Tonight was the long awaited first instalment of three public debates between Christian apologist Dr William Lane Craig and scientist-come-new-atheist Prof. Lawrence Krauss.
It confirmed most things that I thought about adversarial public debates between the religious and the irreligious – they aren’t very useful. Nuance is lost. People talk past one another. And everybody goes home more entrenched in their own position.
This time, unlike other debates I’ve watched, I felt like the atheist, Prof. Krauss, got the better of the Christian.
In the story of David and Goliath – an unlikely champion goes up against a big and powerful enemy and scores an unlikely win. He slays the powerful enemy.
In the gospel story an unlikely figure – a Jewish carpenter-come-Messianic figure – Jesus – goes up against the religious and political establishment and secures an unlikely win through the mechanism of a likely loss. The powerful enemy slays him. Only he is victorious in death. That’s the sublime paradox of the Gospel.
Tonight – William Lane Craig was trying to imitate David. He wanted to slay the giant. He brought some pretty impressive stones – his well-oiled set of philosophical axioms (though he certainly tried not to engage in the snark that Krauss brought to the table from the opening bell) – but he was the David you’d expect to see in most mismatches of this size. He was crushed. Blitzkriegged. Beaten from pillar to post.
The debate titled “Has Science Buried God” became, very quickly, “Krauss Buries Lane Craig.” Krauss barely touched on the debate topic, and when he did, it was to offer inane and debunked comparative cliches about Christianity in comparison with other ancient religions, or to over reach on science’s behalf – inconsistently attempting to suggest science is just a tool, but also suggesting that it is synonymous with rationality, rather than a tool for the rational. He was patronising, he treated the audience like children, he read his slides – word for word – he barely touched on his field of expertise. He also pretty constantly talked over the top of Lane Craig, relied on crass one liners like “forcing religion onto children is child abuse,” and was generally cantankerous. Despite a 10 minute opening plea from the moderator for a civil conversation between humans who held different opinions, Krauss was on the attack from beginning to end.
Where Krauss scored points, and where he took the argument away from Lane Craig, was on the unrelated question of Lane Craig’s moral theology, his account of the Canaanite genocide employing a Divine Command Theory argument – that God is always right to kill children, in judgment, on the basis that he also necessarily saves them in order to be a loving God.
Now. I’m not going to expand on why this argument is poor, theologically – except to say that both William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss need to reconsider what it means to read a passage in context, with a bit of literary and historical sensitivity. Why was the text written? What rhetorical purpose did it serve? Does it match the account of history found in subsequent parts of the narrative? Why did the text remain the way it did, not get edited, after the fact – when the Canaanite children (and adults) were intermingling with Israel and causing all sorts of domestic destabilisation? These are questions neither of these guys answers.
I’d suggest the violence in Canaan requires a fair amount of historical sensitivity, an understanding of where Israel was coming from – if they are fleeing slavery, a slavery where the king of Egypt slaughtered their male children on a cruel whim, if they were a people without a land in the Ancient Near East, and if they did believe, and had marked out previously, their own land that had since become occupied – then they were confronted with a bit of a dilemma. Then you’ve got to consider that similar commands to kill all the Canaanites are coupled with commands not to marry the Canaanites. Something complicated is going on.
Unpacking that sort of complication is probably out of the question in a format like this. Impossible even. That it took up so much of a debate that, by title, had nothing to do with the topic, is a failing of the debate – and especially a failing of William Lane Craig, who like a punch drunk boxer, decided to hang out on the ropes and let Krauss pummel him.
But William Lane Craig’s bigger failing. In my mind. Was that he didn’t ever really go beyond providing a philosophically cogent case for theism. Here he was as Christianity’s champion (it possibly didn’t help that the moderator kept including Islam and Judaism in the discussion – which was odd given the event was sponsored by the City Bible Forum). And instead of championing Christianity, a robust Christianity centred on the historical person of Jesus, he was championing abstract concepts of a loving God who can carry out genocide.
I’m not going to pretend the genocide question is easy. It’s not.
But Christian morality isn’t based on Divine Commands from Deuteronomy or a “developing morality through the New Testament and over the next thousand years” as moderator Scott Stephens put it. Christian morality and ethics are based on Divine Example. The life and death of Jesus Christ, historically, on behalf of his enemies. As an act of love.
And here’s where I think Lane Craig’s biggest failing came – and I think it’s the big failing most Christians fall into when we’re thrust into adversarial positions.
He tried to imitate David. Not Jesus. He set out to slay the giant. And he didn’t even do that right… In the story of David and Goliath, David rejects the conventional weapons of warfare and uses a sling. So ultimately David’s bizarre method of ancient near eastern giant slaying has more in common with Jesus taking it to the Roman establishment by being crucified than it has with playing a power game.
This might be a little simplistic – but giant slaying in improbable situations is nice in theory. But it’s not, I would argue, paradigmatic for Christ shaped interactions with the world, nor is it particularly conducive to presenting a gospel of weakness – the story of a king killed on a cross.
While I reckon God is capable of using small and inadequate people to win great victories – David didn’t beat Goliath by wearing armour and taking the fight to him. I don’t think we win people over by engaging in this sort of debate where you’re using the verbal equivalent of the Queensberry Rules and talking past one another, not to one another.
Lane Craig was gracious under fire. Don’t get me wrong. But didn’t really try to reach across the divide to Krauss in a particularly winsome way. He didn’t simply turn the other cheek and cop the flogging that Krauss dished out. And he certainly didn’t get to the cross – even when he was specifically asked about an ethic that cares for the vulnerable he went to Jesus’ words, not his actions at the cross.
I understand that I’m essentially advocating that Christians go into these situations to essentially deliberately lose the fight but win the war. With dignity. But that’s the only way to, I think, faithfully embody the gospel in an adversarial situation. You don’t imitate Jesus by landing the most telling blows on your opponent. You imitate Jesus by how you take the blows, while pointing people to the gospel.
It would be cliched and anti-intellectual for me to just run to 1 Corinthians 1 at this point…
“18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
I think philosophical thinking, and being prepared to give an account for the hope that you have, is important. I’m not suggesting we abandon the field of apologetics – there just has to be a way to shape the way we do apologetics through the example of the cross, and with the message of the cross. I guess I am suggesting that in some sense, our philosophy, for it to be properly Christian, not simply defending theism, monotheism even, we do need to take the rest of 1 Corinthians 1 seriously…
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
It’s hard to do this in a debate. But Paul managed in similar setting throughout Acts – and he paid the penalty for his refusal to play Corinthian debate/oratory games – we see that in the way he defends his approach to public speaking in 2 Corinthians. It’d be nice for those engaging in discussions with the New Atheists, or even just with run of the mill atheists, to be trying to present God’s wisdom. Not man’s.