Church shopping and the Church Alumni Society

Marcus Borg responded in this way to the recent Pew Forum survey that revealed that a significant percentage of Americans have switched their religious affiliation from the one they were brought up in:

I think this is healthy. It suggests that many people have moved beyond their socialization within a particular form of Christianity to a thoughtful (and sometimes agonizing) re-assessment of what it means to be Christian.

And I suspect that most of these have moved from a more conventional and conservative form of Christianity to a more progressive form. This is encouraging.

I appreciate his optimism, but I wonder how much of this church shopping really does have to do with people finding their way to progressive faith. Certainly, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among people who were brought up within certain forms of Christian orthodoxy and who then realized that they could no longer accept the dogmas they were once taught. But how many of those people have switched from a given affiliation to a more progressive one, and how many have dropped out of Christian churches altogether? In other words, how many people are successfully finding progressive Christian denominations they can call home, and how many have instead simply given up and instead joined the ranks of the Church Alumni Society?

My recent series of blog entries concerning Bart Ehrman illustrates this point. Many people who realize that the old orthodoxy is not tenable (like Ehrman) do not find their way to progressive Christianity. Instead, they just give up.

It is not the resurrection stories that make Easter

I found this quote from James M. Robinson's book, The Gospel of Jesus:

It is not the resurrection stories that make Easter, but the other way around. It was his disciples experiencing Jesus still making his point, as a gospel still real even after his death, that created the Easter stories. So that is the only valid form of Christian faith today. Easter faith is taking Jesus at his word, that God is a heavenly Father who really cares, who reigns for us and through us in our daily lives. Easter was not just the launching of another religion of a dying and rising God, of which the ancient world had already too many. It was the disciples' renewed experience of Jesus saying again that God continues to be there for us, and for others through us, in spite of the horror of "Good" Friday. That is indeed good news, the gospel of Jesus risen from the dead. (p.207)
I like this passage because I think it gets to the heart of the meaning of progressive Christianity. The first sentence summarizes an essential point: Easter is not about the mythological Easter narratives that appeared in Matthew, Luke, and John; rather, the mythological narratives are about Easter. Think about this for a second. What he is saying--and I agree--is that the literal truth of the narratives of Jesus walking around after he died is irrelevant to the Christian faith. It isn't those narratives that matter, but what those narratives point to.

And what those narratives point to is this--that the core of theological message, which Jesus did not only teach but lived out as radically and fully as possible--rang true for those early disciples and actually continued on, despite Jesus having died. And the message that rang true was, as the above quote indicates, "that God is a heavenly Father who really cares, who reigns for us and through us in our daily lives." Particularly, "through us in our daily lives" means that seeking the Kingdom of God isn't about obtaining some reward in the afterlife, but this Kingdom is in fact here with us now, whenever choose to live out God's will among us. God isn't a remote supernatural being outside the everyday world we experience, but acts through us in our own actions.

After Jesus died, his followers came to the conclusion that Jesus's life and message about the Kingdom of God were still valid, even if Jesus himself had been executed for having proclaimed it. They continued to experience Jesus calling them forth even though he was physically gone from their lives. This was the Easter experience--this was the "resurrection". Only later did the stories of an empty tomb and of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus, and so forth, emerge to give a narrative framework to this Easter experience. But it was Easter that came first, before those stories emerged.

This is very much the inverse of what that bastion of orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed proclaimed. This creed focused almost exclusively on the supposedly miraculous events that bookended his life on earth while ignoring the message and lifestyle that he proclaimed in between those bookends of birth and crucifixion. Thus Christianity became distorted by this creed, which presumed that Jesus's ministry on earth was merely a prelude that pointed to his resurrection. Instead, let us consider that Jesus's resurrection pointed back to his life. His message lives on, even if Jesus is dead.

Coercion versus Persuasion

Interest in process theology spans across many denominations. For example, I found an article titled "Process Theology and Me" in an Adventist magazine. The author, David Larson, provides ten reasons why process theology interests him. Many of them are quite good, but in particular he then goes on in the article to focus on reason 8: "It claims that persuading others requires more true power than coercing them."

This relates to the quote from Majorie Suchocki that I cited in my previous posting, where she writes, "To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes."

David Larson goes on to write,

I believe it does take much more true power to convince individuals who possess genuine freedom to do something than to force them to comply. Some people say that the God of process thought is “weak.” I disagree. But this debate is less about how much power God has and more about what kind of power we value most.

Whitehead wrote about “the deeper idolatry.” This occurs when we make God seem more like one of the tyrannical and capricious Caesars of ancient Rome than Jesus of Nazareth.

