Talking About God, Part 5: Translating Faith

OK, I lied: Part 4 wasn’t the last post in the Talking About God series, because I barely scratched the surface in that post. I basically rehashed traditional ideas about God’s transcendence, immanence, and redemptiveness. Important ideas, but there’s so much more to talk about! Today I’d like to talk about how spiritualities are “translated” into scientific and philosophical language. This is done both to help evangelism, or spreading the spirituality, and to systematize it, or make sure its ideas are consistent and presented a coherent worldview. Most religions are not conceived of in the throes of philosophical debate; their impetus tends to be personal, mysterious, emotional experiences that shock and change those who experience them.

Theology is the attempt to mesh those experiences with a systematic way of understanding the world. The order of this is crucial to remember: non-dual experiences in which people experience a sense of direct presence of Truth are the foundation of any legitimate spirituality. Reason is brought in later to make sense of the experience. Generally the experiences themselves, however, defy traditional reason by cutting through the dualities that we use to understand and explain the world. So that many spiritualities struggle to reconcile their fundamental beliefs with reason is neither surprising nor an immediate reason to reject spirituality. Reason relies on comparing and contrasting to describe the world; at a fundamental level, religion always aims to transcend these dualities. Faith and science aren’t opposed, but they are different.

For Christians, of course, the fundamental experience is the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. I want to dedicate a whole post to discussing the different ways of interpreting this event, so for now let’s just admit the obvious: people don’t rise from the dead. This experience, if it was anything real, is mysterious, confusing, even frightening. It doesn’t make sense. Doubting it is normal and rational. But clearly those who experienced it, whatever it was, thought it was a real event. So the heart of Christianity is a claim that seems to defy reason. But Christianity isn’t unique in this regard. The central claims of all the main world faiths are similarly fantastic. Jews (well, and Christians, but more central for Jews) believe that the Creator of the entire universe chose to communicate with and protect just one small group of humans on the Earth, intervening repeatedly to guide these people through a tumultuous history. Buddhists believe that through a cultivation of concentration and renunciation of desire, Siddhartha was essentially able to remove himself from the cycle of cause-and-effect the governs reality. Muslims believe that God recited the entire Quran to Muhammad, who remembered the entire document even though he was illiterate. Hindu believe is more diverse and is less based on one specific event, but the understanding of the incarnations, such as Krishna, are absolutely central to most Hindus’ faith and are equally mysterious events ontologically (I’m going to keep using this term–ontology–over over. If you’re not sure what it means, just click that link for a quick description! I promise it’s not nearly as stuffily intellectual as it sounds.)

These are the central, formative experiences that form the core of religious belief. Each of them defy reason in an abrupt way. And yet the first followers of each of these religions clearly felt that the experiences were not just real, not just valid, but were the most important events that had ever occurred. Were they just ignorant, irrational, unsophisticated people easily misled? Or were their experiences legitimate, something real, even if mysterious? Our answers to these questions are always mediated through a pre-existing worldview. We make judgements not based on actually being present at any of the events asserted by a faith, but based on our experiences in reality in general. What’s problematic is that the worldviews we are using to interpret and judge the religious claims of others are themselves open to critique, and are themselves evolving and changing. Even the most secular worldview rests on certain assumptions. For the modern scientific worldview, there are three crucial assumptions made:

  1. There are fundamental and consistent laws or forces that govern the behavior of the universe.
  2. These laws or forces are temporally and spatially consistent: they act the same way at all times and in all places.
  3. Humans can, through observation and application of reason, discover these laws or forces.

These claims are absolutely central to the modern scientific worldview, but they are absolutely improvable. So far, they’ve held up extraordinarily well, and there’s no real reason to doubt them in general, but it’s possible that they’ll turn out to be less than fully true. In fact, the application of quantum mechanics may be overturning some of these fundamental assumptions, or at least adding significant caveats to each.

Anyway, overall, I think these are good assumptions to work with. The question is, if modern Christians accept these positions, do they conflict with our faith? Lots of people may immediately assume the answer is yes, since Christianity seems to make claims that directly conflict with a scientific viewpoint, but it’s not nearly so simple. First off, we need to delve into some history before we can really answer this question. Secondly, we need to refine our understanding of the empirical method–which I’ll take up in a later post.

