Sanguin and Vosper

Thanks to a link in in the "Pluralist Speaks" blog, I discovered an article in the Vancouver Sun by Douglas Todd that describes the differences in thinking between two Canadian progressive Christian pastors: Bruce Sanguin and Gretta Vosper.

I enjoyed Sanguin's book "Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos", which merged science and faith into a progressive ecological spirituality that celebrated the divine process of creativity. As for Vosper, I commented on her form of Christianity in two earlier blog postings (here and here). It seemed to me that essentially she was trying to create a kind of God-less Christianity. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." But I felt that it really wasn't necessary to go there. It seemed that she had jumped to a lot of conclusions about what one necessarily means when one uses the word "God", and then she offered a limited conception of what a progressive faith can offer in response.

Douglas Todd agrees that Vosper seems to be uninterested in the work of a lot of alternative or progressive theologians when she makes certain assumptions about the concept of "God" (and he mentions by name several process theologians among those she ignores):

Given all the expansive, multidisciplinary thinking going in progressive Christian circles these days, it's hard to understand why Vosper ignores so much of it.

Vosper doesn't cite any of the cosmology advanced by scientist-theologians, many of whom are Christians, such as Michael Heller, Charles Birch or Ian Barbour. Nor does she engage so-called "open" theologians, such as Canada's Clark Pinnock.

It's also odd she doesn't deal with progressive theologians who base their "constructive post-modern" thought on the work of Harvard philosophers WIlliam James and Alfred North Whitehead. They include feminists such as Catherine Keller and Marjorie Suchoki, as well as evolutionary thinkers such as John Cobb and Jay McDaniels.

Maybe Vosper is just not that interested in metaphysics, or philosophy or constructing an intellectually viable concept of God.

Sanguin apparently has a new book out, which sounds quite interesting. According to the Vancouver Sun article,

Sanguin is among the many progressive Christians who agree with Vosper's critique of authoritarian, dogmatic Christianity, which they argue holds up God as a kind of benign monarch.

But Sanguin worries that the manner in which Vosper sidelines God and demythologizes Jesus Christ reflects a "dismal conversation" of "desperation" he's long heard among some liberal Christians.

As Sanguin puts it, Vosper is suggesting the "only way forward is for congregations to jettison religious language about God and Christ altogether and teach the universal values of love and compassion."

Sanguin, instead, pursues intellectually defensible ways to redeem God and Jesus from the conservative Protestants and Catholics who tend to dominate the news. He does so with creative panache.

How exactly Sanguin wants to redeem "God and Jesus" isn't clear to me without having read his book. I am wary both of too much de-mythologizing and too little. It's a common dilemma that I have faced as I tried to visit several "progressive Christian" congregations that seemed to have done little de-mythologizing and thus ended up being too orthodox for my tastes. It is clear to me, on the other hand, that while Vosper has some legitimate criticisms to offer about traditional theism, I think she comes down on the side of de-mythologizing farther than I am interested in. If I wanted to take God out of the equation (or use the word "God" as a mere symbol of goodness), I can do that without keeping the trappings of religion. Even if I reject certain kinds of traditional theism, I am not against the concept of God per se, nor do I think that the Christian tradition is unilaterally bad; what I embrace is a concept of God that is rationally viable. It is not necessary to throw out the Christian baby with the Christian bathwater.

As Douglas Todd says,

More than a few liberal Christians are suggesting that Vosper makes some valid points and may be justified in self-identifying as a Christian. The Christian tent, they say, is supposed to be wide.

So I don't suspect many liberal Christians would want to place Vosper on trial for heresy. After all, how do you convict someone of having a limited metaphysical imagination?

The religion of "Me"

During a recent episode of the NPR programe "This American Life", the author Shalom Auslander tells the story of how he lost his faith in God. The story is presented in all seriousness, and there is no suggestion that Auslander is pulling anyone's leg; and yet it comes across as so absurd that I have to wonder what to make of it.

According to the story that Auslander tells, he once wanted to see a New York Rangers playoff game, but it took place on a Saturday. As an observant Jew, he could not drive to the game on the Sabbath, so he walked (along with his wife) from New Jersey to New York City, getting blisters along the way. Unfortunately, after all that personal suffering that he underwent as a loyal fan, the Rangers managed to lose the game anyway. Apparently he felt that this defeat was some sort of punishment or betrayal by God, which led him to lose his faith. After all, he did the things that God expected him to do before the game, and yet his favorite sports team still didn't win.