This analogy with ancient tyrannies is quite pertinent, I believe. I can't help but wonder if this model of Divine power through coercion that embodies the traditional concept of omnipotence comes from a direct analogy with the tyrannical, authoritarian regimes that were the prevailing political model of the ancient world. When the only model in human experience that you have for power is that of the king, emperor, or other ruler who acts by dint of coercion, then it is natural to think that the greatest force in the universe would act analogously.

I think it is easy to become theologically addicted to the notion of Divine omnipotence, to want to believe in a God who acts by exercising raw, coercive force. Yet persuasion strikes me as a higher, more sublime form of power than raw force. Maybe this need for coercive power comes from a desire for quick, magic solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Wouldn't be nice if problems could just be wished away?

The current issue of Creative Transformation contains an article by Bruce Epperly titled "Praying for a Miracle? A Father Faces His Son's Cancer". The author writes of the prayers that he and his family expressed in the face of his son's health crisis. He notes:
While in the week following Matt's hospitalization and diagnosis, I longed for a supernatural intervention to deliver my son from cancer, I knew deep down that hope for a supernatural interruption of the steady laws of nature, even those that governed the growth of cancer cells and the response to medical treatment, was not an option for me either spiritually or theologically. I knew that God would not single out my beloved child for a supernatural intervention, while neglecting the beloved children of Darfur parents, the parents of other children diagnosed with cancer, other persons at Georgetown University Hospital being treated for cancer, and adult children whose parents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I also knew that if God could supernaturally save my son from the immanent threat of cancer, God must also, in some way, have been the source of the germ cell cancer we were now trying to eradicate.
This insightful statement summarizes why I don't believe that God "intercedes" on behalf of those who say intercessory prayers. That isn't to say that prayers are not useful. Epperly himself believes in the value of prayer, writing:
In this long journey to daylight, we will continue to pray for a "miracle," but the miracle we seek comes from opening to God's energy of love in the midst of the valley of cancer and chemotherapy. The miracle of God's healing touch does not deliver us from the path ahead; but gives us the energy, inspiration, courage, and wisdom to be God's healing partners as we walk through the valley.

Some might suggest that my inability to expect, or even pray for, a supernatural intervention on our son's behalf is a reflection of my own lack of faith. But, I believe that prayer and trust without guarantees is, in contrast, a profound testimony to faith in a God who does not play favorites or undermine cosmic regularity in order to answer our prayers, but who seeks the well-being of all creation, including our son, and the children of countless other loving and worried parents. A God who cannot supernaturally intervene to cure cancer can still bring healing, comfort, and companionship in and through chemotherapy, prayers, touch, tears, love, and hugs. Perhaps that is miracle enough! The miracle of God's healing presence, nurturing us and luring us toward wholeness, regardless of what the future will bring for our child and our family.
I believe that once we shed the hope for supernatural intervention, once we have released ourselves from the bondage of attachment to the power of a hoped-for rescuing coercive force, we can then face life's troubles with a profound sense of appreciation for the power of God's nurturing love.

Freedom and Persuasive Love

Majorie Suchocki's essay, "What is Process Theology", available on the Process and Faith web site, includes this commentary on God's persuasive role and the freedom that exists in the universe:

In the relational categories of process thought, God creates with the world. We actually think this is a much stronger way to express God’s power. A children’s fable once told about a rivalry between the wind and the sun. Which one would be able to remove the coat of that man down there on the road? The wind thought that it could, and so it blew and blew and blew with great force. Unfortunately, the strength of the wind was such that the man just drew his coat more firmly around himself. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun just beamed its rays down upon the man until finally he grew quite warm—and removed his coat. In process terms, the wind worked coercively, trying to force its will upon the man, but the sun worked persuasively, luring the man’s cooperative action. To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes.

God creates through persuasive power. Don’t we experience it that way? We don’t see God yanking things and people around as if they were puppets! The tradition accounts for this by saying that God gave people freedom. Process people think that freedom isn’t an occasional thing limited to just some aspects of creation, but that something like freedom pervades all existence. Every part of God’s creation has some element of freedom. What we call “freedom” ranges from very low levels of indeterminately random events to very high levels of conscious decision-making. And there are many grades in between. God works with each element in existence, in every time and place, offering possibilities for achieving the good. Finally, the world determines what it does with God’s possibilities in every moment. Freedom means the ability to participate at some level in what one becomes.

If we take freedom seriously, then we must talk about three powers of creation. There is the power of the past, which simply means that where we are and when we are makes a difference to who we can become. We must take account of these past influences, because we simply do not exist in a vacuum. We exist relationally. In a sense, we take the creative influences of the past into ourselves in every moment.

But we also take the creative power of God into ourselves at every moment. In this second creative power, God offers us a future, a way of becoming oneself that is not quite like any other way ever achieved before. God’s creativity is the power of transformation, of hope, of a new future. God’s influence toward the future takes account of the past that affects us, offering a way of dealing with that past.