Many modern Christians assume a post-Newtonian worldview with ease, but the first Christians lived 1500 years before Isaac Newton. Their understanding of their universe was different from the one we operate with. It’s hard to be sure just how different; our basic understanding of the laws of nature is so fundamental to how we interpret every experience we have that it may be literally impossible for us to imagine perceiving reality differently. But if we want to understand the claims these people made, both spiritually and ontologically, we have to look at the worldview through which they understood reality. Such an approach will allow us to sort of “reverse engineer” theology to figure out how we might talk about the Resurrection in more modern language without disparaging or sidelining it.

There are largely two currents of thought that formed the philosophical and ontological viewpoints of Eastern Mediterranean people around the time of Christ. The most dominant would have been the broad set of ideas that made up the Greek philosophical tradition. Platonic thought, along with Stoicism, Cynicism, Pythagorianism, Epicurianism, and a host of other schools of thought largely developed from the period of 550-250 BCE. By the time of the first century BCE, it was Platonism that was dominant, though Stoicism and Cynicism were also still popular. Platonic thought divided the world into two distinct spheres: the realm of the forms, and the realm of the material. The latter realm is the one we live in: matter and energy interacting. The realm of form, according to Plato and his disciples, is a metaphysical sphere of existence totally distinct from and superior to the material. The realm of forms is prior to the material causally, having given birth to the material world through a complex set of emanations from the Source of everything, which Plato generally called the Good. The material world itself was understood as damaged, and the goal of life was to escape it.

This very brief and basic description will probably immediately remind most readers of lots of ideas in contemporary Christianity. The template for what would become stock Christian ideas about the structure of reality and the afterlife are clearly present, and this is no accident, because in its first few centuries, Christians would use a neo-Platonic framework to describe and defend their fatih. But we need to talk about one other worldview present at the time of the early Church, one that was sidelined early on but is crucial in our effort to understand the experiences of the first Christians.

Jesus and his disciples, of course, were not Greek. They were Aramaic-speaking Hebrews, Jews. Although Greek philosophical and even religious thought had been well-known in Judea since at least the time of Alexander’s conquests (the Sadduccees, mentioned in the New Testament but rarely if ever after the fall of the second temple, were probably the group most open to Greek religious thought), traditional Hebrew ontology was radically different. For one thing, it was much less speculative and systematic. Whereas Greek philosophy largely discarded with traditional Greek polytheism (in fact it was the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens with atheism that Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death), Hebrew ontology is tied intimately with the Hebrew religion. No complicated metaphysics was proposed, God was understood as one, transcendent reality which created, upheld, and governed everything. Whereas Greek philosophy asked detailed, reductionist questions about how nature worked at a basic level, Hebrew ontology tended to be more anthropological and historical, talking about how God was interacting with humans, and what future lay ahead for humanity. Hebrew ontology also was not dualistic, it didn’t divide the world into two realms. In the Hebraic worldview there was just one reality, and speculation about God’s nature was either discouraged or outright banned, for fear of slipping into the idolatry of an idea.

I think it’s clear that each of these two ontologies would yield a radically different way of coming to terms with a wide range of questions, and especially for how to understand something like the Resurrection. Crucially, it was Hebrews–not Greeks–who claimed to have experienced the Resurrection. But just as crucially, it was Greeks, or other Gentiles, who developed Christian theology from the end of the first century onward. So the Resurrection was experienced and mediated through the Hebraic ontology, but then “translated” into the Greek one for explanation and dissemination. And I think much was probably lost in this translation.

