There can certainly be theological change within a tradition but there are also core concepts that may in fact be untenable for many in this millennium. There is a general decline in religious affilliation at least in the West. Reasons for this are varied but the trend should be disturbing for professional theologians. Why does there seem to be a general intransigence among most professional theologians to make any sort of radical change. I believe it is because of the investment they have in the status quo. To become a professional theologian requires a considerable investment in time and effort. It takes years of hard study and writing to attain professional status as a theologian. It also usually requires an investment in some affiliation. One has only to do a search for academic institutions that are not affiliated with some tradition to realize that they just aren’t there. Professional theologians for the most part end up becoming part of a community within a tradition. This makes it extremely hard for them to be significantly critical of core principals. Accordingly theological change tends to be minimal. Continue reading
Theologians all have a given temperament just like anyone else. Should it be any wonder that features of that temperament would be reflected in their theological approach and the ensuing content that emerges. I have often wondered about the psychological dynamics of great thinkers and how it effects what they produce. It is an area that, in my opinion, has been sorely neglected in the history of thought. Although the arguments of these thinkers can be taken on face value, it is often enlightening to see “where they are coming from”. There are exceptions to this neglect. Continue reading
Many of the new theological approaches attempt to distance themselves from the supernaturalistic interpretations in the traditions. They try to “naturalize” their theology. I believe there is some merit to this with a few caveats. Many people today are abandoning traditional religious systems because they are unable to accept the supernatural claims inherent in them. This can have various effects. Some become so disillusioned with religion, per se, that the religious dimension of their lives disappears or is diminished in its potentially beneficial impact. However, many others still have religious longings and forge out on their own outside the traditions to find a religious bearing that does not offend their intellect. What a noble adventure! These folks may then explore new “naturalized” religious frameworks that are being offered. Whether or not these new theological perspectives will fill their needs is an open question. Continue reading
The shape of Christianity’s future may be found in the theology surfacing today. When I went to Lutheran seminary in the mid-’70’s I was shocked by how different theological perceptions were at seminary relative to those at the grassroots level. That difference could have been taken as an anomaly were it not for the fact that the same perceptions could be found in the Presbyterian and Catholic seminaries associated with mine. What was the difference specifically? The de-literalization of scripture. It was based on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship. It only took a few months studying Tillich, Bultmann, Jeremias, and others to realize that grassroots theology was significantly out of sync with professional theology. Interestingly enough those scriptural and theological sentiments I discovered in seminary in the ’70s are now common in the popular theological literature today read by the thousands of Christian seekers groups around the world. Apparently, there are a few years lag between contemporary professional theology and that found in grassroots religion. Because of this age of information that lag has shrunk significantly. I believe the same thing is happening now. Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity is an example. Marcus Borg might be considered a “popularizer” of theology today. He presents theology in a way that is easily understood by the adherents in the pews and study groups. If the contemporary theology found in this book also finds its way into public theology just as the ’70s theology did, it could have a significant effect. It will cast off the exclusionist elements in Christianity and position it as a great religious tradition, but only one among many viable religious alternatives. Why is that? If there is one consistent theme throughout Borg’s book it is his emphasis on the metaphorical nature of scriptural assertions. Now, this is not just concerning things like the creation story or supernatural claims. It is about core assertions that Christianity in the past has not been willing to metaphorize. What are some examples? The divinity of Jesus. The resurrection. Salvation schemes. Faith as belief. The end times and heaven. Time after time Borg suggests these are to be taken as metaphors. He asserts the Bible is metaphor and sacrament. Jesus is metaphor and sacrament. Borg’s suggestion for a shift in understanding to metaphor should not, however, be viewed as his retreat from the truth of the Christian message. To the contrary. Here’s his understanding of metaphor:
As I use the word, “metaphor” is a large umbrella category. It has both a negative and positive meaning. Negatively, it means nonliteral. Positively, it means the more-than-literal meaning of language. Thus metaphorical meaning is not inferior to literal meaning, but is more than literal meaning.