Wow. Did he think that the whole universe revolved around him? That his own religious observances were so crucial to the fabric of the natural world that sports teams would win or lose based on how observant he was? Did he think that professional sports results were dictated by the religious observances of fans? Did he think that hockey results were high on God's priority list of omnipotent intervention when we live in a world of unsolved problems involving war, disease, and hunger that are just begging for a powerful Deity to fix? And what if the Rangers' opponents also had religiously observant Jews on their side? Did Auslander's piety count for more than the piety of a fan of the opposing team? Suppose someone walked even farther than he did and got even more blisters than he got?

Auslander seemed obsessed by the idea of God as a stern, difficult figure who had to be placated by self-denial and punishment. To him, a relationship with God was a selfish bargain--if he would just follow God's rules to the letter to the point of suffering on God's behalf, then God would rearrange all the superficial, trivial things in the world that would make him happy. When God didn't provide the results he demanded, he just took his ball (or, in this case, puck) and went home. This is the stunted, self-centered religion of a five-year-old.

I suppose one could argue that this isn't much different from the prosperity Gospel that is preached in Christian churches. This is a religion of "me", the idea that God rearranges events in the universe to suit certain people if they just follow certain rules. This is something that the author of Ecclesiastes rejected a few millenia ago. But there are people who still cling to this kind of theology even today.

Ehrman and Wright

Beliefnet has been featuring an ongoing blog debate between Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright about theodicy. I always find debates like these a little frustrating, because they create the illusion that an important question like this one can be boiled down to just two positions, when perhaps there are three or four or a dozen takes on the problem. This is certainly how I feel in this case, since I place myself in neither the Wright camp nor the Ehrman camp.

To a certain extent, I am more sympathetic with Ehrman's point of view than I am with Wright's, because I think that Ehrman raises valid points about theodicy that beg for answers. Even if I don't agree with the answers that Ehrman came up with, I think his questions are still important. So I was curious how Wright would respond to these points. Based on this online debate, the answer appears to be that he responds to them by evading them altogether.

Ehrman starts off the discussion by explaining how the problem of suffering led him to ask the question, "Where is God?" Wright responds by almost completely ignoring the whole problem of theodicy, and instead attacking Ehrman's rhetorical style as well as his scholarship. In particular, he accuses Ehrman of engaging in "emotional" arguments by detailing the horrors of evil that exist on the planet--as if that had anything to do with the substance of the problem that Ehrman identifies.

As for Ehrman's scholarship, that discussion might have been interesting if it had addressed the fundamental question that this debate was ostensibly about: how a benign, omnipotent God could allow suffering. No such luck. The closest Wright comes to offering a theodicy is to toss out some vague gobbledygook about how God's call of Abraham represented "the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery." This long-range plan, according to Wright, came to its culmination with the resurrection of Jesus. I have no idea how this is supposed to explain away the problem of evil. Are we just going to tell the victims of the the horrors of the world over the past several millenia that they should have just been patient in the midst of their sufferings because God had a "long-range plan" for the world, which of course would not include them because they'd be long dead by the time God got around to fixing things? Barman was correct in his subsequent response to Wright when he wrote

The issue of human suffering is not a logical problem to be solved or some kind of mathematical equation. It is a human problem that requires empathy, sympathy, emotional involvement, and action.
By contrast, Wright's "long-range plan" first and foremost ignores the plight of the here and now, ignores the suffering that individuals experience while they experience it, instead offering the platitude of some sort of "long-range plan" for the world as a whole. Individual suffering becomes secondary to the goals of achieving some kind of future world order. But making individual human experiences subservient to a Divine narrative involving the entire planet is not a theology of compassion. Here is where Wright's theodicy seems to be badly off track.

In his response, Ehrman points out another problem with Wright's "long-range plan" argument: it is predicated on a simplistic interpretation of the Bible. Wright treats the Bible
as if it were one continuous narrative written by a single author with one overarching theme (with Abraham as the lynchpin). It is not that, any more than the New Testament, or even the NT Gospel literature, represents one point of view of one author.
Regarding the Bible, Wright did offer one valid critique of Ehrman when he wrote, "I did have the sense, frequently, that the form of Christian belief you were rejecting was a particular kind of north American Protestantism which I don’t believe itself did justice to the material." I definitely agree that Ehrman has mistaken the theology of his own evangelical background with Christianity per se, and, as Wright points out, this comes into play in Ehrman's acceptance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I think that ultimately this also comes into play in his conception of God, which is what led him to reject religion altogether as the only possible solution to the problem of theodicy.

