Let's split the difference

MeachamWarrenWilliam Frey, the Episcopal Church's retired Bishop of Colorado, has often said his fellow Episcopalians can confuse Anglicanism's celebrated via media with merely finding the synthesis of a thesis and an antithesis. As tmatt has mentioned before, Bishop Frey explains the impossibility of this approach by joking that, for some, the via media between a Christian and an atheist understanding of Jesus is "Jesus is occasionally Lord." I thought of Bishop Frey's joke about midway through Jon Meacham's 3,200-word essay that precedes a lively dialogue between the evangelical pastor Rick Warren and the evangelical atheist Sam Harris. At about the same point, I began to wonder when Meacham's introduction would end and the conversational fireworks would begin. (Meacham's reflection is only about 1,400 words shorter than what it introduces.)

Meacham's essay begins on a thesis/antithesis note, comparing Homer ("All men need the gods") and Plato ("A certain portion of mankind do not believe at all in the existence of the gods"). The charm of Meacham as Newsweek's editor is that as a churchgoing Episcopalian he cares enough about religion to revive the religion beat at the magazine, which had suffered with the retirement of Kenneth Woodward. As the author of acclaimed books in the genres of history and biography, Meacham has earned the status of a pundit. The aggravating thing, in this case, is that in trying to affirm something on both sides of the debate, Meacham presents his own assumptions as though they are settled matters of scholarship:

Scriptures are the product of human hands and hearts, and have been translated and copied for generations upon generations; scholarship clearly shows us that the texts present historical and literary problems that would seem to rule out the possibility that they are perfect books. (And in the case of the Gospels, to take just one instance, the author of John explicitly says he is not writing history or biography in the sense the modern world thinks of such genres, but that he is offering his story "so that ye may believe." At least he was not hiding the ball.)

Leave aside the question of whether thoughtful Christians would insist that Scripture is perfect -- and might writers agree to boycott the word product when their subject matter does not involve plastics? Meacham's reading of John 20:30,31 turns John's statement about non-comprehensiveness ("Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book") into a confession of unreliable history. Elsewhere in the same gospel, John cites the testimony of one eyewitness to Jesus' crucifixion -- again, "that you may believe." That's an interesting choice for someone who cares only about conversion and not about the truth of his details.

The pontificating does not end there. There's also category confusion ("there is growing worry that religion has too much influence on the world around us, from inspiring terrorists to shaping federal policy on embryonic-stem-cell research"), a unilateral declaration of missing evidence ("On the question of design, there is no evidence, outside the Bible, to support the proposition that a Creator has been in the picture") and a rhetorical question built on an arbitrary assumption ("Why did God stop performing miracles on a large scale a couple of months after the first Pentecost?"). Meacham describes this question, among others, as devastating. Christians with even a basic knowledge of their counterparts in the developing world, who are less shackled by anti-supernatural assumptions, are likely to consider it ridiculous.

"Does a Christian in our time really think that, as Saint Paul argued, slavery is divinely ordained?" Meacham writes. Well, no, because so many Christians in our time recognize that the question assumes something about Paul that is not a necessary conclusion from his various writings, including his rather clear pleading with Philemon to free his slave Onesimus.

This paragraph is classic Meacham -- and I must confess to feeling considerable sympathy for his efforts to getting both parties to talk with each other:

Broadly put, the left is prone to caricature the faithful as superstitious and power-mad, while the right can sometimes attack atheists and secularists with anything but Christian charity. Whether we believe or disbelieve, then, many of us would like to see a more measured conversation about faith, reason, and the role of religion in American life.

As for the discussion between Harris and Warren: It's more invigorating than another tired summary of the Jesus Seminar's latest announcements, but neither man says anything that will surprise people familiar with their writings. It's a convened discussion similar to Time's exchange between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Warren came ready to mix it up:

HARRIS: Any scientist must concede that we don't fully understand the universe. But neither the Bible nor the Qur'an represents our best understanding of the universe. That is exquisitely clear.

WARREN: To you.

. . . HARRIS: I'm doing my Ph.D. in neuroscience; I'm very close to the literature on evolutionary biology. And the basic point is that evolution by natural selection is random genetic mutation over millions of years in the context of environmental pressure that selects for fitness.

WARREN: Who's doing the selecting?

HARRIS: The environment. You don't have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain the complexity we see.

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.

. . . WARREN: . . . A lot of atheists hide behind rationalism; when you start probing, you find their reactions are quite emotional. In fact, I've never met an atheist who wasn't angry.

HARRIS: Let me be the first.

WARREN: I think your books are quite angry.

Newsweek could have shown more imagination in choosing a sparring partner for Harris. Terry thought of Armand Nicholi. I suggest John Polkinghorne. I would not mind hearing from Christopher Hitchens on behalf of atheists, especially since he has another book to promote, and there's something weirdly satisfying about hearing a British accent when your beliefs are being trashed.

Any other ideas for either side of future debates between atheists and believers?

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