Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 25th February 2007
Over the last four weeks I have been discussing Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion which has been consistently in the bestseller lists since it was published last year. It is a searing attack on belief in God and on religion. In the first three of these sermons I discussed what Dawkins sees as the four key functions of religion: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. I tried to show why I think he gives a pretty thin account at least of what it means be a Christian, and to sketch what would for me be a better description of Christianity - putting the emphasis on celebration. I now want to show why I think Dawkins gives a pretty thin account of reality, against which we should be warned.
It is not Dawkins poor description of religion, but what he says about God, which poses the most fundamental challenge to believers. Dawkins defines what he describes as 'The God Hypothesis' in this way: that 'there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately created the universe and everything in it, including us' (p. 31). His own view is that 'any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution'. There you have the key opposition he sets up in his book: on the one side, a God who is superhuman and supernatural and who deliberately created everything, and, on the other, 'an extended process of gradual evolution' which may or may not - Dawkins clearly thinks not - have produced a 'creative intelligence' sufficiently complex to design us.
The word I want to focus on is 'supernatural'. For Dawkins, the God in whom he doesn't believe is a 'supernatural intelligence'. Even though the term is central to his argument, Dawkins doesn't discuss or define what he means by supernatural - which leaves me to think he has no idea how the word has been used by Christians who have used it to talk about God.
When people like Dawkins use the word 'supernatural' these days, they tend to mean something which is contrary to the natural. They also tend to assume everybody knows what we mean when we talk about the 'natural' - and that, whatever else the supernatural may be, it is different to the natural. The supernatural then comes to mean something more like the unnatural or the irrational. So, some people may choose to believe there are supernatural beings such as angels or fairies, but others think this is simply stupid - and whether you believe or not is not a matter of hard evidence: it's a matter of gut feeling. In popular usage, the supernatural is associated with ghosts, poltergeists, and things that go bump in the night, rather than with any serious attempt to understand the nature of reality.
In the same way, 'miracles' are seen as supernatural events which create wonder because they run counter to the laws of nature. Whereas science is based on the belief that there are consistent rational, natural laws, and if we know them we can predict or explain lots of things about the world scientifically, the supernatural is seen as that which runs contrary to the natural. It cuts across or disrupts the natural - but if that happens lots of times, as, say, with unexpected results from a scientific experiment, we must then look for a way of explaining those results scientifically, that is from within the realm of the natural. The supernatural is left to plug the gaps in our scientific knowledge: this is how we get left with a 'God of the gaps'.
Dawkins seems to think that because religious people believe 'God can do anything' we must approve of this way of talking about the supernatural: he seems to think Christians believe that, as a supernatural being, God created the natural world but can trump the natural any time he wants. However, most religious people I know would see this as a complete misunderstanding of the way we look at things. We would say that the laws of nature are trustworthy precisely becausethat is how God made them, and that God did not embed consistency in the material universe to override it irrationally or when it suited him - or us - to do so.
Right at the heart of the questions raised by Dawkins lies the need for a better understanding of what believers have in the past meant by the word supernatural. It's not a word Christians use much now, precisely because it suggests a way of thinking such as the one Dawkins attacks. For Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the key Christian thinker about the relation between the natural and the supernatural, the supernatural does not run counter to the natural, but is the condition of the natural being there at all. It is that without which there would not be a natural world. His word for it is grace, and it would be absurd to think that for Thomas grace ran contrary to nature. For us, a less misleading word than supernatural is 'metaphysical', which has Greek rather than Latin roots, and more clearly indicates the continuity between the physical world and that by which it is constituted.
One key word that Christians have used to talk about the metaphysical is 'spirit'. This is because an account of reality in purely material terms has seemed to religious believers so inadequate. It's a question of how you to speak about what constitutes the universe. Is the universe just 'stuff' or does our experience of love and beauty, goodness and truth, suggest there is some intelligent organising principle at work for which we need another sort of language, a language that goes beyond or transcends the language which describes mere stuff? Is that which constitutes the universe, this world, our bodies and our minds, just stuff, or does it add up to something more - something which could reasonably be seen as the product of a creative intelligence? This is the nub of the so-called argument from design, which, says Dawkins, Darwin blew out of the water (p. 79). But he doesn't stop to explain precisely how.
If I were to talk about God as a supernatural creative intelligence, I would not at all intend by that to describe realities or processes which cut across, subvert or overrule the natural. I would be trying to talk about realities or processes which help us better understand what constitutes the natural. It's rather like trying to describe a human being. You can describe the sort of hair she has, the colour of her eyes, the colour of her skin, the kind of clothes she wears, the job she does and so on - but if you do not talk about her character you won't have talked about her as a person, as a whole. We need a word like 'character' (even though you can't see or touch a character) to talk about what makes this human being herself, to speak about the depth of her humanity. In the same way, for Christians, to speak about the depth of Jesus's humanity, we need the language of spirit or of divinity. To speak about the depth of nature we need the language of supernature, metaphysical language.
The response of some philosophers, and of scientists like Dawkins, to this sort of talk has been to say with the philosopher Laplace, '"I have no need of that hypothesis". I stick to facts. I don't indulge in wild flights of fancy and speculation. I don't need to appeal to the existence of a supernatural God to help me understand or account for the natural world.'
And the response of Christians (and of poets and painters and musicians) is, time and again: 'If you don't talk in terms of spirit or of God, how well can you say you have understood or entered into the richness and complexity of the world?'
The issue then is not whether or not there is a realm of the supernatural separate from additional to the natural, recognisable only when it cuts into or across the natural, but whether the language associated with the supernatural - the language of spirit and of the miraculous - helps us describe the world we inhabit in a way that complements the language of evolution and natural selection which Dawkins uses. Having now read Dawkins' book twice, I find I am very happy for him to use the language of evolution and natural selection to answer the questions of natural science. But I think there are other questions - questions such as 'What is living really all about?' or 'What makes an admirable human being? or 'What constitutes Art?' or 'Who am I?' - for which he has no answer, and for which a different kind of language is needed - the language we have traditionally called 'metaphysical'.
And once you have made that key move, once you have admitted the importance of metaphysical language, the language of spirit, of purpose, of goodness, and love, you have admitted the possibility that religious language and even religious thinking might have something to offer. What it talks about may not be all delusion. The real reason for opposing Dawkins' account of everything is not because the supernatural God he doesn't believe in exists - I think we could agree that he doesn't - but because the world-as-it-is points to metaphysical realities of which he says nothing.