Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Wisdom of Nicodemus

I mentioned yesterday the "Reason Rally" being held today in Washington. As I said, I hope that the "largest gathering of the secular movement in world history" produces (1) clear sense of the god(s) they reject and (2) a positive account both for why there is no god and for 'why there is something rather than nothing.'

It seems fitting that today's reading from John's Gospel shares with us the wisdom of Nicodemus. Crowds of people had heard and been moved by Jesus' words. Some thought him a prophet, others thought him the Christ. Still others were disturbed by his words and the crowds' reactions, so they fled to the religious authorities. Their concern: "The Christ will not come from Galilee, will he?" How could the Messiah, the liberator of an oppressed people, come from some backwater region of Judea?

The response of the Pharisees is telling:
Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.
I love this line, because it provides a glimpse into the arrogance of a certain triumphalist and dismissive atheism.

Dubbed the "Four Horsemen" of the New Atheism movement, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, these 'high priests' of the contemporary atheist movement can, at times, mirror the sentiment expressed above. Because they, the authorities, have deemed it unworthy to believe it must, as a consequence, be foolish to do so.

Movies such as Bill Maher's Religulous (available, incidentally, on Netflix) or the rants of the Amazing Atheist do less to raise arguments than they do to ridicule and dismiss believers. How much more helpful, on both sides, would it be if they took seriously the claims of one another and instead of the obnoxious rhetoric engaged in the hard work of coming to understand one another?

Hence the wisdom of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, who had visited Jesus once under the cover of darkness, speaks from the margins of the group:
Does our law condemn a man before it first hears him and find out what he is doing?
Nicodemus, his heart having once been moved by this Jesus fellow, is not quick to condemn. He has not left the Sanhedrin, the Jewish assembly, but he is not quick to dismiss Jesus. Rather than going along with the group, dismissing Jesus on the grounds that (1) he comes from Galilee and (2) none of the other Pharisees buy into this, he pushes for an opportunity to go and see what this Jesus is doing.

The response of his colleagues surprises no one. "You are not from Galilee also, are you?" The instant Nicodemus raises a question asking for more information about Jesus, suspicion arises in the hearts of those gathered. It is not so different now: to raise certain questions in our society or in the Church raises the suspicion that you are a closet something-or-other.

 Unfortunately, in an era when information is frequently reduced to 160 characters or short Facebook posts, we are more likely to label-and-dismiss than engage in serious argument and deliberation. As  Christian, I own that faith in Jesus Christ is not a slam dunk, easy and obvious affair. Nor, moreover, do I think that belief in God is without challenges. I do think it reasonable to hold that "God exists" and I think it and argument worth having about why it is reasonable to assert such. Such an endeavor takes time and patience and a willingness to risk true dialogue. Lamentably, the risk of authentic dialogue seems a risk not often taken these days.

We - believers, non-believers, and seekers - have a remarkable opportunity before us to come together and engage in meaningful discussion and argument. Instead of ad hominem attacks or label-and-dismiss tactics, we must find a way to listen to one another and to take one another's questions seriously. Our burning questions, I suspect, will provide the bridge between the camps and while it may not bring consensus, it will foster respect. Failure to understand the salient questions motivating believers and nonbelievers, however, will result only in further parodic aping and mutual misunderstanding.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ryan. I agree with you and lament that it is human nature to "slice and dice" people (and their beliefs) into groups in order to have a sense of belonging. There is much to be gained by truly respecting others' points-of-view. Our present-day political landscape is proof that exhibiting polarizing behaviors and marginalizing others' beliefs is disastrous for the common good. Here is my question: Why do athiests have to provide a positive account for why there is something rather than nothing? They should clearly explain what they reject and why. Why do they have to provide an alternative view? Can't they have the standpoint that they don't know how the universe came to be? Perhaps they believe that science hasn't advanced far enough yet to provide the scientific reason they suspect. Is that the kind of positive account with which you would be satisfied?

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Thank you so much for your eloquent comment.

Behind my request for an alternative view is Wittgenstein's gnomic remark "it is not how the world is, but that it is, that is mystical." I am wholly comfortable with science explaining the 'how' of the world and I expect it to do so. But 'that' there is a world at all, and by world I mean 'the whole damn thing', that seems to me to be a particularly funny sort of question. My wonderment leads me to ask, "Can science explain 'that' there is a world at all?" Is that the sort of question science picks up? I'm not certain that it does or can. It would be a bit of an irony for science to have failed to explain the ultimate origin 'that' there is anything at all when there being 'anything' at all is why there is science!

Scientific exploration describes relationships between things - forces, matter, etc.. It's the sheer fact of those existing things that I am dazzled by and find it easier that there is a God who makes things to be, who creates ex nihilo, and it is left to science to describe as rigorously as possible the 'how' of the world.

This is a great start to what I think could be a fine conversation.