And the third creative power, of course, is ourselves. Finally, we decide what we will become. We are responsible for dealing with the actual past received from the world and the possible future received from God. The world as we know it is, in every moment, the end result of this creative process: the power of the past, which is the power of the world; the power of the future, which is the power of God, and the power of the present, which is our own power to integrate these influences into who we are becoming in every moment. Our freedom is to take these three creative powers and to use them. The choice of how we use them is ours.

So yes, God is by all means Creator, calling the world into existence in every moment. But God creates with the world, not independently of the world. The world enters into something like a creative dance with God, emerging anew in every moment as it takes its past and God’s future into its becoming self.

The power of persuasive love

In the Irreverent Epiphanies blog, which is authored by two San Francisco Bay Area Episcopal priests, comes another reaction to Bart Ehrman's interview with Terry Gross. In response to Ehrman's conclusions, the writer asks the question, "Is God all powerful, or all good? Because logically God couldn't be both." Here is the answer that the writer gives:

I simply don't believe God is all powerful in the traditional sense. I don't believe God controls things like natural disasters or individual fates. Nor do I believe that God allows evil, in the letting-Satan-test-Job sense. I believe about God's power what is described in the New Zealand Prayer book's translation of the Lord's Prayer: God is the one that reigns in the power that is love.

That is the kind of power God has. God's power is the power to invite each one of us, in each moment, into personal transformation and into actions that transform the world into God's kingdom. In this view, prayer is the cultivation of a mindfulness that allows us to see that invitation and to take it-- to be transformed and transforming-- Christ's hands in the world-- the human-power behind God's power of love. I suppose that means in the kingdom of God, there will still be tsunamis, but not lynchings. Shit still happens, but how we react is different. I have evolved this way of thinking by reading process theologian like Marjorie Suchocki.

More on Bart Ehrman and theodicy

Since the theological problem of suffering became the subject of some discussion in my previous posting, I wanted to recap the problem as I see it.

I agree with Bart Ehrman that the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God is not compatible with the existence of suffering that we see in the universe. I don't believe that the "free will" defense in this context is credible, for a host of reasons. I can therefore see three solutions to this conundrum, any one of which would solve the problem. They are:

1) God is not benevolent, or
2) God is not omnipotent, or
3) God does not exist.

I would note that option 2, the notion that God is not omnipotent, is not restricted to process theology, although that is one form of panentheism that certainly takes this view (the process theologian Charles Hartshorne once wrote a book titled Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes). Some modern day figures in progressive Christianity who are not process theologians also reject the notion of divine omnipotence. Marcus Borg, for example, who is a panentheist, rejects what he calls "supernatural theism". John Shelby Spong critiques what he calls simply "theism" in favor of some sort of Tillich-inspired theology. And among non-Christians, the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner has written several books about God that reject the notion of omnipotence. (Many Jews have had a hard time reconciling divine omnipotence with the reality of the Holocaust.) The point is that while I cite process theology as an example of a response to Ehrman, it is hardly the only conceivable way that you can present God as not being omnipotent.

Among those three solutions listed above, the last alternative--that God does not exist--is therefore not the only possible solution to the problem of suffering. Believers in God don't have to resort to what some might consider rather desperate or lame excuses for why an omnipotent and benevolent God allows suffering. You can solve the problem and rescue religious faith by rejecting the view that God is omnipotent. It would not have been necessary for Ehrman to stop believing in God in order for him to reconcile himself to the problem of suffering.

To me, there are compelling arguments against the doctrine of omnipotence, not the least of which is the problem of suffering. I also think that we live in a post-Enlightenment world of physical laws, and the notion of divine intervention from the outside is not consistent with a post-Enlightment world view. Thus I consider non-omnipotence to be almost a kind of starting point for my theology. It both solves the problem of suffering and removes the philosophically untenable "God of the Gaps" who intervenes from the outside only in those circumstances we haven't yet figured out natural explanations for.

Indeed, I lean towards the position that God is not omnipotent but nevertheless benevolent. Now it is true that by accepting as a given that God must be benevolent, I am probably making a leap of faith. In theory, one could consider the existence of a God who exists but is not benevolent. But for me, that cannot serve as the basis for positive religious faith. I do believe that good exists in the world, and if there a supreme and ultimate reality, I think that this good springs forth from it. I could imagine a anthropomorphic demiurge who was not benevolent--but not an infinite presence who invoked life and who stands behind Being itself. This supreme and ultimate reality is what I call God. To me, to borrow a concept from the Ontological argument, God is that than which nothing is greater (or can be conceived to be greater); and I believe that which is greater than anything else must necessarily be defined in terms of love. This may just be my own bias in this matter. So be it. I think that love is greater than evil. Ultimately, as I have argued before, I think that "God" is a meta-narrative that people use to make sense of the universe, and for me, this is the working framework for existence that makes the most sense.

