Palm Sunday Sermon 2020

During Lock-down I have, among other things, taken the opportunity to re-visit Richard Dawkins’s  2006 book The God Delusion. I have it on Kindle and a nice hardback edition too. Richard Dawkins is not pleased with God. He seems to have chosen God as his sworn enemy.

The God Delusion is essentially an extended diatribe against religion in general and belief in God in particular. Dawkins wrote the book, in part, to encourage timorous atheists to come out of hiding. It’s not easy to take him seriously.

Richard Dawkins is a great writer; pellucid; clear in meaning, expression and style. He writes very well on his own subject (biology). But The God Delusion contains little science; it’s mainly philosophy and theology with a good dose of social commentary about the ills of religion coupled with large amounts of abusive language: vitriol, insult, ridicule etc. not to mention an irritating smarter-than-thou attitude. Nice book. But Dawkins is not a philosopher – he’s a biologist – in philosophy he’s out of his depth. The American atheist philosopher Michael Ruse remarked: The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.  

To give just one example: We know of no irrefutable objections to its being possible that unguided evolution produced this whole complex and wonderful world. Therefore unguided evolution is true.

There is a truly colossal distance between premise and conclusion here. Dawkins thinks he can show unguided evolution is true (no God, no Mind, no directing force) just by refuting those claims that unguided evolution is impossible. It’s like I come home with the news that my line manager is about to recommend me for a £20K pay increase:

That’s a lot dear…how wonderful…you must be so pleased…why is he’s going to do that?

Well, there are no irrefutable objections to its being possible that he’s going to do that.

Oh I see, dear…now come and sit down…

Despite the fact that Dawkins is full of bluster and gives no substantial reason at all why belief in God is mistaken (let alone a delusion) plus the fact that the methodological naturalism3 which he embraces is hugely problematic, it’s not really these things that are the concern. Rather it’s his objective and his conclusion. His stated objective is to  convert his reader to atheism by the time she has reached the end of the book. His conclusion is a dispiriting picture of  intrinsic unloveliness in respect of human beings and their place in the universe; a universe which, for Dawkins, has at bottom “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” . (Of course, you can’t actually apply a moral value like ‘pitiless indifference’ to an inanimate object like the universe – but no nitpicking! :-)). He gives his reader a good dose of unwarranted pessimism and then leaves her to get on with it. You can’t even cry out to God in your distress or shout at him in your anger because, according to Dawkins, he’s not there to listen to you.

After reading Dawkins, the Christian Gospel comes as a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless some, perhaps many of us, are stumped by the real evil and suffering in the world. Of course, you can’t have real evil without there being a real way things are and are not supposed to be. Which means there is a real right and  wrong way in respect of things, a Moral Law if you like, which permeates both the world and our private and social lives. It’s always present and at all levels: should I or we or this nation do this, or should I or we or this nation do that? Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project between 1992 and 2001 and one-time atheist, came to Christianity as this fact dawned upon him. He writes: “Encountering this argument at age twenty-six I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my own heart as familiar as anything in daily experience…this moral law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?  (italics mine)

So, Dawkins is not happy with the way things are and thinks that making God his sworn enemy helps in some way. But neither is the Bible happy with the way things are. The difference is that Dawkins has no solution but to fall back into some kind of meaninglessness; a naturalism which is, according to the philosophers, self-referentially destructive. By contrast the Bible does not neutralise evil in this way; it faces up to it; it rebels against it; it lies at the very heart of the Gospel; and the Gospel offers us a real solution to the problem in Jesus Christ. That’s why we call it the Gospel. Nevertheless our emotional and intellectual barriers – obstructions to faith – exist; they’re real. They’re very real.

Thinking about barriers, I remember when I first became a Christian. You could say I was part of a modern post-war, science-will-solve-all-ills, non-Christian family. I am the youngest of three children. At age seventeen, however, I had a tolle lege moment .  My two siblings and their spouses-to-be had all been educated in the natural sciences. Their barrier to faith was: science explains everything – no God – period – end of argument. Some say the natural or physical sciences are a one-way superhighway to atheism. Personally, I’ve never quite understood this opinion given there are top scientists and philosophers in our universities and elsewhere who don’t seem to have a problem. People like Francis Collins whom we just mentioned. But for me, at the time, it was like facing the Four Horsemen, only early. When Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchins and Harris came along thirty years later it was deja vu.

Over time my atheist siblings did come to Christ but not merely through debate and argument,  which was reassuring. They were, I thought, human after all :-). As C. Stephen Evans says, people rarely if ever come to faith just by way of logical arguments. My brother, who’s a retired physics lecturer, has a schizophrenic stepson whose illness and its repercussions have been distressing for all concerned for many years. My sister who once led a very active life found herself suddenly bed-ridden for ten years. It was by way of these experiences that they came to Christ because, in their cases, it was only in these experiences that they met Christ. What’s more, Christ turned these painful experiences into their greatest ministry. Goodness and love grew out of an otherwise meaningless event. It changed them. Who better can empathise with someone who has a mentally disabled son or daughter than a person whose stepson self-harms, steals, exhibits bizarre behaviour, does drugs and is regularly escorted to the post office by his dealer? Who better to console someone living through the misery of chronic illness than someone whose life came to an abrupt stop with all the repercussions on career and family life? Sometimes it’s our life experiences that dismantle the barricades which may never otherwise come down. Thomas Carlyle (Senior) once said, what’s needed is a Christian who knows Christ other than at second hand. These are such people. In our trouble and pain, we know Christ other than at second hand whether we realise it or not; whether we cry out to him in our pain or just shout at him in our anger.

Today is Palm Sunday: the final stage of our journey to the Cross. We each carry our pain as we accompany him whatever that pain may be. Our darkest moments are also often our finest moments, though again we very often can’t see it ourselves; we’re too close to the events. When our heart is broken and we feel abandoned, out of options and the pain is great – at times such as these we’re walking with Christ to the Cross. We don’t just know about the Cross; we know it at first hand, by experience. That’s what my sister and brother found. And the barricades come down. Now we know we are not alone. We have an inchoate sense of his love and we’re drawn to it; something inside us wants to surrender to it. It’s like a Jack Reacher thriller.

Our wounds are like a tree. A tree is wounded and slowly, very slowly, year by year, a new ring of wood forms around the wound. The cavity, where the love and pain was, never disappears, it’s always there, but it gets compartmentalised and the tree gets strong again. When a person is refined rather than destroyed or embittered by life, they are like a tree and exert an attraction all their own. You see it in the writings of people who have come through what are commonly called ‘God-forsaken times and places’ – their Calvary. And we thank God for them; well, at least I do, maybe Dawkins doesn’t. They are the real people in whom we see Jesus Christ fully alive. They’ve gone down to the depths with him and this issomething too valuable for them not to share. A person who knows Christ other than at second hand should never ever retire because Christ has given them so much to give. The trouble is, we often don’t see it until someone else points it out.

As this Holy Week you walk with Christ to the Cross, may he generate a new spirit and create a new heart inside you because of your experiences not despite them. Come to him on your knees and just spend time with him in quiet contemplation. Pour out your hurt and pain. Removing barriers is hard won – both by us and by Christ. He brings light out of darkness. Let’s not waste that light; that which we’ve been given. We’re equipped to serve. Reach out to those only you can reach – people who, if you don’t reach them, then very possibly nobody else will – stretch out and touch them with Christ’s beauty (Jack Reacher again) and bring them to him.  Aldous Huxley once said: experience is not what happens to you; experience is what you do with what happens to you. Service is a fantastic privilege. Those who hunger and thirst after Christ know that a Christian can never retire. Albert Schweitzer said, The only really happy people are those who have learned how to serve. Only you can reach certain people – they are within your reach – nobody else’s. Christ transforms our understanding through our experiences. When we open the door and invite him in:

 Our life is changed; his coming our beginning.

 Since we started out with Dawkins, I’d like to finish with a story from Alister McGrath.

“I’d just finished giving a lecture in London early in 2010. A young man came up afterwards and asked me to sign a copy of my book Christian Theology: An Introduction. I asked him what led him to study theology. He told me he had read Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion a year or so earlier and it seemed unfair and one-sided and he needed to hear the other side. So he started going to church. After a while he found he could not sustain his faith in the parody when confronted with the real thing. He converted to Christianity – joyfully and decisively. ‘Without Dawkins‘ he told me ‘I would never have given God a second thought.‘ As I signed the book the young man said he had a theological question for me. Since The God Delusion had been instrumental in his conversion, should he thank God for Richard Dawkins in his prayers?

McGrath concludes: …hmm…I’m still thinking about that one….

Every blessing


[I have deliberately avoided mentioning Covid-19 but our thoughts and prayers are very much with victims and their families at this time. At the time of writing I see one person on the Island has died from it. May we use this unprecedented time to love our neighbours better than we normally do, bring Christ to them and pray for them. May this soon come to an end – and may we be better for the experience. Keep well and safe – we can’t afford to lose any choir members :-)]

Download the full referenced sermon:

One thought on “Palm Sunday Sermon 2020

Comments are closed.