A Letter to Religion’s Cultured Admirers

A Letter to Religion’s Cultured Admirers May 30, 2013

When I left college I was at a religious crossroads. I had grown up as a moderate Episcopalian. That was now comfort food that I didn’t want to eat every Sunday. My college had been extremely liberal, and the religion there had been wispy and uninteresting. I was in the Bible Belt, and the evangelicals around me had too many pat answers and not enough intellectual underpinnings.

I found my middle way in John Shelby Spong’s autobiography Here I Stand. Spong insisted that I could keep my modern principles and still be a Christian. Spong’s higher criticism and philosophy gave his progressive Christianity more heft than the new-agey mix I had found in college, and it was wedded to the political liberalism that was a non-negotiable part of my worldview. I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on.

Years later I was listening to Spong being interviewed on a public radio call-in show. After 30 minutes of him explaining his latest book they took a call from a woman in tears. She was a traditional Christian and she was horrified at what this man – a priest! – was saying. Spong was rejecting the divinity of Christ and she demanded how he justified that against a passage in John.

Spong waved her away. “I don’t want to argue with people who believe the world is flat.”

I understood his meaning, and I also recognized that this radio show was not the proper format for a debate. But I still felt that he had blown an opportunity to reach out to a more conservative audience and explain the principles of liberal Christianity.

Having read more of Spong, plus people like Don Cupitt and Karen Armstrong, I wonder now if he didn’t feel that the “theological realism” expressed by the caller was on the way out. Why bicker over something that is headed for the dustbin of history? I don’t agree with that view, and even if I did it was still a wasted opportunity and a tactless response.

I bring all this up to explain my reaction to posts like Tenzan Eaghll’s A Brief Letter to Richard Dawkins Regarding “Religion”. This is the epitome of what we call the Courtier’s reply. Whether that makes it invalid or not is up to the reader. But one section got under my skin:

Now, just to be clear, let me state that I, and most of the thinkers in my field, are in agreement with the general aim of The Richard Dawkins Foundation. We too want to challenge the false claims of fundamentalists and are opposed to unscientific narratives such as creationism, the belief in the soul, and any sort of cultural relativism that pretends scripture and science are equivalent.

Wonderful. And what are you doing about it?

Understand, from our perspective fundamentalism is causing real harm. It’s not just a case of the information haves vs. the information have nots. Fundamentalism underwrites some of the most abusive structures in our society: patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and so on. Take a spin on such sites as Love, Joy, Feminism or No Longer Quivering to get a taste of what fundamentalism does with patriachal gender roles, and realize that this is just the start.

When I look for people who are putting real social and political pressure on fundamentalists, I see two groups. The first is the ex-fundamentalists who are mostly still conservative-to-moderate Christians. That’s people like Wartburg Watch and Jeri Massi. The others are atheists like Dawkins, Harris, et. al.

There seems to be a role for liberal Christianity and the students of religious philosophy. Somewhere between the sweeping denunciations of the atheists and the narrow focus of the ex-fundies. There are plenty of individual progressives evangelicals who are doing great work, like Matthew Paul Turneron the pop culture side, James McGrath on the academic side and Fred Clark on the political side. But they don’t seem to add up to much of a social force. They lack the inside angle of the ex-fundies or the volume and conviction of the atheists.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m stuck with the impression that Spong left with me. But my impression is still that most progressive Christians and religious academics can’t be bothered to confront fundamentalists, and would much rather kibitz the atheists with whom they seem to have more in common. Eaghil “can not simply standby and watch [Dawkins] propagate an unnecessary binary between religion and science,” but he can apparently sit by while fundamentalists and conservatives wreck science.

I’d really like to be proven wrong. I’d love to see Karen Armstrong walk into a megachurch and explain to the congregation what they’re doing wrong. I’d love to see the religious studies professors hold shows on Christian radio, write books for the average pewsitter and generally try to talk fundamentalists down from their authoritarian ledge. I’d love to see more outreach from the cultured admirers of religion.

But I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime. I suspect that I will continue to see more religious intellectuals expend their energies telling atheists what they’re doing wrong, while fundies never encounter a proponent of the more honest and humane approach to religion.

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