Bart Ehrman

As I listened to Terry Gross's interview with Bart Ehrman today, I was struck with how disappointing, yet not unexpected, his outlook on Christianity was. Ehrman is an ex-evangelical Christian, and yet again, like so many others who left conservative Christianity, he shows himself to have changed teams without having essentially altered his earlier, narrower understanding of what Christianity is or what God is or can be. Ehrman states that his reason for becoming an agnostic was the problem of theodicy--which is understandable, since the question of suffering is indeed a serious problem with the supernaturally theistic God of conservative Christian theology. Yet it was clear throughout the interview that Ehrman could not wrap his mind around any way of approaching the issue from a faithful perspective other than via the evangelical mindset he came from. Since he rejected the evangelical mindset he came from, he thus rejected religious faith altogether.

At some point late in the interview, Terry Gross finally asked the question that I was waiting for--namely, had he considered either another religion, or, more to the point as far as I was concerned, another concept of God who was not theistically interventionist. He rather casually dismissed the idea of any concept of God other than the omnipotent one that he more or less took for granted, suggesting that anything other than that sort of God would be so incomprehensible as to be meaningless--something that I for one, not to mention many panentheists, process theologians, and others, would seriously dispute. For all practical purposes, throughout the interview, he assumed a certain definition of God; while grudgingly acknowledging that God might not conform to that definition, he apparently had not bothered to explore any such theology. Yet, one solution to the conundrum of suffering that he had agonized over would certainly have been solved simply by altering his conception of Divinity--I would suggest, in particular, by rejecting Divine omnipotence.

I found this same sort of mindset in play as he discussed the Bible's various takes on the problem of theodicy during the history of its composition. He correctly notes that the Bible approached the problem from several angles, and yet he never really seemed to appreciate this historical evolution of ideas as an insightful process--of people trying to make sense of the world and of God; instead, he simply dismissed all of it as simple proof that the Bible is "wrong" and not to be trusted as an infallible guide--thus belying the evangelical background that he came from. Like many people from that background, he still seems to take an either-or approach towards the Bible--either it is an infallible guide, or it is useless (except for Ecclesiastes, which he does like). I could not help but contrast Ehrman's attitude towards the varying ways that the Bible addresses these questions of theodicy to the approach that Marcus Borg uses. Both scholars would agree that the Bible took varying and often contradictory approaches to the problem of theodicy; but whereas Ehrman saw it all as a failed effort, Borg found insight in the struggle and the process that was illuminated by the evolving ideas found in the Bible.

According to the book excerpt from Ehrman's latest book that is printed on the NPR web site, he writes that

about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don't "know" if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.
Here he commits the evangelical fallacy of assuming that Judeo-Christian tradition has ever just proclaimed a single theology about God's nature. In fact, the concept of God in the Bible was a work in progress, and remains so. The Bible showed an evolution from that of Yahweh as a tribal deity to God as a universal Deity of all humankind. There is no reason why we cannot continue that process today, standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us. That is how we can have feminist theology, liberation theology, process theology, and creation spirituality, to name just a few components of the broader stream of Christian faith.

A living faith tradition is not a single, dogmatic party line; it is instead a constellation of intertwined and evolving beliefs. This is not something that conservative Christians really understand, and, unfortunately, neither do many former conservative Christians.

When ignorance is a virtue

John Shuck quotes a letter to the editor of a newspaper from a creationist pastor, which includes the following sentence:

"I would rather be scientific ignorant (sic) and have my children as such than to be a conformer to the worldly view of evolution."

The natural world and God's benevolence

Here is a quote from James McGrath's blog:

If one had to believe that God directly created parasites to feast on other organisms and devour them alive, it would lead to a far more problematic view of God than evolution does. One simply cannot avoid rethinking one's views about God in light of scientific knowledge, but without evolution, the things we know about biological organisms might necessitate the abandonment of any notion of a benevolent deity.
I think this is an interesting point. It seems to me that the simplest way to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of, for example, parasites that feast on other organisms--not to mention all the other messy aspects of the natural world, like death and tornadoes and kidney stones--is to accept that the natural order in all its details was not the outcome of a predetermined divine blueprint that God conceived and implemented from top to bottom.

