The confines of Christian faith

I ran across a blogger (who does not allow comments in his blog) who criticizes John Shelby Spong from the perspective of a former Christian who left the faith a long time ago and "never looked back". Spong is a difficult person for me to write about because I have mixed feelings about him, as I've described elsewhere. Overall, despite my misgivings, he does get my qualified support for what I think he is trying to accomplish, which among other things is to try to show those people who are spiritually inclined but otherwise alienated from Christian orthodoxy that it might not be necessary for them to live in exile from Christianity. Since I feel mostly in exile myself, I'm not sure that I feel confident in the ultimate success of that project, but I still think it is a project that is worth the effort.

The blogger who criticized Spong is an example of one of those people who made the transition from what Marcus Borg calls "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" but who never made it to the next step of "post-critical naivete", and as a result maintains a rather simplistic definition of what Christianity entails. He doesn't see Spong's theology as fitting into his own stereotype of what he thinks Christianity necessarily must be. Like a lot of people in that category, he goes further than that, arguing essentially that all intelligent people should view religion the same way that he does. In that sense, he certainly shares Spong's own unfortunate dogmatic tendencies. In fact, in critiquing a paradigm that doesn't fit into his own, he ultimately criticizes Spong's own intellectual honesty, accusing Spong of having to resolve the sort of cognitive dissonance that as a former bishop he somehow must be experiencing--that is to say, as one who sees the Bible as having flaws but whose lifetime of service to the church requires him to desperately cling to a Christian identity that he can't possibly really agree with at same deeper level of his being.

The blogger, thus, exemplifies what I have talked about before--the former Christian who changes teams without changing their basic assumptions about what Christianity necessarily means. More importantly, we see the assumption that this narrow definition of what Christianity entails must also be imposed on progressive Christians as well. Somehow all these progressive Christians don't actually know what it is they really believe, apparently. The blogger writes,

Consider Spong’s predicament: he is now a retired bishop, who spent his entire career in the service of the Episcopal Church. Like many of us, he is too intelligent to believe that the Bible is literally true. But, because of his position in life, he feels obligated to not reject the Bible outright, so he ends up wrapping himself around the axle of his own justifications.
The blogger also assumes that all Christians must necessarily believe in the exclusive nature of their own faith--that their faith is the only legitimate way. If there are other ways of being spiritual or of loving or of focusing on an ultimate higher purpose, then (the assumption goes), there is no point in being a Christian. The blogger writes,
But one need not be a Christian to do this. The Christian filter is strictly optional. There are a multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one. Once a person admits the possibility that Christianity isn’t the “One True” religion, and that the Bible isn’t the inerrant “Word of God,” the whole edifice starts to crumble. And as millions of ex-Christians have found, once we’re free from the confines of Christian Faith, we don’t miss it at all.
My guess is that Spong would agree that there are a "multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one." Certainly Marcus Borg agrees with that, as do many other progressive Christians, theologians and lay people alike. So of course by asserting that there are many paths to spiritual fulfillment, the blogger is not saying anything we don't already know. The fact that one chooses a means of mediating the sacred may be nothing more than that particular means speaks to one's own inner self in ways that others do not. And I think this is the key point here. When the blogger says that "we don't miss [Christianity] at all", the blogger is speaking for himself but then generalizing on behalf of others. This is the "I know what's best for everyone else" response. I would agree that not everyone is cut out to be religious, or a Christian. But the blogger cannot speak for everyone. And it is certainly not true that "the whole edifice starts to crumble" if you reject exclusivist claims for a particular faith. On the contrary, once we move beyond exclusivist claims, a religion is not defining limiting "confines" but instead celebrates the liberation of the human spirit through a spiritual journey--and that is a much stronger foundation upon which to build a Christian faith, in my opinion.