In this regard, here’s what Borg says about Jesus:
Thus Jesus is a metaphor of God. Indeed, for us as Christians, he is the metaphor of God. Of course, the was also a real person. As metaphor of God, Jesus discloses what God is like. We see God through Jesus.
Jesus is also a sacrament of God, a means through whom the Spirit of God becomes present.
The question that naturally arises from this metaphorical view of religious sentiment is, but what about beliefs? Aren’t they crucial? To this Borg answers that there has been a distortion of the meaning of belief in modern religion.
But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction of the meaning of “believing”. We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing” — believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true. …. The premodern meanings of “faith” generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.
He recommends shifting the common emphasis on belief to relationship. For Borg, the heart of Christianity is relationship with God and “dying and rising” as a personal transformation. It is not possible to deal in-depth here with all the aspects of his message, but I consider it revolutionary for a prominent Christian theologian to offer this vision. In my opinion within Christianity, it is a wonderful vision. It is only one wonderful vision among others, but it does provide for the uniqueness of the Christian message while at the same time placing it squarely within a workable worldview for the third millennium. How well will it be received? Hard to tell. It is so revolutionary, my guess is, it will be met with strong resistance. To many, it will strip Christianity of its prominence as a religious framework. If Christian assertions are to be taken metaphorically this does not, in my view, demean the message at all. However, it could lead to more of an openness to recognize and affirm, if warranted, the metaphors found in other religions? As Borg puts it:
When Christianity is seen as one of the great religions of the world, as one of the classic forms of the primordial tradition, as a remarkable sacrement of the sacred, it has great credibility. But when Christianity claims to be the only true religion, it loses much of its credibility.
I believe we are in a period of distillation in religious sentiment. Those symbols and metaphors of Christianity (and other religions) that remain transparent to the divine life will distill out and find their place somewhere in the future mix of religious thought. I believe this is not only unavoidable but beneficial. It destroys the tendencies towards dogmatism and resurrects the importance of personal reflection and discernment.
First, let me say that I think atheism can be a reasonable position, just as I think theism can be a reasonable position to take. Basically all the term “atheism” refers to is a disbelief in God or gods. I don’t think that is an unreasonable disbelief. However, if one follows that position to what I think are it’s logical conclusions, I do believe it is a psychologically grim position to take. Not only that but I also think that in many cases an atheistic position can lead to an unreasonableness and denial of its implications. This is not to say that atheists are bad people. To the contrary, I have friends who are atheists and are fine moral people. I appreciate them very much. I write this just to point out what I think are the logical consequences for this position.
So how is it a grim position? I think there are at least three things that in dealing with those implications make atheism grim — Meaning and Purpose, Morality(Value), and Free Will.
The first thing is to set a foundation for the arguments. One of the abilities that has provided for the amazing advancement of hominids is their ability to discern cause and effect. This has a great evolutionary advantage because it allows for correlations between events. These correlations can lead to planning and avoidance of threats. It has also allowed science to flourish, as abstractions can be generated to show the relationships between events, either causes or effects. Experimentation (especially reductive explorations) relies on the consistency and reliability of causes and their effects. This is entailment, one thing necessarily follows from the next. Now if entailment never ends at some point, then we have what is called an infinite regression, which is a logical fallacy. There is no stopping point. If there is a stopping point then we call that the ultimate. There is no place to go from there.
For instance, in the United States, the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land. All other laws enacted be they federal, state, or local must comply with the Constitution or they are unlawful. Which brings us to another ultimate, the Supreme Court. It is the ultimate adjudicator of what is lawful and what is not. Their decision is final. There is no higher authority. Now they may change their opinion later but even that decision is final. The entailment stops with it. So the key word here is ultimate, an ultimate basis for everything in its domain.
Meaning and Purpose
I think most atheists would agree that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to reality. The Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, famously said once: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”. So what entails from this view is that whatever meaning or purpose an atheist finds or creates for herself, their life and everything else is ultimately meaningless. Now perhaps this may not be such a big deal to many atheists, but I think for most people this would be a grim prospect. I think most people, at least psychologically, would like to think that their lives really meant something more than just a set of temporal events. However, for the atheist, their passions, strivings, work, thoughts and feelings, and relationships are just dust in the wind, temporal fluctuations in space-time that signify nothing in the end.