From the perspective of Hebrew ontology, if a miraculous event occurred, the only question was, “is this event consistent with what we believe about God”, since God was understood as all-powerful and directly engaged in the workings of the world. So the Resurrection was likely immediately understood and accepted as vindication of Jesus’ teachings and innocence. The message was political and social: the oppressed of the world, though dominated, crushed, and murdered, will, in the end, be vindicated by God. This interpretation is hardly unique to the Jews of the early Jesus movement–the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of God’s action in the same way. This is the fabric of Hebraic ontology: an all-powerful, redemptive God acting to bring out justice in the world. But the Greek viewpoint was, as we have seen, quite different. For the Greek, the most crucial question was, how could this event occur? How did it work, mechanically? Especially puzzling would have been the seeming confusion of the two realms: the form and the material. In claiming that Jesus was divine, Greeks would have experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance: no human can be divine, divinity was understood as limited to the realm of forms. So the very terms of the event didn’t translate well into Greek thinking.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? First and foremost, when we talk about the Resurrection, we need to be careful and clear: those who experienced it didn’t understand reality the way we do. They experienced the risen Jesus as physically yet mysteriously present to them, and accepted it along the lines of their worldview, which allowed for all sorts of miracles. But for us–like many contemporary Greeks–their claims are hard to swallow. Does this mean that their claims are simply and in-arguably false? Not necessarily. But it does mean that had the same event occurred with a community that understood the world differently, it might have been described in radically different terms. So we have to ask what the event really means to us, today. In other words, we have to not only be concerned with ontological questions–what is, how do things work–but also epistemological ones–how do we interpret reality, how do we evaluate claims. This complicates things considerably. I’m going to take up these issues in subsequent posts in the Talking About God series, which, it seems, will continue on for many posts yet to come.

Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God

In the previous three posts in this series, I discussed fundamentalism, skeptical atheism, and liberal theology: an outline of their origins, their basic contents, and how they are affecting contemporary theology. I’d like now to turn from just describing currents of thought that either are fundamentally (hah!) flawed or, in the case of the latter 2, useful to an extent but still fall short. I’d like to talk about more current approaches to theology, and how traditional spirituality can be interpreted in modern language and thought-forms without losing its core character. That’s not an easy task, but it’s an essential one if Christianity (and other traditional faiths) are going to remain relevant in the future.

First off, though, some people might stop us right here, before we begin, and tell us we’re wasting our time. Certainly, they might say, Christianity has been disproven, discredited, and otherwise made irrelevant. The modern worldview is incompatible with Christianity, and it’s proven itself more useful and more honest. So why bother?

Fundamental to this question is a deeper and more basic set of questions. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about Christianity? Is it a totally cohesive set of ideas? Or is it a collection of ideas, some useful and some not? Can some of the traditional dogmas be ejected without compromising the faith? Are there central tenets that have to be retained for the faith to maintain any semblance of identity? These are crucial questions that we have to answer to make any progress in a modern interpretation of Christianity. At the same time, they’re also very subjective questions. There’s plenty of room for disagreement. From here on out, though, I’m going to give my two cents. But I want to make it clear that I’m not laying my opinions down as fact. I’ve thought a lot about this, and will defend my positions passionately. But I’m sure I’m wrong about at least a few of the positions I’m going to lay out here. Hopefully the process of asking and answering, over and over, will act to smelt out an answer, or at least  a set of guiding principles as we try to make progress on this impossibly complex task.

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Talking About God, Part 3: ‘Liberal’ Theology

In Part 1, I discussed the rise of fundamentalist theology; in Part 2, I discussed the parallel rise of skeptical atheism. Now I’d like to turn to a sort of “compromise” between the two, generally referred to as liberal theology–though this name can be confusing. In this case, the term liberal shouldn’t be confused with any political or social movement or ideology. Although someone might subscribe to both a liberal theology and a liberal political ideology, there’s no reason they would have to, and in fact plenty of political conservatives might subscribe to a liberal theology, and plenty of liberals, and even more left-leaning progressives and radicals, might have a lot of problems with liberal theology (I would fall into that group, for example). In this context, liberal is meant to signify that this theology re-interpreted a lot of traditional stories and dogmas in a new, or ‘liberal’ way. In a lot of ways, it was an attempt to craft a Christianity that could stand up to the scientific scrutiny of the 19th century. And as such an effort, it was and is laudable. However, it also tended to take on a bourgeois-friendly, apolitical character. It largely re-casted Christianity as an uncontroversial set of moral principles, stripping Christianity both of its intense spirituality and its politically and socially radical nature. In that sense, it shares in some of the criticism of fundamentalism–liberal theology may have, at least in part, been advanced to create a religious system that meshed well with the developing capitalist, industrialist order. That said, its academic contributions can’t simply be ignored, and its impact on Christianity is undeniable. Whatever future the faith has, liberal theology will have a role to play. So let’s dig a bit deeper into exactly what it is.

