Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures In The Spirit: Ch.2

In chapter 2 of Philip Clayton's new book "Adventures In the Spirit", he makes the case that religious truth and scientific truth have significantly overlap, yet remain distinctly different. To get there, he compares three perspectives.

First, there is a common modernist view that religious truth is subjective, passionate, mythical, and intrinsically perspectival while scientific truth is objective, dispassionate, rational, and natural. Scientific opposition to religion (as advocated by people like Richard Dawkins) is therefore justified. It's clear Clayton sees a false dichotomy lurking within Dawkin's reasoning.

Second, there is an emerging post-modernist view that scientific truth and religious truth are ultimately the same. This view, a much stronger view in Clayton's opinion, says that "both [religion and science] involve a critical use of hypotheses and doubt within a subjective human framework pervasively influenced by personal, societal, and historical factors....the physics of special relativity and quantum mechanics have made observer limitations central to the epistemology of science, as well as to its view of reality...a massive literature now treats scientific theories as myths, models, narratives, and stores, and ascribes to them only the truth proper to such accounts...religion and science are identical: both are symbolizing activities aimed at making the world meaningful through the creation of a symbolic universe....scientific truth might need to be reconceived from the standpoint of coherence rather than correspondence." Indeed, religious studies majors like myself notice that religious truth is similarly described in the context of post-modern academic study. In an interesting transitional comment, Clayton notes that the modern Western religious person (whom he calls the "secular believer") is much less dogmatic in practice than many scientists like Dawkins and Dennet are about their scientism.

Third, Clayton shows how this more extreme post-modern view, while a correction to the old rigid modern view, goes too far by sacrificing essential phenomena of both fields in an effort to equate the two perfectly. I list his reasons for objecting to the extreme post-modernist view below:

1)While objectivity and a theoretical attitude remain the ideal goal of science, religion is guided by the value of subjectivity in faith and response. While scientists might be passionately attached to their theories as matters of ultimate concern, the religious phenomenon is all about providing hypotheses as foundational to the subject's "ultimate concern".

2)While science is characterized by an ideal of the progressive mastery of nature ("possession"), religious truth is characterized by unpossessability. "When worship strives after possession, religion crosses the line into the realm of magic...Where scientific truth is 'for us', religious truth remains 'beyond us.'"

3)Similarly, religious truth "is not found in a specific object of experience but in the ground of all experience. In contrast to the scientific mind, the religious consciousness will never countenance the divine as one object among other objects in the world...[while] there is a sense in which believers will accept specific events or doctrinal teachings as adequate, [they still insist] that, at the more general level, the ultimate truth exceeds all abilities of human language. The appeal to a knowledge beyond words - or to the limiting, self-negating function of parables, myths, and symbols - is the constant theme of the religious teacher."

4) While scientific theory is not immune to the influences of contextual perspectives, it nevertheless is structured with powerful mechanisms "for avoiding, or recognizing and eliminating, errors and prejudices in the construction of theories." While cultural/cultic/individual/group differences in religion and art "add to the richness of artistic and religious truth, the constant goal in science is to transcend perspectival differences."

Clayton wraps things up nicely: "Having discovered the significant overlaps between scientific and religious activity...the four distinctions [above] can no longer be construed as signs of a fundamental religion-science dichotomy...Though one must grant important differences between science and religion, one can do so as part of a nuanced understanding of the two, one that eschews black-and-white distinctions in favor of careful gradations that are more truly representative of the complex realities of the phenomena themselves."

Adventures In The Spirit: Ch.1

The first chapter of Philip Clayton's new book "Adventures In the Spirit" sets out in a very clear manner to show how science and theology can work together as related, complimentary, yet distinct fields. Theology today must be willing to change according to the best results of the sciences, and while this is uncomfortable, it is absolutely necessary for the ongoing life of the Christian faith.

