J.R.R. Tolkien, the Star of Bethlehem, and the Fairy-Story that Came True

From the Op-Ed by Jim Denney published December 24, 2012, at FoxNews.com.

JRR Tolkien, the creator of “The Hobbit,” once wrote that his goal as an author was to give his readers “the Consolation of the Happy Ending.” That consolation takes place at the point in the story when all hope is lost, when disaster seems certain—then Joy breaks through, catching the reader by surprise. In a 1964 essay, Tolkien called that instant “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Tolkien even coined a word for the moment when the light of deliverance breaks through the darkness of despair. He called it “eucatastrophe.” When evil fails and righteousness suddenly triumphs, the reader feels Joy—”a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”

Is the Joy of eucatastrophe just a literary device for manipulating the reader’s emotions? No. This same sudden glimpse of Joy, Tolkien wrote, can be found in our own world: “In the eucatastrophe we see in a brief vision . . .  a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” Evangelium is Latin for “good news,” the message of Jesus Christ.

Tolkien went on to compare the Christian Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, to “fairy-stories,” the kind of fantasy tales (like “The Hobbit”) that produce the Joy of “eucatastrophe,” the consolation of the happy ending. The difference between the gospel story and fairy-stories, Tolkien said, is that the gospel is true: “This story has entered History and the primary world.”

An Atheist’s Admiration for the Sermon on the Mount

I’m convinced that if everyone in the world practiced the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), 95 percent of the world’s problems would be solved. It might surprise you to know that even atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins shares my admiration for the Sermon on the Mount. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

“Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.

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Addendum, September 30, 2012:

I recently discovered a blogpage written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Atheists for Jesus” (April 10, 2006). At the top of the page is a photo of Dawkins wearing a T-shirt that reads “Atheists for Jesus.” In the article, Dawkins explains in greater depth his admiration for Jesus as an ethical teacher, while dismissing the theistic worldview of Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . .

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick-start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

Dawkins is wrong, of course, when he claims that a “reborn Jesus” would not be a theist. Jesus would know all about the anthropic, fine-tuned universe—a body of evidence that Dawkins actively misleads his readers about in The God Delusion. In fact, I think it is likely that Jesus, being the absolute exemplar of intellectual honesty, would connect his ethical teachings to the evidence for a Cosmic Designer that permeates our growing understanding of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But I do agree with Dawkins on this: Jesus might well wear a “Jesus for Atheists” T-shirt, because Jesus is for all people, weak and strong, young and old, male and female, believer and nonbeliever. The one who said “Love your enemies,” the one who forgave those who crucified him, would certainly be for atheists. He would not be for atheism, of course, because atheism doesn’t square with reality. He would want everyone to know the truth.

But Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the rich and the poor, the drunks and prostitutes. So why wouldn’t he welcome an atheist as well?

Read Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus” in its entirety at RichardDawkins.net.

Lament for an Atheist (Part II)

or How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God

I’m a longtime admirer of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote numerous books plus many columns for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. I share his admiration for George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens once described his antitheistic approach as “the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it.”

Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great is not so much an argument against the existence of God as a caustic indictment of organized religion. Here’s a representative passage:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. … Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean it “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment. This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses and to use their half-baked celestial knowledge to terrify the ignorant. It stretches from the epistles of Saint Paul… through the deranged fantasies of the book of Revelation … to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series.

Hitchens blames religion for misrepresenting the origin of humanity and the cosmos; for telling people they are “lowly sinners” (destroying their self-esteem); for telling them their Creator loves them (inflating their self-importance); for causing “dangerous sexual repression;” for promoting wishful, magical thinking; for killing millions of people through holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms, and terror attacks; for revering religious texts that are riddled, he says, with “contradictions and illiteracies;” for making claims of miracles and doctrines of heaven and hell based on myths; and for failing to make religious people behave virtuously.

He concludes that the human race needs a new Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason like that of 18th century Europe and America, when Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson shaped the science, culture, and government of the Western world. Hitchens believes that a new 21st century Enlightenment is not just for intellectuals, but is “within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.”

By attacking organized religion, Hitchens (whose given name, Christopher, means “Christ-bearer”) ironically aligns himself with another caustic critic of institutional religion, Jesus of Nazareth. Read through the four gospels, and you find the Nazarene blasting organized religion at every turn. He breaks the Sabbath, thunders against the corrupt religious bosses, eludes their attempts to entrap him, tells parables that plainly condemn them, openly blasts them as frauds and hypocrites, and exposes their corruption in the temple courts. Jesus would likely find a lot to agree with in Hitchens’ book.

In 2007, when I heard that God Is Not Great would soon be released, I was eager to see what kinds of arguments Hitchens would level against the scientific case for God (see my earlier posts on the cosmological case for God here and here). Upon opening my copy of Hitchens’ book, however, I was astonished to find that Hitchens completely ignored the cosmological evidence.

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

In my newest book, God and Soul, I present the cosmological evidence for the existence of God—the evidence that Hitchens oddly ignores. To me, the evidence is convincing, even overwhelming. I’ve often asked myself: If the evidence is as persuasive as I think it is, why are so many atheists unconvinced? I can’t escape the conclusion that most atheists, including Hitchens, simply haven’t gotten the memo.

They really don’t know.

Please don’t take my word for it. Read Hitchens’ book. And while you’re at it, read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Compare their case for atheism alongside the case I present in God and Soul. Then you tell me who has presented the more intellectually honest case—the New Atheists or God and Soul. If you make that comparison, you’ll find that Dawkins and Dennett don’t present the evidence accurately—and that Harris and Hitchens don’t present it at all.

I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens ignored the cosmological case for God because he was unaware of it—or if he knew that it presented a deadly minefield for his atheist beliefs. What I do know for sure is that no one can claim to be a serious, intellectually honest, inquiring skeptic without fearlessly confronting the evidence I have assembled in God and Soul.

And it saddens me that Christopher Hitchens died without ever grappling with possibly the most important body of information that science has ever revealed.