Over the course of this post, I will try to make three main points: liberal theology hollowed out Christianity, re-casting it as a capitalist-friendly set of morality tales. It also brought a scientific-minded approach to Biblical hermeneutics that was simultaneously a good step forward yet flawed and limited in a variety of ways. Finally, liberal theology must both be willing to draw from Christian traditions as well as contemporary science and philosophy as it helps to build the foundations of a truly modern theology.

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Talking About God, Part 2: Skeptical Atheism

I opened the previous post with a quick introduction into three of the dominant ways that modern people think and talk about God: fundamentalism, atheism, and a compromised or “liberal” theology. I then went on to outline how fundamentalism is primarily a political and social ideology rather than a real theology–its genesis and raison d’etre are, I believe, almost entirely political; philosophical and spiritual ideas are brought in to buttress the political ideology, not for their own merit. The result is a predictably shallow and unconvincing theological approach that, outside of the committed True Believers, is less than irrelevant. In this post I’d like to talk about contemporary atheism: how I think it began, what I think it’s responding to, and in what ways its useful and accurate, and in which ways it may be lacking. Like in the last post, I’m not going to cite anything, even though I’m making some historical claims. That’s mostly because I’m sitting in Korea and don’t have access to a lot of the books I’d like to cite. I hope to fill in this lack of citations in a month or two when I get back to the States. For now, please excuse my unsupported claims. In any event, I’m more interested in discussing broad outlines rather than historical specifics, and I think my basic position holds water even without full citations.

Modern atheism’s rise, I think, parallels that of fundamentalism closely. I do, though, want to make clear that unlike the hostile and dismissive tone I took with fundamentalism, I think there’s plenty to defend in skeptical atheism, even though I don’t embrace this position myself. Particularly as a response to fundamentalism, atheism is valuable, and in a lot of ways probably acted as a catalyst for the resurgence in good theology in the 20th century. Folks like Paul Tillich, Richard Neihbur, and even Karl Barth probably a great deal to atheism, since in so many ways it has focused contemporary Christian theology on central–and long-neglected–issues.

Though doubt is of course nothing new, for thousands of years, belief in gods, or God, or something along those lines, was generally seen as self-evident–creation stories relied on deity/ies in order to explain the world humans found themselves in. The real revolutions in spiritual insight were largely clarifying and deepening people’s understanding of God: moving from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism, for example. Or expanding the role of God from tribal protector to governor of the world to foundation of the universe, for another. But something crucial happened in western Christianity, starting in the 13th or 14th century. With the rise of what we might call “proto-science”, intellectuals were increasingly interested in analytical or reductionist reasoning; they were finding that if you took things apart, reduced them to the their constituent pieces, you could understand the wholes much better. The approach worked so well for so many things, that theologians began to think about their work in a similar way. Contemporary “radical orthodox” theologians trace this development back to Aquinas, essentially arguing that he was the watershed between a more traditional understanding of God as utterly mysterious and beyond rational grasp and a newer theology that treated God as a thing that could be observed and measured.

Karen Armstrong talks a lot in her books about the “Axial Age”, a period of one or two hundred years when, throughout the Mediterranean, India, and China, a huge revolution in spiritual and philosophical thought occurred. Socrates, Plato, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, and the writers of the Upanishads all lived in this narrow band of time. And all of them had some strikingly similar things to say. They all described the world as a united whole, governed by an inscrutable Law, or God, or Way. Proper living meant not fighting the universe, or begging it for special favors, as most previous religions had advised, but rather in harmonizing oneself with what Plato called “the Good”, what Siddhartha refers to as “Dharma”, what Lao Tzu called “the Way” and what Isaiah called “the Lord God”.

It was during this time that the tribal henotheism of the Israelites transformed into a true monotheism: Isaiah spoke of God not only as looking out for the interests of the Israelites and Judeans, but as the God of all people, who would ultimately deliver the whole world. He spoke of a future in which not only the Hebrews, but “all flesh would see the glory of the Lord.” It was a huge shift, and in a lot of ways I think it’s accurate to say that it was with Isaiah and Jeremiah that Judaism, as we know it now, was really launched. The religion that preceded it might be better referred to as Israelitism, or Hebrewism, for it functioned as an ethnic ideology in which the Hebrews claimed that their god would lead them to military and cultural victory over surrounding people. It’s with the destruction of Israel (the northern part of the Hebrews’ territory) by the Assyrians and the exile of Judah (the southern part, centered on Jerusalem) to Babylon about 150 years later that launched a sort of existential crisis within proto-Judaism. God, it seemed, was no longer on the Hebrews’ side. The tribes of Israel were scattered to the East, most never to be heard from again. The ruling elites of Jerusalem were serving in the court of the King of Babylon, so famously described in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps….How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” And at that point, you’d expect that the Hebrews–and their religion–would be over, absorbed into the storm of ethnicities around them as a much more powerful political force swept them out of the way.

