, and does not have his own blog, I am offering today’s “guest post” which compiles some of his recent comments. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have, and that perhaps the ensuing discussions will, if not persuade Richard to have a blog of his own, or to begin writing in some other more widely published format, at least to offer a regular guest post on this and/or other blogs.
Now over to Richard. Keep in mind that what follows is a compilation of comments, and thus Richard is often responding to other commenters and is participating in a multi-person conversation. Anyone who has tried making sense of Paul’s letters will know, without the other side of the conversation, what was presumably originally clear and focused can seem less so. I hope this collection will encourage readers to investigate those conversations and appreciate Richard’s comments even more…
Hi, James. Im new here, though we crossed paths briefly a week or two ago on another blog. I was intrigued by what you wrote there and thought I’d check out your own blog out. Glad I did!
Full disclosure: stictly speaking, I’m an atheist, though “religious naturalist” is the term I currently prefer, meaning that although I dont believe in any God understood as anything other than a projection of human ideals, I nonetheless often find “God-talk” (some of it, anyway) meaningful and, for me, often salutary. IN other words, talking about God as Tillich or Buber might is, for me, an evocative way of talking about many things I consider important.
Anyway, I was interested in your post here because I have often had similar thoughts. Religion, I think, when it works, works by doing a lot of this: sensitizing us to what we have, to the good and beauty that is always there, somewhere — into what Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz calls the “piety of the ordinary.” We are creatures of habit and are easily acclimated to our environs. Religion — done right! — can function to combat this tendency. By calling our attention to what we have, and to what many in the world lack, we can hopefully step off the treadmill for a minute and smell some roses (to mix and then puree a few metaphors). This sort of awareness requires discipline, and deliberate decisions, and religion is a discourse that can encompass both of these things.
And what I like about this idea — this approach to thankfulness — is that it does not even require one to believe in God. I have only a cursory familiarity with Bonhoeffer, but I have come across this idea in another context. Everybody’s favorite legend from the Talmud runs something like this (this is the Cliff Notes version): several rabbis were debating about a point of law. Disputes were supposed to be settled by majority rule, but Rabbi Eliezer wasn’t backing down. In quick succession he called upon a carob tree, a river, and the walls of the building to declare him correct, and indeed the carob tree uprooted itself, the river reversed course, and the walls bent. But the other rabbis refused to yield. Finally in desparation R. Eliezer called down God himself to intervene — and God did. But the other rabbis simply retorted that by God’s own rules, the rabbis were given jurisdiction to decide, not God, and His testimony was summarily dismissed. So Eliezer lost.
Sometime later, another rabbi is in heaven and, wide-eyed, asks Elijah what God’s reaction had been. Elijah said, “He laughed with joy, saying ‘My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!'”
I love this story. It gives me chills every time I read it. And the message is clear, and exactly what we would expect, really, if we took the metaphor of God the Father seriously. What do we as human fathers wish for our children? Do we want them to do the right thing because they are told to, and have to be continually told to, all their lives? Or do we want them to think for themselves, internalize their ethics, and do the right thing because it is the right thing? Ethical maturity means, I do think, as you put it: live before God as though God were not there.
Theodicy is still a sticking point with me. But the pragmatic critique moves me past it. What difference does it make whether the gratitude and joie de vivre that I feel for my family and my life and all the good in the world, comes from an awareness of a transcendent being, or an awareness of the intrinsic preciousness of those things?
None. Don Cupitt wrote that life is a Gift without a Giver. Just so! Or maybe not. Who can tell? But the proper response is still the thank-you note of a life well-lived and a world made better.
. . .
I think Dr. McGrath offers a fine reason for why he is a Christian, much better than we usually hear. In fact, maybe the only honest one. Let me say where I’m coming from: I am an atheist, but one with sympathy for liberal religion. So I will offer here a limited defense of liberal religion’s right to be.
I think the problem with the view of many less-sympathetic atheists is that it suffers from a “positivist bias.” I.e., their criticism rests on the assumption that religion must be about metaphysical and historical propositions that are either literally true or false – or else nothing. Since the conclusion is that the claims are false, the religion is dismissed or declared vapid.
But I think that gives away much too much to the fundamentalists; it lets them define the rules of the game. For those are the same questions that they are interested in, they just reach different conclusions. Someone said to me once that they thought Bart Ehrman (whom I love) was a fundamentalist atheist. We’ve all heard this sort of thing before, and it’s a stupid criticism — *but* it does correctly suggest a similarity of focus. I.e., he is still addressing the historical claims of Christianity.
But my view is that liberal religionists are asking different questions. They are much less concerned with whether it is true or false and much more concerned with what it means, and how it gets you to live your life and be a better person. Liberal religion is not committed to the historicity of Jesus’ alleged resurrection. It’s the ideas embodied in that myth that matter. Liberal Jews could care less whether there was an actual Exodus. Its what the story has come to mean to them. I.e., its about freedom and self-determination and all that. What we need to do is ask the liberals themselves why they do not give up the label?
The reason is usually because they relate passionately to the symbol-system, ideals, images, rituals, etc that comprise their religion. It’s a mistake to consider ourselves, implicitly, as many secularists do and I myself tend to do, to be somehow abstract, disembodied rational agents. That’s a holdover from Enlightenment and its not really true. We are emotional human beings in a specific context and historical place, which has shaped us and the things we relate to. Yes, a lot of its arbitrary. But so what? Logically, rationally, I know that there is nothing about my family that is superior or better than any other. But do I really need a reason to prefer my family to others? Is it not enough to love it best just because its mine? Yes, its an accident of fate that I was born there and somewhere else. If I were in another family I would love it best. But that does not change the flesh-and-blood reality that *this*, and not somewhere else, is where I was born, and *these*, and not others, are the symbols that relate me to my ideals. Why do I need any better reason?
Because the truth-claims of Christianity are literally false, says the critic. But, again, so what? Liberal religion is not tied to prepositional claims. Its about what it means to you. So doesn’t that mean you could find equal guidance and inspiration in any number of religions? Well, theologically, yes, but again, at issue is what symbol-system moves you. I could experience the ideal of trying to improve myself ethically through the example of Christ (as depicted in the myths), if I am a Christian, or through Yom Kippur, if I am a Jew. Many have observed that liberal religions have more in common with each other than they do with the conservative members of their own faith. But that does not erase the meaning that my religion has for me, because of accidents of history.
For those interested in this idea I would recommend a book by Eugene Borowitz called Renewing the Covenant. Borowitz is the leading theologian for liberal/reform Judaism. He offers a good analysis of this sort of “embeddedment” and what it means for the symbol systems you relate to. He believes in a liberal God, but there is no reason someone who does not (such as a Reconstructionist Jew) could not also use the very same approach. His book constitutes what he calls a “postmodern” interpretation. Actually, there’s very little thats postmodern about it (thank god; I have little use for po-mo anything) other than the emphasis on the historically situated self. I.e., the enlightnment ideal of the “universal” rational agent is, really, a myth itself. We do not experience the “view from nowhere”. Our human/emotional/symbol-responding selves are inevitably situated in our context in the world, which are accidents of course – but, the message is, that’s okay.
I fear I am beginning to ramble, so let me end with an example. I assume many readers here celebrate Thanksgiving (at least the US readers). Well, imagine for the sake of argument that some intrepid young scholar were to prove, to everyone’s satisfaction, that the Mayflower never existed. There were no pilgrims, and hence no first thanksgiving. He came explain how the holiday emerged — say, gradually over the 19th century from harvest festivals — but all the actual legends are false.
My question is: would that change anything? Does our celebration of this holiday depend in any way on the history? Does it not depend, rather, on our own individual involvement with it, our experiences with it growing up, the memories, the food, etc, as well as the collective meaning it has for our culture?
Let me push this analogy a bit further: many families celebrate this holiday by talking about what they are thankful for. Analogous, perhaps, if you will, to a bit of “theology”, the meaning of the holiday, apart from the rituals. Some larger meaning that has to do with our-relationship-to-the-world-and-our-life. Of course, in part we read this meaning into the holiday, obviously. We generally feel that it is good to be appreciative for what you have. So we fit it into this holiday. My question is: does that invalidate its meaning? Does the fact that we could create such a holiday, with the same meaning, in any culture somehow suggest its disingenuous to celebrate it?
I think Dr McGrath has the best reason to be a Christian anyone can produce. Of course, its not a reason that has much persuasive power to someone not already inclined to respond to Christians symbols and ideals – but that’s not what its about, I suspect. I imagine he would feel little compulsion to try to convert a liberal Jew or Hindu or secularist.
. . .
Joseph Campbell said somewhere that fundamentalists say religious stories are the truth, atheists say they are a lie, and liberals say they are metaphor. I’m probably paraphrasing rather loosely, but you get the drift.
Woundedego, when you mentioned mining the Bible as one would Shakespeare, that is precisely what I had in mind. I think that is indeed how most liberals approach it. Imagine a family of people who really love Shakespeare whose family tradition is to gather round and read Hamlet on, whatever, Denmark’s independence day.
Seen in that light, griping because Hamlet isnt factually correct rather misses the point. Protesting that you cant cherry pick Hamlet to elevate some lines for their potential wisdom (“to thine own self be true”) is also misplaced criticism. Why couldn’t you so cherry-pick? Hamlet is not intended to be factually correct and inerrant, whole cloth. Its intended — well, to do a lot of things, but not impart history. Show us our nobility, show us our foibles, entertain us, make us think. And if Hamlet moves them more than, say, Hemmingway, then what’s the objection?
I am not saying that “ultimate truth” is not possible [though I should mention that the best philosophical thinking about science does not consider science to be “ultimate truth”, either — theories are understood to be tools, handles on the world. And I should also point out that it is unseemly to be so indiscriminate in your criticism of all religion, one the one hand, and then import their dualistic terminology.] Anyway, what I am saying (re: liberalism) is not that truth is possible, nor that truth is not possible. I am saying liberals are not talking about truth, they are talking about meaing and value.
The reason I defend liberal religionists here is that I think they are far and away more like us than not, and that positivist bias I mentioned above sometimes seems to make that hard to see. They share, I believe, the secular/humanist/atheist’s basic value orientation, which is essentially enlightnement values — i.e., the centrality and universality of reason, rejection of authority qua authority, individual autonomy, etc. And this makes all the difference.
At the risk of turning this discussion political (I find the theological much more interesting!), this is my main objection with the views if folks like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Much as I respect them otherwise, I think they err grievously when they lump liberal religionists with conservative ones. Atheists and secular humanists will find no better friends in the world than reform Jews, Unitarians, and the like — they will be the ones who join atheists to vote for atheist candidates, push to keep ID out of schools, promote critical thinking and science education, support liberal social causes, welcome Hindu prayers in congress, support physician-assisted suicide, support same-sex marriage, ban coercive prayer from public schools, and jump at the chance to send Pat Robertson a one-way ticket to Sheol.
If I were a liberal Christian, I would say something like this: “Maybe Jesus didn’t think he was the messiah, and maybe there is no God, and there are no miracles. So what? I still find the stories in the Bible salutary and inspiring and thought-provoking. I find the concept of imago Dei, ennobling, even (perhaps especially) if God is just the projection of human ideals. Adam and Eve are a wonderful myth about the way all humans are of a family. The stories, rituals, and community make my life richer and inspire me to make the world better.”
. . .
McGrath is certainly correct in noting that religion has always seen its terms and ideas evolve. Surely we, as atheists, aware of religious history, know this as well as anyone. Mordecai Kaplan, whom I mentioned in another post, was a Jewish theologian who developed a “theology” with no supernatural elements whatsoever. He gave explicit definitions of what he meant by things like God. But he also noted that religious ideas had always evolved, usually over many years and therefore unconsciously in the community. I.e., it is the most natural thing in the world. He called that process “transvaluation”. He proposed that for modern religionists, who find their religion valuable but cannot accept orthodoxy, this is no longer possible, mainly because they are aware of the process. So he suggested the term “revaluation” — the conscious altering of meanings and definitions to “reconstruct” the religion. This is what folks like McGrath are doing — doing consciously what has always happened unconsciously.
This is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. Some will see the better path to simply abandon institutional religion altogether. This is perfectly fine. It just doesn’t feel adequate for everyone. I think atheists, as believers in religious tolerance, have it incumbent upon them make their own internal peace with whatever negative assessment he or she might have of religion in general, and make common cause with liberals, because it is the fundies who are the real danger.
. . .
When I deconverted from fundyism to liberal Christianity, on my way to atheism, my family (who remains evangelical) denies that that is Christianity. This caused me no end of consternation, so I had to think it through. Here’s what I came up with.
Wittgenstein exhorted us to abandon the search for a essential meaning of the words we use, “out there” as it were, a la Platonism. His example: there is no single definition of the word “game” that encompasses all and only instantiations of what we consider to be games. No single set of criteria unites football, chess, tag, World of Warcraft, peek-a-boo, military wargames, and solitaire. His point: look to the use, not the meaning. Our language is not a mirror of nature, it is a tool for accessing nature. Games are not “carved-out” by nature, they are carved out by our use of the word “game.” In his terms, they share a family resemblance, not an inner essence.
The implications here for Christianity are obvious. Even more so since, as we atheists believe, there is no God for it to be in the mind of. Therefore, there is only this Christianity, and that Christianity, not “Christianity” in the abstract. There is no “Form of the Christian.”
To borrow from relativity: just as you don’t mean anything by terms like simultaneity unless you specify a reference frame, so too in religious identification you don’t mean anything unless you specify a reference group.
Who is a Christian? Doesn’t the answer have to depend on who you ask? Church of Christers don’t think Catholics are Christian. Catholics return the favor. Neither of them think John Spong would be a Christian. They all disagree about the definition. But how could we ever resolve this definitional dispute? I could give you my opinion, and rock-out argument… thereby join my voice to the dispute, not settle it. It is obvious that there is no higher authority to appeal to, no empirical test to run, to settle the question as to which definition is “correct.”
So, since you cant get to the “bottom”, because there is no bottom, you must specify a reference group when asking who is a Christian. There is no bigger or better or more solid answer than that. Is McGrath a Christian? According to who? To Baptists, probably not. To the early “Christians”, no, probably not. To his own congregation? Most surely.
It doesn’t get any better than that. So if you have a reference group that claims you, and you self-identify as a Christian, then you are a Christian.
At least, according to me.
. . .
…”Christian” is not a Form in the mind of God. It is not a “natural kind”, like the periodic table, wherein nature itself tells us where the joints are. Its a human designation and you thus will always have to specify a reference class. Deviation from majority use certainly makes this even more important, but it does not make it invalid.
. . .
I would please be careful with the analogy of schizophrenia, which is a distinct clinical condition which is the result of specific neurochemical abnormalities in the brain. Believers do not have these abnormalities. They may be wrong in what they believe, but they are not clinically psychotic. The difference between most religious believers and schizophrenics (as well as those with delusional disorder) is one of kind, not degree. Schizophrenics are not by any reasonable description playing “pretend”. It think its important to remain clear that we are talking epistemology here, not pathology, because that way madness lies (pun intended). (I don’t think you meant anything untoward, I am just aware of these things because I have a clinical background.)
You say McGrath “actually believes these experiences to be real”. Think about that! Are you trying to say they are actually unreal? That he thought he had an experience, but actually did not?
He did have an experience. His self-report establishes that. Neither you nor I nor anyone is in a position to tell him that he did not experience *something*. I think what you mean to say, and what I am taking pains to distinguish (because it is important), is that it there is a question as to whether there is anything “out there” that answers to that experience.
Granted! I wholly agree. It is a fair and necessary question. I think we quickly get into some deep epistemological waters by delving into the issue of whether he is “allowed” to accept this experience at face value — i.e. like it feels, which is that there is something out there — or whether he is epistemologically “required” to reject it (or whether he can suspend judgment on the issue). But we don’t really have to, necessarily, because I think that McGrath (at the risk of speaking for him — I invite him to correct me if I am wrong in this) would not claim *certainty* in his interpretation of his experience. Perhaps he does conclude a supreme being explains his experience, but he will not likely tell you he is sure about that, that that clinches the issue, and that you had better convert too, buddy. I think that that issue — certainty — is all the difference in the world between fundies and liberals and why they (liberals) are more like us than not – i.e., the tacit falliblism that opens up room for compromise, the finding of common ground, shared values, and at times even democracy itself. And why we ought to let up on them.
For my part I think liberal theology works even if you deny entirely that there is anything “out there” that answers to the experience. Religious naturalism, as it is called, works quite well in this framework. It involves, in a nutshell, an appreciation of the beauty and grandeur of life that finds its best expression – for such an individual — in the symbol-system of religion. Mordecai Kaplan, a Jewish theologian in the 1930’s worked out such a system that went on to become Reconstructionist Judaism. Don Cupitt in the Christian tradition did the same for Christianity (though he later evolved his thought in other directions).
I disagree with you that liberals “actually think the pretend games are real” (BTW, I think Campbell probably meant lie in the sense of false, not deception). I think they know they are probably false. I think they simply do not care whether they are true or false. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter, for their purposes.
The central issue that I think you’re missing is that in most liberal religions, at least in my own humble experience, there is so little emphasis and concern placed on (what you mean by) the question of “whether the pretend games are real” that it almost drops out. For some, like John Spong, it has totally dropped out. But again – let’s clear up the language. The pretend game itself is quite real. The experience it is designed to reflect, is real. The thing that it reflects, is also real – something outside the self that occasions the experience. Is that thing supernatural? I think the liberal does not care.
And finally, as to why call it religion when religious thinking can lead to violence – well, again, it just isn’t obvious to me why the game ought to be conceded to the fundamentalists. I think that’s like saying that since much harm can come from the use of government we should quit using it and turn it over to the dictators, who get to tell us what it means. No, we should fight to make it better, to rid it of the destructive elements. Maybe that’s a pipe dream – but no less so than the eradication of religion altogether.
. . .
Whoever claims to be able to perform the calculus that weighs the good with the bad from religion had better have some pretty knowck-down arguments to back it up. Dont get me wrong — the natural history of religion is long and brutal and obscene. I don’t mean to downplay that or minimize that in the slightest. My family is Jewish, and nothing sensitizes you to the question of religious barbarism than looking at the history of Jewish persecution under Christian rule. The Inquisition killed 100,000 Jews, forcibly converted 100,000 more, and drove the rest out. I look at my son and daughter and want to burn the world.
But I still think the dividing line is between those who are sure they are right, and those who admit fallibility. Awareness of fallibility breeds humility, a willingness to compromise and work together. I think the better route is to work to eliminate the psychological events that occasion fundmantalism, and thereby clean up religion from within. Then, if people wish to leave it, they will, and those who remain will be on our side.
For my part, I think religion is like fire, technology, sex, government — everything depends on how it is used.
. . .
“…science, in and of itself, doesn’t make value judgments. It can’t. Christianity not only makes value judgments, it’s designed to.”
Ah, but whose Christianity? …The gist is that there is no Christianity in the abstract, only Christianity as defined and practiced by individual groups. I suspect McGraths Christianity would make alot of value judgments many of us would agree with. Altering the content of a religion when it makes value judgments we cannot accept is exactly what McGrath and other liberals try to do.
Moreover misinterpreting a value judgment, and invention one where one does not exist, is a difference that makes no difference. You still have people acting bad under the perceived influence of the system. People have done awful things, not just using science, but in the name of science — eugenics, Tuskegee. They thought science backed their value-decision. We may say they are mistaken, that that is not actually science, but that makes no difference to the lives of those affected.
I am not at all a social constuctivist, but there is some truth to the idea that our “reality” is our experience, and it may or may not line up with the way the world really is. Epictetus said: “men are not moved my things but by the opinions they take of them.”
Religion is the like this, in this respect. I agree it considers values as a part of its range of discourse, but again we are creating the value system in first place.
My own feeling is we need to be blaming ourselves for the bad things that happen in the world. I will concede that the interaction between humans and religion is dynamic, and each shapes the other, and bad religion can have powerfully and undeniably bad effects. But why is it obvious that we must blame religion, qua religion, whole cloth, rather than bad religion? If we correct and educate those who think science justifies bad behavior, and correct relgion when it seems to license bad behavior, is the result not the same?
If religion is, as we agree, wholly human invention, who is ultimately to blame for what it looks like?
. . .
…that is an question for the individual. Whether a person relates meaningfully to, say, the Muslim symbols and ideals is for him or her to decide, and there is no right or wrong to it. Those symbols and images can be put to right or wrong uses, of course, but we are presuming (for this discussion) the liberal view, which makes misuse not the issue. So, if I feel that a given story is relevant to my life, wherever it is found, then I think that settles the matter. How can I be wrong about whether i find something relevant?
Let me put it this way. Liberals commonly take the Bible to be poetry. So, imagine a poem. Your argument, then , is that this poem is “irrelevant” to moderns. Don’t you think thats a rather hard argument to make? Whether a poem is relevant or not, to me, is my decision. That’s my whole point.