Whether you agree with him or not, Richard Dawkins is one of the most influential atheists of our time. His strong stance against religion coupled with his years as a respected scientist make him someone I try to learn from. This always comes as a surprise to people who know I am a Christian and a pastor. As you might imagine, I often get the question
‘Why would a pastor who believes in God read a book by an atheist?”
While I don’t have an exact answer, I often try to remind people that the humility modeled by Jesus requires his followers to try to understand other people’s perspectives even those we may disagree with. It is for that reason that I recently read Dawkin’s newest book entitled Out Growing God. Strategically, put out right before the Christmas holidays. Well played!
I first heard about the book on the Joe Rogan Podcast. Rogan is a wonderful interviewer. He often probes his guests with questions that get to the heart of an issue in an age of simplistic reactions. As part of their discussion, Dawkins shared some key ideas that he develops in the book. Throughout the podcast, and his book, he makes it clear that, for him, societal progress requires people shed their foolish beliefs in God(s).
On reading the book readers will notice that what Dawkins really means by outgrowing God is his frustration with a certain type of Christianity. More than anything, he detests those who believe that the Bible is literal and historically true. Most of part 1 of the book is about how a certain reading of the Bible develops a belief in God that is ‘unreasonable’ for him.
What Dawkins fails to mention is that questions concerning the Bible and its relationship to understanding God have in fact been raging on within Christianity for years.
I cannot imagine that Dawkins is unaware of this. It is unfortunate that he rarely mentions the diverse approaches used by astute scholars who grapple with how to interpret ancient texts. Furthermore, discerning how to hold to a literal reading of the Bible while embracing a deeper spiritual wisdom that transcends the text is essential to understanding Christianity.
Can I suggest that the writers of the Bible, and those who later compiled the whole Biblical canon, assumed we would figure that out.
Dawkins was confirmed in the Church of England at the age of 13. As he states, he called it quits at the age of 15. It only took him two years to ‘out grow’ a faith tradition that has been working out deep questions about God and the meaning of human existence for over 2000 years. Maybe his quick exit from the faith caused him to miss a deeper appreciation for the important theological discipline of biblical interpretation.
I can’t help but think that if he’d stuck with it a while longer he’d realize that Christmas has something to say about outgrowing God.
I. CHRISTMAS IS ABOUT OUTGROWING
Dawkins is right when he says we ought to outgrow God. Where we disagree is on how best to understand ‘outgrow’. In the Christian tradition, outgrow is best captured in the idea of maturity; we outgrow as we grow up. It never means to just reject, but to grow in our expectation to see things fulfilled.
Christmas is a wonderful time of year when everyone, Christians and Atheists alike, can practice outgrowing God as we consider our tightly reasoned beliefs about God. This experience is meant to put us in touch what that universal human desire to see love, hope, justice and peace fulfilled and made real in our lives.
The earliest biblical narratives depicted in that first Christmas
confront us with an invitation to outgrow any belief in God that doesn’t make room for a sense of awe. A spiritual type of expectation that disrupts the limits of human reason for a hope that stretches our imagination.
II. THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GROWING
Dawkins might be surprised to know that at Christmas the biblical stories draw us to reconsider, to outgrow, previous limits we may have put on God’s love. It is one of the reasons we still find it so difficult to forgive ourselves even after we understand that God longs to forgive us. Perhaps a reminder that just knowing something is not enough.
The Bible emphasizes that Christmas is not a gift from God, but the gift given is God himself. A gift that ‘will cause great joy for all the people’’. This joy is stirred in us as we courageously outgrow our own, often selfish, opinions about God for a truer, more biblical, portrait we see in Jesus; God made flesh.
If Dawkins celebrated Christmas, I am sure he would notice that the biblical texts associated with Christmas, although limited, have ‘outgrow’ written all over them. Christmas is an invitation to keep growing until we understand that God came to show us our inability to outgrow our selfish attempts to use God. Enter Herod!
Mary and Joseph are the great example of a selfless way of life which calls us to outgrow anything that keeps us from being obedient and ready to be used of God. This too requires outgrowing preconceived ideas of how we expect God’s love to manifest itself in the world. The child that Mary carries will reveal a love that would not only bless the people of God, Israel, but the outsider, the foreigner, even ones’ enemies.
III. A BABY WE LONG TO GROW INTO
Dawkin’s irritation with whether the Bible is true is not so much about outgrowing God, but about how people must outgrow reading the Bible in a certain way. While we still have lots to work out in this area, Christmas is a reminder that in Christianity, the truth is first embodied in a person not a book . For that reason, Jesus, God incarnate, is forever the only one worth becoming like. We can do this as we learn to reflect more carefully on our understanding of this living text the Bible.
No one just outgrows anything. We grow toward and into someone new. At Christmas, that radical claim that God, who took on flesh, provides us with a fully human and fully divine way of seeing who we might become requires some serious outgrowing. This Christmas, imagine what our world would look like if we all outgrew our failed paradigms for life for a deeper vision of becoming more like Jesus. Even Dawkins believed that Jesus, because of his profound teaching, was ahead of his time.
A MERRY CHRISTMAS WARNING
C.S. Lewis, the atheist turned Christian, provides a timely warning for anyone ready to unwrap this gift of outgrowing at Christmas. He writes,
“If Christianity [and Christmas] was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not”
Dawkins’ invitation to outgrow God seems simple compared to the difficult gift we are presented with at Christmas. We don’t get to choose what we grow into at Christmas. We are given a model, a story fueled by a radical call to obedience. This type of outgrowing, I believe, is what it will take to move past the pain, the struggles, the doubts and the very real brokenness of our world. No one just makes up a vision of humanity that requires this kind of sacrifice and selflessness.
Thank you Dr. Dawkins for the insightful way you continue to force me to reconsider the Christmas story and the Christian faith. While I may not outgrow God, I am outgrowing my desire to make others into my own image while longing for them to be restored to the image of Jesus. This is why so many of us still call it a Merry Christmas.