Monday, August 19, 2013

Challenging God...but not the Audience

I love debates. I really love debates. There are some activities which, I believe, make human life more civilized by their very nature. The reading, writing and reciting of poetry is one example. Urbane and serious debate is another.

In serious debate, human beings step back from the flux of events and survey life, or some element thereof, from a higher vantage point. Not only this, but they accept the responsibility of making their ideas and beliefs public property, of translating them into terms that other people can grasp. Prejudices must become propositions, and assumptions must become arguments. Debates also make us more aware of the dignity of being human. Badgers don't have beliefs. Computers don't have convictions.

But that is all analysis, which only goes so far. Ultimately, I can't say why the spectacle of serious debate thrills me so much, but it does. Nothing is more exhilarating than to see people who care passionately about a subject, and who know a reasonable amount about it, arguing the case with each other. (I am talking about civilized debate here. Hostile and acrimonious discussion I would call argument, not debate, and witnessing it makes me want to curl up and die.)

So I was rather excited, last night, to come upon the second episode of Vincent Browne's new series on TV3, Challenging God. Although you can have a cracking debate about a highly specific subject, the general tendency is that broader topics tend to make for more exciting debates-- and no topic could be broader or more significant than the question of God.

As well as this, I think that "talking heads", despite being a rather pejorative term in TV producing, actually make for the best television. No amount of clever camera-work, in general, is as compelling as a long and in-depth interview with somebody who has something to say. I wish there were more serious panel shows and in-depth interviews on television.

Unfortunately, Challenging God has been a massive disappointment. Instead of intellectual fireworks, we have had a long series of damp squibs.

God, it has to be said, has been especially poorly represented. When I look at the guests that have appeared on the show to defend the Deity, I have to ask: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

On the first episode, we had theologians Fainche Ryan and James Mackey, challenged to answer the question: "Did God make man or did man make God?". In the second episode, transmitted last night, we had an Augustinian priest named Michael Mernagh and a rabbi whose name I've spent ten minutes looking for on in the internet, but can't find anywhere, defending God from crimes against humanity.

All four of the God squad-- with the occasional exception of James Mackey-- seemed to be copying the tactics of the Russian generals during Napoleon's invasion of their country-- that is, to retreat, retreat and retreat again. The difference being that the Russian generals had a sound strategy, whereas the supposed defenders of God on Vincent Browne's show seemed to have no strategy whatsoever. In fact, the atheist guest on each episode-- the ubiquitous Michael Nugent on the first, and a young atheist lady-journalist on the second-- had nothing to do but fold their arms and watch the religious believers make their case for them.

Christian apologetics in our day have truly become apologetic, in every sense of the word. These are the standard moves:

1) To stress the unknowability of reality and the limits of science.
2) To complain about a perception of God that makes him "an old man with a long white beard".
3) To contrast "religion" with faith, to the detriment of "religion".
4) To insist that the Bible is to be understood allegorically.
5) To vie with atheists and secularists in attacking the Catholic Church, the Christian churches, and organized religion in general.
6) To concede that religion does not make you a better person.

Now, there is something to be said for all of these points. But if this was all that was to be said, I would never darken the door of a church again.

Yes, ultimate reality is unknowable, and the scientific method can only discover empirical truths. But we do have other tools for the discovery of objective knowledge. There is, most importantly, metaphysics, which tells us (especially through the Five Ways of Aquinas) that our universe has a First Cause that is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful. We also have historical knowledge, which tells us (less rigorously, but still objectively) that Christ rose from the dead and that the apostles handed down this truth, for which they were willing to die, in an unbroken tradition down to today's bishops.

Yes, God is not an old man with a beard. He is not a creature at all, but the ground of all being-- he is Being himself. And yet, as Edward Feser explains, his prophets and his Son describe him as a Father, and so should we.

Yes, religion is part of our sublunary world and is inevitably corrupted by idolatry and unworthy passions. But it is still simply the term for the organized worship of God and as such is a good thing. The Bible uses the term "religion" a lot. (James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." I have no idea what word the original text used, but my guess is that "religion" is a perfectly adequate translation.)

