How to save the church: sincerity or compromise?

The Hitch preferred authenticity to pandering

I have not yet watched the documentary film Collision, which follows the late Christopher Hitchens and the conservative American pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson on a series of debates about Christianity. However, I watched this video of the rather funny ending of the film. Being interviewed with Wilson in the back of a taxi, Hitchens recounts discussing with Richard Dawkins this question: If there were only one remaining religious person in the world, would you try and convince that person to be an atheist?

Hitchens’ answer was that he wouldn’t. And he says it’s not just because then there would be no-one left to argue with, although that’s certainly one reason. But there’s something else, he said, a gut feeling he has that he just wouldn’t do it. And, he says, “the incredulity with which he [Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still.”

I think there’s definitely a difference between Hitchens and Dawkins. Professor Dawkins, in The God Delusion, praises the extremely liberal Episcopalian Bishop John Selby Spong, whose belief system incorporates New Age elements and who doesn’t believe in the literal truth of the resurrection. “Bishop Spong…” he writes, “is a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so advanced as to be unrecognisable to the vast majority of those who call themselves Christian.” Note the snobbish and patronising use of the word ‘advanced’ to imply that the beliefs of more conservative men of faith are somehow less advanced. And, though I certainly wish Bishop Spong’s views were unrecognisable to most self-identifying Christians, when you consider that, according to a 2012 IPSOS Mori poll done on request of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, only 49% of ‘census-Christians’ even believe Jesus is the Son of God, that statement is unfortunately false, as I’m sure Professor Dawkins now realises.

Another example of Richard Dawkins’ lack of respect for brilliant orthodox Christian theologians is this article he wrote for the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free on why he refused to debate with the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Dr Craig is one of the most respected apologists for the Christian faith in the world, a person whom both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have been happy to debate, yet Professor Dawkins had the nerve to say that a debate with him “would look good on your CV, not so good on mine.”

He goes on to say that he won’t debate Dr Craig because of his defence of the “genocide” against the Canaanites which God demands in Deuteronomy 7. Of course, this is one of the more disturbing passages of the Bible and it is very unsettling to find God commanding something so apparently morally wrong. But how do you respond to something like this? Do you do as the preachers endorsed by Professor Dawkins in the article do, and attempt to brush these difficult parts of the Bible under the carpet, dismissing them as “metaphor” or “myth,” and mumbling, “well we don’t take that literally anymore”? Or do you, as an apologist, actually do your job (the Greek for ‘apologetics’ means ‘verbal defence’) and seek to defend the Bible and the Christian faith, and to incorporate passages like these into a consistent set of ideas? If God is all-good, all-knowing and all-just, then maybe it’s our imperfect understanding of morality and justice that’s at fault, not God’s, and we need to try and see where we’ve gone wrong.

But it’s evident that Professor Dawkins prefers the evasive approach to the consistent, engaging approach. Contrast that with what Christopher Hitchens says in this intriguing article about his debates with Douglas Wilson:

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.

For all his faults, Hitchens strongly believed in sincerity, authenticity and intellectual integrity; unlike Dawkins he preferred the Christians who are consistent and who actually believe what the Bible says. Another example of this is when he was asked why he didn’t attack Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation in his debates with him. His answer: “Because you believe it.”

Now I don’t want to be disrespectful to Bishop Spong, and I’m not arguing that liberal Christians necessarily hold their views due to a lack of sincerity. I admittedly know very little about Bishop Spong and I’m sure he is very intelligent, thoughtful and knowledgeable person, despite his very heterodox beliefs. I suppose the point is that most people, like Christopher Hitchens, are more likely to be engaged by Christians whose worldview, ethics and lifestyle are actually different to those of the world. This is shown by this article in the Christian Post, which tells about why the young atheists that the aforementioned Larry Taunton has interviewed left Christianity. One imagines that American young people would be most turned off by the judgementalism, fundamentalism and scientific illiteracy of some on the Christian right, but although that plays a part (in another survey of young American non-Christians, the top two adjectives that people used to describe Christians were ‘anti-gay’ and ‘judgemental’), I think the responses of Taunton’s interviewees show that even in America, lukewarm and pandering Christianity is at least as damaging. And half a century or more of modernisation and liberalisation of the Church of England has not stopped the sharp decline of Christianity, especially among the young.

Of course, an orthodox Christian will have many more disagreements with the average unbeliever than a purely nominal Christian, and adapting the style and delivery of evangelism to fit with the times is important. But I do think unbelievers have more respect for Christians who are different from the world and actually believe and try to adhere to what the Bible actually teaches. They admire the courage and integrity it takes to live a Christian life that clearly conflicts with the culture of the day. They are also arguably more attracted (at least in the long-term) to this kind of life than the nominal-Christian life, because it’s different and therefore more interesting and compelling. Conversely, if the church gives into pressure to “move with the times” and adopt beliefs that clearly contradict the Bible then people think, in many cases rightly, that it’s not really a genuine change of belief; they just think that they can convert more people by compromising the core tenets of Christianity.

But this attempt backfires because, though unbelievers in general are not like either Hitchens or Dawkins (they tend to greet religion more with indifference than hostility), they are more like Hitchens in that they respect believers who have integrity, rather than those who are willing to compromise their beliefs.