Theists and non-theists like Buddhists believe there is an ultimate basis for value and by extension morality. For theists, God is that basis and Buddhists have their own system of ethics which they believe is rooted in the ultimate. Atheists can claim no ultimate basis for value or morality. Now this does not mean that atheists can’t be moral. To the contrary. I have found my atheist friends and most other atheists I have known to be highly moral. However, no matter how “good” those moral positions may be to me or our culture, without an ultimate basis they are ultimately arbitrary. This leads to an important implication, I think, for atheists when arguing for a moral position. For the atheist there is no objective moral high ground. This means that when faced with another moral position (say like the ISIS tenets or Nazi fascism) they have no objective, ultimate basis for what is right or wrong to point to. It’s all subjective. Ultimately those other positions, no matter how abhorrent, are just as logically valid as any other. For the atheist all moral judgments and actions are merely local preferences of a group. The group may wish to find ways to spread that moral sentiment and even enforce it, but they have no objective argument that their way is better than any other. To me this is another grim aspect of the implications of atheism.
On the other hand, those who hold to an ultimate basis for morality, the situation is very different. I don’t think it was an accident that Thomas Jefferson invoked the Creator in his famous Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
By invoking the creator, Jefferson appeals to the ultimate basis for value (rights) that cannot be supplanted by sub-ultimate positions, particularly any human agency (like the British King in his case). For Jefferson these truths are self-evident. This speaks to some access to these ultimate values.
Now this does not mean that there are no problems with value and morality for those who believe in an ultimate basis for same. To the contrary. Much evil has been done in the name of God or some other ultimate basis. But these problems are not ontological. They are epistemological(knowing), personal, and social. The challenge for theists and believing non-theists is to some how discern what the ultimate values are and then attempt to instantiate them. Resources for this include wisdom literature, religious experience, philosophy, dialog among adherents, analysis of consequences, etc.
Typically, I think it is safe to say, almost all atheists accept some version of what could be called scientific materialism or physicalism. Now materialism attributes all causes to either necessity or chance (quantum indeterminacy). This, I think, presents a strange situation for the atheist. If all events are caused by necessity or chance, then where is there any opening for libertarian free will? For the atheist, they just do what they do and couldn’t have done any differently. Their thoughts and actions are determined by prior events and the dynamics of chance and necessity. As the key phrase in the free will debate says “they couldn’t have done otherwise”. Sounds pretty grim to me. Now, materialistic philosophers have played semantic games to try to mitigate this problem but if examined thoroughly, there is no relief for the problem of “could have done otherwise”.
If the atheist really thinks about this, it presents a strange mental quandary. No matter what they think or do even that thought couldn’t have been otherwise. And to make things worse, the “I” of the atheist is an empty concept even though it presents itself to the mind. The “I” is not a free agent but merely a conscious representation of what inevitably goes on in the mind. From the Darwinian perspective this feeling that “I” freely made decisions is a probably just a cruel trick of evolution so that we don’t go mad and instead continue to push our genes into the next generation.
And then there are moral positions. No matter how passionate an atheist is about some moral position, they really couldn’t have taken another. They just do what they do. Their passions are also just the product of necessity and chance. So, if they were honest, they would also realize that those who oppose their moral positions couldn’t have done otherwise either.
It just seems to me that in a life where there is no free will, everything breaks down. What a strange view of the self and the world. It represents life where everything is just going through the motions, mere automatons, determined by relentless forces with no real agency, no value, no will, no meaning, no nothing that we all hold dear. A grim view.
So Why Write This?
It might seem that I have a grudge against atheism or just want to be mean to atheists. Not so. I have friends who are atheists and I like and appreciate them very much. However, there are a couple of reasons I wrote this. I am a non-traditional theist. I don’t hold to any religious tradition. However, I do appreciate the good that is found in most religious people. I think their religion helps them navigate life in beneficial ways, and promotes in them the desire to help others.
