An extended dialogue between biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian apologist Alister McGrath¯originally shot for Dawkins BBC documentary The Root of All Evil but never used¯ has surfaced on YouTube . (HT to the comboxes of Mere Comments , BTW. And, if the YouTube encounter doesn’t satisfy, you can see McGrath take on Christopher Hitchens in Washington, D.C., in October, an event sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.)
In the hour-and-ten-minute clip, the professional atheist Dawkins comes across as almost fair-minded, and Alistair McGrath demonstrates a crisp and vital intellect.
But McGrath does stumble. When Dawkins puts to him how grating it is to hear parents thank God when a child of theirs is saved in a disaster that takes the lives of thousands of others, and asks McGrath to explain to him the “rationale” of such a God, McGrath, Im afraid, dances around a bit, leaving Dawkins¯quite rightly¯frustrated. What McGrath describes sounds like a clockwork world with a bent mechanism and a genuinely sympathetic clockmaker who is either unable or unwilling to offer up a replacement part. Dawkins senses an inconsistency. He can accept (almost) a deistic conception of a world set in motion and left alone, but then how do you explain Gods interfering in the rescue of one lone child in the scenario that he offers? McGrath seems to offer little more than a psychological explanation for the gratitude any parent would have for being given back a child from the dead, as it were.
Was there no better answer McGrath could have offered Dawkins, other than that the world is what it is, like it or not, but we mustnt blame a God who, having assumed human flesh, suffered too? (God is made to seem like a cardiologist who, rather than operate on a patient with serious heart disease, induces in himself a heart attack so he can at least empathize if not cure.)
Theodicy¯the justifying of the ways of God to man, or attempting answers to why the wicked prosper (Jeremiah 12:1)¯is considered by many an atheist a trump card. The old and faulty utilitarian syllogism is inevitably trotted out: If God is both omnipotent and good, he would end the worlds evils. He plainly does not; and so either he can and wont, making him less than good, or he wants to but cant, and so is something less than a god. Therefore, the God Christians worship is a chimera.
That God permits the effects of the Fall to run its course through history is something no Christian can argue. But why does he seemingly intervene here, maybe there, but not elsewhere, and not on a grander scale? Why does God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, save the one child and allow the others to perish? For that matter, why does the West enjoy untold prosperity¯to the point of surfeit¯while thousands of children in Asia and Africa die every day from water-borne diseases?
What McGrath seemed hesitant to assert was Gods sovereignty. Between the theological statement “God is Good” and the sentimental statement “God is good” most definitely lies a world of pain. Shifting tectonic plates come as no surprise to God, who may very well choose to allow thousands to perish, just as he may choose to steady one child teetering on the precipice of disaster. And it has nothing to do with the kid’s being lucky (which explains nothing anyway) or particularly deserving (as opposed to all those spoiled brats and ungrateful adults who got theirs?).
But doesnt that then make God little more than a despot, a sovereign being who simply wills arbitrarily and without cause or justification because, well, hes God and we’re not, and therefore not conditioned by outside forces or answerable to anyone or anything?
I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven, Jesus tells his disciples (Luke 10:18). The end of Evil and its attendant evils is a foregone conclusion, a closed case. Natural disasters and the machinations of wicked men have been finally arrested¯at the cross. But Jesus declaration of victory is an eschatological statement¯made even before the cross had been planted in Calvary’s soil. We finite creatures are caught in the molasses of time and must endure the death throes of all that is contrary to Gods final purposes as if in slow motion. And so it is important to remember that Jesus is speaking to the seventy-two sent to preach and teach in his name. The victory of Jesus must still be published to all the world because it is a victory that is not immediately discernible except through the eyes of faith.
Which is to say that theres the already of salvation history¯He is risen¯and the not yet. And the “not yet” entails suffering in this passing age¯suffering that is often unjust and seemingly pointless, but in the hands of a sovereign and Good God a tool to conform his children to the image of his Only Begotten, the true purpose of their predestination. (So as not to be misunderstood, because suffering falls within the permissive will of God, and can even be used by him for ultimately good ends, is no excuse for complacency; the alleviation of pain, done in the name of Jesus, is, like preaching and teaching, a heralding of the kingdom and a diffusion of hope.)
Now, a sovereign God does not displace secondary causes in Christians’ thinking about how the world works. Shifting tectonic plates do give rise to earthquakes and tsunamis. But Christians also believe God continues to intervene in the affairs of his creatures and does so to remind them that the world and its horrors are not beyond his purview, and that the saved child and the answered prayer is a foretaste of the age to come, in which every tear shall be wiped away and the body will no longer be an occasion of sin or pain.
But a foretaste only. Which is why sometimes only one child is saved. And why only Lazarus is raised from the dead. They are signs of the already, while the rest endure the not yet. Hints, whispers, and still small voices until the full number of the Elect have come into the Kingdom and the very last fundamentalist Darwinian has raged.
This is but one reply McGrath could have offered Dawkins.
As for McGraths parting question to Dawkins¯Why are you so angry?¯the biologist talks about the indoctrination of children, and brings the discussion back to where McGrath started it, Northern Ireland. That children are stuck with labels such as Catholic and Protestant and thereby swept up into a centuries-long battle when they are still too young to choose a side¯or none at all¯is at least one cause of Dawkins’ indignation.
But a world in which children are deliberately kept from being taught the faith of their parents is one programmed for another kind of indoctrination¯a materialist one. Those “protected” children will still thirst for meaning¯a deeper meaning than even great achievements in this world can provide. And that thirst may find itself slaked in forms of religion that remain unable and unwilling to enter such rational champions as Alister McGrath into the lists of academic debate.
Dawkins may deplore such an eventuality, but he cannot stop it without finally embracing a totalitarian society that controls “thought” in the very way he deplores.
So while everyone’s being so reasonable, why not compromise? Instead of labeling the children of Northern Ireland Catholic or Protestant, lets agree to call them something else. From now on, they’re to be simply “Christians.” A step in the right direction, no?
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things .