In order to reconcile the imperfections of our natural world with a perfect God, I could imagine a few possible explanations, many of which I don't consider tenable. I am sure there are others, but here are some possible proposals that come to mind:
* An omnipotent God really did create this world as it is in full detail, down to the lowest parasite, but despite the seemingly imperfect nature of things this is actually the best of all possible worlds (a la Leibnitz), and is the result of a perfect Divine plan that we just cannot understand. Every complex system has unintended consequences if you tweak just one little thing; take away one bad thing, and you instead get something else that is worse. So God made all sorts of compromises, and this is the best he could come up with. (Somehow, the idea that this is the "best God could come up with" doesn't really sound like a ringing endorsement of God's abilities, but maybe that's just me.)
* An omnipotent God created a slightly different sort of world that really was perfect, but then human sin altered the creation somehow and made it "depraved". Presumably the "depraved" world we know is not too radically different from the perfect world that God created; so, for example, in a perfect world, creatures that resemble us humans would walk on a world that would resemble our earth, perhaps even bound to that earth (so they walked instead of flew off into space) by physical laws that would resemble our gravity. But these humans in this perfect world wouldn't die or feel pain. And if the lamb would lie down with the lion, that means that creatures resembling our current lions and lambs would exist in this perfect world, with the difference being that the former would not eat the latter. It is as if God created a perfect oil painting, but then someone spilled a few drops of turpentine on it before the paint fully dried. (This point of view seems derived from a time when the Genesis story of Adam's Fall was taken to be literal history, but even today some Christians, even some who believe in evolution, take this position. It seems to me more feasible to take this view if you are a hardcore creationist. Otherwise, how or why the first human sinners managed to retroactively change the very physical laws of the universe, which were formed billions of years at the time of the Big Bang, long before any sinners were even born, isn't exactly explained.)
* An omnipotent God created the universe, using evolution as the mechanism through which we got the world we have today, and the world today thus reflects God's exact plan. God planned out the details, but the execution was slow and deliberate rather than immediate. This is essentially just a refinement of the first explanation above, except that it tries to reconcile this with the fact that we know that the universe evolved into its present state after billions of years since the Big Bang. (As to why God chose such a tedious, not to mention messy, process, complete with evolutionary dead ends, suffering, parasites, and all the rest-- since this God is omnipotent and could just wish the world into existence--isn't clear. )
Last, but not least, here is the position that I favor:
* A non-omnipotent God evoked the universe into being. Evolution is the natural result of the creative processes of cosmic development in place since the time of the Big Bang. God did not plan out the exact and full course of evolutionary development from the beginning. Instead, at each moment in time God offered the best creative outcome for that moment, which may or may not have actually taken place in response to God's lure. Because God could not control the outcome of each individual event, God then had to take stock of the new situation after each moment and respond accordingly with new divine lures to try to take the universe forward a little further. God is thus not directly responsible for the existence of, to name an example, parasites. When God created the universe, God did recognize the full possibility that the natural order would eventually lead to things like parasites, but God was willing to take that chance 14 billions years ago because he/she believed that the benefits of a universe that could eventually produce conscious creatures outweighed the potential problems. Because God is not omnipotent, every last detail of the natural order is not the direct product of a divine blueprint. Instead, God lure the universe forward despite its own imperfections, working in response to the state of the universe at each moment.
Ultimately, I think that if one is going to believe in God, the last of those possibilities makes the most sense. As James McGrath points out, evolution provides us with the way out of the theodicy conundrum--but I would argue that this is true only if we don't try to produce some sort of hybrid theology that hopes to merge a supernatural theism with an evolutionary understanding of the universe.

Evolution and Theodicy

I recently cited the case of a conservative Baptist pastor who offered an objection to evolution first and foremost because he feared that belief in it would cause his own theological edifice to come crashing down.

Someone like that seems like an easy target for criticism, since this attitude clearly comes across as a prescription for ignorance--it represents a simple "don't confuse me with the facts" sort of attitude. Still, in one sense, this pastor had a point. Evolution does have theological implications if you allow yourself to think them through; and maybe the old way of viewing things does need to be changed. But rather than run away from these implications, as he would have Christians do, I think it is better to face them square on. But do most Christians really do that?

Amy Frykholm has written an article in Christian Century that addresses this very subject. She points out that

knowledge of evolutionary history raises questions of theodicy in an especially disconcerting way. Evolution reveals a vast history of unfathomable waste, loss, extinction, suffering and death in the natural world. What has God been up to all these millennia? And what is God up to now? If we believe that God oversees creation, then God's way of doing it through evolution seems strange and even appalling.

Over the 4.5 billion years of our planet's existence, 98 percent of species have become extinct. Extinction is written into the pattern of life. What does it mean, then, to talk about a God who cares for "each sparrow that falls"? How can we think of God's care for the world in light of the millions of years of suffering and death that have been a feature of evolution in the natural world?
I think that a lot of more theologically orthodox or conservative Christians who nevertheless accept the fact of evolution have danced around these sorts of questions. But Ms. Frykholm is absolutely correct that 14 billion years of cosmic and biological evolution has been slow, messy, painful, and fraught with dead ends. How do you reconcile this with an omnipotent God?

