A Hell of a Review

I received a review copy of Tripp York’s book (The Devil Wears Nada) free of charge, but I made no agreements about the substance of the review with him or anyone else.

The Devil Wears Nada turned out to be a little out of my wheelhouse, since Tripp York is mainly addressing evangelical protestant conceptions of Satan, but I found it to be a mostly enjoyable read. Atheists or anyone else trying to pick fights over this aspect of theology will find this to be a useful rundown of the arguments and common responses. However, because Yorke includes frequent mocking asides (sometimes in footnotes, sometimes in the text itself), a devout conservative Christian would probably find an excuse to write it off. (Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition had the exact same problem, but going the other way). That’s the essence of my thoughts on the thesis of this book, so now on to riffs on whatever happened to interest me most:

 

Who can’t tolerate the tolerant?
Unitarians don’t have many beliefs about Satan (and certainly no orthodox teachings) so I was confused that York had interviewed a Unitarian minister on the topic. This conversation turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the book, since York was targeting a hobby horse of mine: the incoherence of non-creedal religion. York points out that most religions would be quite upset by the compromise position the Unitarians have settled on. Jews don’t believe they are a chosen people and that they serve a jealous G-d who is also very pleased that some people have found peace in Shinto. Most Christians don’t think that no one comes to the Father except through Christ except maybe through neo-Norse paganism.

These religions make conflicting claims, and you’re not doing them a favor by papering over their differences.  Unitarians and others want to mix and match from religious traditions without admitting that this act is itself a radical rebuke of the foundational claims of these faiths. They remind me of Thomas Friendman’s wearisome pleas for a third-party candidate that will pick and choose the policies from both parties that Thomas Friedman likes best. He forgets that these policies spring from divergent political philosophies and he never bothers to explain what theory of the polity would undergird his hypothetical candidate’s smorgasboard of positions.

On Becoming Anathema
In his discussion with the Universalist minister, York pressed his sparring partner on the boundaries of membership in the Unitarian church. York said that if he committed adultery, he would no longer be a Mennonite – he would have excommunicated himself. He wanted to know if Unitarians had any equivalent acts. I was really surprised he thought the dividing line between people in a particular religious tradition and heathens was their acts. With my crypto-Catholic sensibilities, I don’t see how an action could strip you of your identity as a believer. Bad acts make you a bad whatever-you-are, but only divergent beliefs actually cut you off from the community, since they preclude seeking healing from that church.

What’s York’s deal, anyway?
He was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, but he makes several comments in the text that imply he’s now a practicing Mennonite. He mentions at one point the he does not believe in an immortal human soul, but notes he “can honestly say this and remain perfectly orthodox.” I don’t think everyone who writes about religion needs to fess about their personal beliefs, but, given that York has written an entire book examining the evidence for one particular facet of faith, it would be really interesting to know what propositions have cleared his threshold for belief. And after his (much appreciated) hatchet job on Unitarians, I was awfully curious to see what kind of a creed he subscribes to. If you’re going to go after other people’s beliefs, it’s nice to put your own cards on the table in an afterword or appendix, so we know where to aim when we hit back.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Jack C. Laughlin

    How are you getting review copies of, for instance, Nada and When God Talks Back, and how do I get on that list? Cause free sure beats using up my PDA for WGTB which I’m about to do.

  • Patrick

    “York points out that most religions would be quite upset by the compromise position the Unitarians have settled on. Jews don’t believe they are a chosen people and that they serve a jealous G-d who is also very pleased that some people have found peace in Shinto. Most Christians don’t think that no one comes to the Father except through Christ except maybe through neo-Norse paganism.”

    Perhaps most religions do not officially believe this. I think that many actual practitioners are fairly close to it, though. Maybe not most, but some. Engaging in a little double think is a good way to work around the edges of being a member of what is fundamentally a supremacist organization, while not actually being a monster.

    The answer that most evangelical liberal universalists would give you on this is that “no one goes to the father except through me” does NOT mean that only people who believe in Christ get into heaven. “No one gets into this club except through me,” spoken by a bouncer, does not state what criteria the bouncer uses to select who gets into the club.

    Now sure, other religious believers have their own opinions on the subject, and liberal evangelicals are hardly a majority voice. But there’s overlap between the compromise position of the unitarians and the actual beliefs of a lot of church goers.

    “These religions make conflicting claims, and you’re not doing them a favor by papering over their differences. Unitarians and others want to mix and match from religious traditions without admitting that this act is itself a radical rebuke of the foundational claims of these faiths.”

    But that’s just the thing. Religious claims don’t just conflict with other religions, they often conflict internally as well. And that’s what gives the unitarians room to construct what they’ve constructed without actually rebuking the foundational claims of these faiths- they may be rebuking some foundational claims, but they’re quite in line with others. And as long as their contradictions are significantly worse theologically than the internal contradictions in the religions they embrace, believers in those religions can find in unitarianism enough material that they agree with that they feel like they recognize it as their own faith, if they’re so inclined. On top of that, most religions include a sort of catch-all get-out-of-thinking-free card in which they claim that internal witness, or personally revealed truth, is as important or more important than scripture. So LOADS of maneuvers are available for the Catholic of the Protestant of the Jew who wants to become a unitarian. And most of those maneuvers were crafted long ago by members of their own faith, seeking to reconcile its internal contradictions.

    • Patrick

      Yeah, that should be “aren’t significantly worse,” not “are.” Sigh.

  • @b

    >>divergent beliefs actually cut you off from the community, since they preclude seeking healing from that church (Leah)

    And further to Patrick’s comment on Unitarianism…

    I think the Unitarian example most clearly illustrates: A church member isn’t required to absorb every belief taught from their pulpit. We’re all tending towards tallying up the hits and not fussing over any apparent misses. Are the congregation listening out for a “divergent belief” to reconcile?

    Or are communities somehow identifying divergent believers? Say, punishing those they’ve spotted reserving their “Amen” (I believe) for calls from the pulpit that coincide with a current personal belief?


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