Where are we going?

I lifted this sermon preached at Duke last Sunday from Jerry. I’m always lifting items from Jerry. What can I tell you? He finds interesting stuff. There’s a lot of irritating nonsense in the sermon, so there are leftovers for me to work on.

It’s nice to have an actual sermon, as opposed to something written for a media outlet. It’s nice to get confirmation that clerics really do talk nonsense in their sermons without having to go to church to listen to them do it.

The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books, from a variety of authors, attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time. This movement has been called “The New Atheism.” It believes religion should no longer be tolerated but should be exposed, challenged and refuted at every opportunity, with a conviction founded on scientific certainty.

That’s not a leftover, but I have a couple of things to say about it. One, it’s offensively obtuse and partial and entitled. This “virulent” “series of books” amounts to about ten on a generous counting; the number of books attacking atheism with “virulence” is much much much greater than ten, yet this Reverend Sam Wells thinks the atheist books are an outrage while the anti-atheist books aren’t even worth noticing. In other words he has a blatant double standard (as do pretty much all the gnu atheist-haters). He simply assumes that a flood of religious and anti-secular books is perfectly routine and acceptable, while a tiny (though popular) blip of atheist books is something he gets to complain about.

Two, he is wrong and stupid and illiberal to claim that tolerance of religion excludes exposing and challenging it. He is wrong and stupid and illiberal to imply that tolerance of religion rules out exposing and challenging it. He is illiberal and rather bad to try to persuade other people of that.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God as a potter, handling and cherishing the clay, and making something beautiful out of clay that has been deformed or damaged. The Christian life begins when we realize that we are that clay.

But we aren’t that clay. We can’t “realize” we are that clay, because we aren’t. We aren’t clay at all, and we have no reason to think we are something that was handled and cherished by someone named “God.” That’s clearly supposed to pass as some kind of quasi-metaphoric claim but also as a quasi-factual one – otherwise the bit about the “Christian life” just makes no sense. We’re always being told that liberal believers don’t believe in the goddy version of “God” – but what else is God as a potter making us? It’s more literal than it sounds to people who have been trained to hear such things with an indulgent ear.

 The relationship between science and theology is like clay: it’s moist and full of potential, and if cherished should become something beautiful. But currently this clay is spoiled in our hands.

How could a (much less “the”) relationship between science and theology become something beautiful? What kind of something? They always say things like that, but they never spell out what they mean. What can theology offer to science?

It’s fascinating to ask, “Where do we come from?” – but isn’t it at least as interesting, and perhaps more urgent, to ask, “Where are we going?” Theologians at this point hold no naïve optimism that as a species or as a universe we’re intrinsically heading for candyland. We’re sinners, as much as we’ve ever been, and we’re no better or worse than our forebears or descendants. But Christian theology is committed to the notion of sudden, final intervention of God in history that brings time to an end and inaugurates an era of glory and fulfilment.

And candyland.

So, that’s what theology can offer to science, and that’s why science manages to curb its enthusiasm.

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