Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodness, but we are current!

As always, Time magazine has come out, just in time for Easter, with a cover story on Christianity, this time on the topic of Hell.  It’s actually more about the pastor of a mega church – Mars Hill Church outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan – and usually the Easter issue of Time has more to do with the resurrection or the Jesus Seminar.   Time must have found out that articles on religion are good sellers around Easter – and Christmas too.

What is fascinating to me about the article are two things:

First, that anyone still believes that the God we worship – you know, the “God is love” kind, the one Jesus likened to a benevolent heavenly Father, who cares for us as his little children – that anyone professing that sort of God (and even the most Fundamentalists among us do) can still think God created or at least tolerates a Hell where people are tortured forever.  And ever.  And ever.    Even a little while would be bad enough.

But alas millions of Christian people do believe in that Hell, and a God who sends people there.  And so when an Evangelical like Rob Bell (the aforementioned mega church pastor) writes a book daring to question such a primitive and horrifying God, a whole bunch of people cry Foul! and declare him to be a heretic.  Such is the state of the evangelical/fundamentalist world of America.

But aside from that, given our reading of Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg, I am taken by the language used in the article.  The writer clearly uses the modern – Enlightenment – ideas of what belief is.   Belief is “traditionally” he says (Armstrong would say only recently “traditionally”) “the key is the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God, who, for us and our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was made man.  In the Evangelical ethos one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.”

There it is: belief as intellectual assent, the affirmation of a list of statements about God.  Here is logos – rational, thinking language -- rather than mythos – symbolic, experiential language.  

Pastor Bell is daring to approach God through metaphor, reading the Bible not as a prosaic prescription for describing God but instead as poetry, symbol.  And he’s getting into trouble for that from the right.

Let me add a third observation about the article, or rather about something Bell says in it.  Namely:  “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.  Something new is in the air.”

Marcus Borg, John Crossan, Karen Armstrong would agree, and might say that “something new” is already here, in people for whom faith does not mean intellectually affirming things that are patently false, but is rather experiencing the mystery of the universe that is God – unknowable, refusing to be limited by our language and minds – and in response to that awe seek to live compassionate, gracious lives.

Another recent book answers Bell’s wonderment with a resounding Yes, something very new is happening!   Phyllis Tickle in The Great Emergence (2008) says that every 500 years the followers of Christ – the Church – has undergone a tremendous change.  The last change was the Protestant Reformation.  We are now in the midst of another revolution, she says, out of which will emerge a new faith, a new Christianity.  One that I would think will have a lot to do with what we have been reading about in Borg, Crossan, and Armstrong – and Ellul too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Case For God Reader's Digest Edition

"For what it's worth," here are my notes on the Armstrong book  . . . what I thought was important, and an attempt to string her argument together.  Maybe this will at least be a review if you have read it, and a quick overview if you haven't.  Sorry this isn't in more polished form, but here it is.

I stopped at the Epilogue -- you can read that for yourelf :)

Introduction – the difference between Logos and Mythos;  “reason,” used for external reality and spiritual, internal, symbolic reality.  Both realities are “real” in the sense that they are both experienced.  But they are used in different arenas.

Logos relies on measuring material things, apply logic to describe, control , and even predict what is happening, really, in the world of the senses.

Mythos relies on non-measurable, internal experiences, using symbol – metaphor – to describe it.  Here control and predictability are far more challenging than in the external world.  And I would say that when practitioners of the spiritual realm – religious people usually – imagine they can by their knowledge and authority in that realm control and predict spiritual experiences they end up doing very bad things, and in the name of God.

“Myth” in common parlance means something that is not true.  But in the religious world “myth” is a true construct – a framework by which we can talk about spiritual realities, spiritual truth.    The story – the myth – that carries the spiritual truth is not historically accurate or scientifically accurate.  But it nevertheless communicates true things about people and life, and even God.

In pre-modern times religion “was not primarily something that people thought but something they did.”  It is a “discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.”

The modern period applied logos – rationalization – to religion.  Logos and mythos were compared, and the vast accomplishments of science made logos superior to mythos.  Facts overtook symbols in our view of what is true, real, important, and reliable.   And that spawned, ironically, two opposites:  fundamentalism and atheism.