Later in this debate, Wright then continued to evade the fundamental problem at hand, which became increasingly frustrating, although perhaps not surprising. Wright's argument was essentially that Jesus revealed to us what it means for God to rule the world, and that God ruling the world has nothing to do with ending human suffering through Divine intervention. Wright's answer to the problem of evil is, essentially to say that Jesus was all about challenging our expectations, and that includes our expectations of the logical and moral implications of God's ostensible characteristics of omnipotence and benevolence. In other words, according to Wright, Jesus told us that God doesn't work the way we expect him to, so we should just shut up and stop complaining. He writes:
What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.
This non-answer is a basic retreat from trying to explain anything away. It just says that this is how God runs the world, and we know this is so because Jesus said so, so get used to it and shut up already. Which, I suppose, is not much different from the non-answer that God gave Job out of the whirlwind. But just as God's answer to Job was unsatisfying, so is Wright's answer to Ehrman.

This is too bad, because Wright tantalizingly hinted at a better approach, when he wrote:
Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process.
Now we are getting somewhere, at least potentially. And yet, although Wright stands on the brink of offering an insightful analysis, he never really makes the leap. The question of what Divine power means indeed, as far as I am concerned, gets to the heart of the question. If we define God in such a way as to suggest that God does not intervene omnipotently in the world to prevent suffering because God is not a supernaturally interventionist being--then the problem would have been solved in one fell swoop. But while Wright hints at that, I don't think he is really going there. He seems instead to be saying that it suits God's purposes to solve the world's problem's through a voluntary decision to do nothing in the face of ongoing evil; instead, he has put into place a long range plan that we cannot fathom but which is revealed via an ongoing narrative in the Bible, starting with Abraham and ending with Jesus--and this plan involves the Divine prerogative not to exercise his power in this way. If this is indeed Wright's argument, then that would suggest that God has the power to eliminate suffering immediately but he has decided not to use it, because Divine wisdom decided it was better to have a "long-range plan".

This is essentially an argument by authority--in this case, the authority of Jesus (as Wright interprets Jesus's message to be.) Since Jesus said that this is how God acts, then Ehrman has no right to complain. But, in fact, even if Jesus's life and message included this sort of theodicy, that hardly serves as a convincing argument to an agnostic like Ehrman of whether this is really a just use of Divine power. Wright offers no explanation of how this decision to not use Divine power to intervene (in accordance with a "long-range plan") is justifiable morally or logically. He lets himself off the hook by saying that he is just echoing what Jesus showed about God's own decision not to intervene in this way.

It is not a solution to the problem of evil; it instead says that you should just ignore the problem altogether and assume that God knows that what he is doing.

Again, I think that all of this would much more easily be solved by simply affirming that God's nature is not that of a supernatural interventionist who has the power to act upon the world from the outside if he/she so decides to, but rather as a creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion rather than coercion. Take away the idea of God as omnipotent supernatural interventionist, and the problem of theodicy goes away.

Martyrdom, resistance, and faith

Blogger Simon Barrow recently wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, who was murdered 63 years ago by the Nazis. He refers to an article on Bonhoeffer that discusses the question of how one distinguishes between the spiritual and the political, a question which came into play as people evaluated Bonhoeffer's own martydom:

Strangely, even some of his fellow Lutherans did not realize at first how consistently Bonhoeffer lived out his creed. Immediately after World War II, pastors in Bielefeld opposed plans to have a street named after him. Bavaria’s Lutheran bishop Hans Meiser, himself a prominent anti-Nazi cleric, protested vigorously against a proposal to install a plaque commemorating Bonhoeffer as a “witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren” at Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was put to death only days before it was liberated by U.S. forces.

In Meiser’s opinion, Bonhoeffer’s resistance was “political, not religious.” In a sense he was right. The Church of England showed more generosity. It adorned the western entrance to Westminster Abbey in London with a Bonhoeffer statue thus giving him the status of a 20th-century martyr. But then Anglicans do not draw as sharp a line as Lutherans between the secular and spiritual realities of life.
When it comes to the opposing Nazism, someone will have to remind me what the difference is between the political and the religious. I just don't see it. Ultimately, I think it is difficult in general to draw the line between the secular and spiritual realities of life, but when it comes to something as plainly evil as Nazism, this particularly becomes apparent. I would submit that it is an empty spirituality that does not concern itself with institutional evil and social injustice. If a religious faith does not lead one to engage in the political activity necessary to oppose Nazism, then there is something seriously wrong with that faith.

I need only point out that Jesus himself was murdered by the political authorities of a powerful and brutally violent Empire.

Prince of Peace, indeed

AP reports:

Dozens of Greek and Armenian priests and worshipers exchanged blows at one of Christianity's holiest shrines on Orthodox Palm Sunday and used palm fronds to pummel police who tried to break up the brawl.

