Saturday, December 31, 2011

5 Great Books from 2011

I read a lot of books in 2011, but most of them were not recent publications.  As such, my end of the year list of 2011 books is quite short, and I do not claim that it is a comprehensive list of the best books of the year.  Just great ones I was able to make time to read alongside a heavy reading load in school.  These five books were released this year (give or take a few months), and are quite accessible reads, all things considered:
The Predicament of Belief by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp: Without a doubt, this is my favorite book of 2011 (although I admit a strong personal bias since I am a graduate student of Clayton's).  Clayton and Knapp make a strong argument for a type of panentheism in dialogue with the most current understandings of science and trends in philosophy.  They then argue for 'Christian minimalism', showing how believers can maintain an authentic, humble, yet vibrant faith in line with much traditional thinking about the Trinity, creation, Jesus, the Spirit, and eschatology.  Not quite orthodox, but not radically liberal either.  The theological program set forth by the authors is entirely balanced, rational, and persuasive.  I started blogging through the book here, here, and here.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben: Ecology has been a big topic for me this year as I read widely in the growing field of eco-theology.  Nobody explains the current situation of our endangered planet better than McKibben, a veteran environmental journalist and activist.  This is his most recent book, a sober yet still optimistic call to radical changes in the way we live and organize society in an ecological age.

    Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Bruce Epperly: I wrote a review of this book on the blog that you can read here.  This is my new favorite introductory text to process theology.

      Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton: The final book I read this year, and while I don't agree with everything here, a great deal of it was very persuasive and eye-opening.  Eagleton is a fantastic writer, well-known for his other books (which include thoroughly entertaining critiques of New Atheism and another of postmodernism).  This is a great introduction to the philosophy of Karl Marx, but it would also be worth reading for the initiated Marxist since Eagleton provides responses to ten of the most common objections to Marxism.

      The Church is Flat by Tony Jones: I also wrote a review of this book that you can read here.  One of, if not the best introduction to the emergent church movement.

        If you want to see other books I read this year, check out my Shelfari list (click on the virtual bookshelf at the top right corner of this page).

        Tuesday, November 8, 2011

        Whitehead on Religion: Experience, Expression, & Metaphysics (part 3)

         [This is the third and last post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

        Rational religious consciousness begins with the individual but necessarily expands to the universal. This is crucial for Whitehead’s theory of religion: it is not only individual solitariness - “Religion is world loyalty…equally individual and general…”

        The rational religions had to re-evaluate the relation between religious experience and dogma. Just as the dogmas of science attempt to express the truths disclosed in sense-perception, so the dogmas of religion attempt to express religious experience.  All rational religions are based on “the concurrence of three allied concepts in one moment of self-consciousness”: first, the value of individuals; second, the value of all individuals for each other; and third, the value of the objective universe as a whole, which provides the content for the intuition of values.

        All religious experience involves the intuition of an impersonal “character of permanent rightness” that is inherent to reality.  Evil is present in the world to the degree that conformity to this character is incomplete, for it “functions as a condition, a critic, and an ideal."

        Whitehead then argues that to use language and to speak about anything necessitates metaphysics. Historians, scientists, and religious persons require metaphysical clarity – although religion has a greater need because of its claims to universal, permanent relevance. He defines metaphysics as: “the science which seeks to discover the general ideas which are indispensably relevant to the analysis of everything that happens.” A starting point for Whitehead’s metaphysics is that the universe is totally interdependent, yet every individual within the whole has its own value and experience. This connects to his definition of religion as solitariness and worldliness: “The world is a scene of solitariness in community…The topic of religion is individuality in community.”

        We jump to the final chapter where Whitehead argues that religious dogmas must provide an adequate interpretation of life if they are to be maintained: “Religion starts from the generalization of final truths first perceived as exemplified in particular instances. These truths are amplified into a coherent system and applied to the interpretation of life. They stand or fall – like other truths – by their success in this interpretation. The peculiar character of religious truth is that it explicitly deals with values. It brings into consciousness that permanent idea of the universe which we can care for. It thereby provides a meaning, in terms of value, for our own existence, a meaning which flows from the nature of things."

        Whitehead thus points to the importance of metaphysics in the formulation of religious knowledge or dogmas, which only have meaning within a metaphysical system. As such, the truth of dogmas are dependent on the truth of the metaphysical sphere of thought in which it arose.

        Whitehead then argues that religious experience must be expressed into a common medium of sense experience within a religious community: action, words, and art, for example. Religious dogmas, or any other kind of expression, are necessary because they increase “vividness of apprehension” of general truths – but “a dogma which fails to evoke any response in immediate apprehension stifles the religious life."

        This brings Whitehead back to his theory of religion as solitariness: if religious experience is individual solitariness, “Expression, and in particular expression by dogma, is the return from solitariness to society. There is no such thing as absolute solitariness.”  Thus, religious intuitions gain their universal relevance as they are expressed and verified in communities. Yet Whitehead cautions that all religious dogmas and metaphysical systems are usually incomplete in their grasp of full truth. Religions must proceed with humility, always willing to “amplify, recast, generalize, and adapt, so as to absorb into one system all sources of experience.”

        Monday, November 7, 2011

        Whitehead on Religion: The Evolution of Religion (part 2)

         [This is the second post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

        Whitehead’s process theory of religion emphasizes the historical evolution of religion: religion is involved in the flux of history like everything else. Whitehead also adopts a view of religion that is basically progressive – in other words, religion generally developed on an upward trajectory towards ‘higher expressions.’ He calls this process the “ascent of man."

        Whitehead provides his major definitions of religion early in the book, which are worth quoting at length: “Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts…A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended…Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things. This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact…Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…thus religion is solitariness…” What he means will become clear as we move on to discuss the evolution of religion from being a social phenomenon based on necessity and instinct with a tribal concern, to an individual phenomenon based on rationality with a universal concern.

        Religion developed in four stages: ritual, emotion, belief, and finally rationalization. These develop in order towards greater religious importance, and different periods of religious history are characterized by varying degrees of emphasis on these four factors.

        Ritual was the most primitive stage of religious evolution, which are types of organized behavior that are not directly related to survival. They also generate emotions, and in turn ritual and emotion reinforce one another. Whitehead writes, “In this primitive phase of religion, dominated by ritual and emotion, we are dealing with essentially social phenomena…a collective ritual and a collective emotion take their places as one of the binding forces of savage tribes. They represent the first faint glimmerings of the life of the spirit raised beyond concentration upon the task of supplying animal necessities.”

        At the level of ritual and emotion, there was an “incipient rationality” that eventually generated myths, which primarily served to explain ritual and emotion. This third stage of belief formation was significant: “For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances.”  However, at this stage, religion remained a social phenomenon.

        The final stage emerged slowly as myths were historically and rationally evaluated, re-organized, and turned into beliefs with universal relevance. The result was rational religion, which required a more complex stage in the development of human consciousness. The age of rationalism over the last six thousand years finally introduced solitariness into religion. The various great religions of the world are a result of transforming pre-existing traditions through rational reflection, special intuition, metaphysics, and ethics.

        Rational religions moved away from communal towards individualistic forms. While communal forms of religion had fostered social unity, they had lost their ability to stimulate progress and had to gave way to individual forms of religion.