Part I:  The Unknown God

One: Homo religiosus

“Religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of relentless pain and injustice of life.”  We are meaning-seeking creatures . . . .
“The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”

The earliest humans sensed and sought that transcendent mystery – their art is evidence of that.  They created rituals to express the transcendent. 

The second principle of premodern religion: religious discourse was not to be taken literally, but symbolically.  People weren’t expected to “believe” a single creation story.  Rather, there were several that expressed religious truth.

Another universal principle of religion:  “religious truths are accessible only when you are prepared to get rid of the selfishness, greed, and self-preoccupation that . . .  are the source ofo so much of our pain.”

Buddhism:  no doctrinal statements to accept.  That would be abdicating one’s responsibility.    The best way of  to anatta – selflessness – compassion, the ability to feel with the other.   This religion is doing rather than thinking.

Two: God --  Hebrew religion

The Bible:  based on the several creation stories, “From the very beginning there was no  single, orthodox message in the Bible.”  Conflicting images of God in Genesis.
“Revelation would never be something that had happened once and for all, but an ongoing process that could never end.”

Deuteronomists were depicting Joshua conquering Canaan.  They made violence an option in their religion.  Crossan said something similar.

Three:  Reason – The Greeks

Phusikoi – the “naturalists”  based their thinking entirely on the physical world.  Sought to find the underlying order, the laws that governed the universe.  Science – math, astronomy, geometry – these were spiritual exercises.

Mystery Religions:  not something you thought, but something you did.  Initiations were frightening – force the initiates to face their own mortality, experience the terror of death.

Socrates – when people were seeking certainty, he was asking questions.  Said the Phusikoi were not looking in the right place, were not asking the really important questions.  “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Plato – “doctrine of forms.”  Allegory of the cave.

Asistotle – “the life of reason is best and pleasantest, since reason, more than anything else IS man.”  God was important to him, the “first philosophy, but his God was utterly impersonal.

300BCE – Six schools of thought: Platonism, Aristotle, Skepticism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism.   In  these philosophy “was a yearing for transcendent wisdom.”

Four:  Faith – Christianity and Islam

Destruction of the Temple in 70  CE.  Judaism, without the Temple and the sacrificial system it promoted, was forced to adapt.  In the "rabbinic Judaism" that was born, “Kindness would replace the temple ritual; compassion . . . was the new priestly task.” Compassion was central to reading the Bible.  Hillel said that everything in the Torah was simply commentary on the Golden Rule.

“Rabbinic Judaism”  -- “the religion of Israel came of age, developing the same kind of compassionate ethos as the Eastern traditions.”   Scripture was not a closed book, but rather miqra, “a summons to action.”

Meanwhile the Christians were getting organized.  They did not intend to start a new religion – they observed the Torah, worshiped in temple.  The experienced the Holy Spirit “as a tanagible, empowering, electrifying force.”

Jesus was the divine presence in their midst.

Resurrection:  not a “simplistic notion of his corpse walking out of the tomb.”  Paul said they would find him in one another, in scripture, in ritual meals.  Jesus was not “God.”

“Faith” – pisteuo --  trust, loyalty, commitment.   Jesus did not claim his divinity to be “believed,”  but instead he sought their commitment to him and to his calling that he shared with them.

Miracles: not surprising to first century people.  Jesus a skilled exorcist, a Hasid.  And his miracles were not central to his message – was reluctant to give signs.

Revelation: unfolding, dynamic.  The Talmuds were commentary not on scripture, but on the Mishnah.

The gospel reached the Greek world where the Logos was a familiar concept.  Early church fathers, educated by the Greeks, sought the Logos in the Bible, and interpreted it allegorically.   Origin said that the contradictions in the Bible were put there so as to make us look more deeply into the meaning of the text.

“The Qur’an has no interest in “belief;”  indeed, this concept is quite alien to Islam.”
Its message was not a doctrine, but an ethical summons to practically expressed compassion.”
Qur’an full of ayah – “sign,” “symbol,” “parable.”  We can speak about God only analogically.

In the early 4t century Christianity began to move toward a preoccupation with doctrinal correctness.  And at the same time some were seeking a spirituality of silence and unknowing.

