Unintelligible theology

Spinoza made very clear that his views on God were not at all like those of most people in his time. For that, he was widely denounced as an atheist. I’ve noticed that most people today with unusual views about what they call “God” aren’t so clear about their unusual views.

For example, with John Haught, the theologian I mentioned in the last chapter, I got through his entire book God and the New Atheism without ever learning what his theological views are. As a result I was surprised, but only moderately surprised, when I read the following in an interview with Haught:

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible — most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?

I don’t think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that’s trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

I apologize for such a long, nearly unintelligible quote, but I think I had to give one quote like that so readers can see for themselves an example of how too many theologians think and write. Notice how Haught’s initial response is so unclear the interviewer had to ask a follow-up to make sure Haught was saying what he really seemed to be saying. It sounds like he’s saying, “the resurrection didn’t really happen,” but even after the follow-up this isn’t totally clear [9].

What’s unforgiveable about this is that it would have been so easy for Haught to have given a straight answer to the interviewer’s question. Either, “I think something supernatural really happened, but it was like the visions of prophets described elsewhere in the Bible, not something you necessarily could have caught on film,” or else, “I don’t think anything supernatural really happened, but the belief of early Christians that it was still a good thing because helped them feel purpose and compassion.” (I suspect the latter is Haught’s real view.)

I have two points to make here. First, I refuse to apologize for not having read more theology, in the sense of the writings of people like Haught and the people he admires. That’s because they frequently don’t even try to write clearly. My typical experience when picking up their books is to first notice they are using words in ways I am not used to. Then I start skimming to try to find the section where they explain what they mean by their words (sometimes there are legitimate reasons for using words in unusual ways). Then I end up closing the book when I fail to find such a section.

But because of that, I have a message for people who identify as religious, but have unconventional beliefs about religion: if your beliefs are unorthodox, say so! If you have something you call “God,” but think miracles are impossible, say so! Be like Spinoza, not Haught!

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I’d have asked him if the whole Adam and Eve thing was a metaphor, and whether that meant that the whole original sin thing was also a metaphor and therefore whether the whole jesus dying for our sins was also a metaphor, and if we wanted a bunch of metaphors maybe we should just scrap the bible and go with Harry Potter because even though it’s mediocre it’s better than the bible.

    If theologians don’t claim that the bible is literally a description of events that occurred then they completely unmoor their epistemology: Oh, I see, it’s just a bunch of opinions and metaphors from some bronze-age guys. Now, let’s compare that to Plato. Are we done, here?

  • http://rulerstothesky.wordpress.com/ Trent Fowler

    Yeah, “God” and the constellation of related concepts seems to be things everyone assumes they can define any way they want. It doesn’t help that the term seems to refer to nothing in the actual universe.

    I’m reminded of several conversations I had with a Process Theologian, whose Christianity was based on the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. He was a wonderful man, and a lot of his ideas were novel and interesting, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that when it came to religion, he was just playing with words.

    “God” became “an unconscious creative force driving the universe to greater heights of experience and complexity”. Well, okay, it’s a lovely idea, but that force could just as well be an undiscovered law of thermodynamics or something. There’s no need to obfuscate by calling it god.

    At least he was very clear about what he meant by God from the beginning. Are conversations were fairly productive.

  • Ray Moscow

    Haught: ‘Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important.’

    In other words, this religion stuff is psychological. There are no actual miracles or woo, and there never were.

    Why don’t they just say so? It would put us all very nearly on common ground: one reality, no woo, just different ways of looking at it.

    (I don’t think there is money is just saying so.)

  • Dantalion

    I suspect most theologians are actively trying to not write clearly.

    It is an attempt to say something compatible with traditional christian belief, while saying something compatible with reason, by not really saying anything.

  • KG

    I suspect most theologians are actively trying to not write clearly. – Dantalion

    Certainly the Haught-y ones; but more than that, I suspect they are actively trying to not think clearly – and largely succeeding.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Dantalion beat me to it: the purpose of theology (or theodicy, as I’ve heard some call it, which I always misread as “the idiocy”) is not to speak clearly about anything; it is to rationalize, obfuscate, misdirect, and prevent truly rational inquiry from occuring at all. The only time teologians aren’t lying, is when they’re bullshitting.

    • Jenora Feuer

      Well, no, theodicy is a specific subset of theology, to do with the basic concept of Justice with regards to God, as opposed to general ‘knowledge’ of God. In particular, theodicy is an approach to the Problem of Evil.

      There’s the old line: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving: choose two. Different versions of theodicy come up based on which one of those you start with.

      Not to say it makes any more sense than theology in general, but it isn’t the same.

  • eric

    There’s been at least one theism-defending poster at various atheist/skeptic sites who has the same bad habit. Takes umpteen eons to answer a simple question, then tries to quickly dilute it with more walls ‘o text.

    I think the most charitable interpretation of this sort of behavior is: they don’t think the question you’re asking is the important one. They think if you focus on it, you’ll miss the more important things they are trying to say. So, rather than just say it, they’re going to give you the stuff they think is really important before they answer the question (and after they answer it, too, for good measure). Like a witness facing the opposing attorney, they are worried that ‘just answering the question’ will not convey the gist of the point they are trying to make.

    Its a very condescending attitude. Basically, the implication is that if you’ve asked about something they don’t want to discuss, its because you must have missed their point. Take Haught, above. He clearly wants to discuss how faith and religion change how people see the world (i.e. it ‘opens your heart’ and lets you ‘read the universe at different levels.’) Its clear he thinks this is a more important topic than whether the ressurrection was a physical event. But its also clear that he feels he needs to lecture about his main point ad nauseum, rather than just make it and then answer the question. As I said, condescending.

    • khms

      they don’t think the question you’re asking is the important one.

      I can understand that one – it’s not exactly unfamiliar to me, except I suspect we have no overlap in which questions we look at that way.

      It’s pretty much what I think when I hear people talking about the “meaning of life”, for example. (Meaning is something a person gives things. And given there is no God person, there cannot be a general “meaning of life”. Not that I accept the thesis that if a God person decided on some such meaning, it would be any more meaningful than my neighbors doing so! But most importantly, I don’t see why this lack would be a problem.)

      On the other hand, how they react to this circumstance is not exactly reasonable. If you think it’s the wrong question, &$@$&%$& say so!

  • http://www.skepticblogs.com/humesapprentice Ryan

    For quite a while now, I’ve had a creeping suspicion that most of what people like Haught say about theology is gibberish. I don’t mean that their statements are merely false, I mean that they lack any meaning whatsoever, that their sentences are nothing more than strings of words that signify nothing.

    After a good deal of time and study, I gradually came to hold to a version of the verification principle of meaning, and later realized that this principle confirmed my suspicions about theology. For more info on that, along with a response to why the verification principle is not self-refuting, see here:

    I should also add that I don’t think the verification principle renders every conception of god meaningless. The god that the average believer accepts probably is a meaningful hypothesis. The god(s) that high brow theologians accept is probably not.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    But because of that, I have a message for people who identify as religious, but have unconventional beliefs about religion: if your beliefs are unorthodox, say so! If you have something you call “God,” but think miracles are impossible, say so! Be like Spinoza, not Haught!

    But Sophisticated Theologians will never do that. If you are able to be pinned down to a particular position — a position where it’s possible to be false — then you can no longer sound profound. The easiest way to seem intelligent to people is to bowl them over with grandiloquent sounding turns of phrases all the while remaining noncommittal.

    They don’t want to be understood. They want to be revered.

  • Tâlib Alttaawiil (طالب التاويل)

    clever christians know they have nothing to gain from clearly expressing their opinions. religion appears to be all about maintaining a myth that people all believe the same allegedly ennobling things.

  • MikeN

    And yet the story of Doubting Thomas -the apostle who needed to see and touch the risen Jesus in the flesh before he would believe- was placed in the New testament precisely to refute people like Haught.

    Haught said “We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?”
    “24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

    25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

    26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

    27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

    28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.”

    So the people who wrote this holy book damn well knew about Sophisticated Theologians, and were at pains to refute them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      No doubt Haught thinks that’s a terribly fundamentalistic reading of the story, and would insist that even conservative theologians going back hundreds of years… uh, something something something.

  • Stevie M

    Yeah, you could sum it up with, “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

    On the positive side, and speaking from personal experience, this kind of mushy theology is perfect for easing the transition from evangelicalism to irreligion.

  • Corvus illustris

    Personal experiences vary depending on initial conditions, of course, so I find it hard to assess evangelicalism from an always-outside position. Rigorous (at least pre-Vatican 2) theology, coupled with claims of various kinds of infallibility, can make departure from the RC church a matter of simple applied logic. I have no experience of what it’s like now that they have the (just memorize the) Official Catechism (and don’t ask questions) of J2P2, but it’s hard for me to imagine them being ok with a metaphorical resurrection.

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