        Especially through travel, humans developed the ability to think beyond their local context. An individualized world-consciousness was thus facilitated over a social consciousness. The latter is more concerned with preservation, while the former is more disengaged, and thus, rational. Whitehead explains: “The great rational religions are the outcome of the emergence of a religious consciousness which is universal, as distinguished from tribal, or even social. Because it is universal, it introduces the note of solitariness…The reason of this connection between universality and solitariness is that universality is a disconnection from immediate surroundings. It is an endeavor to find something permanent and intelligible by which to interpret the confusion of immediate detail.”

        Saturday, November 5, 2011

        Whitehead on Religion: Introduction (part 1)

        [This is the first post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's excellent little book, Religion in the Making.  The book is his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.  Keep in mind that this book was written in 1926 - there are traces of Eurocentrism and colonialism present here, but overall I think his ideas are nevertheless fascinating.]

        We will begin with a brief biographical overview of Whitehead and summary of his historical significance before diving into the text for today. The British mathematician, logician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861 in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England. His family was rooted in the Church of England, although before WWI Whitehead generally considered himself agnostic. However, after WWI, he considered himself religious and a theist, but did not align himself with a particular tradition. He developed interests in physics as well as theology and read widely in these areas.

        After graduating in 1884 at Trinity College, a constituent college of University of Cambridge, he became a fellow at the school, teaching and writing mathematics there until 1910. Although he wrote a number of significant books on math, his most important was the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1st edition), co-written with his former pupil Bertrand Russell. This work is widely read and considered to be the most important works of mathematical logic and philosophy since Aristotle’s Organon. It should also be mentioned that Whitehead’s other most famous student was the widely influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes and Whitehead mutually influenced each other’s work, with Keynes largely agreeing with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

        A second significant period of Whitehead’s life was from 1910-1924 at University College of London where he worked on physics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education. His third major period was his time at Harvard University where he taught philosophy from 1924 until his retirement in1937. It was during this time that he fully developed his metaphysical system that he had been working on since 1920, which he called the “philosophy of organism” but which has become more widely known as “process philosophy.” His philosophy is heavily influenced by Plato, Henri Bergson, and William James. Especially through his assistant at Harvard, Charles Hartshorne, who taught at University of Chicago, process philosophy stimulated the development of process theology. This was particularly important amongst Christian liberal theologians in America like John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki (all former professors at CST/CGU). But process philosophy has also attracted some Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu philosophers and theologians. Furthermore, process philosophy has also been increasingly influential in sections of the European scientific community and amongst Chinese philosophers.

        Based on the Lowell Lectures in 1926, Religion in the Making was published between two of Whitehead’s more widely read texts, Science in the Modern World (1925), and his magnum opus based on the famous Gifford Lectures in 1929, Process and Reality. How consistent Whitehead’s thought is between these three texts, especially in the area metaphysics and his doctrine of God, is debated by Whiteheadian scholars to this day. Regardless of the perfect consistency between the three, my sense is that they are largely get at a very similar metaphysical vision, though elements may be lacking here and there. In the preface to RM, Whitehead links it closely to SMW in his general “train of thought.” In other words, he applies his same philosophical analysis first to the history of science in SMW and then to the history of religion in RM. He later did the same in 1933 with Adventures of Ideas for society, politics, economics, and culture. In the next post we will move on to discuss Whitehead’s RM.

        Wednesday, October 26, 2011

        What African Apes Tell Us About God

        In an age when science continues to provide impressively powerful explanations of natural phenomena, it is tempting for many to view the scientific method as having a kind of omnipotence. But it is probably true that most persons who are alive today, including most scientists, still perceive the inherent limits of science, remaining unmoved by popular forms of disenchanting scientific reductionism. However, because there is no denying that science provides us with genuinely illuminating insights into the nature of religion, religious scholars must deeply engage in the scientific study of religion, perhaps now more than ever. In her book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, the contemporary biological anthropologist Barbara King models a sensitive engagement with evolutionary science and the academic study of religion without succumbing to the illusion that science provides the entire religious picture. In the rest of the post, I will briefly explain King’s theory of religion and argue that she provides us with a convincing alternative to more problematic evolutionary approaches to religion.

        King studies the phenomenon of religion as a very sympathetic outsider, in sharp contrast to the so-called ‘New Atheists’ like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who attempt to provide a thoroughgoing scientific and reductionistic explanation. Although King claims that she is an agnostic about the existence of god or gods numerous times throughout her book, her ultimate conclusions about the origins of religion rightly steer clear of any form of sharp reductionism – despite the fact that she argues, similar to many atheists, that the evolutionary perspective provides one of the most important methods for understanding religion. Indeed, she strongly argues against the “tunnel-vision” of gene-centered scientific approaches to the study of religion that are employed by the New Atheists in favor of a more relational, or social theory of religion:

        "Too many modern evolutionary accounts of religion have lost a nuanced sense of what it means to be wholly social beings. In many theories, a “sexy” reductionism is visible, that is, a relegating of the social dimension to a mere variable, coupled with an inflation of the power of genes…"

        Barbara King, College of William & Mary
        Because of her rejection of reductionism, King’s fascinating and innovative anthropological theory is quite friendly to religions, leaving open the possibility for authentic religious experiences of the sacred and truth claims from a wide variety of traditions. Indeed, she frequently quotes with approval the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, as well as the religious historian Karen Armstrong, who describes herself as a mystical “freelance monotheist.” Furthermore, she concludes the book with a discussion of the positive relationship between science and religion by agreeing with the basic methodology of the Roman Catholic scientific theologian John Haught, who describes himself as a non-reductive evolutionary theist.

        Clifford Geertz
        Not only does King move beyond reductionism, she also rightly rejects the more narrow, essentialist definitions of religion that tend to plague the writings of the New Atheists. Instead, King largely seems to endorse the more subtle definition of religion provided by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who argues that religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” With Geertz (and against Daniel Dennett), King argues that religion cannot be defined by beliefs in supernatural beings, nor is it even more broadly about particular beliefs in general. Instead, she understands religion to be first and foremost about human emotion and social expression (or practices). She even goes so far as to argue that to a great extent, “religion is emotion”, and as such, an evolutionary approach to religion must attempt to explain the emotional life of hominids.

        While King’s anthropological theory of religion is rooted in some speculation that might be debated by specialists in her field, I would argue that it nevertheless provides a plausible, quite persuasive view of the origins of religion. Her theory does not so much try to explain religion in a comprehensive fashion like many other theorists of religion attempt to do, but instead to provide important insights into religious origins that should supplement other approaches to the study of religion. King herself is not under the illusion that she is truly providing a comprehensive explanation of religion – she ultimately leaves much of it to the mysteries of the universe. She explains, “I do not believe that science can ‘explain’ religion…[but] I do believe that science can explain something meaningful about the evolution of the religious imagination.” At the same time, she still argues that her evolutionary theory of “belongingness” provides a necessary foundation for the wider study of religion: “belongingness [is] one aspect of religiousness, an aspect so essential that the human religious imagination could not have evolved without it.” King defines belongingness as “the undeniable reality that humans of all ages in all societies, thrive in relation to others.” But how does this notion of belongingness illuminate our understanding of religion?