The fight came amid growing rivalry over religious rights at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site in Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus was buried and resurrected.

It erupted when Armenian clergy kicked out a Greek priest from their midst, pushed him to the ground and kicked him, according to witnesses.

When police intervened, some worshipers hit them with the palm fronds they were holding for the religious holiday.

Ah yes. What better way to honor the Prince of Peace then by pummeling your fellow worshipers?

The apostolic witnesses

It is interesting to note that the noun "witness" is singular in the term "apostolic witness". This lack of a plural assumes that there was just one witness, that the apostles presented a unified front, that they expressed a monolithic theology from the very onset of Christianity that served as the wellspring of modern Christianity. In fact, this is not the case. On the contrary, we know that there were at least two apostolic theologies in existence during the very first few decades after Jesus died. We know this because we have a polemic by one apostle against another one.

Consider what Paul writes against Peter in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Council, in Galatians 2. Paul accuses Peter of being "self-condemned", and of being guilty of "hypocrisy", because of Peter's views on a vitally important question of Christian belief and practice of the day, which differed sharply from Paul's own views.

Unfortunately, we only get one side of this dispute. Peter was presumably an illiterate Galilean peasant at a time in history when the overwhelming majority of people were illiterate. So Peter left no writings behind, thus leaving us without his own version of events. It would have been interesting to know what kinds of invective he might have delivered against Paul. Alas, Peter's side of the story is lost to us forever. Then again, perhaps he didn't have Paul's rhetorical skills anyway. What we are left with in a he-said, he-said dispute is only the word of someone who never knew Jesus when he was alive, while the apostle who did know him gets no chance to present his case. The author of Luke-Acts, meanwhile, which was written a few decades after Paul's account in Galatians, completely whitewashes this dispute after the Jerusalem Council altogether; in Acts 15, which discusses events from the same period of time, no mention is made of this quarrel in Antioch between Paul and Peter, which is probably because it would not have suited his purposes to mention such things. Luke was, of course, a secondary source for these events; the one primary source that we have comes from one of the parties in the dispute, namely Paul.

Peter's version of Christianity seems closer to that of the Ebionites, who were of course later declared to be heretics. (Bart Ehrman's book Lost Christianities discusses the Ebionites in some detail, for those who are interested.) In any case, the dispute between Antioch and Jerusalem was resolved in favor of Antioch when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The winners get to write history, while the losers are consigned to heresy.

The idea of a single, monolithic "witness" from the apostles is a useful myth that serves the interests of orthodoxy. But it is a lie. The apostles who knew Jesus wrote nothing down. The only "witness" we have about Jesus is from people who never knew him--Paul, who got to put his own spin on things, and the gospel writers, who wrote anywhere from 40-70 years after Jesus died, and who increasingly had certain agendas at stake in what they wrote.

A religion's source tradition is a matrix from which multiple, often competing, movements and sub-traditions can and do emerge. The need for each of these sub-traditions to claim that it, and it alone, is the sole inheritor of the original tradition, is very strong. We see this not just in sub-traditions, but in sub-sub-traditions. Modern Quakers, for example, all descend from the original Christian movement founded by George Fox. They have argued with one another frequently through the years over who is the "real" Quaker. It would be hard to recognize that the conservative programmed Quaker church and the liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting all come from the same religious tradition. And yet they do. And at the same time each accuses the other of violating the original principles of Quakerism. If you consider how it is possible that these diverse, contradictory theologies and worship styles can simultaneously claim to be the legitimate heirs of early Quakerism while at the same time they also can accuse the others of violating that very legacy, you will come a long way towards understanding how diversity and dogma come into play in religious movements.

After the founder of a major movement dies, his or her legacy is always fraught with ambiguity and unresolved issues that can serve as the germ of distinct, competing movements that all claim to be heirs of the same original source tradition, and yet which move in diverse and even contradictory ways. Competition among brother sects or movements within a faith tradition often produces an intense rivalry that is far stronger than what happens between traditions. The most heated arguments often happen with those with whom you share some kinship. In the wake of this competition, the need to claim legitimacy for one's own movement at the expense of others is most intense.

Those later Christians who enshrined the Trinity in the Nicene Creed claimed that they were the sole legitimate inheritors of the so-called "apostolic witness", while those "heretics" were not. Yet those selfsame Trinitarians could legitimately be accused by the "heretics" of redefining God into something completely unrecognizable by the faithful apostles or by Jesus himself. So who is the real inheritor of this supposed witness? Had events gone just slightly differently in the fourth century AD, it would now be the ones we call "orthodox" who would be painted as "heretics" by the non-Trinitarian Christians.