Yes, the Bible has many allegorical elements and cannot be understood in a literal, fundamentalist sense-- nor was it so understood through the long history of Christian exegesis, as the Confessions of St. Augustine tells us. Nevertheless, it is not all allegory, and to scream "literalism!" every time an unbeliever challenges us about some difficult passage of the Bible is a total cop-out. (As for myself, there are many passages in the Bible which I simply don't understand, and cannot explain-- such as the apparently genocidal instructions that God gives in the Book of Joshua, and which were raised by Vincent Browne last night. Just as I don't expect to understand a scientific theory, or even that scientists should fully understand a scientific theory, I don't expect to fully understand the Christian explanation of reality. I think it is more honest and more convincing to shrug and say, "I really don't know. What I know of Christianity is enough to convince me that it is true and that there is some explanation for these dark corners of the Bible. Besides, I don't really want a God or an explanation of the univese that isn't mysterious or challenging." Or, as St. Peter said: "To whom would we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.")

Yes, terrible crimes have been committed in the name of Christianity; burning of witches, religious wars, persecution of Jews, and so forth. But nothing irritates me more than the craven eagerness of many Christians to outstrip militant atheists in their condemnation of Christian history. Taking the history of Christianity as a whole, and comparing it with the rest of world history, I don't think Christians have all that much to apologize for. What other force in human history has brought so much good into the world? Who can take the merest glance at antiquity, and especially the classical world-- a world of tremendous sophisitication, in many ways-- and not feel struck, like the blast of heat from a furnance, with the great cruelty, vainglory, bigotry, misogyny, ruthlessness and ambition which was entirely unabashed at that time? Why should Christians apologize for making a great part of the world accept that charity, humility, chastity, forgiveness, and chivalry were noble things? Why should Christians apologize for all the hospitals, schools, universities and refuges that Christians brought into being-- often when there was no equivalent anywhere? Why should Christians apologize for the contribution of monastic orders to scholarship, sanctuary, provision for the poor and the preservation and advance of Western civilization?

(It was especially cringe-inducing to see Father Michael Mernagh straining every nerve to endear himself to the female atheist, glancing over at her ingratiatingly as he lambasted the Church for its treatment of women and pointed out, over and over, that it was men who were mostly to blame for the crimes of Christianity. I know that these are strong words, and I use them advisedly. I am sure Father Mernagh is a much, much better human being than I am, and a fine priest, but this spectacle was simply painful to watch.)

Yes, an atheist can be (and often is) just as good a person as a Christian. But it's not as simple as that. The Christian has (most probably) a higher standard of morality to live up to. He is expected to forgive his enemies, to extend his charity to all, to never lie, to aspire towards sexual purity, and to strive to be morally perfect. No matter how far he falls short of this, the ideal itself tends to have an elevating effect. And it could easily be argued that society has declined in many measurable respects along with the decline of Christianity-- the murder rate, for instance, or the prevalence of easily-accessible pornography.

Having spent so long bashing the religious believers (for bashing religious belivers), I should also mention that the other guests on the show-- and the bould Vincent himself-- were not exactly scintillating. Michael Nugent, the head honcho of Atheist Ireland, is always civilized and courteous, and he dutifully made the obvious and fair arguments against religious belief. But he also made the futile and cheap argument that Christianity was partly to blame for the rise to power of the Nazis, as centuries of Christianity had schooled the Germans to unthinkingly obey authority. But what society is without authority? The same argument could be made against any social system whatsoever-- Christian, Nazi, communist or Confucian. The female atheist who appeared last night (I'm sorry I can't find her name, either) was also civil, but said nothing of any great insight or originality. Vincent Browne himself was playing the role of the bewildered plain-speaking atheist, desperately trying to pin the believers down to some definite statement of belief. His religious guests played into his hands admirably.

Worst of all, perhaps, none of the participants seemed to have prepared for the discussion to any appreciable extent. The whole thing had the air of a pub debate. Everything was discussed in the most general of terms, with hardly any focus upon specifics.

All in all, a huge disappointment. A series of intelligent televized debates on the subject of religion would be a wonderful addition to the Irish airwaves. Challenging God is not that series.

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