An unexpected allegory

“What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can’t move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.”  Douglas Adams

I was writing an essay about thankfulness, how the Bible says that we should be thankful in all circumstances. We are not thankful for all circumstances, of course. We are not thankful for sin or evil or suffering. But in all circumstances we can be thankful and we should be thankful. I remembered a quip from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series on that topic. When I couldn’t find it in the books, I explored the internet, and I discovered the version above, which was used in the radio show before it appeared in a different form in one of the books and in the movie. I would have preferred that he spoke of being thankful rather than lucky, but I think that the illustration is valid.

I meant the quip to be no more than an attention-gathering introduction. As I wrote the essay, I listed many reasons we should be thankful—food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so forth. I pointed out the number of times we complain about these things instead of being thankful for them. I added that I didn’t intend to make people feel guilty for their times of ingratitude. After all, when we stand before God for judgment, he has much bigger sins to call to our attention. Ingratitude is hardly the greatest of our sins. But, all the same, we should rejoice in God’s blessings even in the hardest of situations.

I wanted to make a transition from the blessings of creation, through the idea of the coming Judgment, to the blessings of redemption. Something was missing. Then the introductory quote from Douglas Adams reappeared. We are trapped in a hole in the ground. That hole is our sins of omission—the times that we have not done those things God commanded us to do. We are trapped under a giant boulder. That boulder is our sins of commission—the many times we have done those things God commanded us not to do. We cannot remove the boulder or emerge from the hole. We are truly trapped. The best we can do is count our blessings, whatever they may be.

The greatest blessing is a Redeemer who lifts the boulder from us and bears it away. He takes it on himself to set us free. How far does he remove our sins? “As far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). The earth has a north pole and a south pole, but if a traveler starts heading east or west, that traveler can go on forever without ending—there will still be more to the east or more to the west. Our sins are removed from us by an infinite distance.

Jesus pulls us out of the hole in the ground, cleans the dirt off us, and puts us on our feet. His forgiveness is complete and unconditional. The boulder is gone, and we have been taken out of the hole in the ground. The blessings of forgiveness, of life, and of victory over all our enemies belong to us because of the work of our Redeemer.

And just imagine: a quip from the atheist, Douglas Adams, became an allegory of the work of our divine Savior! J.

Christ in Genesis: In the Beginning

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Traditionally, Christians think of God the Father as the Creator—“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (The Apostles’ Creed). Yet Genesis 1:2 tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The LORD was present. The Spirit of the LORD was present. What of the Angel of the LORD? We know from the New Testament that he was also present. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3); “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17). He is called the firstborn, not because he came into being in time—for the Son of God is eternal, without beginning or ending, and unchanging—but because the Father has granted him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:19). Because “all things were created through him and for him,” we can regard creation as a gift of love which God the Father made for his Son.

John’s Gospel refers to Jesus as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John chose the Greek word “logos,” which had a special meaning to some Roman philosophers. They thought of the “logos” as an all-pervading principle of the universe—not a god, but in some ways greater than all the Roman gods. Chinese philosophers describe the Dao in similar terms: “There was something undefined and yet complete in itself; born before heaven and earth. Silent and boundless, standing alone without change, yet pervading all without fail. It can be regarded as the Mother of the world. I do not know its name; I style it the Dao, and, in the absence of a better word, call it The Great” (Daodejing  25).

But “logos,” meaning Word, reminds us also how God created. He spoke things into being. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God is all-powerful. He cannot lie, not simply because he is too good to lie, but because everything he says happens. (Therefore, when God says, “you are forgiven,” you can be certain that you are truly forgiven.) Jesus is the Word of God, the agent through whom all things were created. Yet he is not an impersonal logos or Dao: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Creation was formless and empty when God first created it. In three days, the formless became formed. First, God said, “Let there be light,” creating both energy and matter (for, as we know, matter can be converted into energy and vice versa, as Albert Einstein first described) as well as time and space (for those cannot exist apart from energy and matter). Then he separated the waters above from the waters below, and afterward he caused dry land to rise out of the water and covered it with vegetation.

After three days creation was formed, but it was still empty. God filled the light he had created, making the sun and all the other stars, the moon, and everything else in the vastness of the universe that emits light or reflects light. Next he filled the sky with flying creatures and the waters below with swimming creatures. Finally, he filled the land with walking and crawling creatures. As a culmination of all this creation, God made the first man and the first women. Six times, while he was creating, God described his creation as “good.” When he had made the first man and the first woman, he changed his description to “very good.”

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move” (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, chapter 1).  Some religious movements, such as the Gnostics, agree that the physical world is bad. Genesis says that creation is good—and that, with human beings living in it, creation is very good. Evil was not created by god, although it entered creation by distorting what is good. At its core, creation is good. Therefore, on the Day of the Lord, his creation will be restored, complete with everything that was good when God first made it. Lions and wolves and lambs and oxen are described in the new creation, and even cobras (Isaiah 11:6-9); I am sure that dogs and cats and goldfish will be there as well.