        At the center of King’s argument about the origins of religion is her assertion that the human religious impulse is rooted in their social and emotional connections – that is, belongingness. It is primarily through belongingness, in deep connection with others, that human existence undergoes transformation. Relying on more than two decades of her own studies on ape and monkey behavior in Africa and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, she argues that these relational connections between humans can be traced back millions of years to our African ape ancestors. King claims that the social behavior of African apes, which includes empathy, meaning-making, rule-following, imagination, and consciousness, provided the essential social foundations for religion to emerge in human culture much later on in the course of evolution. Although King’s emphasis on social interactions for her theory of religion is similar to many sociological theories of religion (such as that of Emile Durkheim), she moves beyond them by starting “the evolutionary clock earlier” to study the emotional lives of apes. In a sense then, King is following up on the speculations of the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, who thought that chimpanzees “may have an incipient sense of religious awe.”
        Jane Goodall
        Moving from apes to humans (the “spiritual ape”), she argues that the sense of belongingness that humans share with their ape ancestors was transformed as our human ancestors’ way of life shifted. Especially with changes in their environment and developments in the human brain, human creativity increased and more complex forms of language and culture emerged. Symbols, art, and rituals facilitated new ways of making sense of the world for humans and more nuanced forms of belongingness. Ultimately, all of this resulted in the expansion of the universal human need (not merely desire) for belongingness beyond human relationships in the family and immediate group to a more transcendent space or realm. As King concludes, “The human religious imagination developed in ever widening circles of engagement from immediate social companions, to members of a larger group, then across groups, and, eventually, to a wholly other dimension, the realm of sacred beings.” The human quest for the sacred is a search for deeper meaning beyond our immediate social relations. In other words, religion is about seeking a meaningful, emotional relationship with the sacred. In this sense, humans evolved god. And of course, for King, there is no way to know if god actually exists – how much god, gods, or spirits are human creations or discoveries – but there are good reasons to affirm the reality and even meaningfulness of religious experience.

        King has provided us with a nuanced and reasonably persuasive study of the origins of religion from within a particular field of study, with its inevitably limited perspective. Some of her points about the social behavior of apes are probably debatable, especially if one is familiar with the fields of primatology and anthropology. However, for those who do not have more than a general understanding of those fields, my sense is that King, who has studied apes more than most it seems, provides a compelling argument about the evolution of religion. Again, her theory does not provide a full explanation of religion, nor is it intended to. But if she is right in her overall argument – and I detect no serious weaknesses (even if as a theologian I would want to push further) – than King makes a strong case that belongingness, and not merely genes, is a necessary concept to include in our ongoing study of the evolution of religion. Part of the significance of her effort is that she makes the evolutionary study of religion a live option for religious and spiritual persons, not merely for skeptics and atheists. This was in fact her motivation for writing the book: “…science can do better…[it] can look head-on at humanity’s hunger for the sacred, a hunger that is far more than a mere offshoot of the workings of our genes or brains and far more than an illusion akin to a Chinese teapot orbiting the sun.”

        Saturday, October 22, 2011

        Responding to Grenz, Barth, & Macquarrie

        Now that I have outlined and compared the theologies of Barth, Grenz, and Macquarrie, I find myself most impressed with aspects of the neo-orthodox and especially the liberal theological traditions. I begin with a brief outline of my disagreements with Grenz, whose evangelical theology is representative of my own background in evangelicalism. After entering college a decade ago and having the opportunity to study other religions, philosophies, the historical-critical study of the bible, and science, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the major emphases of evangelical theologies. In the light of religious pluralism, Grenz’s distinctive view of faith as conversion does not resonate with me as it once did. Although I believe that a personal decision to follow Christ is an important aspect of faith, I would also want to nuance what Grenz means by ‘conversion’, which is more exclusivist than I think is warranted. His corresponding evangelical understandings of substitutionary atonement, hell, and divine omnipotence are equally problematic in my view. Lastly, I reject Grenz’s evangelical approach to the Bible in his affirmation of inerrancy. Inerrancy makes theology easier in a sense, but I would argue that we must wrestle with a much more ambiguous text than Grenz wants to admit, making historical-critical work and philosophical hermeneutics more important.

        Over the last few years, I have been more engaged with both liberal and post-Barthian theologians like John Cobb, Paul Knitter, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. As such, it was not surprising for me to find myself more in agreement with Macquarrie and Barth. Even though I am particularly impressed by the consistency of their methodologies (as different as they certainly are), I have mixed feelings when it comes to the actual details and theological conclusions of their work. I will first reflect on Barth and then conclude with Macquarrie.

        To a great extent, I appreciate Barth’s Christocentrism and his emphasis on revelation as being God’s initiative. Furthermore, his soteriological universalism is a great improvement on Grenz’s understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment for unbelievers. However, Barth’s Christocentrism “on steroids” and his foundationalist approach to revelation (which attempts to carve out a ‘safe’ place to do Christian theology) both go too far in my view. I am more open to a view of Christ somewhat like Karl Rahner or Jacques Dupuis articulate, who affirm the wider significance of Christ in a much less exclusivist way.

        Finally, while I believe that an a priori faith commitment to God’s self-revelation in Christ is important for doing Christian theology, I would make this claim from a post-foundationalist rather than Barth’s foundationalist position that posits the Word as a self-authenticating epistemic foundation. Such a post-foundational approach recognizes the contextual nature of faith claims, the importance of individual human experience, the nature of theological language as being mediated (though not determined) by community, while also requiring an ongoing dialectical interaction with other sources of knowledge beyond the Christian context. Providing ‘proofs’ for Christian theology is less important in such a method than arguing for plausibility, but this is not done under the illusion that there are any firm foundations to stand on, or acontextual universal norms to refer to. It recognizes a plurality of contexts and necessitates an ongoing interaction between them. It affirms the fallibility of Christian faith claims, thus avoiding fideism, and views human reason and objectivity as ideals. Yet it rejects both relativism and objectivism.

        In many ways, this position puts me closer to Macquarrie than either Grenz or Barth, although I would want to emphasize a more Christocentric definition of faith than he does. Macquarrie argues that Christian theologians must seriously engage other sources of knowledge, such as science and historical-critical scholarship. In a similar way to post-foundationalist theologians, he argues that we need to “explore the borders between theology and other disciplines…in the hope of gaining reciprocal illumination." I agree with his more modest affirmation of the divine initiative in revelation, and also his commitment to the basic ‘symbols’ of the tradition and their reinterpretation as needed. On the other hand, at times I think Macquarrie might fall into a foundationalist trap (though one very different in kind from Barth’s) that results in a bit more skepticism about traditional theological assertions than seem to be necessary.

        Furthermore, even though I agree with Macquarrie that Christian theology needs to be grounded in philosophical thinking that persons outside the tradition can interact with, I would also be willing to engage in more ‘speculative metaphysics’ with process theologians, which he explicitly rejects. Although I readily admit that I have much to learn from the existential theological tradition and am open to moving more in that direction in the future, at this point I still prefer the process approach that can legitimate a more clearly personal and accessible doctrine of God. God as ‘Being itself’ still seems strange to me, and it raises some questions in regards to the meaning of prayer and divine action in the light of such an existentialist doctrine of God. I find the process tradition’s approach to be more helpful, as it views the existentialist’s ‘Being’ as an impersonal principle of ‘Creativity’, as distinguished from the triune God who is not-less-than personal, responsive to prayer, and genuinely active in the world in a more definite fashion than just ‘letting be.’ Despite these differences about the doctrine of God, I share Macquarrie’s affirmation of panentheism as well as his questioning of omnipotence.

        John Macquarrie on Faith

        [This is the third post of four that explore the theologies of Barth, Grenz, and Macquarrie - neo-orthodox, evangelical, and liberal theologians, respectively.  Although I'm not an existentialist, I find myself closest to Macquarrie's method, as I will explain in the next post.  I'd like to point out that Macquarrie, although liberal in method, remains committed to the tradition more than many liberal theologians today.]

