But is Flew’s conversion what it seems to be? Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searchings finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates. The version you prefer will depend on how you interpret a story that began 20 years ago, when some evangelical Christians found an atheist who, they thought, might be persuaded to join their side. In the intellectual tug of war that ensued, Flew himself — a continent away, his memory failing, without an Internet connection — had no idea how fiercely he was being fought over or how many of his acquaintances were calling or writing him just to shore up their cases. For a time, Flew hardly spoke to the media, leaving evangelicals and atheists to trade interpretations of his rare, oracular pronouncements. Was he now a believer in intelligent design? In Christianity? In some vague, intelligent “life force”? With the publication of his new book, Flew is once again talking, and this summer I traveled to England to speak with him. But as I discovered, a conversation with him confuses more than it clarifies. With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand.But it gets worse, if only a little:
When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting, in stark contrast to Schroeder and Haldane, both younger men, forceful and assured. Under their prodding, Flew concedes that the Big Bang could be described in Genesis; that the complexity of DNA strongly points to an “intelligence”; and that the existence of evil is not an insurmountable problem for the existence of God. In short, Flew retracts decades’ worth of conclusions on which he built his career. At one point, Haldane is noticeably smiling, embarrassed (or pleased) by Flew’s acquiesence. After one brief lecture from Schroeder, arguing that the origin of life can be seen as a form of revelation, Flew says, “I don’t see any way to meet that argument at the moment.”It kind of gives one that sickish, quasi-sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach, especially as one reads on and learns of the ways in which Flew has been used by both sides in this rather tawdry contest. But, as I said, it doesn't really matter who converts and who doesn't, all that really matters is the question whether the Christian religion is true or not. If it is not true, it doesn't matter in the least who believes that it is and who believes that it isn't, it's all just a huge language game, along with everything else that humans engage in and practicing it is no more harmful than collecting postage stamps or listening to Mozart and it might actually bring about some good if practiced correctly. If it is true, then the folks who don't believe in it are loved by a God who teaches the rest of us to take care of them, and we do our best to show them the light but we don't push them down the stairs while their eyes are closed: their fate is in God's hands.
If you've ever played that carnival game called Whack a Mole, where little toy moles pop up out of a box through irregularly spaced holes and you try to smack them all back down with a large hammer, you already know what's coming. As soon as one mole crawls into the theistic clubhouse, another one is already sneaking out the back way. Just as Antony Flew came in from the cold (sort of), out goes Bart Ehrman. Actually, he wiggled out some time ago, confused by his own studies of the textual criticism of the New Testament (I blogged about his travails in that department almost a year ago here), but now Stanley Fish blogs on 4 November about his new book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. Now, not to toot my own horn or anything, but I've also blogged a few times on the so-called "Problem of evil", starting here, and I have to confess that when folks as otherwise intelligent as Bart Ehrman start worrying about the problem of evil it seems to me that the only fitting response is to roll one's eyes and say something like "whatever, dude" and walk briskly away. Take a look at some of this (as reported by Fish):
Ehrman knows and surveys the standard answers to these questions – God is angry at a sinful, disobedient people; suffering is redemptive, as Christ demonstrated on the cross; evil and suffering exist so that God can make good out of them; suffering induces humility and is an antidote to pride; suffering is a test of faith – but he finds them unpersuasive and as horrible in their way as the events they fail to explain: “If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.”It's interesting, I think, that the real Christian explanation of suffering is not among the possible explanations on offer here, and I attribute that fact to Ehrman's background:
Born-again as a teenager, devoted to the scriptures (he memorized entire books of the New Testament), strenuously devout....In short, he was seeing a rather bizarre version of Christianity to begin with, the evangelical Protestant kind that exists in a vacuum, disconnected from the ecclesial reality of nearly 2000 years and the very sort of belief that is likely to evaporate as one begins to learn the truth about the nature of the texts one is memorizing without knowing much about the relation of those texts to the Tradition and the Magisterium or having much of a background in the theology behind a proper theodicy.
