On a sermon at Duke University chapel

Guest post by Eric MacDonald

Take the point that he makes just at the end, where he speaks of Jeremiah’s idea of god making constant adaptations. He speaks of the vessel broken in the potter’s hands, and then he says this:

This is the story of Israel: the vessel was broken, the covenant was spoiled, and God made something beautiful by fashioning it into a pot shaped around the Jew named Jesus.

Notice how he simply runs the Jewish scriptures and the Christian Jesus together, without acknowledging the theft, without even acknowledging that Jesus has nothing to do with Jeremiah’s potter, nor with the story of Israel. That was a Christian structure built on Jewish foundations, a clear act of plagiarism.

But then he goes on in the same arrogant vein to say:

This is your story. Your life was spoiled, your pot was cracked, your hopes were broken, your plans were ruined; and God the potter made something that could never have been out of something that should never have been.

No, I can tell Dr. Wells my story. My story is of a life that was spoiled and hopes that were broken and plans ruined, not by acts of sinfulness, but by the capriciousness of life, the contigency of our brief and uncertain stay. And if a god is in charge of this, then he made something that should never have been out of something that could have been.

Just one more quote:

In science Christians can find a pattern, and a logic, with analogies and parallels to the very purpose of God. They can see depth, and complexity, and diversity, and simplicity, that together reflect the activity and character of God.

This is all fantasy, of course. But let me respond to these words with the anguished words of C.S. Lewis. Not many people quote these words, because they believe that Lewis took them all back at the end of the book. But you can’t take words like these back. Of course, he does wave his magic wand around, and supposes that he has solved the problem, but you can’t solve problems like this with magic wands. There is no magic, and Lewis was not a magician, despite The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The book is A Grief Observed. Lewis’ wife had just died in great pain. She had cancer of the bone. He asks himself the question:

Why should the separation [of lover and beloved] … which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs? ¶ ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God.

It’s Epicurus’ old conundrum, of course. But Lewis doesn’t solve it. He makes it clearer. If pain here is consistent with God’s love, then there can be no guarantee that, if we go to be with God, there will be no more pain there. God’s goodness is consistent with it after all. That’s the way that evidence works. That’s the way that science uses evidence. Dr. Wells doesn’t get to use it in a different way. If the character of God is shown, as Wells says, in the world that science reveals to us, then God is as cruel and capricious as the world is. It’s just that simple, and if he can’t see that, then he doesn’t understand it either.

In fact, the world without science is crueller and much more uncertain. It was not God’s intervention that made things better. Things only started to get better, and then, of course, only relatively better, when science began to unlock the secrets of the natural world. To suppose that there is any useful relationship between religion and science is a simple dream, a theological fantasy.

That’s why Wells’ comment about the arts and philosophy is so silly. Whereas theology certainly has no foundation, philosophy and literature and the arts do. Wells simply misunderstands the scientific critique of religion. Science doesn’t dismiss the arts or philosophy or so many other things that enrich human life. These things can be dealt with critically. We can seek to understand how and why music or literature or poetry moves us and makes us more fully human, and there are critical disciplines which address themselves to these questions. But religion is the one thing that has no critical basis, nothing that we can point to, nothing that we can use to give it determinate shape and meaning. Religious literature or music or architecture can be enjoyed. We can analyse it and assess its value and profundity. But religion itself is mere froth on the surface of the beautiful things that religious people have created. They are human things, like novels and poems, plays and movies, symphonies and concertos, and they play a part in the cultural life of human beings.

But the religious part of religion is empty. There is no god, and no gods. These were just imaginary beings created to account for the wonder of being alive in the flesh and conscious. So, Wells is right. We do want to expose religion’s pretences and its follies. It has no place at the university, except in so far as it can be studied scientifically, as a comparative anthropological or historical study, or in so much as it can be explained by psychology and cognitive science. Anyone who preaches such nonsense at a university should expect to be exposed for the charlatan that he so obviously is.

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