        Finally, we turn to the liberal Anglican theologian John Macquarrie. While Barth and Grenz were very similar in many ways in their definitions of faith and doctrines of God, Macquarrie provides a much sharper contrast with both of them because of his existential theology that is rooted in the philosophy of Heidegger. As such, while Barth and Grenz both start with the object of faith, Macquarrie begins with the subject of faith – human existence itself: “it is the experience of existing as a human being that constitutes a primary source for theology." He thus defines Christian faith in existential terms, arguing that it is something that arises “from the very structures of human existence itself." In contrast to Barth, Macquarrie argues that there are human questions to be answered by revelation. So what is faith for Macquarrie? He defines it as follows:

        "…faith is not a mere belief but an existential attitude…[that] includes acceptance and commitment, but what makes it a distinctively religious faith is its reference to what we have called so far only the ‘wider being’ in the context of which man has his being. It is then faith in being…Religious faith, as faith in being, looks to the wider being within which our existence is set for support; it discovers a meaning for existence that is already given with existence."

        For Macquarrie, written into the very nature of human existence is a quest for meaning, and faith is then seen as an existential attitude of acceptance and commitment. This requires some explanation about how Macquarrie understands ‘the human condition.’

        Macquarrie argues that human existence in the present is characterized by an imbalance between two poles: possibility and facticity. Facticity refers to our past, which largely determines and limits our present and can thus make us feel as though we cannot escape our own history. Possibility refers to our future, which can overwhelm and come to dominate our existence to such an extent that we deny the reality of our past. These two poles of human existence create a tension that pulls us in conflicting motions. But for Macquarrie, to be a whole self is to balance or integrate possibility and facticity. Authentic selfhood is about bringing unity to this tension, and it is this inherent tension that creates the question that faith provides an answer to. Faith as acceptance and commitment can provide such a unity: acceptance of our past, our finitude, our limitations in their entirety and a corresponding commitment to a realistic future and “master concern that can create such a stable and unified self." Importantly, this existential commitment involves looking beyond oneself to something greater, which for Macquarrie is ‘Being itself.’ The two poles of human existence can be integrated only if they are “rooted in the wider context of being in which man has his being." This integration of human existence comes through faith in being: “through faith in being, we can ourselves advance into fullness of being and fulfill the potentialities of selfhood."

        Because of his theological starting point, Macquarrie argues that Christian faith requires both internal and external coherence (once again, in contrast to Barth and Grenz). This means that we must develop theology on a philosophical common ground that others outside the Christian tradition can interact with. Additionally, Christian theology should also be in alignment with other fields of study, such as physics, psychology, and sociology. So Macquarrie begins with the goal of articulating a reasonable faith that can intelligibly express the primary symbols of the faith to those outside the tradition. Even though Macquarrie affirms a place of primary importance to revelation in the articulation of the Christian faith, he moves beyond Barth and Grenz in arguing that revelation presupposes human experience. Furthermore, revelation for Macquarrie is not identical with scripture (9). The scriptures gain their importance as a witness to the revelation of God in Christ only within the faith community, and revelation is not for him so specifically Christocentric. In contrast to Barth and Grenz, Macquarrie’s existential theology is theocentric and revelation is thus generalized to include other religious traditions.

        What does Macquarrie’s theological definition of faith imply about his Christian understanding of God? Like Barth and Grenz, his doctrine of God is already revealed to a large extent in his understanding of faith as an existential attitude of acceptance and commitment. We can see some aspects of his panentheistic doctrine of God within his discussion of faith: since God is Being itself, there is ontological continuity between humans and God; God is revealed in Jesus, but not exhaustively so; revelation is an unveiling of the Being of our being rather than something infinitely Other (as for Barth and Grenz); Being enables our being to be and is present and manifest in the beings that are; and Being is incomparable – that is, it is neither an object amongst others nor a subject, but a reality that encompasses both. As Macquarrie summarizes, “the essence of being is precisely the dynamic ‘letting-be’…of the beings." Yet how is such an abstract, “existential-ontological theism” rendered as an explicitly Christian, trinitarian theism? Macquarrie argues for the necessity of the Trinity, in part because it helps to describe a more dynamic rather than static understanding of God.  He understands the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity to be something like dynamic ‘movements’ within the mystery of Being. The Father is ‘primordial being’, the ultimate source of possibilities for any being at all. The Son is ‘expressive being’, which is generated by the Father, creatively gives rise to finite beings, and is expressed through them. The Holy Spirit is ‘unitive being’, which maintains, strengthens, and restores unity between Being and beings.

        Friday, October 21, 2011

        Stanley Grenz on Faith

         [This post is part of a series that compares Karl Barth, Stanley Grenz, and John Macquarrie on faith and the doctrine of God. The following post on Grenz is based on his book Created For Community, which is essentially his systematic theology in compact form as articulated in Theology for the Community of God.  As with Barth, only even more so, readers of this blog will note that I have important disagreements with Grenz.  I am closest to John Macquarrie, as my final post will explain.]

        We now move on to consider the American evangelical systematic theologian Stanley J. Grenz. As an evangelical theologian, Grenz places an especially strong emphasis on faith as conversion. He characterizes this evangelical form of faith as conversion as a “marvelous transaction” between the human subject and God in Christ. With even greater clarity, he writes that faith “comprises our personal response to the God who encounters us in the gospel of Jesus Christ." For Grenz then, faith is about gaining a deeply personal relationship with the particular God revealed in Jesus Christ, and it is also firmly rooted in the scriptures. An evangelical form of the Christian faith must involve our intellect (accepting particular biblical beliefs as true), our will (committing to Christ alone), and our emotions (a heartfelt response of love for God revealed in Christ).

        Already we should notice that Grenz, like Barth, holds to a similarly Christocentric definition of faith. Furthermore, Grenz also assumes that there is an ontological divide between humans and God. This chasm can only be crossed by God, so the initiative once again is primarily on the divine rather than human side. Clearly echoing Barth, Grenz writes, “We know God, therefore, because God takes the initiative." At the same time, while Barth focuses on the general event of the incarnation of the Word as being soteriologically significant, Grenz focuses much more narrowly on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross – his crossing of the divide between God and humans. For Grenz, what is at issue is the holiness of God, and the problem to be solved by the Christ-event is human rebellion, or sin, against an absolutely holy God. The fundamental dichotomy then is not so much about ontology as it is about holiness, and the concern of Christian faith is to turn from sin to grace through faith in Christ. Lastly, even though Grenz like Barth emphasizes that faith is more about the Object of faith than about the believing subject, he nevertheless does not make as strong of a differentiation between the two as Barth does in his theology.

        Another important difference between Grenz and Barth is revealed in how they think about Christian apologetics. While it is true that Grenz, like Barth, is less concerned about the external justification of faith, he still engages in some apologetics based on human reason. While Barth totally rejects all philosophical attempts to prove God’s existence, Grenz argues that to some extent we have to utilize the proofs for the existence of God (however imperfect they might be). Faith requires a justification in an ever-changing cultural context, and providing philosophical proofs for the existence of God is useful for the evangelical task of gaining converts to the faith. Even so, Grenz places even greater emphasis on the need for an embodied faith over a reasonable faith: “We must embody – live out – our faith commitment in the midst of life."  For Grenz, an embodied faith is the primary mode of evangelism.

