Is Christianity a Delusion?

(This is Neil.) In February’s Matins services at Westminster Abbey, the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky preached on Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (I posted on Marilynne Robinson’s review here). Fr Sagovsky focused on what Dawkins considers to be the four functions of religion: explanation, exhortation, consolation, and inspiration

The first sermon, then, is on religion as explanation. Obviously, Christianity does make some important claims about the universe, but Fr Sagovsky suggests that, on the whole, religious knowledge is a different kind of knowledge than scientific knowledge. This becomes evident when we realize that “Christianity begins with Jesus Christ and his summons to discipleship.” What sort of knowledge commences with a “summons to discipleship”? 

Fr Sagovsky writes: 

In this sense the New Testament is like a play of Shakespeare: like a Shakespeare play, it is clear that it comes from a different time when there was a different worldview. But also like some of the best-loved plays of Shakespeare, it has a central character whose life and death engages us completely – so completely that we, as it were, become not just spectators, but participants in the action. We say, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God'; we say ‘Crucify him;’ and we say, ‘My Lord and my God’. And as we do so, we find new, Jesus-centred explanations as to why we experience life the way we do. Not scientific explanations, but not irrational either. 

The second sermon is on religion as moral exhortation. Obviously, Christianity asserts certain recognizable moral values, but Fr Sagovsky here suggests that Christianity has a distinct morality that cannot be neatly separated from the religion itself. Christianity, then, is not primarily about supporting a common morality acceptable to any rational person, but an entirely new and potentially disruptive way of experiencing the world that is affirmed and performed in the liturgy. This remade world carries its own moral implications, but these cannot be taken for granted or grasped at a distance. 

Fr Sagovsky writes: 

Dawkins does his cause a disservice by misdescribing the relation between religion and morality: it is not that religion reinforces a pre-existent morality; rather that each religion empowers its adherents to act in society according to its own distinctive morality (which may well overlap with the morality of other religions, as with the ‘golden rule’ to treat others as you would have them treat you. This is common to all the major monotheistic religions.) In the case of Christianity, the morality which we struggle to enact is based upon the teaching of Jesus, who constantly challenges the religious values of his own time: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Mt 5: 43-5)’ 

The third sermon is on religion as consolation. Professor Dawkins believes that we console ourselves through belief in an imaginary God. Fr Sagovsky thinks that Dawkins misses two things. First, Christianity’s consolation is essentially tied to the claim that it is actually true – “that these teachings give a secure foundation for the hope that ‘death is swallowed up in victory.’” One cannot believe in Christianity as a fairy tale. Second, the consolation of Christianity acts to strengthen the believer, sometimes in difficult and painful ways. Sagovsky notes that Dawkins has nothing to say about the costly and courageous witness of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Archbishop Romero. 

Fr Sagovsky notes that Professor Dawkins does not identify just what it is in Christianity that is consoling. The answer is counterintuitive – it is the Cross. This means two things. We realize that Christianity does not lead its followers to the religious violence that Dawkins rightly decries, but rather to the refusal to engage in such violence: 

When Jesus was crucified he did not respond violently, but prayed ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ In the same way, Stephen, the first Christian martyr is depicted dying with words of forgiveness and trust on his lips. Amongst the things the Early Church remembered and passed on about Jesus was that ‘when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Pet 2:23).

Second, the Cross consoles us because “it tells us there is no depth of human suffering that is beyond the reach of God in Christ.” Christ is risen; Christ is still with us. And so, Christianity does something that Dawkins does not mention – it celebrates.

Fr Sagovsky notes that Professor Dawkins does not say very much about inspiration at all. To Christians, it is the Cross that inspires, “because in the death of Christ we see an unparalleled enactment of what it means to live and die without bitterness, with trust, forgiveness and hope.”

In the fourth sermon, Fr Sagovsky notes that Professor Dawkins is opposed to the “supernatural,” which tends to mean “something which is contrary to the natural,” inevitably unnatural or irrational: 

It cuts across or disrupts the natural – but if that happens lots of times, as, say, with unexpected results from a scientific experiment, we must then look for a way of explaining those results scientifically, that is from within the realm of the natural. The supernatural is left to plug the gaps in our scientific knowledge: this is how we get left with a ‘God of the gaps’. 

This way of thinking is immediately problematic. As Fr Sagovsky reminds us, “For Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the key Christian thinker about the relation between the natural and the supernatural, the supernatural does not run counter to the natural, but is the condition of the natural being there at all.” Perhaps we should use “metaphysical” instead of “supernatural.” The point is that we should not imagine the “supernatural” as an interruption or replacement of the “natural,” but we do need, if we are to speak fully about our world, “a language that goes beyond or transcends the language which describes mere stuff.”  

Fr Sagovsky writes:

If I were to talk about God as a supernatural creative intelligence, I would not at all intend by that to describe realities or processes which cut across, subvert or overrule the natural. I would be trying to talk about realities or processes which help us better understand what constitutes the natural. It’s rather like trying to describe a human being. You can describe the sort of hair she has, the colour of her eyes, the colour of her skin, the kind of clothes she wears, the job she does and so on – but if you do not talk about her character you won’t have talked about her as a person, as a whole. We need a word like ‘character’ (even though you can’t see or touch a character) to talk about what makes this human being herself, to speak about the depth of her humanity. In the same way, for Christians, to speak about the depth of Jesus’s humanity, we need the language of spirit or of divinity. To speak about the depth of nature we need the language of supernature, metaphysical language.

What, concretely, is this “depth of nature”? Fr Sagovsky continues: 

[T]here are other questions – questions such as ‘What is living really all about?’ or ‘What makes an admirable human being? or ‘What constitutes Art?’ or ‘Who am I?’ – for which [Dawkins] has no answer, and for which a different kind of language is needed – the language we have traditionally called ‘metaphysical’. 

Comments (including criticisms) are always welcome.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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