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.