Five:  Silence – mysticism

Council of Nicea, 325.  Sought to use WORDS to experience God.  But the monastic movement sought God in the silence. 
The purpose of the Trinity in the Eastern church was not to define God but to shut us up – to retreat into silence, to experience God in that silence.  It was to be a means to induct Christians into a wholly different way of thinking about the divine.


Denys:  sought to make us conscious of the limits of language.  The Bible was full of incredible things – not to be believed literally, but to be a means of learning how we are limited when we try to speak of God.

“God is known by knowledge and by unknowing; of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge,  . . . . . but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named.”

As our language fails, we experience an intellectual ekstasis . . . a kenosis that drives us out of ourselves.”  In that place of not-knowing we experience God’s presence.

Six:  Faith and Reason

By the end of the 11th century  people had started to apply reason to their faith.  Anselm sought “to make traditional Christian teaching rationally coherent.”  For him “faith” was still a matter of the heart, though.  “God” was the greatest thing one could imagine – and greater.  The idea of God was innate, and did not need proof.

Islam – Al-Ghazzali – we can glimpse God by cultivating a different mode of perception, deliberately calling to mind the divine presence in every action in life.  The smallest action became a ritual that made God present in ordinary people.  Sufism became very popular as well.

Jews – Kabbalah – mythical, imaginative spirituality.

The Crusades – God was an idol.  “They foisted their own fear and loathing of these rival faiths onto a deity they had created in their own likeness.”

Francis – 1200 – emulated Jesus in every detail.  More literal-minded than the apophatics, but was more practical than doctrinal.

Aquinas – all our statements about God are inadequate.  “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know him.”

Before offering “proofs” of God, he said, we must remember that because of God’s absolute unknowability we cannot define what it is that we are trying to prove.”

The primordial question: Why does something exist rather than nothing?
“Pushed to the limit, reason turns itself inside out, words no longer make sense, and we are reduced to silence.”   “Faith” for him was not intellectual assent.  “Faith was the ability to appreciate and take delight I the nonempirical realities that we glimpse I the world.”
All language about God must be analogical.

Along about this time students studied the sciences before theology;  they brought that language to religion – Ockham began to see doctrines as being literally true, and subject to exact analysis and inquiry.   Symbolism for him was out.  There started the rift between theology and spirituality. 
In the 14th and 15th centuries  people began seeking an experience with God through intense emotional states.  This was seen as a sign of God’s pleasure.  They had discarded symbolic language, in favor of analysis, and when this was found to be dry and boring they sought God through mindlessness, through generated experiences.

Eckhart – “For if you love God  as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image – all this must go!  Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is – pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality . . . “

Julian – Unknowing.  All you an say is “God!” and “Love!”

This polarity created thinking theologians and loving mystics.  Theology had become incomprehensible to all but the highly educated, and arid too.  “Sham” experiences of God were being sought by many.

PART TWO:  The Modern God

Seven: Science and Religion

Columbus, 1492 . . . The Spanish force Jews and Muslims to convert, start the Spanish Inquisition to promote Spanish unity.  In the 16th century  secularization was accelerated by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.

Martin Luther: “a yearning for absolute certainty that would also characterize religion in the modern period.”   He found salvation in justification by faith alone.  And by “faith” he meant the premodern understanding:  “Faith does not require information, knowledge and certainty, but a free surrender and joyful bet on his unfelt, untried and unknown goodness.”

The printing press put the scriptures in the hand of the common people.

On the Eucharist: is became “only” a symbol – “They were beginning to speak about the myths of religion as though they were logoi.”   “Correct faith was gradually becoming a matter of accepting the proper teachings.”

Copernicus and Galileo – a heliocentric view fostered by the discoveries of science.  The Catholic Church, intent upon self-preservation, turned to strident dogma – away from not-knowing to knowing all, in order to establish certainty and its own power.

In like fashion Protestants too “came to regard scientific rationality as the only route to truth, and would seek a rational certainty that . . .philosophers had long held to be impossible I matters of faith.”

Eight: Scientific Religion

Beginning in 1618, the Thirty Years’ War killed 35% of central Europe – religion was powerless to stop it.  Catholic vs Protestant.