We are not relativists, those of us who advocate this reformation. We are not willing to hold to absolute certainty - doubt and questioning are vital to faith. Certainty leads to fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism...ultimately irrelevance. We hope for what we believe to be true without knowing for sure that it is. We are committed to humble but intelligent and active dialogue to defend and explore theological convictions. Clayton describes the appropriate response as "hope-plus-faith, that is, a stance of sincere hope for a particular outcome, combine with the sort of religious life that acts as if that hope were a certainty." Clayton believes this response is possible even in the absence of certainty that our beliefs are superior to other religious beliefs. Like the best scientists, we hope that we are moving towards a final goal, even as we maintain a healthy skepticism about our results. In a quote of Charles Sanders Pierce: "Undoubtedly, we hope that this, or something apporximating to this, is so, or we should not trouble ourselves to make such inquiry. But we do not necessarily have much confidence that it is so."

Clayton endorses the theology more in line with the reformation's concept of semper reformata, "revisions are a constant requriement for any tradition that wishes to speak to its contemporary intellectual and social context. While costly, they are also necessary." Today's context of the successfully persuasive sciences and increasing awareness of religious pluralism, where there are truly other viable options for spiritual seekers, requires robust engagement with other religious traditions (not just dialogue, but openness to correction and learning actual truth) and similarly robust engagement with the sciences. To refuse to engage in the pursuit of truth with other religions and science is profoundly arrogant and extremely ignorant. We must avoid the temptation to use science to prove the existence of God - intelligent design is profoundly confused. Any move beyond the scientific method's engagement with the empirical world is inherently metaphysical, and therefore philosophical - and while philosophy is good, it is NOT science. Philosophy is of course more aligned with theology.

But should we take the risk of seriously engaging theology with science? To do so is to risk forming bad theology in conjunction with bad science - as was done in the past at times. Clayton believes that the alternative is worse: "...to put forward and embrace theologies that are based on outdated scientific cosmologies and empirically false claims about the world, rather than basing theological reflection on the best available knowledge we have about the universe. Surely the scriptures of one's religious tradition should not function as a dike that serves to protect one against advances in human knowledge. Therein lie the Dark Ages indeed!...It is far better to accept the risks of aligning oneself with the best human efforts at knowledge, and then when necessary to admit mistakes and move on, than to remain 'suckled on a creed outworn.'" Theologians should hold firmly that all means of discerning truth are valid. Theologians should engage the sciences because we recognize that knowledge moves along an unbroken line from empirical/scientific results to philosophical/metaphysical results. The two inform each other and need each other: "Empirical results raise urgent metaphysical questions, and metaphysical positions frame empirical research."

A great start to an exciting book of fresh theological inquiry. More to come...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Transforming Christian Theology




I just finished Philip Clayton's important new book Transforming Christian Theology, and it's a must read for all who are concerned about the future of the Christian church. The book itself reads easy and is meant for non-specialists like pastors and even laypersons. Clayton offers a blueprint, in my opinion, for the way-forward for progressive Christianity, including the Emergent Church and the struggling Mainline church. This is not your book of theological answers, but rather a book to help the progressive Christian community develop their theology in the most productive manner. He emphasizes the need for the Christian Church to present transformative statements of belief that are sensitive to the challenges of pluralism, post-modernity, and the advances in science. Buy this book, read it, discuss it, and apply it. It's that simple. Philip intends to make theologians out of all of us, in the most practical sense of things. Taking theology out of the ivory towers of the academy and putting it into the hands of individuals. Exciting stuff!!!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Following Jesus Through The Eye Of A Needle

Looks like a great book based on this stimulating short clip:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rethinking Hell (pt.2): Jurgen Moltmann's "The Logic of Hell"




Rather than summarizing an already brief, punchy set of words from the amazing Jurgen Moltmann, check out his essay "The Logic of Hell" for a strong argument for a form of universalism. He tackles the old argument (put forth strongly by CS Lewis) that there has to be a an eternal hell because we have free will to choose our eternal separation from God - who in turn must supposedly honor our decision of hell over unity with Christ. He reveals the dogmatic bullshit here, calling this kind of "logic of hell" a kind of atheism. Brilliant stuff.

Click HERE to read it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (pt.7): Romans 1:18-32

The final "clobber passage" in the first chapter of Romans is the most important to consider, precisely because it is the most difficult to interpret. What needs to be considered here is Paul's very typical 1st century Jewish understanding of idolatry and stereotyping of Gentiles. Many commentators assume that what Paul calls "unnatural" sexual behavior is simply another symptom of the Fall – but nowhere is this really the case in the passage. For Paul, homosexuality is actually a symptom of something quite different: the later invention of idolatry and polytheism by the Gentiles.