It is time, once and for all, to put to rest this idea of an "apostolic witness" from which orthodoxy springs. Christian orthodoxy has no more claim to legitimacy than any of the "heresies" that it violently suppressed. Just because you have the power to suppress dissenting opinions, that does not make you right. Christianity is a source tradition from which movements have always sprung, over the last 2000 years, despite continued efforts by orthodoxy to crush them. Such is the power of this source tradition that it cannot be bottled up so easily.

Doubt, but don't doubt too much

During Gene Robinson's interview with Terry Gross yesterday, he said the following about the debate within the Anglican Communion over his status as an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church:

In the end, I don't want anyone to leave, and I don't believe we need to break communion over this. You know, we're not arguing about the divinity of Christ, we're not arguing about the Trinity, or the resurrection--those essential things that draw us together. We are arguing about something that is inessential, and that is the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.
While I appreciate the point he is making, it also confirms my general disappointment with a lot of what constitutes "progressive" or "liberal" Christian thinking. By insisting that the Trinity or the Divinity of Christ are "essential things" in Christianity in general or the Anglican Communion specifically, he highlighted an irreconcilable gulf that remains between myself and mainline Christianity.

I hear a lot about this phenomenon called "progressive Christianity", but where is it? I see lots of web sites and blogs and churches proclaiming their progressive credentials. Churches sponsor talks by progressive Christian theologians like Marcus Borg. They sponsor book discussions about Borg's writings. They sponsor seminars like "Living the Questions". But ultimately, I'm not sure what it all means.

For the second Sunday of Easter this year (March 30), the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was the story of "doubting Thomas" from the Gospel of John. It is interesting to read and hear online sermons from liberal pastors when they discuss this passage. Typically, liberal pastors like to proclaim their openness to doubt as a legitimate feeling. They contrast themselves with hard line fundamentalism, which has no use for doubt and which relies so heavily on certainty. Doubt, we are told, is perfectly natural and reasonable, especially when one is faced with extraordinary claims. The thing is, though, that there is always "but" at the end of this--you can doubt, but in the end as a Christian you naturally must come down on the side of accepting that Jesus was literally resuscitated from the dead. Thomas doubted, after all, but ultimately he put his hands through those crucifixion scars and he believed.

The skeptical Christian, we are told, doubts but still sides with orthodoxy. It's okay to doubt, but don't doubt too much. Ultimately, you have to accept that Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. You have to accept that Thomas put his hands in Jesus's hands and side. You have to accept what later church councils said about Jesus's supposed divinity and place within the Godhead. Those are, we are told, "essential things."

Good question.

James McGrath asks this question:

Why, for some Christians, is affirming that the Bible is inerrant more important than taking seriously what it actually says?
Good question. Indeed, taking the Bible seriously means fully accepting its warts, flaws, and inconsistencies without trying to hide them under the rug or otherwise explain them away. Inerrancy is the direct opposite of taking the Bible seriously.

The question of why people cling to inerrancy is an interesting question. Does this address some inherent need? Or is it simply a product of brainwashing by fundamentalist churches that insist that the whole integrity of the faith depends on it? There is a part of me that would like to believe that at some point in future, inerrancy will be consigned to the dustbin of theological history, and Christians of the future will en masse look back at our own time with bemusement as they puzzle over how anyone could possibly believe such a thing. But if there is some psychological need for theological certainty that leads some people to believe in inerrancy, then this would be a vain hope.

Is Interfaith Dialogue Possible When you Think Other Religions are Inferior?

Reuters reports that "Pope Benedict, who is sometimes seen as insensitive to other faiths, will reach out to other religious leaders during his first visit to the United States."

The question I have is this: how it is possible to "reach out" to other faiths that you denigrate as inferior to your own? He not only believes that his religion is the only true religion, but he also believes that his denomination is the only legitimate Christian church. Any "reaching out" that takes place is not from a perspective of humility or a desire to engage in a give and take and to learn from what others might have to offer; it is rather from the perspective of "I'm right and you're wrong, but I'll condescend to talk to you."

I think that the value of interfaith dialogue under those circumstances is limited, at best.

Omnscience and Incarnation

In the comments section of the Versus Populum posting about Rowan Williams's view of God, I ran across the following sentence:

The living God as the divine perichoresis of the Trinity already contains and 'knows' what it means to be human in the unity of the fully divine/human person of Jesus Christ.
I admit that, after reading that, I had to look up the word perichoresis. It turns out there is a Wikipedia article on it, for anyone who is interested. It is a part of Trinitarian theology, as it turns out; but then, I am not a Trinitarian. In any case, what I found interesting was the suggestion that somehow the Incarnation was necessary in order for God to know what it means to be human.