        How does this understanding of faith shed light on Grenz’s doctrine of God? Like Barth, we can already see some implications of his understanding of God in his discussion of faith. The evangelical God is understood to be omnipotent, holy, gracious, incomprehensible, particularly revealed in the Christ-event, both transcendent and immanent, and infinite. Yet due to his understanding of faith as conversion and the need for an atoning death by Jesus, Grenz emphasizes God’s love and forgiveness alongside of God’s wrath (‘the dark side of love'). For Grenz, humans are trapped in sin unless they place their faith in the God revealed in the crucified Jesus. This truth about the human condition creates a strong urge in evangelicals to gain converts. Again, it necessitates an embodied faith that can demonstrate God’s love for all of humanity so that others might turn from sin to grace, thereby avoiding hell. Faith then becomes a living demonstration of God’s being and presence. Finally, Grenz emphasizes the importance of the triune God for the evangelical confession of faith. Grenz’s understanding of the Trinity is connected to his understanding of faith as conversion: the person of the Father points to the Christian belief in the one God of love and wrath, the person of the Son points to the atoning work of Jesus, and the person of the Holy Spirit points to the presence of God in humans, who convicts us of sin and “prompts us to address our heavenly Father in the name of Jesus."

        Karl Barth on Faith

        This post is based on Barth's little book "Dogmatics in Outline", which I highly recommend to those who have never studied his theology. It's a great introduction to a profound Christian theologian - perhaps the most important one of the 20th century. Readers of this blog will note that I have my disagreements with Barth, to be sure, but I very much appreciate his work.

        Barth defines faith in the following fashion:

        "Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all exclusively and entirely, hold to His promise and guidance."

        So for Barth, we can see that faith as “the gift of the meeting” is deeply Christocentric. This means that the starting point of Christian faith itself is the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In the gift of the meeting, we become free to hear God’s Word made flesh.

        Barth argues that the believing subject or person is entirely determined by the object or Word of faith. As such, in no way does Christian faith mean that humans can first somehow discover God on their own. The meeting of the Word has nothing to do with human initiative, but everything to do with God’s initiative. We are actually enabled by God to hear the Word, so there is nothing about humans that already inherently implies Christian faith: “it rests not upon a human possibility…" Important for understanding Barth’s radical assertion here is his claim that there is absolutely no ontological continuity between humans and God. This implies that faith cannot be centered around the subjective act of faith. As Barth writes, “…what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe."  Faith is precisely and entirely about the object of faith: the Word made flesh, who bridges the infinite ontological divide between God and humanity.

        For Barth, humans are utterly incapable of discovering the infinite God in whom they place their faith as Christians. Only because the one true God has crossed the infinite ontological divide in the historical person of Jesus is faith possible at all. It is only through grace that we are able to hear the Word and have faith: “The gift and the becoming free belong to each other." This ‘gift’ is absolutely new and unprecedented in history. As for human experience and knowledge, there is no question to which the Word made flesh is an answer. Human reason cannot possibly conceive of the God who is infinitely Other, much less the specific God of the Christian faith revealed in the incarnation of the logos. For Barth, human reason is subordinated to the revelatory Christ-event, which then ultimately illuminates all human reason.

        In the end, Barth concludes that Christian faith means ‘trust.’ More specifically, Christian faith means trusting in “the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds…‘I believe’ means ‘I trust’." Through faith alone are we justified, not through our own efforts to grasp God – or anything else, for that matter. Through faith, the Christian holds in confidence to the promises of God revealed in the Christ-event. Yet this faith is not to be seen as a burden, but exactly the opposite: it is freedom to trust in God ‘in spite of’ everything that seems to contradict the Word, including “God’s hiddenness." As such, Christian faith is not to be grounded in ‘proofs’ for the truth of Christian doctrines or God’s existence. This does not mean that Barth disregards reason in terms of the need for internal coherence of Christian doctrines. It means that there are no external reasons to be found by finite humans that can justify this faith that is the gift of the meeting. Yet Barth does not confine the realm of faith to ‘religion’, but argues that faith is concerned “with life in its totality, the outward as well as the inward questions..." Because God has ‘gone public’ in the most objective way with the incarnation, so faith must go public. Faith involves public confession and action because God first went public in the Word made flesh.

        What does Barth’s definition of faith have to do with his doctrine of God? We have already started to see important characteristics of Barth’s doctrine of God, implicitly and explicitly articulated: God is fundamentally Other, infinite, unprovable, inconceivable, totally self-sufficient, omnipotent, and only truly revealed in the incarnation of the Word. We cannot conceive of this God with the powers of human reason, but only through trust in the Word. As Barth also writes, “God is the Object of faith." But we have yet to see how God is understood in a specifically Christian way, which is trinitarian. As it turns out, the Trinity is already implied in Barth’s definition of faith: what is being revealed is the Father, the ‘meeting’ is the Word made flesh (the Son), and what makes us free to receive the Word is the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of God’s gracious initiative to cross the divide, we are children of this triune God: “…in His Son and through the Holy Spirit, not on the ground of a direct relationship between us and God, but on the ground of the fact that God of Himself lets us participate in His nature, in His life and essence."

        Tuesday, September 27, 2011

        Daniel Dennett's Materialism Breaks No Spells

        Along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, the American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has become widely known as one of the key thinkers and leaders of the so-called “New Atheism” movement. Anyone familiar with the other New Atheists would surely expect Dennett to share their harsh, confrontational style, criticizing religion as ‘poisonous’ and ‘delusional.’ Yet perhaps Dennett’s most mainstream publication, Breaking the Spell, is really nothing of the sort. While he is certainly very critical of religion and unapologetically atheistic, Dennett’s style is generally more humorous and witty than vitriolic and aggressive. His basic argument is that all religions are completely natural phenomena that can be sufficiently explained with evolutionary reasoning. While claiming to be interdisciplinary, his theory has little need for fields of study other than evolutionary science. He certainly rejects supernatural explanations to understand religion, as they are all products of natural selection. While he is deeply influenced by the empiricism of David Hume and the gene-centered evolutionary science of Richard Dawkins, he also draws heavily on the work of William James, specifically his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Dennett is thus probably best described as a ‘philosopher of science’ and a strong materialist who seeks to show that religion flourished because of its evolutionary benefits for the humans that pursued it. While there is much to appreciate about Dennett’s book, I am ultimately compelled to make the argument that his totalizing evolutionary method is an unhelpful, even deeply flawed way to attempt to make sense of religion.

        Daniel Dennett
        Despite Dennett’s less confrontational tone, he begins the book by crudely describing religion as a parasite of the human mind. For him, all ideas, including religious creeds (‘memes’) are biological facts, “visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” At the same time, Dennett does not affirm that religious memes are always harmful to the host; rather, he is open to the possibility that these memes may be beneficial or neutral. But all the evidence must be weighed scientifically. In order to begin to evaluate religions on the basis of evolution, Dennett explains their historical origins. Even before such a historical task, one must define religion in some way. But the definition Dennett provides seems problematic, to say the least: religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” This seems to leave out the nontheistic religions, such as Buddhism, as well as various types of naturalistic theism. It also places an undue amount of emphasis on expressed ‘belief’ and the act of seeking ‘approval’ of supernatural agents, which are certainly not the central emphases of all religions or individuals who would identify as religious.