But that’s not what happened. The Hebrews living in Babylon not only kept their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, but they totally transformed the latter into what would become the most dominant religious trajectory of the entire world. That trajectory began as religious thinkers at the time began to reflect–if God had abandoned the Hebrews, allowed them to be defeated by heathens, that meant that not only had the Hebrews fallen short of their religious duties (a common, even dominant, theme of earlier prophets) but also that their God’s power was not limited to the territory of Israel and Judah–if God was helping the Babylonians and Assyrians, that meant that there truly was no God of Israel, and no God of Assyria, and no gods of Babylon. It meant that there was one God, ruler of the whole universe, who was leading not only the Israelites, but the whole of humanity. This realization, reached in Babylon, would return with the exiles upon their return to Jerusalem as the Persians defeated the Babylonians. Judaism was launched. It may have been at this time that resurrection theology grew to fruition as well, as people grappled with how God would exact final justice when it seemed that so often the good were punished and the wicked prevailed. God’s rewards and punishments were increasingly seen as eternal and universal, rather than immediate and particular. The faith that was evolving was one of universal hope, the Kingdom of God was a coming state of peace and intimate knowledge of the Source of Everything, not just a political state of affairs.

This radical reworking of “Hebrewism” into Judaism shifted the faith away from ritualistic concerns and towards ethical ones. This is why many people have referred to this as the launching of “ethical monotheism”. The prophet Amos captured the mood perfectly. He has God say: ““I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5: 21-24, emphasis mine). For all the moralizing of contemporary Christianity, at its root, Judeo-Christian belief is a cry for liberation, for justice, and for peace.

Crucially, for our discussion, the concept of God that underpinned this nascent Judaism had to differ greatly from the tribal, war-like deity of the past. This was a universal God, a just God, an almighty God. This was a God that was leading not just Israel to victory, but the whole world, the whole universe, to Reunion. This was something radically different. This understanding of God could no longer see the deity as a sort of superhuman being, a kind of spiritual superperson. This God was something a whole order of magnitude greater and different. God was not a being at all–not even the supreme one–God was being itself, the foundation of existence. Utterly transcendent.

I’ll have a lot more to say about transcendence (and imminence, yay!) in Part 4. But for now I want to shift back to the main focus of this post. The point of all this historical blathering on (I do promise it had a point) is that the idea of God arrived at around 500 BCE in Babylon among the Hebrew/Jewish diaspora there was of a transcendent God, the foundation of all being. It’s worth pointing out that even the name of God in Hebrew, which may have been/probably was something like Yahweh, can be translated as “I am that which is becoming”. Of course, it can also be translated in other ways, but it’s not hard to see how this name captures a transcendent streak in Hebraic thinking, even before the Babylonian exile. That streak came to fruition in folks like Isaiah, and the dominant way of thinking about God throughout the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world for the next 1500 years would keep God’s transcendence front and center.

But that changed–at least in western Europe–and to understand the rise of modern atheism, that change has to be understood. The exact details of the change are a bit tedious, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, as mentioned above, a major change took place. Scholasticism, best epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, slowly moved away from the mystical, transcendent view of God, and began to describe God as the “Supreme Being”. They then set out to prove that such a Supreme Being must exist, and thereby hoped to build a sort of un-scalable wall around the Catholic faith. But in so doing, they abandoned the central tenet of monotheism, without which the whole system of thought and belief falls apart. The huge watershed of the Axial Age amounted to the recognition of God as a transcendent yet immanent mystery, a non-dual reality, the intersection of all seeming contradictions, the beginning and the end of all things. Scholastic thought attempted to break this picture down and analyze its pieces.

