Liberal Theology and Me, Before and After My Deconversion

1996-1999: 

When I was an evangelical Christian theology freshman at a deeply conservative Evangelical Christian college, I learned about biblical scholarship that should have undermined my biblical literalism. But I studied it with a tightly closed mind. The Bible was absolutely true, any theologian, biblical scholar, historian, or archaeologist who said otherwise was simply wrong. I learned the theories well enough to articulate them for myself and to ace the tests but never for a second contemplated whether they might be true. They were false. There was nothing to think further about. There was no evidence worth investigating. Any alternative theories of how the Bible came to be compiled must just be based in anti-supernaturalistic prejudices.

Seminary students the world over, a great number of them training to become pastors, are taught by their seminary professors with a varying degree of intellectual integrity. I hear professors sometimes hold some things back to safeguard their students’ faith. But even at many fairly conservative seminaries I am also told that at least some of the facts that should loosen an honest person’s dogmatism about the Bible’s perfection and reliability are at least presented. At least some were at my college which served as a feeder to a few prominent conservative Calvinist seminaries and which had professors who had graduated from them. Seminary students and undergraduate theology majors typically split between several types. There are those who have their faith shaken to the core by scholarly revelations, to the point that they eventually apostasize. Others begin (or continue) a lifelong process of modifying and moderating their theology as best they can to account for evidence. Then there are those that do what I did, learn what they need to for the tests and never expressly think of a word of it as even a candidate for belief. Then, going on to become either pastors or seminary professors themselves, I am told they wind up being forthright with their parishioners to only one degree or another about the full extent of the problems with the biblical record. (And “problems” is a euphemism for “unmitigated disaster”.)

So in my freshman year as an undergraduate theology student I was still ill-informed enough to remain a “learn it and ignore it” type when it came to biblical scholarship. I was much more skeptical and openminded in philosophy for so long as I didn’t feel like that didn’t threaten my biblical literalism or conservative theology. I was just religiously appropriating philosophical insights, even radically skeptical ones, in whatever ways they could serve my apologetic goals. But even there, my decision as a mid-year sophomore to read the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was, in my mind, taking a risk of becoming more theologically liberal than would be acceptable. But, my faith was under such pressure and threat, in part now from studying early church history directly, which had started to make the origins of the faith seem less otherworldly, that I decided to give Kierkegaard what I called “the benefit of the faith” as a last resort.

But even as I tried to patch my faith’s philosophical supports with Kierkegaard I remained staunchly closed minded towards the many 20th Century liberal and neoorthodox theologians who had some amount of debt to Kierkegaard. I never contemplated for a second that Barth, Tillich, Bultmann or similar existentialist theologians might have anything to say of substantive truth about theology as I studied them in my Contemporary Theology class second semester sophomore year. I found them very interesting and creative but completely uncompelling. And on a deep level I had already ruled them out as candidates for truth because of the literalist theological commitments that were still the core of my faith.

But after my Kierkegaard compromise tamped down my philosophical doubts for a while, they eventually reaccelerated and I came to lose all hope for salvaging my faith as epistemically or ethically permissible after I read enough Nietzsche.

1999-2014:

When I essentially crossed the rubicon into atheism, I went and read liberal theologians and pro-religious philosophy in an attempt to still give the faith the fullest benefit of the doubt. But now I was approaching things skeptically. I was looking for them to answer the fundamental problems with faith. And I found them essentially worthless on that score. In the winter, I read Tillich. On Christmas Eve 1999 I plowed through The Courage to Bewhich I loved, and from Christmas day through January I read his Systematic Theology, Volume 1. And in the spring and the summer I read postmodern/deconstructive philosophers of religion like John Caputo (since at the time my own philosophical prejudices were towards postmodernism). These writings were philosophically engaging but only in ways that were literary or strictly philosophical and had nothing to do with theology. They never came close to touching the fundamental problems I had with taking distinctively religious texts, beliefs, metaphors, sacraments, etc. as either especially true, valuable or authoritative in any way that justified propping up religious traditions. Everything kernel was philosophical without depending on theology for derivation or justification, and everything that was theology was a husk to be tossed away.

Since then, I have always seen liberals believers as clinging to traditions best abandoned. I experienced such a liberating freedom of my mind by walking away from my religious beliefs. I cannot imagine ever feeling the pull of traditional religion since I really came to see clearly all the human strings that make it dance. There are only two intellectual or emotional levels on which I can relate to the rationalizing and reimagining liberal preservers of religious tradition.

The less charitable way I relate is as someone who also used to rationalize my faith because I psychologically couldn’t even permit myself the real contemplation of leaving it. Maybe some people emotionally just never free themselves. At the risk of being condescending, I feel quite bad for them. Thinking outside of the visceral commitment to vindicate your preexisting tradition is a powerful, liberating feeling. When you do it alone and unsupported, it can be isolating but also intoxicating. I have long seen theological liberals start sounding boring, gutless, predictable, and stifled as soon as we came too close to a still sacred cow and the wheels of dishonest rationalization and theological bullshitting started turning in their thought. So much intellectual potential squanders in front of my eyes as the insipid is defended in the most bizarre but creative ways because of what seem like sheerly emotional prejudices or, a little more charitably, by political well-meaning that’s nonetheless transparently dishonest.