Descartes – sought a truth everyone could agree upon, uniting all in peace.   The experience of doubt was the foundation of his certainty.  “I think . . . therefore I am.”  For him, science was the answer – the discovery of God’s laws should be our pursuit, taking the wonder out of the world.  The scientists could talk about God – only math and physics could do that.  Here was the severing of faith and science.

The universe became mechanical.  Understanding its laws meant that someday “doubt and perplexity would be things of the past.”

Spinoza – Jewish philosopher. God was inseparable from the material world, an immanent force that wielded everything into unity and harmony.

Newton and Gravity.  God was becoming “a rational consequence of the world’s intricate design.”    For Newton, “mystery” was sheer irrationality.

An “atheist” in this time was anyone who held beliefs we disapproved of – deviancy from morality, norms.  Everyone believed that natural laws required a Lawgiver. 

“God had become a mere force of nature.  Theology had thrown itself on the mercy of science.” 
“But the new scientific religion was about to make God incredible. In reduceing God to a scientific explanation, the scientists and theologians of the 17th century were turning God into an idol, a mere human projection.”

Prior to Augustine and Thomas said nature could tell us nothing about God;  now science said nature would tell us everything about God.  But what would happen when a later generation of scientists found another ultimate explanation for the universe?

Nine: Enlightenment

Everyone, including conservative preachers like Cotton Mather, were on board with science – “a wondrous incentive to religion.”  Newton’s laws revealed God’s great design in the universe.  Atheism had been disproven by the discoveries of God’s laws by scientists.

Rise of “Deism” – “sought to bring faith under the control of reason.”

“This emphasis o proof was gradually changing the conception of “belief.””  Thomas Jefferson:  belief is “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.”

Pietist movement arose in reaction to the marriage of science and religion, the elevation of the mind over emotion.  Zinzendorf said that “faith is not in thoughts nor in the head but in the heart.”

Wesley too emphasized that religion is of the heart.  He said, “Orthodoxy or right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”  

The First Great Awakening caused an excess of emotional indulgence.  A continued tension between head and heart, mind and emotion, science and faith.

Rousseau – said that religion’s God was a “mere projection of human desires.”  Instead he sought “a deity that would be discovered by kenosis, compassion, and the humble contemplation of the majesty of the universe.”

The romantic poets – Nature to be reverenced, it was imbued with spiritual power.  “Romantic poets revived a spirituality that had been submerged in the scientific age.”

As the Enlightenment proper drew to a close, some were wanting to turn back to more emotional, spiritual, intuitive faith, away from a mechanistic, unfeeling God of scientific law.

Ten: Atheism

Rise of Evangelicalism – a return to biblical authority, a religion of the heart rather than the head – felt conviction and virtuous living.  Thus the Second Great Awakening, 1800-35.  

Evangelicals brought with them “an unprecedented literalism” because it seemed more rational that allegorical exegesis.  They adopted Enlightenment’s idea of “belief” as intellectual conviction.

Huge increase in churches, from 2500 in 1790 to 52,000 in 1860!

Eleven:  Unknowing

Th 20th century began with great optimism – Science was rolling back the limits of our knowledge, industry booming, inventions.  “Old certainties were evaporating.”
“But the First World War revealed the self-destructive nihilism that, despite colossal attainments, lurked at the heart of modern Western civilization.”
There followed the Great Depression.  “Modern secular ideologies were proving to be as lethal as any religious bigotry.”    Like all idolatries: Once the finite reality of the nation had become an absolute value, it was compelled to overcome and destroy all rival claimants.   – See Marx, Stalin, Hitler

Albert Einstein’s discoveries and theories – “Newton’s grand certainties had been replaced by a system that was ambiguous, shifting, and indeterminate.”  Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians – not only was God beyond the reach of the human mind, but the natural world was also terminally elusive.
Einstein’s affirmation of the reality of the mysterious  . . . 

Rise of Pentecostalism – sought “the immediacy of sense experience to validate their beliefs” – through speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, healing miracles.  While Evangelicals tried to make a case for a reasonable, scientific and yet Bible-based religion, Pentecostalists relied on personal internal experience.

Fundamentalism – on any stripe religious or not – “rooted in profound fear.”  Liberal Protestants went on the attack against the conservatives, and the Scopes trial placed evolution at the center of the debate.

