Morality, Theology and the Invisible God of the Gaps: A Review of John F. Haught's Book, God and the New Atheism, Part 5

This will be my last post on Dr. Haught’s interesting and thought provoking book, God and the New Atheism . Throughout his book he criticizes the New Atheists for not understanding science, theology, faith, and Christian morality. I have shared where I thought Haught was right and where he was wrong. And I’ve argued that over-all he is wrong.

I’ve commented on several of his main themes. Now I want to speak about his understanding of biblical morality. Haught charges that Dawkins discussion of morality and the Bible, for instance, “is a remarkable display of ignorance and foolish sarcasm.” (p. 68). If you’ve read Dawkins, he speaks, as I do, of the morality we find in the Bible, like dashing babies against the rocks, genocide, slavery, and so forth. It’s in the Bible, so we mention it. It won’t do any good to mention the good portions of the Bible, because if there is a perfectly good God these things should never have received divine sanction in the first place, period.

Haught wants to stress that “the main point of biblical religion…is to have faith, trust, and hope in God. Morality is secondary.” (p. 67) So let’s pause and ask what is the main point of biblical religion. Haught should know this is highly disputed by Christian scholars themselves. From Walther Eichrodt to Walter Brueggemann to Jon D. Levenson to Liberation theologies, there is no agreement. Harvard trained Biblical scholar Hector Avalos argues convincingly that biblical theology “often is selective and arbitrary in judging what counts as ‘central’ or ‘significant’ features of biblical thought.” Avalos adds: "No matter which type one prefers, the lesson is that there is no such thing as a unified ‘biblical theology,’ nor can there be.” [The End of Biblical Studies, pp. 249-51). So I ask, who speaks for biblical theology? From all that I know Dr. Avalos is absolutely correct. So I see no reason to fault Dawkins for not caring to know Haught’s particular views on the matter when writing his book.

Dr. Haught claims that the “moral core of Judaism and Christianity” is “justice…what has come to be known as God’s preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged.” (p. 68). Who is he trying to kid here? Yes, there is an emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged in several major sections of the Bible, notably the prophets, but do the “disadvantaged” include slaves, witches, women caught in adultery, or the many offenses that require capital punishment, like a son cursing his patriarchal kingly father? Does it include the women God told the Israelite soldiers to take as sex slaves (Numbers 31:17-18)? Does it include Jepthah’s daughter who was sacrificed to God by her father? Does it include the wives that Ezra told his people to divorce simply because they were not Jewish? Does it include the surrounding nations that God “commanded” the Israelites to butcher? Does it include the virgins that were stolen as wives from the cities of Jabesh Gilead and Shiloh (Judges 21)? If God cares so much for the poor and disadvantaged, then why not advocate justice for them?

Nonetheless, Haught writes: “To maintain that we can understand modern and contemporary social justice, civil rights, and liberation movements without any reference to (the prophets) Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jesus, and other biblical prophets makes Dawkins treatment of morality and faith unworthy of comment.” (p. 68). And for special emphasis he mentions Martin Luther King’s civil rights message, which “clearly cites Jesus and the prophets as the most authoritative voices in support of…his protests against the injustice of racism.” (p. 94).

I think Sam Harris already debunked such a view as “cherry-picking” from the Bible, which theologians like Haught do. In theological terms this is the problem of the canon within the canon, where the question is which parts of the canon are to be stressed and which ones are to be minimized. Christian scholars in previous generations stressed different parts of the Bible didn’t they, which legitimized heretic, honor, and witch killings, along with slavery and holy wars.

Besides, the truth is that the prophets actively preached God’s reign among his people, and this God, as depicted by Hector Avalos, “is the ultimate imperialist.” (p. 279). Even the word for “peace” (Shalom) is viewed through imperialistic terminology, says Avalos. “As used in the Hebrew Bible, it really refers to a state of affairs favorable to Yahweh. Peace means no more war only insofar as Yahweh has destroyed his opponents or he has successfully beaten them into utter submission” (p. 279), and he quotes from Isaiah 14:1-2, as but one example:

The LORD will have compassion on Jacob;
once again he will choose Israel
and will settle them in their own land.
Aliens will join them
and unite with the house of Jacob.

2 Nations will take them
and bring them to their own place.
And the house of Israel will possess the nations
as menservants and maidservants in the LORD's land.
They will make captives of their captors
and rule over their oppressors.

While Haught points to the prophets as the moral center of Biblical religion, he utterly fails to understand that there would be no need to reform the Church from sanctioning such things as heretic and witch killings, along with slavery, racism and sexism, if God was clear from the beginning. God could’ve said things like: “Thou shalt not buy, beat, trade, or own slaves,” and said it as often as needed without giving contradictory advice. If God was this clear from the beginning there would be nothing to reform in the first place. The Church could never sanction witch killings if God had said, “Thou shalt not kill people of different faiths nor those who practice witchcraft” and said it as often as needed from the beginning. Instead we read, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

When it comes to the injustices found in the Bible, Haught admits they are found there. But with sarcasm Haught charges: “Either the God of the Bible must be a perfect moral role model and a perfect engineer, or else this God is not permitted by Dawkins to exist at all.” (p. 105) He thinks there is a third way. He claims that it is not biblical religion but “idolatry” that makes religion go bad.” “The antidote to idolatry, however, is not atheism but faith.” (p. 76)

Haught accepts evolutionary biology and with it believes in a God of process. He claims that from a Christian theological point of view “our lives, human history, and the universe itself are part of a momentously meaningful drama of liberation and the promise of ultimate fulfillment.” (p. 101). He concludes that “the God of evolution humbly invites creatures to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe,” (p. 107), and by this he means being active in the pursuit of justice.

Haught's God is one of mystery that requires faith. But in the end Haught’s God is unwittingly the “god of the gaps” where the gaps left unexplained by science, such as the problem of consciousness and the problem of a basis for morality, leave room for his faith in the mysterious God of Tillich’s “ultimate concern.” I’m sure he’ll deny this. He’ll argue instead that his God is the sustainer of creation and can be seen in all of creation, not just in the gaps. But modern science has closed all of the other gaps, so his God is the only one left after the demolition is done. Prior to modern science Christians believed the Genesis creation accounts literally, but with the advent of modern science Haught’s Church was forced to give that up. Prior to the awareness that every human being should be entitled to human rights, Haught's Church defended witch hunts and slavery. Prior to the women’s rights movement Haught’s Church defended sexism. Because things have changed in defiance of the Church, Haught now wants to maintain this is the result of progressive revelation stemming from the prophets of old which takes place by God’s direction.

I’m sure he is aware of the parable of the invisible gardener. I think he believes in one. His faith needs no positive evidence. The only evidence his faith needs are the gaps in our knowledge. But since there are likely always to be gaps, his faith has no positive evidence for it at all.

There is much more in this book than what I could touch on here. It’s very instructive. Get it and see for yourself his robust defense of Christian theology in the face of the onslaught of the New Atheists. Does his faith survive the attacks of the New Atheists? Maybe, but his God is not worth worshipping. He believes in a distant God, and a distant God is no different than none at all. Judge for yourselves. But for me and my house, faith in the gaps of scientific knowledge is an extremely slender reed to hang one's hat on. What will he believe tomorrow? What will his church be able to believe in the future? Less and less and less and less.

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