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."