The points that she raises, however, become conundrums only if you accept that very premise of divine omnipotence. Take omnipotence out of the equation, and these problems evaporate. The question that remains, though, is what kind of positive theology can one formulate in its stead? Interestingly enough, in her article, she never mentions process theology by name, although she does at one point cite the theologian Philip Clayton, who talks about God's actions as a "divine lure", which sounds an awful lot like process theology to me:
Nature can be "biologically constrained without being biologically determined," he says. He calls the divine-creature interaction "the divine lure." As evolution occurs, more complex structures emerge. And the more complex forms that emerge are not reducible to a mere compilation of the kinds that come before them. In the space between what is and what is becoming, God might be said to act.

Theologies that emphasize God as deeply involved in natural, open-ended processes seem better able to make sense of evolution than do the classical accounts of an omnipotent God. On the other hand, if Jenson is right, perhaps what is needed is a richer notion of the God in whom these processes occur.
Traditional theistic conceptions of God had him/her acting on the universe omnipotently from the outside. Process theology, and other theologies like it, consider God from a panentheistic perspective--which is to say that God acts through the universe, which is in turn contained within God. Ms. Frykholm cites a Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, who suggests this very thing.

In this kind of theology, we have a God who patiently acts to evoke the universe forward, present in every moment as a creative presence. Creation is a continual series of acts, an improvisatory process in which God plays a persuasive but not controlling role. In such a universe, the free will that is built into that process necessarily takes place over a slow, difficult trajectory. The suggestion here is that God considered it preferable to undergo the painstaking creative process of evoking the universe into its present state, despite all the biological extinctions and suffering and death, than for there to have been no life-sustaining universe at all.

Leaving behind conservative Christianity

Each of us who was brought up in conservative Christianity but who no longer accepts its premises has a different story to tell. For some of us, the experience has left scars; yet for others, it has been possible to make a smoother transition to progressive religious belief.

Two recent examples in the blogsophere explore this question. Matthew of Liberal Jesus explains why he is taking a break from church, and UU minister Ms. Kitty explores the question of why people reject conservative religious paths.

Two kinds of human needs

As far as I can tell, Reverend Ricky doesn't seem to archive his sermons on his web site, so I can only link to his newest sermon, which in this case pertains to Evolution Weekend. Because I can only link to his latest sermon, that means that this link will presumably point to a completely different sermon in the near future. In any case, in his most recent sermon, he addresses, among other things, the respective roles of science and religion.

He argues that science and religion were invented to satisfy two human needs, respectively: the human need for understanding, and the human need for meaning:

As we move through the world we’re constantly looking to satisfy both of those needs. We want to understand what and how, but we also want to know why and what for?

Science only gives us half of the picture. And people who give too much honor to science sometimes end up concluding the universe is meaningless and purposeless and random and uncaring, because that’s the way science portrays it. It’s easy to forget that science describes the universe the way it does because that’s the only vocabulary science has. Science has nothing to say about meaning and purpose, but it’s silence should not be read as denial. It’s not just no comment, it’s that science can’t even hear the question. The randomness of evolution doesn’t mean that the universe is random, only that if there is a purpose behind evolution it’s beyond the scope of science ever to reveal. Science itself doesn’t say that meaning and values and goals and caring are an illusion, only that science doesn’t have a way of investigating those.

Religion is a help with those topics, and thank God, because we need those things in our lives. But religion, too is only half the picture. The tools by which mystics intuit the nature of ultimate reality are not very efficient as tools for understanding mundane reality. And the general, abstract, metaphorical, symbolic language that religions use in order to describe divine purpose and aims, should never be confused with a literal description of the way things are and came to be. When God created human beings and called us good, that says a lot of important religious truths about the importance of using our lives in a human divine partnership moving our world toward holy goals. It shouldn’t be read as a God in the shape of a human being make a little model of itself out of clay and being pleased with the result.

Spong on the Bible

Blogger Steve Conger quotes from Bishop Spong's weekly Q&A email:

The Bible is a developing narrative, portraying the developing God-consciousness in human life. It moves beyond the tribal deity of some of its earlier parts to a universalism that defines God as both Love and Justice, and even calls us to love our enemies. The essential truths of the Bible, useful on all of our spiritual journeys, is that in creation God proclaims that all life is holy, in the Jesus story, the Bible asserts that all life is loved and that through the Holy Spirit, who is said to be "the Lord and giver of life," the Bible issues a call to each of us to be all that we can be.
I like the idea of viewing the Bible as a "developing narrative".

An additional point, as I see it, is that the narrative is still developing, even today.