God without certainty

I recently got into a discussion in James McGrath's blog with a Buddhist who asked me what the point of theistic religion is if it doesn't entail receiving clearly defined messages from God. He saw his own nontheistic religion as a scientific and empircally valid form of psychology, and for him any religion--especially one involving God--that is non-empircal or riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty is pointless. This discussion illustrated, I think, a common misconception about what religion necessarily means for everyone. Those who don't get progressive religion are often baffled by the idea of a faith that isn't about dogma or certainty. This is certainly the assumption of a lot of fundamentalist Christians, for whom certainty and dogma are central. But I have found that a lot of atheists also share the same assumption. Many of them think that there is no point in positing a God if that God doesn't give us obvious and unambiguous instructions, apparently accompanied by lightning bolts and spoken with a booming voice from the sky.

For others of us, however, religion is not about having answers handed to us on a silver platter, but rather about the mystery and the journey of discovery. It is about myth, meaning, and community. For us, to ask what is the point of belief in God without certainty is like asking what is the point of a poem. This is something that some people just don't get, and, unfortunately, such people often seem to spend a lot of energy trying to insist that the rest of us see things their own way.

That's great, but what about process theology?

I sometimes feel like a broken record when I complain about authors on religious topics who ignore process theology, but it after reading Robert Wright's column in today's New York Times about how to reconcile faith in God with evolution, I once again found myself thinking, "That's great, but what about process theology?" One of the reasons I find process theology intriguing is that it addresses two theological questions that I think have to be resolved if belief in God is to be tenable: how to reconcile science and religion, and how to reconcile the existence of God with the problem of evil. Thus whenever an author gives an ostensibly comprehensive analysis on either of those two subjects for public consumption, and yet in so doing ignores process theology altogether, then I find myself objecting that the treatment of the subject matter is really incomplete.

Wright argues in his column that the only way for believers in God to also believe in evolution is to subscribe to a kind of deistic biology, in which God created the mechanism of natural selection and then subsequently just sat back and watched:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).
This isn't much different from other kinds of deism, and while it is true that this would indeed be one solution to the problem, another possible solution he doesn't mention and yet which is offered by process theology, suggests that God is actively involved in all the processes of the world (including biological evolution), but not in a coercive fashion but rather as One who offers creative possibilities at each moment. God under this model is then a non-omnipotent co-creator with creation itself. Thus, unlike the deistic evolution that Wright proposes, process theology sees God as remaining active--but not in an omnipotent sense.

I am certainly not saying that anyone, including Robert Wright, has to accept process theology. I do think it is frustrating, though, when process theology gets short shrift in an area of theology that it is specifically suited to address, and thus a treatment of a subject like this is not as comprehensive as it sets out to be.

It is also notable in this case that Wright goes on to say in his column that "organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks" and that " this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms." The idea that there are two different creative processes at work in the universe involves a kind of dualism that some might find a bit unsatisfying at some level, and he takes this dualism for granted when in fact it is not philosophically necessary. Indeed, this kind of dualism in the creative processes is something that process theology also rejects, seeing ultimately the same Divine creativity at work throughout all the processes of the universe.

Interfaith dialogue--or not, as the case may be

Many Jews are understandably outraged at a document produced by US Catholic bishops:

Jewish groups said they interpret the new document to mean that the bishops view interfaith dialogue as a chance to invite Jews to become Catholic. The Jewish leaders said they "pose no objection" to Christians sharing their faith, but said dialogue with Jews becomes "untenable" if the goal is to persuade Jews to accept Christ as their savior.
I read the document in question , and I simply can't comprehend that its authors wouldn't know that it uses language that is patently offensive to Jews. For example, here is a quote from the document: "this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews."

Genuine ecumenical dialogue is mutually respectful; it does not try to proselytize. More importantly, given historical circumstances, Jews have a particular reason for being sensitive about efforts to convert them to Christianity. The Catholic Church clearly doesn't get it.

Changing teams

On reading a post in the blog "Debunking Christianity", authored by a former Christian named John Loftus who is now an atheist, I was struck by the fact that, except for a few changes of wording here and there, the entry could have been posted in a fundamentalist blog. It illustrates the point that I've seen time and time again, that a lot of former Christians-turned-atheist have changed teams without changing a lot of their assumptions about the nature of Christianity. It's the same fundamentalist mindset--just the team has changed.

