So, where is God in all this? Helping us to navigate if we choose to ask for direction. Helping us to find the resources we need within ourselves and our community. Giving us, as always the example of His Son.

And so to the struggle highlighted by Kenelm Tonkin in his reply to my earlier post on New Atheism with the role of Christ.

I think it is helpful to research the history. The history of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is actually quite sound and, as you might imagine, thoroughly researched. That is important because it leaves one to explore, with confidence that the debate is real and substantive, the central question of why was Christ born, why did he live and die and what does His resurrection mean?

God created the world, saw it was good and then saw how we messed it up. He rebooted (flood) and thought it heavy handed and promised not to do THAT again. Yes, perhaps an allegorical explanation of a cataclysmic event, but this is not central.

God needed a way to make His presence real. He wanted to walk among us for a time – grass roots, bottom up – and show us what He had in mind: the way back to Eden aka what God hoped for and intended for us (I will come back to that).

So, Jesus walked among us and showed us the way. We have this super-reliable account(s) of his life, death and resurrection in the form of the New Testament. He gave us lots to work with. He knew and God knew we would mess up again (and again). We did. Allowing us to crucify His mortal form was part of the reality of Christ’s humanity, designed to demonstrate that this mortal coil is NOT what IT is all about.

The resurrection was designed to show us what comes next. This mortal coil is the beginning. It can’t be the end because it is not as God intended. It is imperfect and messy. Yes we can do better (a multi-level video game) and we will, but God has more for us. No, we will not be resurrected as Christ was in this world. But Christ came back to us in this world and then departed precisely to show us that there is more: we must follow him and, if we truly believe that, we will gain the perspective we need to suffer the slings and arrows of this world.

Why bother if we are going to reboot into a better eternity? What did God intend for us? This world is a beginning but it is not irrelevant. What we do now does reverberate in eternity in the sense that we take it with us. We matter in the world. What we do matters. The love we give to our neighbor, our family matters. Using our talents matters. We take with us into eternity the consequences of our actions for ourselves and for others. There are marks for effort – marks on our own psyche and marks on the collective psyche of the community we inhabit.

If we are not open and malleable to the influence of God’s grace in our lives, we are going to have a tough time in eternity, not because God will judge us harshly and send us to eternal damnation but because we will have done that to ourselves. We will truly have hardened our hearts.

Now, assuming God has His way and we graduate to the final level, to Eden, what then? Why did God create in the first place. What does that tell us about God? Something to look forward to.