Posts Tagged ‘Rowan Williams’

Who has standing to bring a charge against God?

May 23, 2015

My friend Tom, a lawyer in Dallas, made a point about suffering in my previous post that reminds me of something I read in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, wrote an op-ed in an English newspaper saying that whenever a natural disaster like this tsunami strikes, it shakes our faith, causing us to question our faith in God.

One popular British columnist wrote a response to the archbishop: “Who is he kidding? Churches were full the Sunday following the tsunami!” We Americans saw the same phenomenon in the weeks following 9/11.

In my own experience ministering to sufferers and the people who love them, I more often see people’s faith in God strengthened during these times. Yet, when it comes to questions of theodicy, skeptics often become indignant toward God, not on their own behalf, but on behalf of others.

As Tom observes, the indignant skeptics don’t have proper standing to do so:

Also, another point you make, i.e., that we have to ask, “Is this unfair to ME?”, as opposed to, “Is this unfair to somebody else?”, is similar to the legal doctrine of “standing.” Generally speaking, you can’t bring a challenge to a law that does not affect YOU in some way. It is up to some other person who is affected by the law to bring up the challenge, if any. Too many people who bring charges against God look at “the people in Africa.” Let those in Africa make such charges. From their perspective, they may not believe they have any more grounds to charge God with “unfairness” than we do based on our own experiences. Especially if they are Christians to begin with, i.e., to have any God to challenge in the first instance.

Sermon for 03-04-12: “The E-Word, Part 1”

March 7, 2012

In this two-part sermon series starting today, I talk about a word that makes many Methodists uncomfortable: the E-word… evangelism. Whereas we Methodists distinguish ourselves as Christians who love and serve so many people in our world, we are often reluctant to say “why” we do it. Yet the need to say why has never been greater.

Increasingly, people in our community don’t understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. We can be confident, however, that if they knew, many of them would say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In fact, many of them are waiting for people like us to help show them the way.

Sermon Text: John 4:19-39

Last week, at Oxford University, the very famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, debated Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There weren’t many fireworks in the debate. It was a polite and respectful conversation—which isn’t a surprise given how kind and gentle a man the archbishop is. But something remarkable did happen. Dawkins admitted that he is not actually an atheist. He is merely an agnostic: while he doesn’t think God exists, he’s unwilling to say for sure.

This was a remarkable admission. But what was more remarkable was how Dawkins responded when asked how certain he was that there wasn’t a God—to put a number on it, to give us the odds. He said that, in his opinion, the odds against God’s existence were 6.9 out of 7. Read the rest of this entry »

One more word on Dawkins-Williams

March 7, 2012

I finally listened to the entire conversation between Dawkins and Williams. I was struck again by how polite and collegial it was. Both men, along with the moderator, philosopher Anthony Kenny, sought to actually understand one another. Each was more often nodding his head at the other, as opposed to shaking it in disagreement. This debate was refreshingly out of step with its time—and, I must add, contrary to the tone and spirit of Dawkins’s usual public persona and his words in The God Delusion.

As I said earlier, there were few sparks and little heat in the conversation, at least until the last 20 minutes, when Kenny turned the discussion to the origin of the universe. One question from the audience wondered if it would have been better for the biblical writers to remain silent on the question of how humanity began, and did these authors essentially “get it wrong”?

Here’s Williams’s response.

I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were faced with a set of options including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do twenty-first century physics. They were inspired to pass onto their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here but I might as well come clean. [Laughter all around.] And that means reading the first book of the Bible. What I look for is the basic information: the universe depends upon God and God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humanity has made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, and that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture “getting it wrong” in the sense that there was lots of information available, and they happened to get on the wrong bits of it.

Following these words, Dawkins said,

I’m baffled by the way sophisticated theologians, who know perfectly well that Adam and Eve never existed, still carry on talking about it as though it had some profound wisdom to impart to us in an allegorical sense—that I presume is what you mean?

Williams pointed out that reading Genesis in an allegorical way—rather than as a strictly historical or scientific account—is not a twenty-first century invention; the church has always read it allegorically (regardless what they thought of it as literal history). In other words, no one is “reinterpreting” Genesis for the modern era; this is the way theologians have always read it. It was always valued far beyond its historical value. To this, Dawkins said,

But I don’t understand why you really bother, because when you think back to who wrote Genesis, they were not… there was no reason to think that they possessed any particular wisdom or knowledge. Why would you want to waste your time reinterpreting Genesis to make sense of it in the twenty-first century? Why not just stick to twenty-first century science?

Williams said, “If I want to answer twenty-first century scientific questions, then I stick to twenty-first century science. If I want to understand my moral and spiritual position in the universe, then I reserve the right go back to Genesis.” Dawkins asked again, before the moderator cut him off and moved on, “How does it help” to place any value on the biblical account?

