Editor’s Note: Here is the promised review of the book mentioned in the previous post. Written by Dennett-LaScola Pilot Study participant, then known only as “Wes the Methodist”, it demonstrates another way that the thinking of a clergy person who does not hold supernatural beliefs can evolve. Thanks to Alexis Record for writing another thoughtful book review and for agreeing to keep “Wes’s” real identity a secret until the review was published. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Alexis Record
What did I just read?
It was difficult to wrap my mind around John Tucker’s Zero Theology: Escaping Belief through Catch-22s, and my review will likely do it every injustice. It attempted to pull this reluctant reader out of a belief/non-belief paradigm. (Where I live, mister!)
Usually when a book has the word theology in the title and quotes heavily from Christian Scripture, I have no problem predicting its conclusions. However, instead of offering up a platter of traditional claims to be accepted or rejected by a passive audience, Zero Theology changes the game entirely by transcending this belief model and replacing it with what Tucker labels “the liberated religious life”.
It’s like when my son invited me to play chess after being introduced to it by a friend. The pieces were so familiar to me that I intuitively knew each one’s unique moves. I quickly got handed a queen and a pawn and told, “You are the mommy and the doggie.” The squares on the board became meaningless, and my knowledge, unnecessary. The kicker? It turned out the queen piece was the doggie. I threw up my hands in defeat. I was now simply along for the ride.
I started getting something out of my experience with Zero Theology when I ceased to try and be convinced by it and simply strove to accept the thoughts and lives of the people it described.
Zero Theology comes down to our relationship with absolute grief.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
There’s something powerful, almost empyreal about living in the shadow of such heavy knowledge. It involves rising above a myopic focus on quotidian concerns and embracing the existential struggle on a grand scale. Tucker would call circumstantial grief “suffering within life” and absolute grief “suffering about life.”
The goal of Zero Theology is to remove those beliefs that keep us from embracing this absolute grief.
“The zero in Zero Theology refers to the number of comforting beliefs required for liberated religious living.” Page 15
What horrible doctrines would disappear from the religious landscape if death and suffering were not so vehemently explained away or covered beneath the theological rug? These belief barriers, or “mattresses” as the author calls them like those between the princess and the pea, include faith in a divine being called God, belief that life has meaning or an “after,” and hope that evidence will confirm one’s faith. The liberated religious elevate their thinking above these things and choose the religious life anyway.
“Theology would be better conceptualized as a kind of poetry that responds to the conditions of the world.” Page 83
Enter my near-constant internal dialog of, “Wait, then what exactly does a liberated religious person believe about… oh shoot I’m doing it again.”
Tucker utilizes Catch-22s to help break his audience out of their default belief/non-belief settings. Examples include:
“The religious need is only met when you no longer need it.”
“The only God that satisfies is the God that does not satisfy.”
My brain performed here like a blunt instrument. I will always prefer neat logical boxes over wrestling a wild koan. Each Catch-22’s introduction felt like a repetitive Markov chain of deepities. I keep reading to understand, yet often the more I read, the less I understood. Sometimes I could only achieve an understanding when I gave up trying to reason it out. (There’s a term for what I’m describing. I know it.)
I had so many questions of the text.
- What is meant by “religious?”
- Is the transcendent religious life necessarily Christian?
- Despite the author’s background as a pastor, wouldn’t his ideas fit much better in eastern religion and philosophy?
- What does life as a liberated religious person look and feel like in real world examples?
- If this religious life is defined by “absolute courage, wonder, gratitude, and love,” how are those things not attained by the Muslim, Zen Buddaist, Christian, or secular life?
I suppose I’m not accustomed to merely learning how something works, I want to know how it’s the better option. Yet Tucker stubbornly refused the role of salesperson over educator.
Believers and unbelievers alike will find Zero Theology a hard concept, yet both groups can find some appeal. To confront the reality of absolute grief in the face of an absent and silent God is the atheist reality, but also the reality of Jesus on the cross. Some of these ideas I wish believers would embrace, especially leaving room for dissatisfaction, doubt, and uncertainty. For unbelievers, expect a considerate and accurate description of the atheist position not often offered by those who consider themselves religious. We may disagree with Zero Theology’s conclusions, but for once we’re not a threat.
The liberated religious life struck me as thoughtful and relaxed–not pushy but also not easily upset or unsettled by the twists and turns of life. It consumes less time being bogged down with worry or disappointment, scientific discoveries or biblical contradictions, because these things are all expected and embraced.
“The first step in a religious journey is to not take the first step.”
This is the first Catch-22. But for the religiously curious, maybe Zero Theology can be a second step.
Bio: Alexis Recordis a feminist, humanist, ex-Christian atheist, and mother to children with disabilities. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to Christian study and service due to indoctrination, and is working to repair the years the locusts have eaten.
>>>Photo Credits: https://pull01-wipf.netdna-ssl.com/media/catalog/product/hres.9781532675188.jpg; “Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg#/media/