For example, Loftus writes in his blog that "liberal Christians"

should just acknowledge that and admit they have cut themselves off from any historic understanding of what defines a Christian
I always find it interesting when atheists claim the right to decide who is and is not a Christian.

Rowan Williams and human liberation

Some people in the past have defended Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by suggesting that on the subject of sexuality he is caught between the disparate factions of the church, and that his response to the Episcopal Church's moves towards greater equality for gays and lesbians is nothing more than the actions of an impartial referee who is trying to keep the church from falling apart.

Pronouncements that Williams has made make it clear that nothing could be farther from the truth. Far from being an impartial referee, Williams has revealed an underlying allegiance with the conservatives. Among other things, Williams stated regarding same-sex marriage that

a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church's teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires. (emphasis added).
His reference to "their chosen lifestyle" is telling.

It is also interesting to see what Williams's view on the role of the church with respect to human liberation and social progress is:
if the Church has echoed the harshness of the law and of popular bigotry – as it so often has done – and justified itself by pointing to what society took for granted, it has been wrong to do so. But on the same basis, if society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline.
In other words, according to Williams, if society is more progressive than the church, if society develops a liberating impulse ahead of the church, if the church lags behind society, then that is not the church's problem! I have a very different idea; I think that religious faith should be at the forefront of human liberation and social progress. I am reminded of John Woolman, the eighteenth century American Quaker who, inspired by his religious faith, fought a lifelong struggle to oppose slavery. Woolman understood what Williams does not, that faith can and should be a driving impulse to support justice and inclusion. Williams places institutional inertia over these most important of human values. I want no part of Rowan Williams's religion.

Francis Collins and science

There has been a brouhaha in the blogosphere over the appointment of Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. Many militant atheists have complained that Collins, who is a Christian, should not be given such an eminent scientific post, because he is an avid proselytizer for the belief in the harmony of science and faith (he even has a website on the subject). You can predict who the most vocal complainers are--people like PZ Myers and Sam Harris, for example--and their complaints can be taken with the usual mountains of salt. In fact, Andrew Brown of the UK Guardian newspaper began his commentary on this controversy with a scathing critique of Sam Harris:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris. Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality. He has, for example, defended torture, ("restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place") attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: "We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" ; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them. Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians. ("Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion").
There is no question that the bigotry of Myers and Harris play a clear role in their objections to Collins's appointment. And yet, my feelings on this subject are somewhat complicated by the fact that while I, like Collins, believe that science and faith can be compatible, I am not sure that I am in Collins's camp when he gets down to specifics. The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that Collins has been described as an evangelical.

First and foremost, I should make it clear that I think that if Collins has shown himself to be a qualified scientist, then his religious beliefs should be irrelevant. The fact that he publicly states his views on religion should also be irrelevant, in my view. (The blogger who posts to the "Evolution is True" blog has actually complained about scientists "who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science"! Apparently, according to this objection, Christian scientists are supposed to keep their religious views as deep, dark secrets that they never reveal to the world.) I think that Collins's work as a scientist should be judged solely on its own merits alone, so these objections about his public expressions of faith strike me as ridiculous. If he is a qualified scientist, then he has earned the right to hold the job.

On the other hand, aside from his qualifications for the job, I also think that Collins poses a difficult problem if he is presented as some sort of spokesman for the harmony of science and religion. As I mentioned, I myself am a strong believer that science and faith can be compatible, to the extent that religious faith embraces a rationalist understanding of the world. Collins does believe in evolution--if he did not, he would certainly not be qualified for the job, since serious biology is impossible without an acceptance of evolution. The question is, how does Collins believe that God plays a role in evolution or other scientific processes? Collins spends an inordinate amount of time on his website trying to reconcile science with the mythological tales in Genesis, which I don't really see the point of. The Genesis stories were attempts by people with a primitive scientific understanding to understand the world and God's role in its creation. They are nice stories, and they provide interesting ideas into the human condition, but to assign them an authoritative role beyond that just complicates matters. It would be a lot easier if people just stopped trying to justify Geneis or trying "reconcile" Genesis with science; I think there is simply no need to do so. There is nothing to "reconcile" because Genesis is not science.