Considering the passage: for what reason did God give "them up" (the idolatrous Gentiles) to their "unnatural desires"? Because the Gentiles worshiped animals and other idols rather than the one God. So Paul is not talking about the consequences of the Fall, but about the later (mythical) invention of idolatry and polytheism. He specifically accuses the Gentiles ("they"/"them") of being idolaters – and therefore, by his curious logic, capable of giving in to homosexuality. For Paul, homosexuality is a symptom of being a polytheist and idolater.  Gay monotheists - Jews or Christians - essentially do not exist for Paul because homosexuality is intrinsic to polytheism.  As such, he clearly does not address homosexuality as we understand it today in this passage.  The core of Paul's critique is of polytheism and idolatry, not homosexuality.

There is no mention in this passage of Adam, Eve, Eden, or universal sin (not until later in Romans in a different context). Paul is not talking about the Fall and the entrance of sin through Adam, but about the invention of idolatry and polytheism with the entrance of an even deeper sin: sexual perversion, which is embraced by the Gentiles. Paul had no reason to consider Adam a polytheist - he was, of course, a monotheist who made a bad choice against the one God.  Polytheism entered the world only later through the evil of the Gentiles, after which God punished them by allowing them to pursue their sexual desires to what he believed to be an extreme end: homosexual behavior. A roughly contemporary Jewish text of Paul called The Wisdom of Solomon reflected this common belief: "For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication." (Wis 14:12). Homosexuality and idolatry are both characteristically Gentile for Paul and the writer of Wisdom. Pamela Eisenbaum comments about this view:

"The 'degrading passions' are the by-product of idolatry, and Paul's mention of it is almost incidental - the result of an instinctive Jewish association between idolatry and 'unnatural' sexuality, which itself derives from nothing more than the Jewish stereotype of Gentiles in antiquity."

Of course, Paul does not despise all Gentiles as long as they are not idolaters, but these were at that point in time rare. According to Dale Martin, Paul's understanding of idolatry went something like this:

"Once upon a time, even after the sin of Adam, all humanity was safely and securely monotheistic. At some point in ancient history most of humanity rebelled against God, rejected the knowledge of the true God that they certainly possessed, willfully turned their collective back on God, made idols for themselves, and proceeded to worship those things that by nature are not gods. As punishment for their invention of idolatry and polytheism, God 'handed them over' to depravity, allowing them to follow their 'passions,' which led them into sexual immorality, particularly same-sex coupling. Homosexual activity was the punishment meted out by God for the sin of idolatry and polytheism."

It is a historical fact that it was common in Paul's day for Jews to believe that idolatry was invented only after the Fall, despite the reality that historians of religion now place polytheism before the development of monotheism (in fact, so does the Bible itself!). Polytheism and idolatry were not a part of the Garden of Eden narrative, so Jews of the day filled in the invention of idolatry with other mythological stories. These myths are glimpsed in various rabbinic sources and apocryphal books like Jubilees and 1 Enoch. 1st century Jews had a literary tradition of blaming the evils of the Gentiles on some key moment in history, as illustrated by their various myths of evil angels corrupting civilization. Jewish traditions used them to show Israel's relative purity compared to the corrupted Gentiles. These kinds of myths are called "decline narratives", as they are common enough amongst Jews and Greeks to merit their own category.

Paul's primary ground for condemning homosexuality in this passage is by way of common Jewish xenophobia towards Gentiles combined with rather odd Jewish myths to explain the invention of polytheism and idolatry that most Christians do not believe anyways. This is, it seems to me, a completely unsustainable way to continue to condemn homosexuality. As Martin writes:

