Bart Ehrman

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I don't make it a practice to read evangelical blogs, but recently I stumbled onto one, more or less by accident. I found a posting there titled "I don't get Bart Ehrman", in which the writer labeled Ehrman a "theological liberal." In fact, Ehrman is not a theological liberal at all, but an agnostic who has turned his back on religious faith, and lumping him with theological liberals confuses the issue.

The writer surmised that Ehrman is something of a media darling because "here’s a liberal scholar who not only writes for the public square; he also speaks about his own spiritual journey in those books." However, Marcus Borg, who unlike Ehrman is not an agnostic, also writes about his own own spiritual journey in his books, so I don't think that could explain it. The writer also suggests that a lot of theological liberals were former fundamentalists, and thus Ehrman fits that pattern; this may be true, but if so the liberals usually get to that point by first experiencing a kind of crisis of faith, brought on by their recognition that their former fundamentalist views were theologically, philosophically, morally, and scientifically untenable. Marcus Borg talks about the progression that he and many others have undergone, from pre-critical naivete, to critical thinking, to post-critical naivete. Basically, Ehrman is currently stuck in what Borg defines as the middle phase, "critical thinking". He has not come to (and for all we know may never come to) the state of post-critical naivete that constistutes theological liberalism--I would argue that he still adheres to his old evangelical paradigm about what a person of faith necessarily believes about God, religion, and the Bible. For Ehrman, if you reject that the Bible is inerrant, your own option is to reject religion altogether.

And I think that explains why Ehrman might be something of a media darling, while Borg is not; Ehrman fits into a rather simplistic paradigm that says that in order to be a person of faith, you have to accept certain premises about the the nature of the Bible and God. Ehrman has a problem with reconciling an omnipotent God with theodicy, for example, so for him this makes religious faith untenable. Ehrman either doesn't address or simply dismisses out of hand theologies, such as Borg's panentheism, or Cobb's process theology, that don't fit into his conception of what we might mean when we say "God". Basically, Ehrman is in many ways still an evangelical, because he still accepts many evangelical premises--he's just changed teams, or at least is now sitting on the sidelines. And since, I would guess, most people in the news media have never heard of panentheism or process theology (let alone Tillich), Ehrman's personal story of how he found agnosticism makes for nice, easy junk food that the media can easily consume and spit out again for public consumption. In a lot of ways, this illustrates how religious conservatives have managed to define the terms of religious dialogue in our country.

15 comments:

Cynthia said...

Apparently, though, a 'theological liberal' is anyone who doesn't subscribe to an evangelical viewpoint. How can one be theologically liberal if one doesn't even believe in God?

I don't get Bart Ehrman either, but for the reasons you stated, that he is stuck. If I'm stuck, the last thing I want to read is someone else who is stuck and who doesn't really know it. It's as if he entered the struggle, gave it a few arm wrestles and left the table. He doesn't seem to understand that he can change the game.

Mystical Seeker said...

Apparently, though, a 'theological liberal' is anyone who doesn't subscribe to an evangelical viewpoint. How can one be theologically liberal if one doesn't even believe in God?Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself.

It's as if he entered the struggle, gave it a few arm wrestles and left the table. He doesn't seem to understand that he can change the game.Again, very well stated. I think he doesn't understand that because he is still caught in an Evangelical mindset.

Andrew said...

Excellent post. I have been reading Richard Rohr recently, and he would define Ehrman's issue as classic dualistic thinking; which is how most of the western world thinks, whether conservative or liberal.

PrickliestPear said...

I've noticed, perusing the titles on Amazon, that there is an entire genre of books by authors narrating their journey from fundamentalism to atheism.

This is probably not surprising. Evangelical churches (with some recent exceptions) don't have a lot of room for spiritual growth. Once you move past the conventional, conformist stage, where do you go?

The evangelical tradition is, spiritually speaking, rather anemic. Literalism effectively prevents them from understanding the penultimate character of religious symbols, that their symbols mediate this reality, but do not contain it. When the symbols prove defective, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. No wonder they don't bother looking elsewhere.

Meister Eckhart said, "We ought not to have or let ourselves be satisfied with any thought of God. When the thought goes, our God goes with it."

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest, I can relate to that because that is where I came from. I was brought up in a fundamentalist church, and when I realized at age 16 that I could no longer accept teh doctrines I was taught, I became an atheist. I didn't believe there was any alternative, because I basically accepted what I had been taught that a liberal faith wasn't "real" religion. It took me a long time, over a decade to get over that.