        Dennett is of course not alone in his essentialist definition of the complex phenomenon of religion (although it is worth noting that William James resisted developing such definitions). Stephen Prothero rightly points out that virtually all of the New Atheists, Dennett included, have tended to “load all religions into one boat.” Prothero suggests a way beyond essentialism by talking about ‘family resemblances’ rather than looking for some common essence of all religion. A more robust definition of religion may have significantly improved Dennett’s work, perhaps something like philosopher Ninian Smart’s theory of religion’s seven dimensions: ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal, and material dimensions. On the other hand, a more complex definition of religion such as this would have complicated the delivery of Dennett’s main point: that all ‘religion' can be explained as a purely natural phenomenon.

        Keith Ward
        After making his case that science should be used to study religion, we begin to see some of the problems with Dennett’s thesis emerge. These problems are rooted in materialist assumptions. Dennett is well-known for his ‘philosophy of mind’ in which he argues against Cartesian dualism for hard-line materialism, reducing mind and consciousness to nothing more than information-bearing events in the brain: the mind “is the brain”, he writes. In this view, the thinking, feeling, perceiving subject can hardly be anything more than an illusion. They are mere physical effects of the activities of brain, which is itself made up of organized bits of matter. As a materialist, Dennett is committed to explaining the (seemingly) conscious mind based only on unconscious, mindless matter. But is this philosophically defensible? It is at least highly disputable. As the Oxford philosopher Keith Ward points out, “materialism has rarely seriously been on the agenda of classical philosophy”, and it is only in the last forty years that it has been taken seriously amongst philosophers – even amongst committed atheists. It is one thing to affirm that mind depends upon the brain, but quite another to collapse the two. Philosophers like Ward, Philip Clayton, and David Ray Griffin argue for different but serious alternatives to ontological materialism, a philosophy that I would argue creates more problems than it solves. While this is not the place to argue for a particular view of mind or consciousness, it is important to point out that Dennett’s materialist, deterministic foundation for his project is very debatable.

        Dennett then moves to discuss the evolution of the human brain by arguing that there was a crucial evolutionary adaptation, which he calls HADD: ‘hyperactive agent detection device.’ This “fiction generating contraption” made humans attribute mind or agency to “anything that puzzles or frightens us.” This gave birth to animism, the earliest expression of religion in which nature is attributed the additional status of spirit. So for Dennett, religion was not ‘chosen’ by humans based on what we presently understand as religious experience or revelation – it arose naturally, purely through the impersonal processes of biological and cultural evolution. From this basic method, he provides his own ‘natural history of religion’ that describes the evolution of religion from animism, to deities, to present forms of theistic religion.

        Furthermore, this same evolutionary approach that Dennett uses can be applied to just about anything in human experience: “Everything we value – from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion – we value for reasons. Lying behind and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection.” Dennett seems to get a thrill out of trying to convince us that our experiences are illusory, ultimately due to natural selection: “We don’t love babies and puppies because they’re cute. It’s the other way around: we see them as cute because evolution has designed us to love things that look like that.” While evolution has blindly designed us for certain things apart from the behavior of organisms, Dennett takes this to the deterministic and reductionistic extreme. This of course rests on his dogmatic commitment to mindless matter as the ‘really real’, when in fact many philosophers would see this as a very problematic position.

        Thomas Nagel
        As I see it, the fatal flaw with Dennett’s coupling of thoroughgoing materialism and the evolutionary method of explaining (away) religious phenomena is this: if our cognitive faculties that are determined by natural selection can only provide us with beliefs that help us survive, if they are merely chemical reactions in our brain, then why stop at religious beliefs? Why should we trust our so-called reasonable beliefs either? Indeed, Dennett’s fellow atheist friend Thomas Nagel questions our trust of reason on this same logic: “[Can we have any] continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge about the nonapparent character of the world? In itself, I believe an evolutionary story [of the human race] tells against such confidence.” This is also pointed out by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic: “[Dennett] portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection?...[Dennett] cannot invoke the power of reason even as he destroys it.” Even Darwin expressed concern that his theory would ultimately undermine the trustworthiness of the reasoning mind. But if one concedes a stronger reality for mind and consciousness than Dennett has done with his materialism, there is at least space for talking about the relative independence of reason – and by extension, of the possibility of religious experiences being independent of the imperialism of natural selection that Dennett envisions. This means, however, that Dennett’s grand theory of religion as being purely the product of natural selection becomes untenable.

        Sunday, August 7, 2011

        The (Post) Evangelical™ Identity Crisis

        There’s been a lot of interesting talk going around the Christian blogosphere recently about labels, especially evangelical, emergent, liberal, and progressive.  Heated debates are going on, and big questions are being asked: "Who gets to be an evangelical? If we don't, then what should we call ourselves? How flexible is the label 'evangelical' and how is it related to 'emergent'? What makes one progressive vs. liberal?"  A lot of this talk is coming from folks who either are themselves or are closely connected to post-evangelicals, fringe-leftist evangelicals, and emergent Christians. I don’t quite know how to classify myself properly, so I have something like "emergent/progressive" on my facebook profile.  I could label myself 'post-evangelical', which in my case means one who has cultural roots in evangelicalism (I’m definitely not a devoted mainliner, and struggle to feel at home in mainline churches), but more theologically influenced by progressive theology.  But post-evangelical is a slippery, largely useless term outside certain conversations.  I happen to like 'emergent' as a label, as it remains diverse enough to include folks from a lot of traditions, and it remains in my mind distinct from liberal Christianity.

        As I have continued to reflect on these things over the last week, I decided that I needed to write a blog to contribute to the conversation.  My thoughts here are loosely structured around the difficulty of defining evangelicalism and how this connects to the post-evangelical identity crisis that seems to be rather widespread at the moment.

        Along with Carol Howard Merritt, I too want to clarify my position as my good friend Deacon Bo Sanders presented it over at Homebrewed Christianity in his very interesting, thoughtful post (go read it!). What I originally claimed about evangelicalism to Bo a couple of weeks ago is that 'evangelical' seems to me to be most useful today primarily as a descriptive sociological label. At the same time, I do think that it carries theological weight as well, if what we mean by ‘theological’ is that the word ‘evangelical’ has a meaningful theological history that can help define the movement itself, and that it has a theological referent imbedded within it: 'gospel'. But as I figured out rather quickly as a religious studies major in college, history transforms religious movements over time in the deepest possible ways, and Christians express the 'gospel' quite a bit differently depending on which ‘team’ you’re on – as well as which historical period you happen to participate in. So 'evangelical' may eventually refer to another group than it currently does.  Like any religious movement itself, I understand evangelicalism as a historical movement subject to change.  The boundaries of such movements dynamically expand and contract in history, so pinning down the true 'essence' of any religious movement, including evangelicalism, is extremely difficult.  When religious studies scholars are seeking to describe a religious movement to a class, they often throw out the caveat that all religions are wildly diverse and are largely relativized by history, but we can still generalize pretty well about their most common, visible forms.  That said, evangelicalism has a recent enough history that one might argue that it's a little bit easier to define in a coherent fashion.

        [If you have time, read the following discussion about defining evangelicalism - if not, jump to the bold underlined part and read from there for my concluding thoughts]

        In Douglas Sweeney's book "American Evangelical Story", he has an interesting survey of current evangelical definitions. He argues that perhaps the two most famous definitions of David Bebbington and Alister McGrath are not in fact very helpful.  They are much too broad.  Critics of the two, such as Sweeney himself, point out that most Christians throughout history have in fact defined themselves along basically the same lines as the Bebbington and McGrath definitions of evangelicalism.  He also argues that those who resist the propositional method of defining evangelicalism like Randall Balmer and Robert Webber are not able to really define anything in doing so, thus leaving ‘evangelical’ as a loose, confusing term that denotes a ‘family resemblance’ - a kind of vague 'you know when you see it' understanding of evangelicalism.

        Billy Graham
        So maybe we should just follow the scholar Donald Dayton’s call for a moratorium on the label evangelical.  He argues that it is “theologically incoherent, sociologically confusing, and ecumenically harmful.” Similarly, the conservative Calvinist theologian David Hart argues that “evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist.” Yet another Calvinist Michael Horton states that “quarrels about the evangelical trademark are probably a profound waste of time and precious energy.” Or maybe we should just give up with George Marsden and say that an evangelical is someone who admires Billy Graham!

        I'd like to point out Sweeney's own interesting definition as an alternative to these other options, based primarily on a study of evangelical history:

        “Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist.” 

        George Whitefield
        He argues that they are best defined by their adherence to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.” He unpacks three key terms here: first, movement – not a church or denomination, but a totally voluntary and diverse coalition working to pursue a single common goal: gospel witness. Second, orthodox Protestant – creedal orthodoxy and gospel centrality, especially as these were expressed by the Protestant Reformers. Though not all evangelicals are Protestants, at the center of the movement is justification by faith alone apart from the law, or "salvation through faith alone by grace alone."  And right doctrine comes only through scripture – all evangelicals affirm this, Sweeney states. Third, eighteenth-century twist – modern evangelicals, as opposed to those who share the label ‘evangelical’, are heirs of the Great Awakening. At minimum, this means a sense of gospel urgency, conversion-oriented missions, and an emphasis on devotional bible reading.  That first point is what was emphasized to me by my  professor of American Religion in a secular religious studies department.  Although her definition was more complex, she argued that all evangelicals have "the urge to convert."

        Just because I was curious, I checked out a couple of extra loose definitions from non-evangelical religious studies scholars.  Karen Armstrong emphasizes that evangelicals are primarily defined over against fundamentalists.  At the center of their movement is an ecumenical approach to witnessing and missions, that is, evangelicals believe that in order to save souls most efficiently, broader cooperation amongst Christians is more essential than fundamentalists are willing to concede.  UC Santa Barbara scholar of American religion, Catherine Albanese points out that virtually all evangelicals emphasize moral holiness, expect the second (and final) coming of Jesus, affirm biblical inerrancy or infallibility, and talk about “getting saved”, “coming to Jesus”, and the “sinners prayer.”

        In conclusion, here are my scattered thoughts about the label ‘evangelical’:
        a) If it is to be useful at all, it needs to be more narrowly defined than the vast majority of emergent-type theology aligns with. While our best evangelical scholars can’t completely agree on what evangelicalism is, there are some overlapping emphases - and while I see some common ground, most of the emergent movement today seems to have shifted to the left of evangelicalism (even if they are still to the right of 'liberal').  I see room for many types of evangelicals, and while the movement’s diversity and lack of structure or hierarchy allows for almost any Christian to label themselves ‘evangelical’ and get away with it, I don’t think that’s the most helpful route.

        b) While still distinct from fundamentalists, with Tony Jones and Carol Howard Merritt, I think it’s a label largely dominated by conservatives and moderate-conservatives, primarily theologically – and while some so-called progressive evangelicals might want to still work for their space in the movement, it’s probably time for most emergent-types to just realize this and give up the fight over a label that isn’t ours anymore. And - while this seems obvious, it's worth pointing out - for those emergents who embrace some combination of liberation/feminist/post-colonial/queer theologies, existentialism, process theology, theological religious pluralism, and post-structuralism, evangelicalism never was ours to begin with. You're probably a liberal or a progressive if you have really appropriated those types of theologies (and not just 'taken notes' from them, or 'heard their critique').  Or you can call yourself prophetic, emergent, kerygmatic...just not evangelical (well, actually, you can do whatever you want - I'm just not sure it really means very much in a wider conversation at this point).  Some of us either need to come up with a new label, stop caring about labels so much, or take on previously existing ones.  Then again, because being able to call yourself an evangelical provides more employment opportunities in churches, seminaries, etc, I'm sure there will always be a fringe-left evangelical group who cling to the label.  And that's honestly a dilemma I  sympathize with.  Those of us in higher theological/religious education sometimes feel like there are only two live options for us at the end of the road in an age where the mainline seminaries are struggling to survive: secular religious studies department or evangelical seminary.

        c) Just to add to all of these definitions, I want to note some of the most popular "test-cases" for evangelical orthodoxy today.  The examples might seem a bit random, but I assure you that these are some of the hot-button issues for evangelicals (plus, their other big issues already were touched on above).  These may change in time, and are not absolute.  Rather, they are a few solid generalizations of what the vast majority of self-identified evangelicals believe (and have always believed): affirming that at least homosexual practice is a sin (even if one is ok with legalizing gay marriage); believing that angels and demons are at least quasi-personal, real, created beings (I doubt more than 1% of all self-identified evangelicals demythologize supernatural beings to psychological projections or mental illnesses); and affirming at least one substitutionary atonement theory to be at the core of the gospel (according to Mark Baker, Joel Green & C. Norman Kraus, this is an umbrella term for ransom, recapitulation, christus victor, satisfaction, and penal theories - it excludes moral exemplar).  So yes, you can still be an evangelical if you don't pass these evangelical orthodoxy tests (so don't take this too seriously!).  But, it puts you on the far left edge of the movement in a tiny minority position.  And you will just have to live with the fact that when scholars, media, and normal people talk about 'evangelicals', you most likely aren't what they mean by the term.  For some that will be fine, and they will be helpfully stretching the boundaries of evangelicalism.  But I bet that unless they're employed by evangelicals, most will get tired of living in that kind of tension and just spring for a new label instead (like me). Then again, who knows whether any of this will matter in 20 years.

        Friday, July 22, 2011

        C.S. Lewis and the Delay of Parousia

        C.S. Lewis
        I ran across this surprising quote in a blog post recently, and honestly, I did not believe it was really C.S. Lewis - the famous evangelical apologist - when I first read it.  Indeed, it comes from an old essay of his entitled "The World's Last Night."  Without a doubt, this view that Lewis took on the delay of parousia is not something that his more conservative admirers would be fond of noting:

        “…'the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proven to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…[Jesus] shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.' It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible...The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.”

        Albert Schweitzer
        You can read the essay here in full context.  Lewis goes on immediately to explain how to understand this theologically without giving up belief in the incarnation or eschaton.  He also firmly (and rightly, in my own view) rejects the well-known 'thoroughgoing apocalypticism' perspective of Albert Schweitzer, which reduces everything Jesus did and taught to being rooted in a failed apocalyptic view - and thus virtually irrelevant.  Even so, I find it to be quite incredible that he held to the more general view of the delay of parousia that some contemporary biblical scholars like N.T. Wright (who has essentially been branded as the new C.S. Lewis) work hard to reinterpret in order to get Jesus off the hook.  I think Lewis is right here, actually.  Some of the most important biblical scholars of recent years have continued to affirm in their own ways this general view on the delay of parousia that Lewis admits here: James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, Dale Allison, and Plus, a large number of major Christian theologians have also had no trouble affirming that Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton and then integrating this perspective into their overall theological vision - Wolfhart Pannenberg, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Cobb come to mind.  But then again, these are not exactly popular evangelical apologists like C.S. Lewis is known as today.

        This is yet another challenge it seems to me for the already tense evangelical relationship with Lewis.  First, they realized that he affirmed theistic evolution.  Then it's become more widely known that he is not too far from Rob Bell's currently popular, controversial, and inclusivist - or perhaps hopeful universalist - view on salvation: that even after death, one is still able to choose heaven and leave hell behind. Now he says Jesus was wrong about the timing of the eschaton.  Ouch.

        On a related note, a friend at CGU recently told me that there was a major survey taken amongst a large number biblical scholars on the historical Jesus within the last few years and a strong majority affirms that Jesus was an apocalypticist, while the non-apocalyptic view of the Jesus Seminar is apparently in the minority these days.  So when Bart Ehrman argues in his popular books that the general information about the apocalyptic Jesus he is providing is rooted in the dominant views of the academy, he's not lying.

        Sunday, June 26, 2011

        BOOK REVIEW: Epperly's "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed"

        Of the seven or eight other introductory texts I have read on process theology, "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed" by Bruce Epperly is the best overall, even though it does not replace the others. This is indeed a bold claim to make for someone who loves the works of John Cobb and Marjorie Suchocki, both of whom have written many classic books on process theology. But one of the greatest strengths of Epperly's introductory level book is in his synthesis of many of the most important ideas of other leading Christian process-relational thinkers from the last few decades, including Cobb and Suchocki, but also David Ray Griffin, Charles Hartshorne, Catherine Keller, Bernard Loomer, Thomas Jay Oord, Rita Nakashima Brock, Robert Mesle, Lewis Ford, Jay McDaniel, Monica Coleman, and last but definitely not least, Bruce Epperly himself. Additionally, he quotes widely from the complex works of Alfred North Whitehead throughout the book, highlighting some of his most memorable passages and explaining them in a way that makes them more accessible. A second strength of this book is due to Epperly's emphasis in practical theology. He is concerned, first and foremost, with the way in which process theology works within the lives of individuals and communities, impacting churches and preaching. This adds up to a real gift in clear communication, but also great sensitivity to the actual lives of people outside the academy, leading him to concentrate less on complicated academic debates and more on issues like prayer, life after death, ethics, and holistic healing practices.
        Bruce Epperly

        Here are a few things that stood out to me about the book:
        1) Epperly goes through every important area of Christian theology and explains the various ways that process theologians understand them - christology, soteriology, sin, anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the trinity. This is pretty much standard for process theology intro books, but Epperly is particularly clear and thorough in his explanations of the various process interpretations of systematic theology. Beyond the basic areas of systematic theology, Epperly also explains process views of miracles, scripture, revelation, and mystical experiences.

        2) A very helpful overview of process ethics is included on issues like abortion, euthanasia, ecology/animal rights, and economics/justice (which draws heavily on Cobb's work). Such a wide variety of important issues are not always a part of other introductory level process texts, so this was a great addition to the book.

        3) As previously mentioned, Epperly synthesizes other key process thinkers in this book and summarizes many of their most important contributions to the process theology conversation: Cobb's logos/Wisdom Christology and work in ethics; Suchocki's theologies of original sin, eschatology, and prayer; Epperly's own work in holistic healing practices and eschatology; Griffin's work in the area of theodicy; Oord's work on a theology of love; Coleman's Womanist theology; McDaniel's work in ecology; etc.

        4) Lastly, in the final chapter of the book, Epperly considers the possibility of the "amorphous, yet dynamic" emergent church movement adopting a process theology framework. He argues that process theology provides the flexibility that the emergent church is committed to while avoiding relativism, purely apophatic spirituality, and deconstructive postmodernism (most forms of process theology are contrasted as 'constructive postmodernism'). It encourages as much openness to other religions as possible while remaining rooted in a (constantly evolving) tradition - a kind of 'confessional religious pluralism.' Indeed, citing Brian McLaren, Epperly believes process theology can provide a truly inspiring philosophical and theological grounding for a "New Kind of Christianity." Although only a few self-identified emergent Christian writers/leaders/pastors are explicitly aligned with some form of process theology at this point, there are certainly overlapping emphases with process in many emergent/emerging books and blogs (one thinks of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, which in many ways is like a more accessible version of Oord's The Nature of Love). As such, Epperly's invitation to emergent Christians (who are largely post-evangelicals) to consider process theology as a viable option in their search for new forms of faith makes a great deal of sense for anyone familiar with McLaren or Doug Pagitt.

        While process theology is anything but easy to understand for many beginners, Bruce Epperly has done a fantastic job of making it accessible without oversimplifying the incredible depth of process thinking.

        Alright - now go buy the book!

        Friday, May 6, 2011

        Just Policing: The End of Modern Warfare (Part 3 - Community Policing & Conclusion)

        Tobias Winright outlines the community policing model that just policing supporters want to see integrated at the international level. Unlike a more militaristic “crime fighter” model of policing, which emphasizes the use of violent force as the primary occupation of police and an “us vs. them” mindset, community policing understands the policing function to be more like peacekeeping. In this paradigm, police concentrate on crime prevention, being proactive rather than reactive, and utilizing persuasive and less-than-lethal methods of conflict resolution. They also emphasize the importance of community building, where the police and communities partner together to bring about social change, locating the root causes of crime, and viewing criminals as fellow community members who are “made not born.”

        Because community policing has already shown success at the domestic level, just policing supporters argue it should be extended to the international level as well. To implement such a program at the international level, the view of states as totally independent entities needs to be replaced by one that emphasizes “multilateral cooperation, global institutions, and international law.” This paradigm calls for a strong international community with global police forces to apprehend or stop criminals and nations who violate international law. International courts would be responsible for punishing criminals, while a main international police institution (likely through the UN) would network with regional (“neighborhood”) police stations throughout the world. These regional stations would partner with local humanitarian and peacemaking groups, as well as NGOs to prevent crime. The police would have other responsibilities beyond the potential use of force that would facilitate community integration and cooperation. All of this would legally require states to significantly limit their military power, and to start viewing themselves as part of a global community of nations. While much of this may sound idealistic, just policing advocates argue that due largely to globalization, there are many signs of a more integrated international community already emerging.

        To be sure, just policing faces challenges from other paradigms. Political realists will dismiss it as naïvely idealistic, because states will never (and should never) concede any military power to an international community. Many traditional just war theorists, pacifists, and Christian realists will argue similarly. At the same time, others in those three groups might eventually be persuaded by just policing because of overlapping methods and convictions. Just policing continues to use just war criteria by applying it to international policing. It agrees with Christian realists who insist that no matter how effective our institutions get at preventing crime, the use of force will remain necessary because there will always be criminals, injustice, and violence – even if there will not be wars. On the other hand, many Christian realists will probably be skeptical about the possibility of an extensive international community due to a stronger belief in the inherently selfish nature of states. Finally, because many pacifists see a qualitative difference between war and policing, they might eventually be able to support just policing. Schlabach argues that while policing requires strong legal accountability, a focus on the common good, and a presumption against violence, warfare inherently breaks away from the rule of law, places communities in opposition to one another, and devolves into excessive violence. Furthermore, some pacifists are even open to affirming vocational callings to participate in the policing function in some capacity. In light of these observations, just policing is likely to continue to be an important part of the debate about the ethics of war and peace