"Most of us do not believe that all of humanity was once upon a time neatly monotheistic, only later, at a particular historical point, to turn to polytheism and idolatry; nor are we likely to believe that homosexuality did not exist until the sudden invention of polytheism. According to his etiology of homosexuality, Paul must not have believed that it ever existed among the Jews, at least those who abstained from idolatry. Importantly, when Paul finally indicts the Jews in Romans, he does not accuse them of idolatry or homosexual immorality; Jewish immorality is revealed, at most, in adultery and dishonesty regarding the property of temples (2:22). This is perfectly consistent with Paul's assumption that homosexuality is punishment for idolatry and polytheism: the Jews have not been so punished because they have not, in general, been guilty of that particular sin. If we were to follow Paul's logic, we would have to assume that once idolatry and polytheism were forsaken, homosexuality would cease to exist, which is probably what Paul believed; after all, he never even hints that any Jew or Christian engages in homosexuality...Heterosexist scholars alter Paul's reference to a myth that most modern Christians do not even know, much less believe (that is, a myth about the beginnings of idolatry), and pretend that Paul refers to a myth that many modern Christians do believe, at least on some level (the myth about the fall). Heterosexism can retain Paul's condemnation of same-sex coupling only by eliding the supporting logic of that condemnation."

Even if one were to argue that we should accept Paul's logic derived from this myth, the argument falls apart when you consider ancient Jewish understandings of sexuality - "natural" vs. "unnatural." In contemporary evangelicalism, many moderate writers like Tony Campolo and Richard Hays will admit that homosexual orientation is normal and not sinful, but homosexual practice is still problematic (Campolo recommends that Christian gays and lesbians live together but refrain from sex). On the other hand, for Jews of Paul's day and for Paul himself, "sexual orientation" was a foreign concept. Homosexuality was partly understood to be an extreme example of heterosexual lust gone out of control – a man or woman gets bored with normal heterosexual sex and uses homosexual sex to fulfill their burning desires. Everyone was heterosexual, and homosexuality was a sign that someone was unable to remain satisfied with "normal" sex anymore (this out-of-control lust, of course, is itself rooted in polytheism/idolatry for Paul). Just as gluttony was too much eating (beyond the limit prescribed by nature), homosexuality was too much sex (the Greek for "unnatural" more accurately translates to "in excess of what is natural"). As Martin comments, "Degree of passion, rather than object choice, was the defining factor of desire." Though same-sex coupling is "unnatural", the sexual desire that leads to it had its origins in completely "natural" desires. This is difficult for our modern minds to grapple with, as we now think about sexual orientation as a highly complex phenomenon, but ancients definitely thought quite differently about it. Walter Wink comments:

"....Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were 'straight,' and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex."

In summary, to align with Paul’s single condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament is also to align with an ancient misunderstanding of sexual orientation, as well as mythological "decline narratives" about idolatry and polytheism. With that in mind, Paul never condemns homosexuality as we understand it today. If Paul were alive today, I really believe that he would affirm LGBT people - to do so today is to be consistent with the very message of Paul (and Jesus!) about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

This concludes my analysis of the various clobber passages. I hope that my honesty here shows that I am not looking for easy explanations. Paul was a radical apostle who has much to teach us today, but his view on homosexuality found only in Romans must be left behind for much larger theological and cultural considerations. We must sometimes disagree with the Bible, particularly in regards to ethics if they are tied to presuppositions that we cannot maintain in light of what we know now.  Still, the Bible continues to have a vital story to tell.  It has its problems and inconsistencies, but even more truth and wisdom.  It is our “community library”, as Brian McLaren calls it, not our “constitution.” We should interpret the Bible through the lens of the person of Jesus – who, by the way, was silent on the matter of homosexuality.  Furthermore, sin is inherently destructive (that is what the Bible means by the "Wrath of God"), and I find nothing destructive to society or individuals in homosexuality within the context of a committed, loving, adult relationship.

In closing, philosopher John Caputo has the following to say about Jesus and LGBT people:

"Jesus systematically took the side of the outsider, of those who are excluded and marginalized and made to suffer for their marginalization by the powers that be, those whose names are blackened by their difference from the mainstream. Based on the gospel of love by which he was driven, he would today have found love in homosexual love and a mission among advocates of gay and lesbian rights...there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law...To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality...We need be no more guided by the letter of what the Scriptures say about homosexuality than we are by what they say about slavery or geocentrism, which reflect the circumstances of their composition, not the spirit of the kingdom that comes to contradict the world."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philip Clayton: Transforming Christian Theology

I am becoming a huge fan of Clayton - an absolute genius theologian. Check this out: