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6 min read

Easter tells us that we are missed

Our best relationships hint at what we are really missing.

Nathan is a speaker and writer on topics related to faith, life and God. He lives near Seattle, Washington. His writing is featured frequently in The Seattle Times. nathanbetts.com

A persons stands, holding a net curtain aside to gaze out.
Max Harlynking on Unsplash.

I never thought that God could miss me, but recently I’ve begun to wonder if he does.  

Is there a person in your life that you just love spending time with? Maybe this person is a family member, a friend, colleague, neighbor, or maybe your spouse.  As time has gone on in your life you now realize how special that person is to you. You think of the ease, the peace, the low heartbeat, lightheartedness, and depth of feeling that you’ve experienced all in simply being with that person and spending time with them. 

As you think of that person, can you remember a time when there was a longer-than-usual gap between your visits? Maybe weeks, months, years. What was it like when you met up or talked to this special friend of yours after the hiatus? What did it feel like? 

I have someone like this. His name is Andrew. He is my cousin, but I’ve generally thought of him as the brother I never had. We grew up together separated by only one year in age. My childhood is filled with memories of playing with him in different sports, games, wrestling, arguing, disagreeing, pranking each other, late-night fast-food runs, (which I no longer recommend), and eventually working long shifts on low sleep together. We were in each other’s wedding parties. We have experienced a lot of life together. 

As time has gone on, and I now live on the other side of the continent, we have not been able to see each other as often as we would like. 

But recently, he had a special work trip close to the Pacific Northwest, so he made time for a short stay with us near Seattle. On one day, I took him out for street tacos near the ocean and we were able to get some unhurried time to catch up. Throughout his visit I just kept thinking how much I had missed spending time with Andrew. He and I both expressed as much.  

If you have just one of those friendships in life, you have hit the ball out of the park. And if you have two or three of those friendships, you’ve hit a grand slam. These friendships are unique. 

For me, one of the most striking and poignant questions throughout the Bible is when God asks Adam “Where are you?”

As a theologian by education, I often think of these relational traits when it comes to God. Fundamental to Christian belief is that we can, despite how infinitely different he is to us, relate to God. There is a great deal of mystery to this idea, to be sure, but I’ve wondered long and hard what this looks like. In the long history of Christian thought, scholars, pastors, and theologians have pointed to Jesus Christ to help make sense of this massive, otherworldly concept.   

The Hebrew Scriptures reveal what God is like in creation, miracles, acts of grace, displays of power and many other aspects. But when we are searching to understand how God relates to us as human beings, it is Jesus Christ who gives us the primary lens through which we can understand that quality of relationship. The interactions he has with his friends, leaders, children, and teachers are especially revealing. The way he heals people, enjoys meals with others, gives time to the outsiders, and speaks to the uptight religious types is all very instructive in how God relates to us as human beings.  

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly interested in the questions that Jesus asks people. Jesus’s questions reveal to us what he is like.  

“Why do you call me good?”  

“Who do you say that I am?”  

“Whose image is on this coin?”  

“Will you also leave me?”  

“What do you want me to do for you?”  

These and many more have caused me to explore further the questions that God asks people because maybe his questions, sometimes more than his statements, reveal what makes him different. 

For me, one of the most striking and poignant questions throughout the Bible is when God asks Adam “Where are you?” Since childhood I’ve wondered what God was doing in asking that question. God was not asking a geographical question; it’s not as though his internal GPS was confused in the garden of Eden. But if not a geography question, was God then playing an intellectual game with Adam and Eve? Perhaps, but that is increasingly doubtful, given the enormous stakes in that narrative (brokenness had just entered the world) as well as the message we read throughout the rest of the Bible: God takes people seriously. 

Recently I wrote to my friend and leading Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke to see what he thought about God’s question to Adam. Perhaps you’ll find an excerpt of his answer as enlightening as I have: 

The omniscient God is not asking because he does not know. He is asking a real question -- this is not a charade -- to show his involvement with Adam--both an historical and archetype of humanity -- to provoke him to engage with him in dialogue. In short, God misses his fellowship. 

God is asking Adam where he is because he misses him.  

Waltke’s answer to my question makes God’s question to Adam into a sign of his love for Adam, and he goes further to explain that this dialogue is “an historical and archetype of humanity”.  If nothing else, it means that this is the way in which God views his relationship with us. God enjoys being with us and interacting with us. And when the relationship grows cold, he misses us. 

Could it be possible that when we move away from God, he notices? He misses us? 

The British writer Julian Barnes begins his poignant memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of with the words, “I do not believe in God, but I miss him.” Those words set the tone for a book in which Barnes writes about his complicated and fraught relationship with the transcendent. In his book, Barnes expresses his curiosity about what God is like. And amidst the deep and rich thoughts woven throughout the book, the reader never encounters the idea that while Barnes misses God, it might also be true that the God on the other side of the equation misses him.  

To be honest, in all my thinking about God, it is just now that I am beginning to ponder the thought that when I move away from God on some level, he misses me. Could it really be possible that the God of creation misses me?  

Could it be possible that when we move away from God, he notices? He misses us? God’s question to Adam, punctuated by Christ the Lord restoring the severed relationship through his death on the cross and resurrection, demonstrates God’s great capacity to love us.  

As we approach Easter, wherever we might find ourselves on the spectrum of belief: whether we attend church, synagogue, temple, mosque or none; whether we have faith -- a little faith, beleaguered faith, or no faith -- the story of God asking that penetrating question to Adam and ultimately coming to us in Christ is the supreme portrait of what God is like. Easter reminds us that the nature of God’s love is such that when we walk away, God feels that loss, he misses us, and he comes looking for us. 

7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.