Thursday, October 29, 2009

Monster Inc.

In a recent column in Newsweek, Dr. Richard Dawkins, a scientist of great repute,

outspoken atheist, and author of a book on God spoke about scripture, Hebrew scripture.

He states that no one who reads Hebrew scripture can deny the God portrayed in these pages

is a monster. Dawkins speaks of a God who engages in murder, infanticide, jealousy, rage,

and who is petty and vindictive. He is not wrong. The God of Hebrew scriptures, what

Christians know as the Old Testament, is portrayed as all these things and more. If you

believe the account in Exodus, God is a terrorist who kills innocent children in order to

force Pharaoh to to release Her Chosen People. The same God is petty and spiteful when

Moses is not allowed into the Promised Land for having doubts. God punishes Sodom and

Gomorrah for immorality, but rewards Lot for offering his virgin daughters over to be

raped in order to save his house guests. There are numerous other examples from scripture

to support Dawkin's characterization of God as a monster. However, it is unfortunate

Dawkins chooses to rail against a God created in our own image and likeness. For a man

who accuses fundamentalists and creationists of ignorance and intellectual laziness, Dawkins

shows a surprising lack of understanding of both scripture and God.

Scripture is a chronicle of God revealing Herself to the world. More importantly,

scripture is an account of our slow epiphanies and realizations of God's presence in the

world. Most Americans are only familiar with the first eleven chapters of Genesis and not

much more. Adam and Eve, Creation, Cain and Abel, Noah's Ark, The Tower of Babel; those

are the stories most Americans know. Unfortunately, these chapters are written as a pre-

history to explain the world as it is when we encounter Abraham in Chapter 12. What is

Abraham's insight? This God is knowable and relatable and wishes to have a relationship

with us.

Both Hebrew and Christian scriptures are stories about God's revelation and our

acknowledgement of it and the covenant we entered into with this God. Recorded are a series

of fits and starts and ups and downs. They are stories of our attempts to be faithful to that

covenant, and stories about our failures and fears. Since scripture is a product of human

work inspired by God, it reflects both the evolution of our species and our relationship

with God; and Dawkins clearly understands evolutionary theory.

I once took a class entitled "God". In his opening remarks, the professor expressed

how after a few weeks of study we would be able to write a book on God. In the ensuing

weeks we came to feel we might, just might, be able to write an article or column; but by

the time the class was over we understood there was nothing we could say about God

because anything we wrote or said is limited by our language and intellect, and God

transcends both.

I taught Hebrew and Christian scripture in high school, and one of the most

disquieting concepts for my students was the notion of God as "nothing". If God is the

creator of all "things", God cannot be a thing. God by definition must be a "no-thing".

The great mystic, St. John of the Cross, talks about ascending the mountain to discover

God and upon reaching the top we discover God is "nada", nothing. In the movie "Contact",

Jodie Foster's character, an atheist similar to Dawkins, encounters a new universe so

beautiful and powerful she says they should have sent a poet to describe what she was

seeing. Words eluded her.

All "God-talk" is by it's nature a metaphor. The experience of God is an experience

of transcendence. Whatever we say about God says as much about us as it does about God

and maybe more. Scripture is an attempt to put into words the experience Abraham, Isaac,

and Jacob had of a transcendent God. All they had to use was their own words and

experiences. The God Dawkins is reacting to is the God simple words speak about in

scripture. This is similar to how fundamentalists read the same thing. The God I react to

in scripture is available to anyone. The God of scripture is far more faithful than we are.

The God of scripture promises never to abandon us even if we reject Her. The beauty of

the story, which Dawkins misses, is the spectacle of fits and starts, the journey of people

who occasionally get glimpses and insights about this God; and then try to translate these

experiences from the realm of poetry and prayer into human language and action.

Dawkins reacts to stories of people trying to implement what they thought or

felt were God's wishes. He makes the same mistake fundamentalists make by reading

scripture literally and ignoring the context. Because the Hebrews did not believe in an

afterlife, justice had to be served now; and because of this Israel's enemies were God's

enemies. Their punishment has to be sure and swift and now. This translates into battles

where God was said to command they kill every man, woman, and child in town. The story

of scripture is not a story of a God-like monster, but rather the story of sinful humans

trying to translate an experience of transcendence into one of imminence.

Dawkins, Christopher, Hitchens, and others have written books recently extolling

the virtues of atheism and attacking the God they encounter in scripture. Unfortunately,

the God they are reacting to is a fundamentalist, literalist God which ignores this incredible

story of discovery and an ongoing contest for understanding.

The story of Hebrew scripture is a journey of revelation and insight. Starting with

Genesis, God molds humans out of clay and breathes life into them. It is an earthy portrayal

of what primitive man thought about God. By the time of Jesus, we encounter people who

believe this God is so relatable, so intimate, so close that we can get as close as a father is

to his son (Jesus calls God Abba). Scripture is also a journey of human moral evolution.

The longer people engage with this God, the more their humanity is developed. The journey

culminates in a philosophy of life more radical than any expressed before or since. Love

God and your neighbor, forgive an infinite number of times, turn the other cheek, judge not,

and whatever you do for the least of your brothers and sisters you do for God.

Few people write about The Acts of the Apostles, a book describing an early Christian

community trying to implement their interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in light of

the Jesus event. No one writes about it because the reaction was so dramatic and radical.

This community lived in common. All possessions were community shared. You could not

be a soldier and be a part of this community. It is a vision which completely rejects the

Calvinistic capitalism of this nation and embraced loving and caring for each other. It is

not surprising this piece of scripture is so frequently ignored by Christians and atheists alike.

The story of scripture is the story of humans using limited language and symbols

to express the inexpressible. It is the story of a people more and more convinced God is

knowable. It is the story of discovery, of moments of transcendence, and the stories and

myths that surround these experiences. It culminates in the faith that God, through Jesus,

has always been joined with our humanity and journeys with us.

Dr. Dawkins is correct. The God of Hebrew scriptures is a monster if you believe

God causes all things to happen. Dr. Dawkins is correct if your God is a fundamentalist God.

He couldn't be more wrong, however, if the God of scripture is a creator who wishes to be

close to us, interact with us. God loves us by example, the example of Jesus Christ,

encourages us to love each other. Experiences of God have always been made real in the

love we share between us rather than in the myriad of ways we have used religion to separate

ourselves from each other. In the final analysis, Dawkins sees what he wants to see. We all do.

We can believe anything we wish. The proof of the pudding is in the kind of life you lead and

the ripples you leave behind. Dr. Dawkins would be better served talking about what

scripture calls us to be rather than how our ancient ancestors wrote about the story of that call.

It is a never-ending story that continues to be written in the ordinary lives of men and women

throughout the world. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please

send them to

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