2010-2014:

I eventually came to teach myself, in terms that could actually persuade me, a more sympathetic interpretation of the logic of (at least some people’s) religious liberalism. This came only a few years ago, in the summer of 2010, as I wrote Camels With Hammers blog post trying to figure out what in the world it could possibly mean when George W. Bush, a literalist Evangelical Christian who believes Jesus is the only way to salvation, would say that the true interpretation of Islam was as a religion of peace. I know, it’s probably just calculated political rhetoric he does not believe. But some people who are not Muslims really do agitate for a “true” interpretation of Islam. Or non-Christians agitate for a “true” interpretation of Christianity. What could such things really mean by non-adherents of a religion when said about a religion’s interpretation?

It could mean, perhaps, “the one true, most internally consistent, way of interpreting that faith’s various resources”. I don’t think there is a real truth to that. And often–and especially in political contexts–the people advocating the “true” version of a faith from outside are partisans who are less interested in just internal consistency but more interested in either making the religion look good (as liberals want) or making the religion look bad (as antitheists want) or making its adherents useful or non-threatening (as neo-cons want).

The most charitable reading of non-believers’ ideas about true religion, the one that involved the least manipulativeness or dishonesty, was the one I have myself half-adopted. That view is that the “truest” version of a religion is comparable to the truest version of any other endeavor from science to morality. It is the version that most comports with the true and/or the good. So the truest way to interpret a given religion here is a claim to normative truth, not descriptive truth. It might be quite false as a description to say a given religion has always meant to say something we now know to be true or good, or never meant something false or bad, or was always on the right track to the true and good even when being technically false and bad, etc.

But, nonetheless, for any work of art or literature, there may be truths unbeknownst to the artist or the author. There may be ways to salvage symbols and metaphors for different purposes, quite at cross-purposes even, from the original intentions. There may be ways to make a text or a tradition or a ritual truer or better than it ever was. And the idea may be that since certain symbols are infused with importance to people already and too firmly ensconced culturally to remove them, it’s far more efficient to rehabilitate existing resources than start from scratch.

If people are simply too viscerally attached to certain phrases, habits, rituals, identifications, and institutions, it’s better to just reform them and change their meanings because many are just attached to the surfaces and so long as it sounds, looks, and feels the same the underlying change of substance will be amenable to them.

So, you don’t fight the word God, you redefine it to mean much less objectionable things and you persuade many people who would never abandon the word God to think much less objectionable things in the process.

I still can’t go along with this, personally. If it’s deliberate and knowing by reformers of religion who would otherwise abandon these shells were it not so strategic for correcting harmful and false institutions, then I can understand their motivations to an extent. I am just more and more queasy the less clear and upfront with others about what they are doing.

And morally and strategically I would far far prefer they abandon the project of salvaging and repurposing the old and structurally defective symbols, rituals, texts, and traditions and instead join those of us on the outside determined to build new traditions that are openly and honestly atheistic. If all those trying perennially to salvage the old, intellectually and morally dilapidated structures would instead lend their considerable industry, ingenuity, and energy to laying a solid foundation for more rational structures, more structurally sound for being held to modern design standards, maybe we could build institutions that were at their core more stable, human, and logical. Maybe we could meet the desires and needs of people that they doggedly turn to religions to express or be satiated within in ways that didn’t require compromises to their reason, their morality, their consciences, their autonomy, or honesty about the descriptive histories of ancient religions and texts.

Your Thoughts?

This is an installment of my ongoing series of posts on my deconversion that cover what my faith was like before it, how I deconverted, and what has happened in the aftermath. Below are links to more installments, any of which can be read in isolation from the others so feel free to skip to anything that particularly interests you:

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: My Parents Divorced

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: I Saw An Agnostic Speak At A Christian Conference

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: I Experienced Something Like A Spiritual Break Up

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

When I Deconverted: I Sure Could Have Used The Secular Student Alliance

When I Deconverted: I Came Out To My Family

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

After I Deconverted:

Liberal Theology and Me, Before and After I Deconverted

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After I Deconverted: I Chose To Study Philosophy At A Jesuit University

After I Deconverted: I Was Deeply Ambivalent; What Was I to Make of Sex, Love, Alcohol, Bisexuality, Abortion, 9/11, Religious Violence, Marxism, or the Yankees?

After I Deconverted: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After I Deconverted: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

After I Deconverted: I Started Blogging

After I Deconverted: I’ve Usually Felt Honored and Understood When Christians See Me As “Still Christian”

Since I Deconverted: I’ve Been in Denial About Christian Sincerity

Meta:

Why I Write About My Deconversion

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.skeptimusprime.com/ Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

    “So, you don’t fight the word God, you redefine it to mean much less
    objectionable things and you persuade many people who would never
    abandon the word God to think much less objectionable things in the process.”

