Perhaps we should give Sam Harris the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he is only being satirical, which he is of course, but he is also betraying something else about his stage of world view development. The above statement is classic behaviour for someone in Stage Three of Fowler’s Faith Development16 categories, where reality is experienced via the lens of a kind of naïve realism in the genre of the Russian cosmonaut who got out into orbit and said that he did not see God out there. In one way Harris is doing the Christian world a favour by speaking on the same level as Christian adults who are living in the stark black and white of Fowler’s Stage Three. But what of a faith that is living in Stage Five, which it is much more ready and open to God’s ‘mystery, unavailability and strangeness as well as God’s closeness and clarity’17?
That conversation can be pursued at some other time. For now we will consider the absurdities of this Stage Three Type Atheism, which is actually damaging the faith of numbers of adults who have stubbornly refused to see what is happening and hold on for dear life to their own embarrassingly immature Stage Three faith. As a good friend once said, ‘When Sunday school christianity meets university atheism, truth becomes a casualty.’ Although I would add that the atheism here is also Sunday School level.
If you look back over the last 14.6 billion years, by the (supposedly ironic, but actually shallow) logic of Sam Harris, God is an environmental destroyer, a slayer of beautiful old dinosaurs, a star killer and even a murderer of human beings, and oh yeah… I forgot, he performs ‘abortions’. The difference of course is that God is also the ultimate owner of each of these and is perfectly within his rights to extinguish not just the babies but all of us right now—for these collections of atoms called ‘you’ and ‘me’ are only held in existence by his grace. One of the great offences felt by a materialist, secular world is the issue of ownership and authority. If anything drives this coca cola culture wild with rage it is the idea that they in fact have no real intrinsic rights of their own. We were not consulted about whether we would be born and about the script that would be prepared for us. We have no right to even exist and this universe itself is an unnecessary indulgence by a God who is a free, personal spirit, infinite, beyond change and unlimited by time and space. It’s not that God is everywhere, he is the everywhere itself and there cannot be anything beyond or apart from this Great Spirit who sees and knows all things past, present and future—and who even loves us if we will allow him to and not just sulk about this fiction called ‘our rights’.
God! How embarrassing we must look to the the animals, the trees and the stars. And back on Sam’s point again … the Owner is well within their rights to not just send in and take out swathes of dinosaurs, comets and humanoid creatures, but to also prescribe the way that human beings treat the trees and birds and each another, for we are not God.
Our problem is in actually admitting that ancestors who were around for maybe a couple of million years—but did not have iPods—might actually have something to tell us. In ancient times the concept of taboo was one of the first ideas that human language tried to express. There were no social scientists there trying to engineer it. It pushed itself to the surface of human consciousness the way a bud pushes out of the stem of a plant as a natural expression of what it is to be a plant. The experience of the taboo is a natural expression of what it is to be human. W.F Albright says that this concept, which was first expressed in the ancient word ‘herem’28 referred to something that was so terrifying you went to great lengths to avoid it, but at the same time so beautiful you longed to be close to it. It was about all relationships—human to human, human to animal, human to god, human to plant and earth and so on—and had potential for great harm or great joy.
We stereotype goodness one dimensionally as all about Santa Claus and babies, but it has teeth and claws and a stripy tail as well. How else would the, ‘demons believe and tremble?’29 It is passionate, violent and beautiful as well as kind. Ancient cultures discovered from terrifying experience that there is a fearful and captivating mystery out there, that on the one hand loves us almost obsessively, talking as if we are its much sought after princess; but on the other hand seems careless of soft human flesh and sensitive nerve endings.
The collective memory of societies warns us about this through fairy stories and through what CS Lewis describes as the Tao (moral law code). These writings are sometimes just dreadful examples of politically corrupted texts for the use of tyrants, but not uncommonly they read more like the experimental log books of great men and women passing on treasured knowledge gleaned from thousands of years of expensive and sometimes astonishingly beautiful experiences.
They are impregnated with the raw experience of ecstasy, joy, murder and rape. They are the voice of the universe and its maker, and are well summarised by the words of three people: Elizabeth Barrett-Browning who said, ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. Those who see take off their shoes while the rest sit around and eat black berries’; Solomon, who said, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’; and Jeremiah, who said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.’ In other words, ‘Cultivate and enjoy the pure goodness and absolute delights of heaven that fill your body and this earth; fear the Lord; and face the fact of a desperate evil that lurks inside you.’
Our ancestors had their blind spots and hypocrisies—like any age. But when you read some of their writings, you realise that we have our own blind spots, which, as CS Lewis said, ‘have everyone running around with sandbags when a fire is coming and everyone running around with fire extinguishers when there is a flood coming’. Lewis went further to say that the ‘important issues in society are not the one being debated but the ones being assumed’.
Our problem of course is in faithfully translating what God is actually telling us, admitting where we are unsure, and acknowledging where nothing has been said—and we have a poor record at that, even with one another. Yes, the atheists do ‘bold and brazen’ with joy! and it looks like so much fun … for a while. But the atheist world needs to know that it has a long history of bloody solutions. Even Vladimir Lenin (towards the end of his life) said that what Russia really needed was ten St. Francis of Assissi’s. The entire Soviet experiment tells us that it’s dangerous to be ignorant of or to laugh at what are often derided as fairy stories—but then it is also dangerous to laugh at ‘real fairy stories’.
And there are so many such stories, all telling the same sad tale of proud and bold ‘new thinkers’ inspiring us to cast caution to the wind and ignore the warnings from the old prophets. The goddess wisdom in the old testament could have been speaking to the Soviet empire, the British Empire, and our modern secular empire when she gave one of the most disturbing warnings in the Old Testament: ‘Wisdom shouts in the streets for a hearing, she calls out to crowds along main street and to the judges in their courts and to everyone in the land. “How long will you go on being fools? How long will you scoff at wisdom and fight the facts? Come here and listen to me. I have called you so often but still you won’t come. I have pleaded but all in vain. For you have spurned my counsel and rebuke. Mock me will you? I’ll mock you! When a storm of terror surrounds you, I’ll laugh. And when you are engulfed by anguish and distress, I will not answer your cry for help. Though you search for me ever so diligently you will not find me. You must eat the bitter fruit of having your own way and experience the full measure of the pathway you have chosen. Your own complacency will kill you.” *
Interestingly, it was this passage that John Newton’s mother made him memorise as a boy. Then one night, years later, when he was a hard drinking slave trader—in the middle of a ship-wrecking storm on the Atlantic ocean—it came back to him and broke his pride. From there he called out to God and met the lover of all souls. Many who read this will know the rest of the story and the song he wrote called ‘Amazing Grace’.