But the very nature of something that is non-dual is that it can’t be broken down further for analysis. For example, when Buddha says that the Dharma is neither personal nor non-personal, he was expressing the fact that the true nature of the Dharma is beyond reason. Reason assumes opposites and contradictions. That’s how logic works: we describe things by using opposites and terms that contrast. When I say that a dinosaur is big or a mouse is small, I’m relying on the opposing definition of those two adjectives. But God, as the foundation, source, and sustainer of all things, cannot be defined in these terms, since these terms exist as products of God. To paraphrase a central tenet of Taoism, a god that can be described is not the true God.

Anyway, I’ll dig more into this in Part 4 of this series. For now, suffice it to say that this critical distinction between God and all other concepts was essentially abandoned by Scholastic theologians. And so the idea of God that became prominent in Western Europe in the Renaissance and thereafter–and crucially during the science-promoting Enlightenment–was a sort of ersatz theology that lacked the crucial Axial insight. In other words, the theism that atheism arose to challenge and reject was not a truly Jewish or Christian theism. It was a compromised vision of God that had already attempted to analyze God through means that are inappropriate. This led not only to problematic and even silly proofs of God, but also a caricatured understanding of him among the lay faithful that was easily ridiculed. When God is seen as an angry man in the sky who rewards or punishes people based on their creedal allegiance, atheism makes plenty of sense. Michelangelo’s seminal image of God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome really captures the problem: there’s God, a balding, bearded white man in Mediterranean robes, reaching out with his hand to zap Adam to life, ET-style. Looking at that image, it’s palpably clear why Jews and Muslims alike forbid any pictural rendering of God.

So skeptical atheism arose as a response to the Scholastics’ ersatz theology–and rightly debunked it. But as we rediscover the full and true nature of what theism was and should be, the skeptical atheist response has much less to say. It’s not even clear that skeptical atheism really disagrees with a transcendent-immanent theism–this will largely depend on the individual atheists and theists involved. The broader point though, is that, at least in reference to the sort of “theism” that was popular in the West for the last half millennium, we may really be able to talk about a post-theism, post-atheism sort of theology and philosophy. Ironically, this newer theology may largely simply be a return to our roots. It’s worth pointing out that even in the Christian world, the loss of a transcendent view of God was almost exclusively a Western one–the Eastern and Oriental* Orthodox Churches didn’t embrace the Scholastics’ God-as-a-thing theological approach, and retain to this day a much richer vision of God. The same is obviously true for religious folks outside of Christianity, and it may be that fact–as well as the co-option of Christianity by political elites–more than anything that has led to many people searching for “spiritual truth” outside of traditional Western spirituality. We ejected many of our central truths more than 500 years ago. But I think we can get them back.

This understanding of the history of theism and atheism isn’t necessarily hostile to atheism–as I said before, in a lot of ways, this understanding owes a lot to atheism. And it certainly wouldn’t embrace the sort of anti-scientific nonsense that has such currency in fundamentalist circles. Nonetheless, it would certainly place huge emphasis on the insight that in trying to understand the transcendent-immanent foundations of existence, science itself will be of limited use, since in trying to understand God we are not trying to understand anything, or anyone. We are trying to arrive at a state of non-dual experience, the coincidence of contradictions, to borrow from Nicolas de Cusa. Anyway, I’ll talk more about all of this in Part 4. This post is already 2500 words long–so it’s time to wrap up. Next time, in Part 3, I’ll discuss the liberal theology that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries–both its contributions and its limitations.

*I realize that this term is sometimes offensive–but in this case, “Oriental” does not refer to people from eastern Asia, but rather to a specific group of churches in Africa, the Middle East, and India. It’s the name that’s been used for centuries, and has been retained in modern usage despite the confusion it sometimes generates.

Talking About God, Part 1: Fundamentalism

“God” is a word that is at once fundamental and mysterious. Most people talk about God–affirmatively or dismissively–as if they are talking about something they are well acquainted with. God is understood as a celestial father, or an impersonal force, or a wrathful ruler, or an-loving presence. God is attested to in a variety of scriptures; people claim to have experienced God in a variety of revelations and mystical experiences. The more skeptical dismiss God as a psychological aberration or a political ploy. So what is God? When we are talking about God–that is, when we are doing theology–what is it that we’re talking about?