WW II, the Holocaust – cast more doubt on the existence of an omnipotent God.

Key idea for Armstrong:
The idea of God is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence and has been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries.  The modern God [the God we 21st century people typically assume, and the one the new atheists attack] conceived as powerful creator, first cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable is a recent phenonmenon.
Many feel that the hopes of the Enlightenment [that the world is progressing, science will lead us from darkness to light, our faith is rational and supported by science] died in Auschwitz.  [That is, the Holocaust as the “last straw” in the progression of 20th century disappointments:  WW I, Depression, Stalin, Hitler, WW II.]

Today we have amore modest conception of the powers of human reason.  We have seen too much evil in recent years to indulge I a facile theology  that says . . . that God knows what he is doing, that he has a secret plan that we cannot fathom, or that suffering gives men and women the opportunity to practice heroic virtue.  A modern theology must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter into the cloud of unknowing.

Heidegger, Bultmann, Tillich – 20th century theologians who argued that we can say nothing about God – saying anything will of course limit the reality of God.  “We experience the divine in our absolute commitment to ultimate truth, love, beauty, justice, and compassion – even if it requires the sacrifice of our own life.”

“By the middle of the 20th century . . . there was no serene Enlightenment optimism in the rationality of human experience.”  But soon “new forms of religiosity, a different kind of atheism would arise . . .  Despite the fact that unknowing seemed built into our condition, a strident lust for certainty would arise as well.

Twelve: Death of God?

1960s  . . .  dramatic loss of faith by Europeans.   The Secular City  (1965) announced the death of God.  Huge changes in societal norms. 
“Postmodernity” -  skepticism about science, progress, rationality. 

Ordinary people, not just philosophers, began to claim the title of “atheist” – not always because they had studied the arguments but because of the times.  See Lennon’s Imagine. 

God was no longer necessary, but Jesus was popular – he defines what it is to be a man.

At the same time young people sought spiritual experience through eastern religion, drugs – a hunger for mythos.

Rise of “militant religiosity” revealed a “widespread disappointment in modernity.”  Jerry Falwell, literalism, anti-evolution.
In all its forms, fundamentalism is a fiercely reductive faith.  In their anxiety and fear, [they] often distort the tradition they are trying to defend.   Faith becomes idolatry – and always the idol forces its followers to destroy its opponents.

Islam fundamentalism acts just like any other kind of fundamentalism.  Armstrong wants to caution us Christians against giving the religion of Islam too much blame for the actions of the extremists, saying that their motivations are more political than religious.

The new atheism – “a militant form of atheism.”   Starts with Monod what said that “it was not only intellectually but also morally wrong to accept any ideas that were not scientifically verifiable.  He admitted there is no way to prove that assertion – thus admitting (says Armstrong) that even the scientific quest began with an act of faith.

Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker (1986)   Like Harris and Christopher Hitchens, “religion is the cause of all the problems of our world, the source of absolute evil and poisons everything.”

But Jay Gould “revived the ancient distinction and complementarity of mythos and logos.”  Spoke of two “magisterial,” both valid in their separate areas (science and religion).

Armstrong  very critical of Dawkins, Harris and  Hitchens because of the portrait they paint of Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) – as if all of faith is the faith of the Fundamentalists.   They “present religion at its absolute worst.”  For them “faith is mindless credulity.”   
She accuses them of the Fundamentalist Atheists, guilty of the very things they say faith is guilty of: 

-       Reductionism – reducing the enemy to a simplistic and inaccurate representation – a “straw man” easily attacked.
-       Intolerance – all religion, even Moderate religion, must be eliminated
-       “Show little concern about the poverty, injustice, and humiliation that have inspired many of the atrocities they deplore – they show no yearning for a better world.”  That is, they are so fixated on their own arguments that they have no morality to offer in place of the religion they criticize.
-       “Believe that there is only one way of interpreting reality.  For the new atheists, scientism alone can lead us to truth.”

Postmodernism – “Our knowledge is relative, subjective, and fallible rather than certain and absolute;  truth is inherently ambiguous.”  Postmodern people are suspicious of past truth-claims, and the stories that support them.