Unless Dawkins were being disingenuous, he misunderstood Williams’s point: science can answer scientific questions perfectly well, but there are other, even more interesting questions that the Bible answers. Science, by definition, is unequipped to answer those questions. If the God of Christianity were true, however, then the Bible, not science, would be a fitting place to look for answers.

What stubborn sort of scientism fails to get this? Or fails to imagine these other questions to begin with? Or acts as if they’re irrelevant or uninteresting? Maybe Dawkins is a good writer based on his pre-God Delusion work (I wouldn’t know), but he’s no poet. Believe or disbelieve in God all you want. But don’t imagine that the deepest longings of human beings are easily satisfied by saying, “It’s all a cosmic accident. What’s the big deal?”

Is this anything other than a spectacular failure of imagination—not to mention human empathy—on Dawkins’s part? I’m giving him more credit than his plain words deserve, but I can’t believe that Dawkins is that shallow. Is he?

More on the Dawkins-Williams debate

March 6, 2012

I made reference in Sunday’s sermon to the polite conversation at Oxford between celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Since the only book I’ve read by Dawkins is the execrable God Delusion, I’m not inclined to be as generous toward the man as my friend Kevin Hargaden in this post. Nevertheless, Kevin is such a skillful writer and thinker, he usually gets my attention—as he does here:

In seriousness, Dawkins has won his reputation as a public intellectual on merit. But it comes from the biology work he did in the early 1980′s and not the stuff he has been increasingly consumed with these last two decades. The God Delusion is a truly horrendous book and it rather took the funk out of Dawkins’ reputation. He is just, it seems, another Daniel Dennett with a nicer accent. His atheism is a variety of logical positivism crossed with neo-liberal sociology wrapped up in a paper thin adoration of an unreasonable thing called “Reason“. He is bound in advance to win every engagement on the terms he sets. But he is mute in the face of Capuchins dedicating their life to helping the homeless or local churches rallying around the families left behind after suicide. Such things are merely voluntary acts of random kindness in his world view. He avoided any public engagement with Christians that wasn’t a debate and he avoided any Christians that actually speak for the global church. Hence he seeks out the Haggards and creationist nutters. That way, he avoided Christianity.

Attacking the “modern cult of atheism”

October 22, 2011

In the overheated prose of the Telegraph (a UK paper), the Archbishop of Canterbury “launched a fierce attack” this week on “the modern cult of atheism.” All I can say is, I hope so!

Dr Williams described Prof Dawkins as a “lively and attractive writer” but said his arguments were not fully engaging with religion.

He suggested that Prof Dawkins, the author of the best-selling The God Delusion and a leading Darwinist, was a good scientist but a poor philosopher.

“Our culture is one that deeply praises science, so we assume because someone is a good scientist, they must be a good philosopher,” he said in a lecture at Swansea University.

Inspiring Facebook posts, Part 2

July 23, 2011

From my friend Mike (click to enlarge):

I responded with a quote from Rowan Williams, which I find to be profoundly true and (therefore) deeply Christian:

“God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to me as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself. That is the lifeblood of what I believe.”

Another good response to that Hawking interview

May 18, 2011

One reader named James Petticrew at Roger Olson’s blog responds to Monday’s Stephen Hawking interview in a very sensible way:

It some times amuses me and at other times frustrates me that the media in the UK treat Hawkings as the national equivalent of Mr Data on Star Trek the Next Generation. He is hyper intelligent scientist and so must have the answer to all questions. I have listened to him on several interviews and he goes beyond anything I can comprehend when he talks about physics but when it comes to his answers to philosophical questions his answers are not heavy weight at all.

It says a great deal about our news editors that they choose to ask him questions like these, don’t remember the last time they asked Rowan Williams a question on advanced physics!

For readers on this side of the Atlantic who may not know, Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England—and not to mention a world-renowned theologian and writer.

“Where did God come from?”

May 9, 2011

The archbishop answers tough questions!

This is a question that a child at church asked me recently—and truthfully, at least one of my own kids has asked me the same question. I try to avoid answering it, because what can I say that wouldn’t sound a bit crazy? We who live in a world of “things,” who are things ourselves, and who can only naturally perceive things, have a difficult time speaking of God in a way that doesn’t reduce God to a thing.

Only things come from somewhere; since God isn’t, God doesn’t. The question itself is a category mistake.


How relieved I am, therefore, that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Anglican churches, bravely answered a similar question addressed to God by a six-year-old named Lulu (“To God, How did you get invented?”), which was sent to him by her father. Read about it here. In a letter to Lulu, the archbishop wrote:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan