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).

        Sunday, November 27, 2011

        The Predicament of Belief: Ultimate Reality (pt.3)

        In chapter two of "The Predicament of Belief", Clayton and Knapp (C&K) make their case for theism - not as Christians, but more broadly as rational enquirers, or better, metaphysicians. As far as metaphysics go, C&K are minimalists.  Their goal is to articulate the most plausible version of theism. While they respect those who would argue for a more robust form, their goal is more modest and their audience is different: "...those who are uncertain that any form of distinctively Christian belief in God is still plausible in an age of science and religious pluralism."

        Like the great metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead, C&K argue that scientists do have certain metaphysical assumptions. There is no getting around this fact, so achieving some metaphysical clarity - however difficult - is a necessary, reasonable task.  To avoid metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position.  It is to fall into self-contradiction.

        C&K argue that the 'fine-tuning' argument is not meant to be evaluated on a scientific but philosophical basis. As such, they affirm its relevance to metaphysics. But what about a possibile multiverse (a typical counter-argument to fine tuning)? They question the coherence of the multiverse theory and push back that even if it is true, it does not defeat the argument for an Ultimate Reality along theistic lines. A multiverse requires, in order to be a scientific theory at all, the assumption of certain lawlike relations that hold across every universe. But such trans-universal laws do not apparently depend on any particular physical reality. Before any universe existed, they must have been purely possibilities. But if possibilities are not physical, what (and in what) are they in reality? This leads to their argument for the 'ultimacy of mind': these possibilities are ideas, and as such, must reside in something like a Mind.  Mind is thus the primary reality, not matter.

        To summarize: the ordering principles of our universe (or multiverse) must be non-physical ideas contained in something like a mind.

        But C&K go further and argue for an intential, purposeful UR: "We believe that this is the most justified position, the one that can best stand up to objections by those who are experts both in the relevant sciences and in the metaphysical debates..." They pull back from seeing the UR as a ‘person’ but argue that it has person-like qualities alongside impersonal qualities (e.g., Whitehead or Schelling's dipolar theism).  Additionally, they argue that it is logical to assume that the UR is infinitely powerful.

        At this point they haven't affirmed that the UR does anything other than merely contain nonphysical ideas to be actualized (somehow) in the world. What about things like agency, values, benevolence, providence, etc? Unless more can be said, theistic religions have nothing to work with.

        Fortunately, more can be said. C&K argue that it is most reasonable to affirm that the UR created the uni/multi-verse for no other reason than to bring others into existence. As infinite, it did not apparently need others. And in order to allow finite beings to exist, infinite reality must limit itself.  An infinite UR that brings finite beings into existence with the necessary self-limitation looks very much like self-giving love: agape.  This leads C&K to an argument for what they call the 'divine lure' (which I will not detail): the UR lures human conscience in the direction of particular values.  As such, the UR is more like a person than an impersonal force - or as C&K put it, the UR is "not less than personal."

        To summarize: the mindlike, purposeful UR is characterized by self-giving love and motivated by something like values and intentions.

        This UR is beginning to look very much like the God of Abrahamic traditions - but note that there is no justification for any religion at this point.  The next chapter will deal with divine action and the problem of evil.

        Thursday, November 24, 2011

        20 Books Post-Evangelicals Should Read

        A lot of these lists have been going around because of a recently published book called 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  It's a nice list, and worth checking out.  But if you know me, you know I'm a big fan of lists - so how could I resist from making my own?  My list will only focus on more recent books, while most other lists have gone deeper into the tradition, from Irenaeus on up.  Furthermore, my list is a bit shorter and these books are significant for me within a particular context - or theological trajectory, if you will.

        The list includes a number of books that have been significant on my spiritual journey, including some that I don't fully resonate with anymore but continue to be grateful that I encountered them when I did.  Other books on this list I simply consider essential reading, and a handful of these books even represent some of my favorite books that I came across at grad school.  But let me be clear: while some of these books would be in my 'favorite books of all-time' list, certainly not all of them would.  I begin with more evangelical texts and increasingly move more progressive.  As such, these are not arranged in order of importance.
        1. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (1946)
        2. The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, et al. (1994)
        3. The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott (1999)
        4. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder (1972)
        5. Just Peacemaking edited by Glen Stassen (1992)
        6. Theology and the Kingdom of God by Wolfhart Pannenberg (1969)
        7. A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren (2004)
        8. The Way of Jesus Christ by Jurgen Moltmann (1989)
        9. The Nature of Love: A Theology by Thomas Jay Oord (2010)
        10. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion by S. Mark Heim (1995)
        11. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright (1999)
        12. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evoluton by John Haught (2000)
        13. Jesus the Liberator by Jon Sobrino (1994)
        14. She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson (1992)
        15. How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins (2006)
        16. The Predicament of Belief by Philip Clayton & Steven Knapp (2011)
        17. Christ in a Pluralistic Age by John B. Cobb, Jr. (1975)
        18. The Powers That Be by Walter Wink (1999) 
        19. The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology by Marjorie Suchocki (1995)
        20. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan (2007)

        Saturday, November 19, 2011

        The Predicament of Belief: Reasons for Doubt (pt.2)

        [Below I continue blogging through Clayton and Knapp's new book The Predicament of Belief.  It's awesome.  It's theology that reads like a detective novel or thriller of some sort.  Go buy it on amazon and read along with me.]

        Clayton and Knapp (C&K) use chapter one to explain the five primary reasons for doubting Christian claims today: 

        1) Science - modern science has unquestionably made many traditional Christian claims more challenging to accept as it has continued to naturally explain the world in ways that religions, including Christianity, once explained supernaturally.  It has problematized miracles and arguments for God's existence.

        2) The problem of evil - how can one still affirm an all-powerful, good God when there is so much innocent suffering in the world?

        3) Religious pluralism - how does one choose a religion in the light of our intensifying awareness of so many religious options?  We seem to be born into a tradition rather than genuinely choosing a tradition.  Also, why does it seem to be so difficult for God to more clearly communicate religious truth?  We seem to be stuck in a state of confusion and conflict about the truth of religions.

        4) Historical evidence/Biblical criticism - in my own words, while the Bible might be a beautiful mess, it is nevertheless a mess from the perspective of the historian and textual critic.  There are contradictions, 'lost gospels' and other problems throughout the Bible and Christian history that make a theological reading of the text more challenging than we have ever realized.

        5) The central claim of Jesus' resurrection - the relevant but often differing accounts in the biblical texts make understanding this controversial claim even harder to believe.  Plus the problem of evil forces one to ask: if God intervened for the resurrection of Jesus, why not other times for the innocent who suffer?

        In the light of these challenges, C&K ask whether it might just be more honest to be agnostic.  They reject this option and advocate for what they call "Christian minimalism."  This is the position that sides with theism in general and modified Christian truth claims, but also admits that the evidence that tips the scale in the Christian theistic direction for C&K is only minimally more likely to be true.  Taking the 5 reasons for doubt seriously forces us into such a position, the authors contend.  Yet they do not believe one needs to be "maximally minimalist" (they point to certain liberal biblical scholars like Robert Funk, for example). 

        But isn't this 'Christian minimalism' on the verge of agnosticism?  C&K argue that agnosticism claims that one cannot make progress in considering the truth of religions.  They differentiate themselves from 'Christian agnostics' (while admitting some questions may be impossible to answer), affirming the possibility of making progress in evaluating religious truth claims in general and the religious responsibility of doing so.  They firmly reject the agnostic position that it is always wrong to hold or form beliefs that may not convince a neutral observer.  But they also differentiate themselves from 'Christian fideists' who think we can just take everything on leaps of faith.  The fideist and agnostic are equally dogmatic in their claims.  

        C&K intend to move forward in their arguments with two phases: the first argues in a more general way for claims about ultimate reality (metaphysics) that are not tied to specific religious claims; the second argues for specific Christian claims in the light of the metaphysics developed in the first phase.  The first phase is intended to convince rational persons of good will (although they admit plenty will not agree, especially those who assume a physicalist/materialist position).  The second is aimed at those within the Christian tradition and will not resonate with as broad of an audience.  But both phases take seriously the five reasons for doubt.  The resulting Christian positions aim at plausibility as well as serious engagement with the bible and tradition.  Even so, not all claims will have the same degree of justification.  The way in which C&K evaluate the degree of plausibility of their arguments is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, as we will see in future posts.

        Friday, November 11, 2011

        The Predicament of Belief: Preface


        Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp have written a powerful book about science, doubt, philosophy, and faith that I hope to show is well worth a read.  The Predicament of Belief is currently available through the publisher at Oxford University Press, but it will also be released on Amazon within a few days - so go get yourself a copy and read along with my posts!  I'll be blogging through each chapter over the coming weeks if all goes as planned.  This first short post will cover the preface to get us into the major sections of the book.

        Clayton and Knapp (hereafter abbreviated C&K) begin by pointing out the difficulties for religious persons who are also committed to science today.  The New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, etc) have inspired a new generation of aggressive atheists.  Secular scientists and philosophers often argue for a meaningless universe.  On the other side are conservative religious persons who are content with their faith, more-or-less trying to ignore the philosophical and scientific challenges of our day.  The space between these two extremes often gives birth to agnosticism from those who disagree with both sides.  Such agnostics may still be spiritual in some vague sense, opting for radical apophaticism combined with ethical and practical emphases.  

        C&K seek to move beyond these options, but they plan to do so by honestly and rigorously working through the most challenging arguments against religious belief rather than merely providing an apologetic defense of faith.  What beliefs must be rejected in the light of what we know, taking full account of the best knowledge of our day, and what beliefs might be kept?  To what degree of certainty can we still hold to certain religious beliefs?

        They also seek to go beyond the typical liberal responses that too quickly jettison major beliefs of the Christian faith in favor of slippery mystical language about "new being" and substituting dogmatic commitments to liberal politics for dogmatic commitments to orthodoxy.  Such liberal religious persons tend to leave out any close critical scrutiny of the basic assumptions that lead them to such a position.  C&K seek to investigate those assumptions, as we will see.

        The predicament of belief then refers to all of these types of factors that challenge religious persons today.  The grounds for doubt today they confess "are deep and serious."  Theologians ought to be able to respond to such reasons for doubt - and be willing to do major restructuring of theological positions if necessary.  While orthodoxy may serve as a guideline for such restructuring, it will probably need to be challenged as well.

        All of this seems like bad news to many Christians, but C&K are convinced that there are compelling reasons to affirm certain Christian beliefs about God and the Christ-event, even if they must now be transformed to some extent.

        They conclude by admitting that hard skeptics and conservatives will probably not be persuaded by their arguments.  But this is not their intended audience: "Our arguments are not aimed at those who are happy to remain at either extreme, but are offered as guidance for those who wish to go where reason and experience may lead."  The book is the result of over two decades of research from the authors, so be prepared to wrestle with some serious theological challenges. 

        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.

        Friday, November 4, 2011

        Teilhard de Chardin on Divine Immanence

        While reading Whitehead I am also reading some of the works of the French Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  The two thinkers are very similar in many ways, emphasizing becoming over being, types of nondualism, evolutionary panentheism, panexperientialism, and (ecological) internal relatedness. Yet Teilhard conceives of God in more explicitly Christian terms, and thus has a very christocentric theology (a cosmic Christology) along with a more radical eschatology where the universe is moving towards a final Omega point (the 'Christification' of the cosmos).  God is understood, with theologians of hope like Moltmann and Pannenberg, as the 'power of the future.'  There are serious philosophical/theological/scientific questions about his eschatology, although it does provide a very powerful, distinctly Christian theological vision.  Here is a nice passage from his book "The Divine Milieu" about divine immanence: 

        "God reveals himself everywhere, beneath our groping efforts, as a universal milieu, only because he is the ultimate point upon which all realities converge...It follows that all created things, every one of them, cannot be looked at, in their nature and actions, without the same reality being found in their innermost being - like sunlight in the fragments of a broken mirror - one beneath its multiplicity, unattainable beneath its proximity, and spiritual beneath its materiality.  No object can influence us by its essence without our being touched by the radiance of the focus of the universe.  Our minds are incapable of grasping a reality, our hearts and hands of seizing the essentially desirable in it, without our being compelled by the very structure of things to go back to the first source of perfections.  This focus, this source, is thus everywhere.  It is precisely because he is the center that he fills the whole sphere." -Teilhard de Chardin (Teilhard: Selected Writings, 72)


        Tuesday, November 1, 2011

        Whitehead on Freedom

        I have been (half) joking lately with my friend Justin, a PhD student in process studies at CST, to put together a collection of the sayings of the brilliant and poetic philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead.  If you have never had the pleasure of reading one of Whitehead's more profound passages, today is your lucky day.  I have been working through his major works this fall and have recently been studying his book, "Adventures of Ideas."  This passage especially captured my attention in his fascinating discussion of freedom:

        "There is a freedom lying beyond circumstance, derived from the direct intuition that life can be grounded upon its absorption in what is changeless amid change.  This is the freedom at which Plato was groping, the freedom which Stoics and Christians obtained as the gift of Hellenism.  It is the freedom of that virtue directly derived from the source of all harmony.  For it is conditioned only by its adequacy of understanding.  And understanding has this quality that, however it be led up to, it issues in the soul freely conforming its nature to the supremacy of insight.  It is the reconciliation of freedom with the compulsion of the truth.  In this sense the captive can be free, taking as his own supreme insight, the indwelling persuasion towards harmony which is the height of existence." (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p.67-68)

        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, J├╝rgen 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."

        Sunday, October 16, 2011

        Gold Dust and God the Magician

        I don't believe in an interventionist God
        But I know, darling, that you do
        But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
        Not to intervene when it came to you
        . (Nick Cave)

        A recent video that's circulating social networks shows a rowdy charismatic worship service that supposedly ended with a 'supernatural' display of divine power: the appearance of a swirling cloud of gold dust that ended with people apparently walking away 'covered' in specks of gold.  I am fairly certain the video was shot at a church with which I am very familiar, due to my own background in charismatic/pentecostal circles.

        Divine intervention...
        I remember being at a similar event in high school where it was claimed that gold dust had appeared on people's hands.  Long story short, it all turned out to be fake and it was very embarrassing for some folks in attendance.  So naturally, I am very skeptical about this.  I spent the first 20 years of my life very much involved in such supernatural-obsessed versions of Christianity and saw nothing unambiguously supernatural.  I heard many wild stories about 'supernatural' signs and wonders, yes.  And on occasion, I heard an actually credible story that somebody ended up not having cancer after being diagnosed with it, or that someone's health recovery completely surprised the doctors.  This was often framed as a supernatural miracle, but I see no way of showing how this could be true.  Of course, I am sure God is involved in such events, as God is involved in every event in some measure.  But supernatural miracles through divine intervention is another thing entirely.

        I did see people's lives turned around in the church - and these are the best kinds of miracles: drug addicts overcoming their addictions, marriages restored, former gang members getting off the streets.  I saw Christ-like generosity and service in action.  Sometimes, even amongst evangelicals, I saw Christians who genuinely cared about the poor and sought to go beyond charity.  They saw the injustice in the global economic system and actively opposed such systemic evils for the sake of the oppressed.  This kind of justice-oriented Christianity always impressed me because it actually sounded like Jesus.  On the other hand, supernatural-obsessed Christianity often disappointed: it promised so much and rarely amounted to anything more than spiritual masturbation - short-term thrills - and superstition.

        Criss Angel vs. the 'gold dust' God
        These kinds of 'supernatural' videos claiming to be showing actual signs and wonders pop up from time to time online, and then get sent to me by a well-meaning friend or acquaintance.  I sometimes chuckle, but more often I get frustrated, cynical...even depressed.  Particularly videos claiming to show signs and wonders that involve 'supernatural' stunts that the magician Criss Angel could have performed at least as well as the charismatic's interventionist God.  But seriously: who cares about gold dust, even if there was some sort of paranormal phenomenon going on there?  Yes, I'm aware of how this 'sign' is variously interpreted: divine royalty, glory, or perhaps as something to do with the imminence of the end times.  I remain unimpressed.  Surely a God with such unlimited power would do something more interesting.

        Furthermore, an interventionist God like such a supernatural event would probably require makes the problem of evil impossible to deal with.  As a Christian, I believe in a God who acts in the world.  I'm no deist.  But with process theologians, I do not believe that God can do whatever God wants (incidentally, the biblical authors generally tend to agree with me).  God works persuasively, not coercively in the world.  If God ever intervened to "show off" God's power (as some who commented on this video disturbingly interpreted the stunt), God's love and goodness would be impossible to affirm.  Such an all-loving and all-powerful God is totally unbelievable if one actually takes evil and suffering in the world seriously.  Such a God would be arrogant, egotistical, selfish, cruel, and unjust. 

        Jesus Christ Liberator
        If you still believe in an interventionist God, show me a video of this God making food appear for the starving; show me a cripple getting up to walk for the first time; show me a blind person miraculously gaining their sight (actually, process theologians can make sense of some of these types of occurrences, but not through supernatural divine intervention).  These 'miracles' are far preferable to a random exercise of coercive divine power to make gold dust float through the air.  Better yet, show me a video of the church caring for the orphan and widow; show me a video of the church opposing war; show me a video of the church occupying Wall Street.  But please: don't waste any more of our time with gold dust magic shows.  This world needs justice not stunts, cheap thrills, illusions.  We don't need 'glittery glory' just to make us feel special and loved (another absurd interpretation of the video).  We need a God who suffers with us, a God of love and persuasion who does everything she can to keep us from evil and injustice.  Only such a persistent, consistent God of limited but real power is worthy of worship.

        Jesus calls his followers to be "covered in the dust of their rabbi" - an earthy dust, not gold dust.  The Jesus worth following isn't a glitzy gold dust preacher, but a revolutionary rabbi on the side of the oppressed.  He's also the incarnation of a rather surprising God - one who isn't a magician who has to compete with pop-culture magicians for our attention.  S/he's a liberator who faithfully lures the world toward a better future and who suffers with all who suffer in the struggle of life

        "Only a suffering God can help us." (Bonhoeffer) 

        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.