Sunday, 22 May 2011
By Matthew at Jesus Needs New PR
Once again, something Stephen Hawking uttered aloud has ruffled the angel feathers of Christians. Last week, during an interview with Britain’s Guardian, the famous physicist called the idea of believing in Heaven or an afterlife “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Hawking also said that a God wasn’t “necessary” for creation. For some reason, those opinions led to a 2-day “Stephen Hawking” social media frenzy. Atheists and skeptics shouted “amen” (or something like that) while Christians (as well as members of other religious groups) cried “What the hell?” (<-wording varies).
Why did Hawking’s opinions about the afterlife and the existence of God–views he’s held and talked about for years–spark such media attention? Because nobody was surprised by this, right? Still, Christians responded. Some with essays. Some with Tweets. And some in interviews with media.
The responses from influential Christians–both written and verbal–offered few surprises. Nothing that I’ve heard or read has offered any true rebuttal to Hawking’s ideas. Most Christians simply questioned why Hawking is talking about heaven, a topic that is outside of his expertise.
Even Bishop NT Wright’s response for Washington Post, while thoughtful and inspirational to the believer, offers much less substance than what I’ve come to expect from his work. I love Wright. He’s a brilliant thinker in my opinion, and usually, when he enters a debate, he brings with him wisdom that is calming, refreshing, and containing at least a few “aha” sentences. But this piece seems to have been written quickly because it lacks Wright’s usual vibrance. Perhaps his strongest point was how he ended the piece, by questioning how the debate itself gets packaged:
Of course, the old set-up of the ‘science and religion’ debate was itself deeply influenced by this same worldview, and needs realigning. In fact, the ancient Christians would have been shocked to see their worldview labelled as a ‘religion.’ It was a philosophy, a politics, a culture, a vocation… the category of ‘religion’ is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Author and well-known conservative Christian Cal Thomas wrote this regarding Hawking’s opinion: How does Stephen Hawking know ‘there is no heaven’? He has never been there. But the One who has came from Heaven to tell us about it. What’s more, he told us He is the way to get there. I will go with Jesus and not Hawking.
And yes, that is Cal’s entire statement.
Kirk Cameron expressed his thoughts and opinions about the matter to TMZ (I wish that was a punch line. But as far as I can tell, it’s not.) Cameron told the online gossip magazine that “Professor Hawking is heralded as ‘the genius of Britain,’ yet he believes in the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything and that life sprang from non-life.”
While his opinion isn’t new or all that insightful, it’s also not cringe-worthy. And for Cameron, that’s saying something. Of course, right after that quote, TMZ adds this line: “The former teen heartthrob steamed to TMZ, which leads into Kirk quote, “Why should anyone believe Mr. Hawking’s writings if he cannot provide evidence for his unscientific belief that out of nothing, everything came?” That’s why you don’t talk to TMZ, Kirk. After that, Cameron falls off the “non cringe-worthy” wagon by mentioning John Lennon’s thoughts regarding Heaven and comparing them to Hawking’s.
All of this begs the question: Why do Christians respond? Do we feel like we have to respond? Is it because somebody has asked us to respond? But sometimes a response doesn’t make sense.
While I find debates about facts, theologies, Bible verses, issues, etc. between atheists and Christians to often be fascinating, even helpful, I find that most debates about the more macro aspects of faith–i.e., the existence of God, heaven, etc–to often be unhelpful to either side.
For one thing, both sides usually come to these kinds of conversations with far too much emotion, story, passion to be fully capable of thoughtfully listening and respecting the opposing view. And while that reality certainly plays out to varying degrees in debates about smaller topics such as whether or not The Flood actually happened or debates about the pros and cons of stem cell research, it almost always plays out when the topic or idea or belief being debated is a bigger (more macro! more unbelievable?!) concept. When the topic at hand is “provable” only by faith, the less helpful and constructive, in my opinion, these types of conversations become.
Why? Because the reasons people believe and the reasons people are skeptical are personal and often complicated and are usually very difficult to explain. And when we’re debating big topics like God and heaven, it’s easy to become so caught up in our own story and belief and passions that we forget to consider the story and beliefs of the one we’re debating.
Last week, when I posted my piece about May 21′s coming judgment, LRA (a frequent commenter at this blog and somebody I believe would identify herself as atheist–correct me if I’m wrong, LRA!) posed a question. And it was a good question. Most of her questions are good and valid. And usually, I find that most of our debates/conversations are amazing, helpful, and insightful. I’ve gleaned as much from LRA’s presence at this blog as I have from any believer who leaves ongoing comments here. Yes, she can be feisty! But I’ve come to love her for that passion.
Now I’m paraphrasing her question, but it went something like this: “How is Camping’s belief in ‘Judgment Day’ any different (or crazier) than one’s belief in Jesus resurrecting from the dead?”
I still haven’t responded. I wanted to respond. In fact, I tried responding numerous times. But I never pushed the “comment” button. Every one of my responses sounded silly or it seemed like I was “trying too hard.” And too, I thought she had good point.
I’ve thought about that question a lot this last week. While I think there are several differences between Camping’s belief in the “The End” and my belief that Jesus rose from the grave, the one core difference, the real reason I couldn’t come up with a decent response is the fact that Camping’s belief meant nothing to me and the other belief is something I’ve thought about daily since I was four-years-old. It’s a belief that changed my grandmother’s life. It’s a belief that is rooted in my family and culture and state of being. It’s a belief that, for some crazy reason, I can’t escape or leave behind or forget or “unbelieve”. And not because I’m afraid not to believe it. But because it does something to me.
But I have no proof that Jesus rose from the dead–nothing physical or scientific or measurable or anything that would impress somebody coming from LRA’s perspective. And so, I can see why some people think my belief in Jesus’s resurrection is as crazy as Camping’s belief in “Judgment Day” or somebody else’s belief in fairies or leprechauns or aliens.
So why debate a fundamental difference? Because even though I fully respect LRA’s opinion and believe her question was completely valid, I’m also fighting tears as I write the last few sentences of this post. But those tears only mean something to me. They don’t prove anything (except maybe that I’m as cheesy emotional as a full-blooded Pentecostal deep down).
When we get down to it, NT Wright (and Kirk Cameron) can’t prove that heaven exists.
And yes, Stephen Hawking can’t prove that it doesn’t exist.
And chances are, neither of them can offer one bit of reasoning that would change the other one’s mind.
Which is why, when trying to prove that Heaven isn’t a “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” remaining silent might actually offer more proof of that than anything we might say or write.