I've run across this argument before. And I have to say that it makes no sense to me. Are we to believe that God didn't know what it was like to be human before Jesus was born? Are we to suppose that there are actually limits to God's knowledge and understanding?

I would suggest that God already knew and already knows what it is like to be human, that there is no limit to God's knowledge and understanding, and that furthermore this means that God knows what it is like to be me and you and the fish in the sea and the birds in the air and the bacteria in your lower intestine.

To say that God knows all of this in the fullest way possible means that God knows our experiences not just objectively as an outsider, but God actually knows what we are experiencing internally as well. God's empathy is perfect, in other words, in ways that our own capacity for empathy is not. God understands our own subjective experiences. This dovetails with the notion of panentheism--because if God shares in all of our subjective experiences, then God understands us not just as an external observer, but also from the inside; and this implies that God is within us and we are within God.

To suggest otherwise is to place limits on God's omniscience. I cited in an earlier posting a quote from Uta Ranke-Heinemann that stated that "A powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God." Perhaps we can add to this a corollary: a powerful God finds more supporters than an omniscient God as well. By that I mean that God's alleged omnipotence--which supposedly allowed him/her to act as a kind of divine sperm donor to a young woman 2000 years ago and thus create a miraculous birth so that God could incarnate himself on earth--is said have been a means of overcoming a certain limit to God's omniscience.

In my view, describing God as omniscient and omnibenevolent makes for a richer and more meaningful theology than what can be accomplished by describing him/her as omnipotent.

More on why I think Rowan Williams is seriously wrong.

In my previous posting, I responded to Rowan Williams's assertion that "we must get to grips with the idea that we don’t ‘contribute’ anything to God, that God would have been the same God if we had never been created."

I found an excellent quote from "Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition" that I think summarizes very well the fundamental problem with Rowan Williams's view. The quote takes place in the context of a discussion of whether God's love is solely creative, or if it is also responsive as well:

The traditional notion of love as solely creative was based upon the value judgment that independence or absoluteness is unqualifiedly good, and that dependence or relativity in any sense derogates from perfection. But...while perfection entails independence or absoluteness in some respects, it also entails dependence or relativity in other respects. It entails ethical independence, in the sense that one should not be deflected by one's passions from the basic commitment to seek the greatest good in all situations. But this ethical commitment, in order to be actualized in concrete situations, requires responsiveness to the actual needs and desires of others. Hence, to promote the greatest good, one needs to be informed by, and thus relativized by, the feelings of others. Furthermore, we do not admire someone whose enjoyment is not in part dependent upon the condition of those around them. Parents who remained in absolute bliss while their children were in agony would not be perfect--unless there are such things as perfect monsters!

In other words, while there is a type of independence that is admirable , there is also a type of dependence that is admirable. And, if there is a type of absoluteness that unqualifiedly admirable, that means that there is a divine absoluteness; and the same holds of relativity. Process thought affirms that both of these are true. While traditional theism speaks only of divine absoluteness, process theism speaks also of the "divine relativity." (pp. 46-67. Emphasis added.)
Rowan Williams's view of God thus confuses the absolute independence that is necessary in order for God to always make the right decisions with the concrete dependence that is necessary in order for God to respond appropriately to the individual situations as they occur. If God, to borrow a phrase from the ontological argument, is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then it follows that the goodness of relativity and sympathetic responsiveness must also manifest itself in the most perfect way possible in God's nature. Thus God is affected by us, and God is not the same with us as he/she would have been without us. Otherwise, God could not be perfect.

Cobb and Griffin make an an analogy with human parents. What kind of parent is unaffected by their children? What kind of parent is indifferent to whether their children exist or not? What kind of heavenly Father (or Mother) would it be who was the same whether we existed or not?

Would God have been the same without us?

Dwight P. of the blog Versus Populum critiques the following quote from Rowan Williams:

A word of caution here: some modern thinkers have been very tempted by language that seems to suggest that God is in some way in need of having something else around in order to become more fully himself. … But I think we have to face a challenge here; we must get to grips with the idea that we don’t ‘contribute’ anything to God, that God would have been the same God if we had never been created. (Italics added.)
I could not disagree more with Rowan Williams. I have to wonder why anyone would want to worship a God who was so unaffected by the world. As I wrote in a comment to that blog posting,
If God is unaffected by what we do, then what kind of God is that? Why did God even create (or evoke the creation of) the world anyway, if nothing that happens in creation matters to God or affects him/her in any way? Rowan Williams's conception of God ultimately leads to a view of God who is impassive and not sympathetic to the human condition.
One of the contributions of process theology to this matter is its understanding that God has both a "primordial" nature--which is God's timeless, unchanging, perfect character in the abstract--and a "consequent" nature--God's sympathetic responsiveness to the world. Unless you take the view that God is indifferent to the world, then God must necessarily have a consequent nature. That means that God responds to the world as it unfolds.

