Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic. Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written. It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus. Please forgive me when I fail at this.
Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’ Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click. Here’s the clip:
I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:
cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.
In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.
They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:
All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.
After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’ I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me. But why?
Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational. Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends. I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them. But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same. For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…). I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey. So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.
So what about this video do I find particularly offensive? Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation? Let’s walk through the ‘script’:
Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?
At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that. Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’. The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning. ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism. But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment. And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God? — apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people. That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon. So the patient decides to respond:
P: Well, I do. Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists. If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?
Oh dear. Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist. Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’). I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post. It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq). But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. There are two major problems I have with her decision.
1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you. If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better. But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense. In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure. This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence). The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world. And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society. ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent. Some people believe that dentists are actually evil. So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.
2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here. In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us. It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.
For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical. I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us. This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV
Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9). If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God. As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:
As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God. Luke 18:35-43, NRSV
There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? James 2:5, NRSV
I didn’t choose to become a Christian. Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.
This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:
D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly. It’s the same way with God. It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.
Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him. Why would I have any problem with that? Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus. This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human. As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’ Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV
Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19). It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen. God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up. God is here, in our midst. And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.
I do believe that God listens. I do believe that God cares. But as I have written in a previous post,
I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it. I don’t know why the universe is chaotic. I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer. I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year. I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant. These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless. But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.
I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God. The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted. For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt. This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.
A life of belief in God is not always cushy. It’s never easy. The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it. One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’
This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story. In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me. Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one. Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.
Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model. If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened? Exactly. This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community. While many evolutionary biologists have presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God. That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.
So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them. I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis. Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature. On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist. I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student lunch and shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation. He told me that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’
This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians. The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly. In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that they created and the incarnation and giving of Jesus Christ in order to upend the power structures of this world is a profound demonstration of this love. Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour. In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’
Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves. That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right? A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (
the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues. In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.
So what happened? How did we get to this point? At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can have certainty. Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone. In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (primarily, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.
While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know. In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity. The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance. Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance. We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox. It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’
Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):
Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.
In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1
It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas. I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,
Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks. Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2
This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God. We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.3
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.