Letter 17 to Thinking Christian
It sounds to me like we’re more in agreement than you might think!
I never intended to imply that Jesus was just an invisible, magical,1 wish-granting friend, or that Christianity was just belief in an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend. I have repeatedly affirmed otherwise. I never said that was a complete description of him.
But you say that my choice to call Jesus an “invisible, magical, wish-granting friend” is like a woman calling her husband “someone who eats corn flakes” or calling the Grand Canyon “a big hole in the ground.” Both are literally true but not at all a good picture of the husband or the Grand Canyon.
Maybe here’s where the misunderstanding is. I never said that calling Jesus an “invisible, magical, wish-granting friend” was to offer a good description of Christian belief, either. I know it’s distorted. In the same way, saying that Christianity is belief in an “Almighty Creator and Savior” is also a huge distortion, for it leaves out hugely important attributes like God’s invisibility, supernaturality, prayer-responsiveness, and so on. (But I’ve said that already.)
My point was not to offer a helpful2 summary of Christian belief. In a “World Religions 101″ article it would be ludicrous to say that Christianity is belief in an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend and then move on! No, my purpose was much different. It was, as I’ve said, to jolt believers with something that is undeniably, literally true about what they believe, so that they might be better able to examine their worldview more objectively, “from the outside.” And I do that to myself all the time, too.
If I was a dogmatic worshiper of the Grand Canyon, I hope someone would have the courage to ask “Why are you worshiping a big hole in the ground?” That would be literally true but also a huge distortion of the majesty of the Grand Canyon. But it might help me to examine my beliefs more objectively, since it would be literally true of what I believe.
Tom, when I was a Christian and I got jolted by an atheist who said I literally had an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend, it wasn’t as if I thought that’s all Jesus was. No, I knew Christianity’s impressive intellectual history. I knew its theological complexity and magnificence. I knew Jesus was a whole lot more than an invisible, magical, and wish-granting friend. I knew that wasn’t a very complete or helpful description of Jesus in the Christian tradition. I was already reading people like Dallas Willard and William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne. I did not have a Sunday School concept of Christianity.
But it was literally true of what I believed. And that disturbed me enough to try to take the faith-colored glasses off so I could look at Christianity with the same eyes as I looked at every other religion – so I could drop the dishonest double standard. And when I did that, I eventually came to the conclusion that Christianity had no more warrant than Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Sikhism or Zoroastrianism. As Christian philosopher James D. Strauss said, “If you don’t start with God, you’ll never get to God.”
No, the Grand Canyon isn’t just a big hole in the ground. But if I’m dogmatically worshiping the Grand Canyon, I hope somebody will have the guts to ask, “Why are you worshiping a big hole in the ground?” Of course I would complain that the Grand Canyon is not “just” a big hole in the ground, and that this is a huge distortion of what I believe, but hopefully the truth of this question would jar me just enough to help me look at my beliefs more objectively.
Tom, I must thank you. I think you’ve helped me understand part of why Christians react so negatively to my statement that according to Christian tradition Jesus is “an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend.” If they think that I’m trying to offer a complete or even a helpful depiction of the Christian worldview, or a helpful summary of the Christian conception of Jesus, then they are quite right to be upset! But I never intended any such thing. So now I know how to be more clear that I do not think this is a complete or helpful summary of the Christian concept of Jesus, and that is not my intention is using the phrase.
And perhaps you disagree with me that phrasing our beliefs in personally disagreeable terms can be useful. In that case you will say there is no legitimate purpose for my saying that Christians believe Jesus to be (among other things) an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend. We can agree to disagree on that if necessary. I don’t think it’s pertinent to our debate. As I’ve said, in this debate I’m not going to respond to Christianity as I see it (and I do not see it as just a belief in an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend). I’m going to respond to Christianity however you present it as the best explanation for certain phenomena.
So I think we’re in agreement. According to Christian tradition, Jesus is an invisible (unseen), magical (supernatural), wish-granting (prayer-responsive) friend (loving companion). That’s literally true. But he’s much more than that! According to Christian tradition, Jesus is divine. He is God sent to earth to fulfill his own perfect justice and mercy. He sacrificially took upon himself God’s perfect justice - the wages of our rebellion, death – but also offered to us God’s perfect mercy – the gift of eternal redemption and reconciliation. And that’s something much more than an invisible, magical, wish-granting friend!
And Christianity has by far the most highly developed and well-defended theologies in the world. Islam gave up any intellectual pretensions around the 13th century and hasn’t yet recovered them. Some forms of Buddhism have been more accepting of science than Christianity, but its philosophers and religious leaders have not bothered to engage with the latest developments in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology like Christians have. I can’t find anybody from non-Christian religious thought to compare to van Inwagen, Alston, Plantinga, or Swinburne.
I think Swinburne has succeeded in his endeavour to show (in a short book, addressed to the lay public) that theism is not intellectually a lost cause… My ‘dialectical duels’ with Swinburne in this review article are precisely what Swinburne wants to show to be possible; theism versus atheism is a matter for rational argument.
But the importance of Swinburne’s work in this area is much greater than some suppose, since Swinburne is not merely contributing new ‘arguments for God’s existence’, but is doing ground-breaking work in discussing how scientific reasoning can be applied to the question of why the universe exists… If monotheism goes the way of polytheism, many of Swinburne’s original and stimulating contributions to the topic of ultimate explanations will still stand.
- Tom, you’re right that shifting the descriptor of “magic” to believers rather than Jesus changes the subject. I said it was Jesus who, according to Christian tradition, practiced magic. And I’m happy to continue defending that. You say it’s not magic because Jesus didn’t invoke the supernatural to affect the natural world. Rather, he used his own supernatural powers to heal the lame and exorcise demons, etc. But I don’t really see the difference. Whether he’s calling on God’s magic powers or using his own magic powers, they’re still magic powers. Saying that it’s Jesus’ own magical powers doing the work only makes Jesus all the more magical. In that case, Jesus himself is magical rather than just being a conduit or summoner of magical powers. [↩]
- Of course, I think it is “helpful” in the sense I’ve indicated. Such a depiction of Jesus can be helpful in waking us from our dogmatic slumbers. It can help us look at our own worldviews more objectively. But it is not helpful for developing a complete and well-rounded understanding of Christian theology. [↩]