When you make enemies out of your allies

With Evolution Weekend coming up soon, it is interesting to note that not all proponents of evolution support this effort. A year ago, PZ Myers, a Minnesota biologist, wrote in his blog a critique of Evolution Sunday (which was its name prior to this year). He dismissed the effort by claiming that

a few people whose training and day-to-day practice are antithetical to science will attempt to legitimize their invalid beliefs and expand their pretense to intellectual authority by co-opting a few slogans.
Instead of allying himself strategically with others who, like himself, might wish to promote scientific evolution against the tide of creationist ignorance, Myers decided to treat anyone who doesn't think like he does on the subject of religion as an enemy to be scorned, even when there is a common cause at stake.

Clearly, the idea of people of faith promoting science doesn't jibe with his stereotypical conception of what it means to be religious, as expressed by his assertion that theological "training and day-to-day practice are antithetical to science"--something that is simply not true. One wonders if he learned everything that he thinks he knows about religion by listening to Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. In any case, it is not hard to see how, when reality doesn't conform with dogma, the natural reaction to the resulting cognitive dissonance is just to circle the wagons and attack that which contradicts one's preconceived stereotypes. And to admit that it might actually be a good thing for people of faith to promote evolution would call into question a certain world view; it is easier just to strike out and attack one's erstwhile allies on an important issue.

This only goes to prove, once again, that militant atheists and religious fundamentalists have a great deal in common, both in their stereotypical conception of what religion is about and in their dogmatic resistance to anything that contradicts their dogmas.

Thanking God for Evolution

I got about halfway through Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution! before giving up. I certainly appreciate what he is trying to do, and I liked what he had to say early in the book about the ways that science can inform our religious paradigms and about the development of emergent properties. But what interests me about the intersection of evolution and religion is the the inference that I draw from it of an unfolding universe of creativity. Dowd, however, took what was for me an unexpected turn when he began to focus on the evolution of the human brain and the development of human behavior. I felt that at this point he was getting into speculative neuropsychology and trying to connect that with both human behavior and with theology, and that was where he lost me. I just couldn't stay interested enough to finish the book.

When beliefs are driven by fear

In response to Pastor John Shuck's public announcement of his church's participation in Evolution Weekend, he received a condemnatory email from a creationist pastor of a nearby Baptist church.

Particularly revealing was this paragraph in the missive that John received:

If Genesis is not true and accurate as to its account of special creation, then the gospel is entirely irrelevant; for death did not, as the Bible says, enter as the result of human sin (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12). In that case death was entirely natural and normal, something from which no person needs saving. The Bible declares death to be an intruder and the immediate result of sin; it entered human experience through Adam's one act of disobedience and was defeated by Christ's obedience (Romans 5:18). Theistic evolution is an apostate compromise; it utterly denies the Bible's teaching about both man, sin, and salvation from sin and death.
In a nutshell, the creationist pastor managed to summarize the fear that drives creationist thinking. His argument ran along these lines: If evolution is true, then my carefully constructed theological edifice will come crashing down. Therefore, I choose to ignore any facts or scientific findings that contradict my theology.

It is obvious that fear of what will happen to one's belief system is frequently what drives the anti-scientific impulse of creationism (and Genesis literalism). The creationist pastor in this instance came right out and admitted that this was his justification. It had nothing to do with the scientific evidence, and everything to do with self-protection and fear--the fear of what might happen to his theology.

Fear is a powerful motivator sometimes. It is fear that often makes people cling to beliefs that otherwise lack all credibility.

God and Creativity

I recently ran across a posting in an evangelical Christian blog that described process theology as believing that "God is neither omnipotent nor directly active in his creation. " This statement is only half right; while it is true that process theology rejects omnipotence, it certainly conceives of God as having a critically active role in creation. Many who do not understand process theology seem to confuse it with Deism, perhaps incorrectly equating a lack of omnipotence with being passive or indifferent. However, according to process theology, it is God who offers creative novelty to the evolving universe; without God, the universe would never have arrived at its present state.

An illustration of the importance of creativity to the God of process theology was brought to mind by Benjamin Myers' blog review of Neil MacDonald's book Metaphysics and the God of Israel. I have not read MacDonald's book and am otherwise unfamiliar with his theology, but as I understand it based on the review, his conception of God is one who made himself present in the universe but who otherwise made no difference in the creation or evolution of the world. According to this strange theology, God "determined himself" to be the world's creator without having actually created it. He just sort of went along with the ride and named himself creator anyway. The result is, according to MacDonald's theology, that

If God had not determined himself to be this world’s creator, the world would nevertheless be exactly the same, except that it would not be identified as God’s creature.
This is starkly different from the God of process theology, in which God plays a crucial creative role in the evolution of the universe. According to process theology, without God, the universe would definitely not be the same as it actually turned out to be.

What MacDonald's theology may possibly share with process theology (and other forms of panentheism) is the value of God's presence in the universe. I don't know if MacDonald believes in God playing a sympathetic role as one who fully shares in our experiences; certainly, this is very important to process thought--the notion that God fully understands our pains and joys. It seems like, in MacDonald's theology, having taken away the creative role, there would otherwise not be a lot that God has left to offer us.