Many people seem to confuse this point by assuming that if God were perfect, then God could not be affected by the world, under the assumption that once something is perfect it cannot change and still retain its perfection. This seems to be the mistake that Rowan Williams is making (at least, I infer this based on the quote above.) The problem with this notion of God as an abstractly perfect being is that it results in a God who is totally divorced from the world. It is a bit of a conundrum, because a God who was not perfectly sympathetic with the world would not be perfect, but a God who responds to the world must necessarily change!

The solution is really quite simple. One need only recognize that there are different aspects to God's perfection. In the abstract, God has a timeless, unchanging perfection of character. But God also responds perfectly with unlimited love and sympathetic response to the world, and the nature of this responsiveness depends on what happens in the world. These are simply two different ways that God's perfection manifests itself. The idea that Rowan Williams propounds really seems to come from an inability to understand this point.

So when Williams says that "God would have been the same God if we had never been created," he is both right and wrong. It is true that God would have had the same primordial nature if we had never been created; but God's consequent nature would have been different.

In the case of process theology, this consequent nature is realized through God's incorporation of the world into his/her own essence. That means that God fully experiences what we experience, and all our experiences thus enhance God's own existence.

"A powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God."

Here is a quote about theodicy from Uta Ranke-Heinemann's book "Putting Away Childish Things":

The question of the origin of evil, of what causes the tears and deviltries of the world, the question that no theologian has so far managed to answer, is one that humans have always posed. The Christian apologist Lactantius, who in the year 317 was called to Trier to be the tutor of Prince Crispus, cites an argument by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (d. 271/270 B.C.):

Either God wants to get rid of evil, but he can't; or God can, but he doesn't want to; or God neither wants to nor can. If God wants to, but can't, then he's not all-powerful. If he can, but doesn't want to, he's not all-loving. If he neither can nor wants to, he's neither all-powerful nor all-loving. And if he wants to and can--then why doesn't he remove the evils? (De ira Dei, chap 13)

On the question of the origin of evil, the theologians have always opted for the second possibility, that God can get rid of evil, but for whatever reason he doesn't want to. The theologians prefer to deduct points from God's compassion rather than from his omnipotence. A powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God. This is because people model their image of God on their own image. And potency and power mean a great deal to them--sometimes they mean everything--while compassion means less, and sometimes nothing at all. But we should rethink all this. God can't banish evil unless he drowns the human race. And so all he can do is mourn. (pp. 60-61)
When she says that "no theologian has so far managed to answer", I think it is fair to say that she really means no orthodox theologian. Certainly (and I hate to sound like a broken record, but I must repeat myself here) process theology does not conform to her characterization of "theologians" in this matter. But she raises a very good point. I agree with her when she says that "a powerful God finds more supporters than a compassionate God."

As an example of this, I consider a quote from Bart Ehrman's latest book that is found in James McGrath's blog. Ehrman writes:
Believing in a God who stands beside me in my suffering, but who cannot actually do much about it, makes God a lot like my mother or my kindly next-door neighbor, but it doesn't make him a lot like GOD.
How interesting that Ehrman so casually dismisses the idea of a non-omnipotent God who suffers with us. Ehrman simply takes for granted God's omnipotence--of course God must by definition be this way, and any conception that differs from this "doesn't make him a lot like God." Ehrman, a product of an Evangelical Christian background, betrays his presuppositions. Uta Ranke-Heinemann is indeed correct. A powerful God does find more supporters than a compassionate God.

Emerging paradigm

I recently ran across a posting by a Methodist blogger who objected to Marcus Borg's division of Christianity into two categories, an older paradigm and an emerging one. His complaint was that this categorization placed him, a moderate Christian, on the same side of that dividing line as fundamentalists or young earth Creationists. Certainly this objection is understandable; who (other than a fundamentalist) wants to be associated with fundamentalists?