Not long ago I complained about a view of prayer that is overly utilitarian in nature; I might add a similar complaint about the sort of theology of the miraculous endorsed by folks such as Ehrman:
Many books of theology and philosophy have been written in response to Epicurus’s conundrums, but Ehrman’s isn’t one of them. What impels him is not the fascination of intellectual puzzles, but the anguish produced by what he sees when he opens his eyes. “If he could do miracles for his people throughout the Bible, where is he today when your son is killed in a car accident, or your husband gets multiple sclerosis? . . . I just don’t see anything redemptive when Ethiopian babies die of malnutrition.”In other words, Ehrman thinks that the miracle stories in the Gospel are nothing more than stories about God making problems go away. Rather than seeing Jesus's acts for what they were--sacramental manifestations of the power to forgive sins--a theology that lacks a coherent sacramentality simply sees "the miraculous" as nothing more than that: plain old ordinary miracle stories. Well, he could have saved himself a great deal of time just by reading old Hume, who has already shown that it is irrational to believe in those kinds of miracle stories anyway. People are starving in Ethiopia not because God is neglecting to save them, but because biological entities require nutrition to survive. This is a fact of biology, not a theological puzzle, and it is a peculiarly secular problem to fall for such a bizarre confusion of categories. Ehrman was already gone when he began having difficulties with his faith if he found himself puzzled by something that only puzzles people who cannot comprehend the faith to begin with. (It would not come as a huge surprise to me to learn that Ehrman is also a political liberal, because the people who expect a loving God to step in and prevent any form of human suffering are often the same people who expect the government to step in and take care of everyone's problems (and to expect the rest of us to pay for it through coercive and confiscatory taxation). But now I'm just venting.)
It doesn't help that many modern day Christians have abandoned their Neoplatonic roots and think that physical suffering is a Bad Thing that trumps just about everything else, including the fact that our souls are supposedly immortal. If you really have an immortal soul, and if you really believe that everyone else has one too, then you will not worry as much about physical suffering as a person who thinks that the present material existence is the only one there is. But of course, we are called by the Gospel to care for others and to alleviate suffering where we find it, but the call here is not so much to prevent suffering as to cherish life. Although these two things are functionally very similar (indeed, in many cases they are the same), they are not by any means identical, and the failure to see this is often behind the inability to see that the "problem of evil" is not really a problem at all.
As long as we are the byproducts of evolutionary forces--and of course we are--we will have the capacity to feel pain. It is a mistake of a rather elementary kind to try to equate a natural property of a material entity with a moral category like "evil". Sure, we don't like pain and suffering, but it is a mechanism, nothing more. Only a moral relativist of the most distasteful variety would associate moral goodness and badness with what we like and don't like. We feel pain in the way that certain kinds of plants wilt when they don't get enough water--it is just an artifact of the way we are put together, it is not something that an omnibenevolent God "ought" to have prevented if he had cared enough about us to have put us together in a different way. Again, you'd have to be some sort of bizarre fundamentalist committed to intelligent design and young-earth creationism to fall for the kind of crap that equates mere physical suffering with evil in the world.
People sometimes act as though God's justice is at stake in all this. Young babies dying of starvation in Ethiopia are supposed to show us that God is himself somehow evil (or, more benignly, simply non-existent), just as we would accuse a human parent of "depraved indifference" if he calmly watched as his young child wandered out into a busy highway and did nothing to prevent the inevitable. It really does take a village, doesn't it? Why anyone would be attracted to a theology in which God is just one more citizen in the universe, who can be expected to throw himself in front of oncoming traffic or pull careless swimmers out of riptides, is beyond me, but there you have it: if God is just one of us, then we can criticize the rationality of his decisions regarding particular human fates out there in the world. If my theology was as banal as that I would lose my faith, too, because that really is a stupid way to look at things.
But, again, it doesn't actually matter what Bart Ehrman believes, any more than it matters what Antony Flew believes, or what Daniel Dennet or Richard Swinburne or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Barr or anyone else believes--the truth or the falsity of the propositions of our religion stand or fall independently of anything so subjective as the mental states of any one individual. It is a peculiarly human conceit to think that, once we have satisfied ourselves that this or that particular viewpoint is "irrational", then that's it, case closed. Science, according to some, has "proven" that God either does not or at least cannot exist; logic, according to others, can "prove" that God's existence is necessary; observation (I kid you not), according to yet others, "proves" that the universe manifests intelligent design. These are all claims that get seriously made by intelligent persons (well, maybe not that last one), but they are all just language games. Ultimately the content of our religion is apprehended and made into something that we can assent to by a supernatural act of divine grace, and we had better not pretend otherwise or we will be in trouble. Obviously, folks who do not hear that call will laugh at the suggestion, but our job is not to beat them into submission with logical "proofs" and other forms of argument. As I suggested above, we don't push blind men down the stairs. Instead, we live our lives in a certain way, because we, too, are sacramental signs. We are the living manifestations of God's will on earth, provided that we are living our lives in the right way. That is why it is not God's job, but ours, to see to it that babies in Ethiopia do not starve. Only a theology lacking the proper sacramentality will miss this point. God is not one of us, we are rather striving to be one with him, and so the ways in which things unfold here on earth are indeed connected to God's goodness and God's justice, but in a very different way than folks like Bart Ehrman imagine.
Update: Dr. Michael Liccione has also commented on these issues at Sacramentum Vitae. His take is slightly different from mine, but he comes to a very similar conclusion, namely, that the problem of evil is not insoluble. On his view, the Christian can answer the problem of evil by adopting a certain conceptual stance regarding explanation and scientism. The entire essay is well worth reading.