It also gets complicated when he tries to reconcile the idea of divine "Sovereignty" (that is to say, supernatural interventionism) with evolution. The problem here is that he gets rather vague on this subject. At one point, he clearly affirms the idea of an interventionist deity and at the same time seems to be taking the Deist position:
the creator can act outside the created physical laws. However, we must not say that miraculous events outside the laws of nature are the only instances of God’s involvement. For this reason, BioLogos requires no miraculous events in its account of God’s creative process, except for the origins of the natural laws guiding the process.
The first sentence of the above quote affirms the existence of miraculous events, but then the second sentence seems to come straight out of Deism. However, later in the same text, he then backs off of this seeming Deism completely and leans toward something somewhat closer to process theology, in which God is constantly involved in creation through "influence"; unlike process theology, however, he still affirms divine omnipotence, believing that God merely "allows" the world to exist in freedom outside of his/her control:
BioLogos does not seek a concept of a God who is involved at certain times and who only observes at other times. In harmony with theism, BioLogos affirms a God who is at all times involved, yet who still allows a degree of freedom to the creation....

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation.
I haven't studied Collins's views in great enough detail to know comprehensibly what he is arguing, but based on these statements it appears that he is suggesting that God a) created the world through omnipotent intervention; b) has influenced the world through a subtle, below-the-radar act of continuous influence; c) may get involved from time to time through more direct acts of intervention.

One of the reasons that I rejected the idea of a supernatural interventionist God is not just that it violates my understanding of a rational, orderly world, but also that it poses immense problems for theodicy; but of course the latter objection is a completely separate moral problem and isn't relevant to the question of how divine action could be consistent with science. Collins seems wedded to the idea of a supernaturally interventionist God, and this is where I part with him. I think it is important to recognize that there can be more than one potential way of reconciling faith and science, and Collins's approach is not the only one.

When fundamentalism serves a corporate agenda

A New York Times review of a book on Wal-Mart provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways that a corporation can use fundamentalist Christian values to promote a corporate agenda that advances the bottom line through lower wages or other exploitative policies. The reviewer notes that

Anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of her experiences as a Wal-Mart clerk in “Nickel and Dimed” or Steven Greenhouse’s chronicle of Wal-Mart’s widespread flouting of safety and hours regulations in“The Big Squeeze” might well wonder why anyone would even consider a job with the company.
The answer, it seems, is that Wal-Mart appeals to fundamentalist Christian values. These values were particularly prominent in the Bible Belt region where the company was founded:
Sam Walton was not a fundamentalist Christian. He and his wife, Helen, worshipped at a liberal branch of the Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. Walton was even an early abortion rights advocate. But Moreton argues that Walton and his fellow executives quickly recognized the economic advantage of weaving specific strands of the Ozark region’s fundamentalist belief system into their corporate strategy.

At the heart of that strategy was the company’s emphasis on the Christian concept of “servant leadership.” In other parts of the retail sector, the servitude demanded of retail clerks was typically experienced as demeaning. But by repeatedly reminding employees that the Christian servant leader cherishes opportunities to provide cheerful service to others, Moreton argues, Wal-Mart transformed servitude from a negative job characteristic into a positive one.

Another cultural strand in Moreton’s account is the company’s policy of reproducing the social relationships characteristic of fundamentalist Christian households in the workplace. To this end, Wal-Mart needed a legal pretext for hiring mostly men as managers and mostly women as clerks. The solution was to move managers to new store locations frequently, a condition of employment that men would generally accept but most women would not.

But even though the managerial jobs paid better and offered more opportunities for promotion, there was still a problem for male employees. The highly regimented, rule-driven jobs at Wal-Mart were a pale substitute for the independent farmer’s role from which the company’s Ozark male managers had recently been driven. Rather than cede greater control to managers, Moreton argues, the company salved the egos of the men by celebrating a patriarchal ideal of “Christian manliness.” The women, for their part, were only too happy to adopt the prescribed submissive role.