Ultimately, I think that a theology in which creativity plays an important role, both in the divine and in the world's relationship to the divine, is more interesting than a theology in which God takes credit for creating a world that he actually didn't create.

What is Progressive Christianity?

Jim Burklo has blogged about the fact that there seem to be two different definitions of "Progressive Christianity" in circulation--one political and the other theological:

In the last few years, the term “progressive Christian” has begun to be used by evangelical Christians who are disaffected from right-wing politics. Their definition of “progressive Christian” is mostly a political one; they tend to have orthodox, traditional views about religion while standing for economic justice and peace.

By contrast, The Center for Progressive Christianity does not define progressive Christianity in political terms. It’s 8 Point Welcome Statement embraces people of all sorts of persuasions. Our movement is committed to inclusiveness at many levels. We care a lot about justice, peace, and environmental responsibility, but we recognize that there are many different ways to approach these goals. While we encourage political activism, we care even more about values that are more enduring than current political passions.

He then goes on to say that "it is more important than ever for us to be clear about what we mean when we say we are progressive Christians"--and I agree wholeheartedly. While I do consider myself politically progressive, I found to my disappointment (and disillusionment) that many churches that describe themselves as "progressive" are focused on the political progressivism while remaining theologically orthodox. This is not my definition of "Progressive Christianity".

Burklo offers his own list of short phrases to try to capture the essence of what theologically progressive Christianity means. I think they are, for the most part, good ones. The list is:

* keeps the faith and drops the dogma
* experiences God more than I believe in any definition of God
* thinks that my faith is about deeds, not creeds
* takes the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally
* thinks spiritual questions are more important than religious answers
* cares more about what happens in the war-room and the board-room than about what happens in the bedroom
* thinks that other religions can be as good for others as my religion is good for me
* goes to a church that doesn’t require you to park your brain outside before you come inside
* thinks that God is bigger than anybody’s idea about God
* thinks that God evolves

To me, these represent more interesting starting points for a progressive faith than any traditional creeds. For some of us, straining hard to make metaphorical sense out of ancient creeds is just too much work; but, on the other hand, I for one can much more easily work with the 8 points of the Center for Progressive Christianity, or those bullet points listed above.

A First Cause

In a letter to today's New York Times book review section, mathematician John Allen Paulos defends himself against the charge that his latest book attacks religion despite being "innocent of theology". His defense, interestingly enough, is not to deny that he doesn't know much about theology; on the contrary, he admits his own ignorance, but then claims that you don't need to know much about theology in order to be able to make sweeping statements about religion.

To justify this point, he goes on to say,

But how much theology is required to observe, for example, that assertions of God's existence suggest the obvious question, Who made God? If he's simply there and needs no explanation, then why not just say that about the world itself rather than multiply mysteries?
I used to say the same thing back when I was about 20 or so.

But then, what I later came to realize is that a unitary, all-encompassing, boundless, infinite God is not of the same order of reality as a bounded, limited, contingent universe. God is, if he/she exists, by definition that which nothing is greater than, and than which nothing greater can even be conceived; therefore it makes perfect sense, as part of the very definition of "God", that God is uncreated, because there could not be anything greater than God that would create him/her. I have no trouble, on the other hand, conceiving of the possibility of something that is greater than the world. The world doesn't seem so infinite or perfect. I can imagine something greater than the world. The question of who created God, the Ultimate Reality and the Ground of Being, doesn't even make sense, given the definition we are working with; but the question of why there is something rather than nothing at all, on the other hand, is a difficult one, at least for me, to make sense of, unless I accept that there is ultimately some uncreated and infinite reality that lies behind the something that we observe. This is one reason why I came to believe in God, and this is one reason why I eventually rejected the argument that Paulos expressed in the above quote, and which I had embraced when I was twenty.

One key point about my own take on the Cosmological Argument is that, as an adherent of process theology, I do not see God as an omnipotent being who simply forced the world into existence via a single, all-powerful creative act. But the important point is not whether we are talking about a traditionally theistic God versus a panentheistic God; instead, what I think matters is that, from my point of view, there is an infinite, uncreated Reality, which serves as the wellspring from which the world evolved. The "how" of that dependence depends on one's specific theology.

None of this, of course, serves as a proof that God exists. Maybe the world does just exist for no reason whatsoever. Maybe we just are--period. But this gets back to my earlier point about science being about "what" and religion being about "why". One possible answer to the question of why there is something instead of nothing is simply to say that there is no reason--the world exists just because. That would be the atheistic response. Religion, on the other hand, is for me a way of saying that there really is a reason why we exist. And for me, that reason, is God.