Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
I recently chanced upon news the recent deaths of two thinkers, a Biblical scholar and a philosopher, who in different ways epitomize, to my mind, the manner in which debate between theist and atheist should be conducted: honestly, seriously, and without acrimony.
In a comment recently, I referred to Michael Goulder, and in following up on dropping his name, I learned he had died last January 6th. Goulder's obituary in the London Times mentions his scholarly mastery in both Hebrew and Christian canons, an increasing rarity (and also increasingly indispensable), which allowed him to take a number of controversial positions. He famously rejected the common assumption that the synoptic gospels' parallels needed to be explained by the hypothetical source "Q," in this following his mentor Austin Farrer (one of the great under-appreciated theologians of the 20th century, by the way). Later in life he developed possibly the most scholarly take on the notion that Christianity was born out of the tensions between the Jerusalem church under James and Peter, and the missions of Paul. To my mind, more interesting (as well as more controversial) is Goulder's suggestion that the gospels were written with the Jewish year in mind, as literary attempts to match the festival cycle with readings that the Christian community could employ for the occasions. This suggestion has not met with widespread scholarly acceptance, and it might need to be modified; but it did bear significant fruit in inspiring the well-known, not to say notorious, John Shelby Spong, Bishop (now retired) of Newark in the Episcopal Church, whose book Saving the Bible from Fundamentalism served as a popularizing of Goulder's lectionary hypothesis.
Equally significant about Goulder, though, was his eventual abandoning of his faith and his clerical calling. This came shortly on the heels of his having contributed to the scandalous (for its day) anthology The Myth of God Incarnate, and editing the follow-up volume Incarnation and Myth. (I remember finding these books in the downtown city library--they would never have made it to the small local branch in my neighborhood--as a late teen with a budding interest in theology, and the vague sense of contraband that still clung to them). Goulder's loss of faith was characterized by a painful honesty--painful for both him and his colleagues--and by a respect for, and from, what he was leaving behind. This respect was often remarked. He spoke about it more than once, for instance in this interview, in which he reiterated his rejection of faith and his love for the tradition that had nonetheless nourished him. He steadfastly declined to see that affection as a reason for declaring a belief he found untenable. But no one could suspect his scholarship, no matter how against-the-current, of being motivated by anything but love for the truth.
As I was thinking of this, I came across this obituary of Antony Flew, who made a sort of reverse transition from Goulder's. One of the great champions of atheism in the 20th century, Flew spent a long career devoted to arguments against belief in God. His books God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism both argued that atheism was the rational default assumption for philosophy until such time as compelling evidence for the existence of God emerged; several works followed through the implications of this working assumption, either on his own or in dialogue with believers, mainly Christians, including on specifically intra-Christian concerns such as the resurrection. Then, true to his commitment to follow the evidence, Flew made a shocking and controversial declaration of theism after concluding, in dialogue with several partners including Gary Habermas (who had debated the plausibility of the resurrection with him) and Roy Abraham Varghese, a proponent of a version of Intelligent Design (as far as I can tell, more physics- than biology-oriented), that the universe had all the hallmarks of a work of purpose.
Inevitably, Flew's late-in-the-day (though hardly deathbed--he announced his shift in 2004) conversion drew criticism, not so much of him (though there was some of this) as of the way certain Christians were held to have exploited it.
This reminds one a little of the interviews with Jean-Paul Sartre which Benny Lévy published under the title Hope Now; Levy was accused of having exploited the failing Sartre, especially when some of the conversations were steered towards a kind of messianic Judaism. Sartre issued a statement shortly before his death verifying the authenticity of the interviews.
In Flew's case, it was suggested that he'd been manipulated, pressured, "influenced" (curious how this word can take on such a sinister whiff), in particular by Varghese, whose name gets billing as co-author with Flew's own on the title page of Flew's last book, There is a God: how the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind. Like Sartre, Flew had to issue a statement insisting that all the positions in the book reflected his own views accurately. The whole debacle has been chronicled, with additional links here, and here, and in the Wikipedia article on Flew. In any case, if Flew had been pressured by Christians, he certainly didn't cave much. He had come around to a more or less deistic stance, even advocating the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools; but he continued to have no truck with revelation, salvation, or an afterlife (though, true to form, he maintained that he was "open" to hearing evidence of such). Flew unwaveringly maintained not only that he had not converted under outside pressure, but that what had moved him was entirely a matter of reason and evidence. He had simply become persuaded that the universe looked too much like the product of intelligence to justify any other interpretation.
But long before his change of mind, Flew had maintained an air of respectful engagement with his opponents; his atheism was old-school, urbane and cordial, not given to the barely-contained contempt that one finds on the market today. His shift in position makes for an interesting story, and in the eventual biographies will doubtless either (depending on who's writing) be relegated to the sorry status of a coda, or inflated into the secret meaning towards which everything was tending. But Flew's life was spent in respectful yet strong argument with opponents who he thought wrong about very important issues. His legacy should be not just that he could change his mind (though this, it must be said, is hardly negligible, and should not be the object of sneers); but rather that he could maintain his position and believe his opponents wrong without believing them stupid, wicked, or in bad faith.