But recently, ordinary religious folk have been attacked unmercifully by prominent militant atheists in books and the media. They have been labeled as stupid, ignorant, misguided, unscientific, irrational and the list goes on. Some of this is true. I myself have been critical of much in religious thought and practice. However, irrespective of the faults I see in religion and theology, in my travels I have seen a lot of people who genuinely try to follow the moral and social tenets of their religion. While they may not have thought much about what or why they believe what they do, they still feel some connection to the divine and although fragmentarily, they try to live up to what they believe the divine draws them to. They deserve to be appreciated instead of denigrated.
The irony is that these militants portray an arrogance about their rationality and scientific profundity. What I tried to show here is that for most of them this is misguided and actually false. Atheists are people just like everyone else. We all have our reasons for adopting certain positions. We all have our neuroses and defense mechanisms. In my view, there should be a healthy humility in all of us. Atheists can be just as irrational and unscientific as anyone else. Suppression and denial about the grim realities of atheism I have addressed do not allay their significance.
Now this will sound presumptuous, but the second reason I wrote to this was to suggest that there may be reasonable positions that do not rule out some ultimate and meaningful grounding for our reality. I myself have entertained atheism in my life. As life presents its challenges, it may come to mind. But for me the grim realities of that position pushed me on to see if there was a reasonable religious alternative that didn’t offend my intelligence. I think it is possible. My journey didn’t settle on anything traditional but rather drew from multiple ideas found throughout the ages. We are all unique and it’s a personal thing. Each person will have to seek out their solutions to their own particular deep questions. Now for those atheists who accept that there are grim issues with atheism but forge ahead to live noble lives, I salute them. But for those who feel uncomfortable with this situation, perhaps they can take a journey to look hard at their own sensibilities, the wisdom literature throughout the ages, and whatever else might be helpful, to see if there is some other position they could feel more comfortable with.
There is a general theme in liberal theology these days that really irks me. It represents a picture of a god that is distant and not participatory in any real sense. This trend can be seen in the neo-deistic ideas that relegate God to a maintenance person keeping the water flowing and the heat on but not really entering into the lives of the tenants in the building. It can also be seen in process thought where God prehends the sufferings and existential issues of life and tries to influence the world to the better but remains pristine in God’s glory. This is not the God of the scriptures. It is not the God that can be found in such a wonderful representation in the participatory suffering and death of Jesus. The god that is being presented is a god who has nothing to do or say to the weak who find themselves alone, suffering, and dying. This god has nothing to offer to the prayers of those dying of hunger and violence in their solitude. What good is the heat, water, and lure to those who reach out to the Source of life in their solitude and despair. This god is a demonic god who doesn’t get god’s hands dirty. It is not a god that is of any use to the world of the weak.
The true God is a God who actually lives in this world. It is a God who doesn’t just prehend or feel the sufferning of the weak but one who actually suffers and dies as well. Isn’t the message of the gospels that can be found many religions that even when we are alone and reach out to God, God is there in the very midst of life’s trials. All these trends that try to be accommodating to the mainstream worldviews of science and culture today will never be embraced because their response to the weak can only be “buck up”, “accept the influence of God”, “shit happens”, “God cannot do anything”. These are hollow responses that find no existential impact. They do not touch the heart of the weak of body or spirit. Theologians who promote these ideas should be ashamed. In their comfort they have nothing to offer the downtrodden of the world.
The only answer that has power is that we and God are one. Our suffering is not just sensed and appreciated by God but it is God’s suffering. All theologies that strike a divide between God and the world are destined to the dustbin. They will not find any appeal for the great masses of the world. They may appeal to the intellect of some but they do not translate to the real world. Only a God who is personally there in the dark, even closer to us than we are to ourselves can speak to the deeply heartfelt prayers of those in profound need. If Jesus is right that the weak shall inherit the Earth is it because they, above all, can know that God who lives in the very midst of their needs and trials.