Salon has an interview with Elaine Pagels on the Gospel of Judas. I’m really not much interested in yet another quaint twist on Christian dogma — I can understand how historians may differ, of course — but in the course of the interview she pulls this stunt … this ridiculous, absurd, cowardly claim that is pretty much routine from theologians.
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don’t there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn’t this become a question for science?
Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He’s such a rationalist that the God that he’s debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.
I agree … almost certainly not. The idea is laughable, a great big silly joke.
Elaine Pagels, meet Rick Warren. He’s an evangelical pastor, and he’s huge — I’m sure far more people have heard of him than of Elaine Pagels, and if his flock has heard of Richard Dawkins, it’s only because Warren may have damned him from the pulpit. He has a bit of a dialogue with Sam Harris in Newsweek.
Do you believe Creation happened in the way Genesis describes it?
WARREN: If you’re asking me do I believe in evolution, the answer is no, I don’t. I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used. Did God come down and blow in man’s nose? If you believe in God, you don’t have a problem accepting miracles. So if God wants to do it that way, it’s fine with me.
WARREN: Sam makes all kinds of assertions based on his presuppositions. I’m willing to admit my presuppositions: there are clues to God. I talk to God every day. He talks to me.
HARRIS: What does that actually mean?
WARREN: One of the great evidences of God is answered prayer. I have a friend, a Canadian friend, who has an immigration issue. He’s an intern at this church, and so I said, “God, I need you to help me with this,” as I went out for my evening walk. As I was walking I met a woman. She said, “I’m an immigration attorney; I’d be happy to take this case.” Now, if that happened once in my life I’d say, “That is a coincidence.” If it happened tens of thousands of times, that is not a coincidence.
This concept that Pagels finds so unlikely, that there is “some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt” is precisely what Warren and many millions of Americans believe. I agree that it is absurd, but far from being a “village atheist”, Dawkins seems to be far more aware of what people actually believe than a professional historian of Christianity. I find myself intensely disgusted by the continued and frequent denial of the obvious by the very people who purport to be the experts on the subject — it’s as if they have their eyes firmly closed and refuse to even consider the reality of religious practice.
Now Pagels is a believer; if not the “big person up there”, what does she believe in?
Are you saying that part of the problem here is the notion of a personal God? Has that become an old-fashioned view of religion?
I’m not so sure of that. I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it’s a question of what kind of God one has in mind.
So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?
Well, I’ve learned from the texts I work on that there really aren’t words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it’s certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.
Certainly many people talk about God as an ineffable presence. But if you try to explain what transcendence is, can you put that into words and explain what it means?
People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word “God” is a metaphor, or “the son of God,” or “Father.” They’re all simply images for some other order of reality.
Vacuous nonsense, air and fluff, excuses and evasions, nothing at all. Those seem to be our choices in this widely spread argument: the ridiculous anthropomorphic personal entity of the Rick Warren majority, or the etiolated and pointless vapor of the theological intellectuals. Common inanity vs. rarefied insipidity. The Lucky Charms leprechaun vs. invisible fairies in the garden.
I choose none of the above. The nonexistence of any of these idiotic fictions is the only choice that makes any sense.