I suppose that should make me more understanding of what people like Ehrman are going through, but on the other hand my own experience wants me to explain to them what I learned through a slow and long process of self-discovery, thereby saving them the trouble of what I went through. :)

David Henson said...

Nicely put, Mystical, especially about him being caught in the middle phase. It puts him right there with people like Christopher Hitchens, et al, who have about the least intellectually rigorous understanding of religion/faith

Cynthia said...

In the junior high youth group at my church one of the girls who attends is atheist, which I would respect if it were not for her seemingly superior, separatist attitude (which makes me wonder why she attends, at least for the fellowship).

When she told one of the other girls about her faith stance, a girl who is so put together at such a young age, this other girl replied, "Oh I went through that phase too".

Mystical Seeker said...

Is it possible that she attends because her parents make her go? My mother forced me to go to church when I was 16 even after I told her I was an atheist.

Cynthia said...

Knowing their daughter, they leave it up to her as whether she attends or not, especially since confirmation takes place in another year. I think they are hoping she might make another choice if left to her own wisdom.

atimetorend said...

I agree Ehrman speaking to a certain audience accounts for much of his current popularity, but he is also in the spotlight because he is an excellent scholar who is able to write clearly and engagingly for lay people. Borg and others do bring a lot of academic background into their writing, but perhaps not the same level of academic background as Ehrman, at least in some of his books?

Personally, my experience mirrors Ehrman's. Switching from conservative to liberal (to generalize with a label) Christianity seems like changing to an entirely different religion, and as much as I try to learn about it, I still don't experience it as "faith." It can be oversimplifying the issue to say that someone simply didn't bother looking elsewhere. From what I have read, Ehrman did before labeling himself a "happy agnostic." I know I have, but still am far closer to Ehrman beliefs than to Borg or Spong's.

atimetorend said...

"on the other hand my own experience wants me to explain to them what I learned through a slow and long process of self-discovery, thereby saving them the trouble of what I went through. :)"

Wait, I have conservative Christians telling me the same thing!
:^)

Mystical Seeker said...

"Switching from conservative to liberal Christianity seems like changing to an entirely different religion"

I'm not sure that I disagree with that. I think the ways of thinking about religion found in progressive Christianity and conservative Christianity are radically different.

I should stress that I've never been one to criticize anyone for not seeing the appeal of progressive Christianity. I think that different religions may or may not have different appeals to different individuals.

I agree that Bart Ehrman has an excellent academic background, which makes him qualified to talk about the Bible from an academic point of view. I think that the problem is that when he gets away from strictly biblical analysis per se, and instead wades into drawing theological conclusions from what he know, that he gets into trouble. He seems to be drawing inferences about whether a faith in God within the Christian tradition is possible given what we know about the Bible. I think the very fact that he would ask such a question shows an evangelical bias. If progressive Christianity doesn't work for Ehrman, that's one thing. The problem is that, from what I have seen (and maybe I'm wrong about this), he seems to make blanket statements about God and Christianity as if progressive Christianity doesn't even exist.

I don't claim to be an expert on Ehrman and I haven't read all his work, but I am not aware of him taking seriously any of the theologies that would address his concerns about theodicy; I just get the impression that he dismisses out of hand the idea that God could be something other than a powerful figure in the sky who manipulates the laws of nature at will.

Mystical Seeker said...

"Wait, I have conservative Christians telling me the same thing!"

Are they telling you that they were once former conservative Christians? :) Seriously,
I've been through the process of disillusionment that ex-conservative Christians pretty much all go through once they realize that the faith they once believed in has no real intellectual or moral credibility. I can relate to it completely. The problem is that when I changed teams, I still shared the same assumptions that I had had before, and I see this happening a lot among others, including Ehrman. I'm not saying that everyone needs to become a progressive Christian after they undergo this process; I am actually pretty ambivalent towards progressive Christianity myself, as much as I am drawn to it in certain ways. I just think that it is important to understand that the conservative Christian paradigm that many of us were taught as the only true embodiment of the faith is a simplistic conception of a much more complex and diverse faith tradition.

atimetorend said...

MS, I agree with your comment above on all points, particularly, "...it is important to understand that the conservative Christian paradigm that many of us were taught as the only true embodiment of the faith is a simplistic conception of a much more complex and diverse faith tradition."

It really is a paradigm shift to grapple with. Thanks for the follow up comments!

Steve said...

I enjoyed reading the post and all the comments. They were very helpful to me.