The first man and the first woman were both made in the image of God. Some people imagine this phrase to imply a recursion in which the body of Jesus was the model for Adam’s body, but then Jesus was born with such a body because he inherited it from Adam’s lineage. However, God said “let us make,” suggesting that the image of God is held by all three Persons, not just by the Son of God, the Word who became flesh. What then is the image of God? Several suggestions can be made. God is creative, and human beings also create. God is good, and human beings were created to be good. God is wise and all-knowing, and human beings are created to seek wisdom and knowledge. God is holy, and human beings also are meant to be holy.

Many adjectives describe God, including creative, good, wise, all-knowing, and holy. However, the Bible says that “God is love” (I John 4:8). God is not creation, or goodness, or knowledge, or holiness. Nor is God power or glory. He possesses all these things, but “God is love.” Love is at the very nature of God. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Had God created nothing, love would still be at the very nature of God. Therefore, human beings were created for love. We were created to love God and to love each other. We were created to do good things for the glory of God and for the good of one another (Ephesians 2:10). When Jesus became flesh and lived among us, he showed us the image of God by loving his Father perfectly and bringing glory to him. He showed us the image of God by loving the people around them and serving them for their benefit.

When God said, “Let there be light,” he knew each of us by name. He knew how we could glorify him and help each other, each with a unique set of abilities and resources and opportunities. He knew how we would fail to love, fail to glorify, and fail to help. He knew the price he would have to pay to redeem us. When God rested, while creation was still very good, he knew that his rest prefigured the Sabbath when Jesus would rest—his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father.

Yet, knowing all these things, God decided that creation was worthwhile. He loved us enough—in spite of everything he knew about us—to create the heavens and the earth, to begin the process that would bring the Son of God into the world to suffer and die for sinners, and to move toward the new creation where once again everything will be very good. God knew about you, and he said you were worth the trouble of creation and of redemption. Therefore, God spoke the Word by whom all things were made.

Book report: The God Delusion

 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.

Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).

I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.

Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.

Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.

Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.

Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.

When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.

Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.

To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been a radio play, a series of books, a television show, a computer game, a feature movie, and two or three other things. Douglas Adams has been the genius behind all its incarnations, including the movie, although it came out after he had died. In each incarnation Adams changed various aspects of the story. He was constantly inventing new characters and new situations, tailoring his story to fit the various media he was using.
For the few people on earth who have never encountered any version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it is the story of Arthur Dent, an earthman whose best friend is from another planet. This friend, Ford Prefect, rescues Arthur on the day that the earth is blown up to make room for a hyperspatial express route. Ford is a researcher for the Guide, and he is a proficient hitchhiker. Traveling with Ford, Arthur meets a host of odd characters, including Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Slartibartfast, and Marvin the melancholy robot. Arthur remains bemused by all his experiences, and generally no one else can figure out how to deal with Arthur.
Through the Hitchhiker’s Guide, in all its various manifestations, Adams skewers many aspects of life on earth, including science, religion, technology, the rules of writing, romance, adventure, and economics. His productions might be characterized as dark comedy, given the destruction of the planet Earth in the first act of the story. If there is a general message to the story of the Hitchhiker’s Guide—and I’m not saying Adams intended to preach a moral; he was more likely just enjoying the fun of developing a good story—that message would be that the universe is so absurd that it is better to laugh at it than to cry over it.
Probably the largest number of Hitchhiker fans came to know Douglas Adams and his story through the books. In the first three books of the trilogy, the action is fast with little character development. In the fourth volume (I know that trilogy means three volumes, but part of the joke is to call the five books a trilogy.), Arthur has considerably more positive and uplifting experiences than he had endured up to that point. The fifth book of the trilogy is written in a far different style, with fewer slapstick antics and much more development of characters, setting, and plot. On the other hand, the fifth book returns to the dark and gloomy view of life, the universe, and everything, a gloominess that was missing from book four.
Many fans of the books did not like the movie, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur, Trillian, and the other characters seem more likeable on screen than in the books. The story takes a more hopeful path, and the film seems almost to have a sunny disposition, although much of the absurdity and gloom remain. Many of the best lines in the book were left out of the movie script, although I believe that they worked better on paper and might not have been as strong in the movie. In the end, Douglas Adams was very much in charge of the movie script, and he chose to tell his story the way he told it in the movie, just as he changed the story from radio to book to television show.
It may seem odd that a committed Christian like me would enjoy the writing of an atheist like Douglas Adams, especially when Adams openly mocks God and religion. I guess it is odd, but many of the artists I enjoy—Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and John Lennon, to name just two—share Adams’ outlook. I regret their lack of faith, but I admire their talent and enjoy their work nonetheless. Perhaps I can enjoy the dark and absurd universe of Douglas Adams precisely because I have a greater hope than he had.
J.