I would agree that there are not just two theological approaches to Christianity. Sure, moderate Christians differ from fundamentalists in many ways. But, speaking as one who is uninterested in a miraculous, supernaturally theistic religious faith, the important point is that I find both fundamentalism and moderate Christianity to be equally unsatisfying. And I think that is the point that Borg is driving at. What both fundamentalism and moderate orthodoxy share in common is a belief in a God who has intervened miraculously in the world--including, but perhaps not restricted to, resuscitating Jesus's corpse. That issue does serve as an important dividing line for many people who are as John Shelby Spong puts it, members of the church alumni society.

Until I discovered Borg, I was not able to come to terms with Christianity. The progression of faith that he discusses, from "pre-critical naiveté", to "critical thinking", to "post-critical naiveté", in many ways mirrors my own progression of faith.

One of the problems that I have faced when I have tried to find progressive Christian churches is that many that describe themselves as "progressive" continue to preach as if things like the Virgin Birth or a literal physical resurrection were true. The distinction in those cases between "progressive" and "moderate" Christian in those cases seems blurry to me; it is almost more a matter of style and outlook rather than theology. What I would call "progressively orthodox" churches emphasize such virtues as tolerance and openness and inclusiveness. And while it is a style and outlook that is in many ways appealing to me, it isn't enough.

The Bible is not the last word. It is the first word.

I found a wonderful blog entry titled The Bible and Me, by a blogger named "Liberal Pastor in Burnsville". The author explains why he is a progressive Christian. He begins with the simple point that he is a Christian because Christianity is what speaks to him personally:

I was raised in a Christian environment and immersed from childhood on in the stories of Jesus. As an adult I have come to appreciate and chosen to appropriate the way of Jesus as my way. Jesus as I understand him is the guiding force in my faith expression. Although, I have also come to learn, appreciate, and appropriate teachings from other religious traditions as well.

This helps identify me , I suppose, as a progressive or liberal Christian. I do not think there is only one "true" spiritual path.
The author then goes on to point out that the authors of the Bible come from a pre-Enlightenment era, in which peopled believed in demons and spirits and virgin births and the like; and that this ancient world view does not match his own:
I am at home in this modern or post-modern world that I have been raised in. I accept the scientific worldview as I understand it with regards to evolution, the scientific and historic methods of inquiry, the marvels of modern medicine, and the de-mythologizing of our world....My world is non-magical, but still plenty enchanted with mystery and wonder and beauty.
He then goes on to say that "the Bible is not the last word for me on truth or life or even God. It is the first word." I really like that statement. He continues,
It is where I begin because it helps me understand my spiritual heritage. It also chronicles for me some of the great leap-forwards in spiritual insights in the history of humanity - in the works of the prophets for instance - and it gives us the life-testimony and teachings of Jesus, one of the most authentic spiritual leaders in history. The Bible also offers profound insights into the human condition (something that hasn't changed much in thousands of years), and plenty of stories as examples of the very best and worst of it on display.

But knowledge about our world and the way we think about God continues to unfold. Revelation is progressive. As we evolve individually and as a human community, the horizon continues to unfold before us. For this reason we will never be able to know all there is to know, another pre-modern notion. The more we know the more we realize how little we know. There is no way in the world Moses or Jesus or Paul or the biblical writers could have spoken the (God's) last word from their point in history and their worldview on events unfolding thousands of years later. As the UCC likes to say: God is still speaking.
Religion is ongoing process. Traditions are not straitjackets, but starting points. They provide us with a record of where religions traditions have come from. But the religions must not just freeze in their tracks. They must move on.

Are religion and science both narratives?

The author of the blog Pluralist Speaks critiques a comment by Rowan Williams, who compares science and religion by saying that both are just different narratives. According to Williams,

The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't.
Pluralist points out that:
Many a scientist would not like to think that their enterprise is just narrative. Of course it is a series of questions seeking answers generating questions. Of course scientific answers are potentially transient, waiting to be falsified, but the longer they stay as a truth the more robust they become as truth. Paradigms - joining the dots - are always more transient still.
Does it diminish the qualitatively different roles that science and religion play to just describe religion and science as two narratives with different stories to tell? I tend to think of religion as something that informs and deepens the understanding that science provides.

On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that science does provide us with narrative-like features. The origins and history of the universe, from the Big Bang, through the creation of the earth, and the evolution of life here, have a certain narrative quality. Could religion then be described as a meta-narrative that informs the scientific narrative?

"Truth is constant"

Thanks to a tip from James McGrath, here is a brilliant spoof of creationism, which is found on the website of the reDiscovery Institute:

I like the slogan of the reDiscovery Institute: "Truth is Constant". The paragraph in the above image that discusses the evils of "Mendeleevian Periodicity" apes the sort of language used by religious creationists when they attack "Darwinian Evolution".

This just goes to show that satire is often the best way to respond to sheer nonsense.