    I think this is largely right when it comes to the goals of at least some liberal theologians. Though one of my biggest problems with their way of thinking here is that it seems to involve a belief that fundamentalists are stupid, or at least easily fooled.

    When I was a fundamentalist I was majoring in religious studies under a lot of liberal theologians I very much recognized that they were defining god in ways that made the term unrecognizable in terms of more conservative theology. Yet I often felt like they believed because they spoke the same “language” as me they would be able to converse with me on religion in a way that unbelievers could not, and thus could bend my beliefs in more positive directions than my fundamentalist beliefs would have of me.

    I felt then, and still feel like they thought this would work even though what they were doing was perfectly transparent to me, and I found it irrelevant because by my standards they were not “true” Christians anyway and thus I had no reason to listen to them. In fact as a fundamentalists I was more troubled by liberal Christians than atheists because they presented people with a “false” gospel.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yep.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Excellent post, Dan — this could have come right from the chapter “From the Ivory Tower to the People in the Pews” in the book that Dan Dennett and I just wrote.

    I wish more religion and seminary students would speak out about this.

    I’d be interested to know what vibes you were getting from your fellow students during your studies.

    Keep up the good work and let’s do what we can to get this out to the public.

  • Thin-ice

    Although I got a Th.B. from a Bible College, I never really got into the depths of theology and was satisfied just to go be a missionary for a few years afterwards. But when I finally de-converted, for about a year I entertained and courted liberal Christian theology, thinking I didn’t need to reject Christianity altogether. But once I admitted that I couldn’t believe in original sin & the need for redemption, and of course the “hereafter”, then liberal Christian theology was no more than an attempt to keep a car moving by pushing it after it had run out of gas. What’s the point?

    • Cylon

      “liberal Christian theology was no more than an attempt to keep a car moving by pushing it after it had run out of gas.”

      Such a great analogy. I love it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moriarty.395 John Moriarty

    I suppose that if you / one has a sharp edged definition of truth, there will exist in such a mind a disdain for watered down versions of the untenable. And in this matter, it is reasonable to be black or white. He either was really what they said he said he was, or they were making shit up.

  • Tony Debono

    “If people are simply too viscerally attached to certain phrases, habits,
    rituals, identifications, and institutions, it’s better to just reform
    them and change their meanings because many are just attached to the
    surfaces and so long as it sounds, looks, and feels the same the
    underlying change of substance will be amenable to them.”

    I’m always stunned (and comforted) by how similar our deconversion stories are, Dan. Granted, yours was more philosophically in-depth than mine, but the parallels are there, from the fundamentalism right through to the postmodern salvage operation. From my 20s to early 30s I sat through “liberal” sermon after “liberal” sermon as the pastors sanitized and re-contextualized offensive or cryptic biblical scenarios/texts, claiming “MAYBE what Jesus/God REALLY means is_______.” Eventually that line of insulated reasoning became wholly unsatisfying. I began losing respect for my pastor’s intellectual integrity once it became clear to me that he and his pastoral staff weren’t concerned with what was true, but rather what felt good and safe. They didn’t want to challenge or educate their parishoners; just sweet-talk them.

    At times they tried to pass their beliefs off more as ‘artistic’ projects…until I would raise intellectual or moral objections to their ‘artistic’ claims and practices. Then they would often become defensive or feign ignorance to dodge the issue. And it wasn’t as though I was too dull to understand their theology, too heartless to respect their commitments, or too rigid to appreciate the artistic aspects of faith. They were put off because I had the gall to say, “That’s not good enough.” Some even got angry and loudly admonished me in front of others. I was as polite and open to answers as I could be.

    Later it dawned on me (after pondering their emotional reactions to my questions) that at least some of their theology is pseudo-liberal, such that they hold theologically conservative, literal beliefs (the need for human sacrifice, original sin, etc), but mask it with postmodern double-speak, probably because they don’t want to scare off any of their newer, more liberal congregants. Eventually my pastor cut me off, and that was the last red flag for me.

  • Mark Rutledge

    This is a well written and
    reasoned retrospective. I’ve sent it on the instructor in a class on atheism I’m now
    “auditing” after teaching session on Dan Dennett’s thought (leading “New Atheist”) a couple of weeks
    ago. I also sent it to another instructor of another class who is taking this
    class—a friend as well. Worth sharing with the class.

    Thanks for
    sharing your personal journey Daniel. As one of the Liberal’s who wish would “go all the way” to
    atheism, I still think that once you take supernaturalism out of religion (and liberal theology and practice) there is
    some good stuff left. The mainline churches have always had as one of their articles
    “reformed and always reforming.” I think of this as evolving. And adapting.
    Which is the point of Dan Dennett’s and Fred Plumer’s (–a leader in the Center for Progressive Christianity) perspectives. Camel
    author wants to jettison even the positive contributions that liberals might
    make. I don’t go all the way there. The question of whether the liberal
    churches will in fact evolve is still open (as Dennett and LaScola’s book (on non-believing clergy) suggests).


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