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!

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