I’m more interested in talking about what I think God is (and isn’t…we’ll get to the problems with this language in a bit) rather than in dismissing all the approaches to thinking about God that I disagree with. For one thing, there are a lot of ideas about God. Most of them are either outdated or crazy, and there’s centuries worth of literature that enumerates, in excruciating detail, just why those approaches are so wrong. But I will touch briefly on the main currents of thought present in the West now, as I see them. I will now launch in a very long discussion of them, since once I started writing, I realized I couldn’t really say anything worthwhile in just a few hundred words.

Basically, I think you can talk about three broad approaches to thinking about God: one is fundamentalism, which argues that there is a book somewhere that tells us everything we need to know about God. The book is assumed to be revelation, that is, the unadulterated Word of God, unquestionable, and without which any knowledge of God is impossible. The second is complete skepticism, which dismisses the idea of God outright as either a psychological aberration, a holdover from our primitive days that we need to evolve beyond; a cynical political invention used to manipulate poor and/or foolish people; or an idea that intellectually deficient people hold on to as they face the brutal reality of life. Third, there are people who attempt to build a sort of compromise approach. They don’t deny or assert God in any particular way. They often believe in God in the same way that we believe in black holes: they’re interesting, but irrelevant. This is approach is common among folks who ascribe either to agnosticism or who believe in God and may even define themselves as belonging to a specific religious group, but who don’t really assert anything in particular. Often, these folks treat their religion more as a cultural or social group that they enjoy being a part of. While this approach to spirituality has plenty of things going for it–it tends to be highly tolerant, for example–it also strips religion of most of its social criticism and spiritual insight. A compromised theology is unlikely to inspire people to change themselves or their society. It is easily co-opted by the society around it, and lacks any “prophetic” potential to really challenge anyone or anything.

OK, so let’s talk about these each in turn really quickly fundamentalism now and I’ll address the others in subsequent posts (Parts 2 & 3). Fundamentalism is pretty ubiquitous in the US these days. Most people probably assume its the default form of Christianity, and probably think that most Christians are die-hard fundamentalists. The reality, though, is that fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. While there have always been people who have insisted on a very literal reading of the Bible, for the most part, the dominant thinkers in both Eastern and Western Christianity didn’t, for centuries on end. It was the rise of modern science, which overturned many traditional mythologies, that really launched fundamentalism as a major theological force within western Christianity. With geology, biology, and physics all questioning traditional creation myths, histories, and ontologies, some Christians felt backed into a corner. But it’s worth pointing out that the initial reaction of many prominent theologians to, for example, Darwin’s Origins of Species was positive; they immediately perceived that evolutionary theory could be easily dovetailed to an understanding of God as a creative agent in the world. It would take a less-than literal reading of some passages of the Bible, but most serious readers of the Bible for centuries had known that most of the Bible was never meant to be read literally anyway. It used metaphor, analogy, myth, and poetry to discuss things that can’t be easily discussed–or in some cases, discussed at all–with literal language.

But quickly, a number of church leaders, especially within some Protestant denominations in North America, came out railing against Darwin, modern geology, and any other science that challenged their comfortable interpretations of religious truth. Even though Jesus himself directly challenged religious orthodoxy, a large number of Christian leaders were uninterested in any contemporary challenges, and worked to turn lay believers against the new sciences.

It would be easy to dismiss this as simply an act of ignorance or creedal closed-mindedness, but the truth is probably a lot more complicated. Ultimately, fundamentalism is a lot more about politics than theology. Wealthy elites always need a system to keep the people beneath them in line. Normally, they do this in at least two central ways: first, they pay some small proportion of people decent wages to act as police or soldiers, who then keep the status quo in place through force or threat of force. This is obvious, but in some ways is less insidious than the other major approach: the elites also cultivate ideologies–political, religious, economic, and otherwise–that act to legitimize their position in the society. If they can convince a large enough minority of those below them that they (the elites) deserve their wealth, power, and privilege, those same elites can save a lot of money on police and military security, and much of the work of maintaining the status quo will be done for them by the very people they are exploiting.

Now, some more skeptically-minded folks (who we’ll get to in a bit in a subsequent post because this post is already nearly 2000 words long) might, at this point, argue that religion itself is nothing but a very old and complex form of social manipulation by elites. This is a tempting answer, since it ties everything up in a neat bow, but unfortunately, much of the reality of religion is left outside the knot. For one, religions have launched far too many riots, revolutions, and resistance movements to explain their existence so simply. And these upheavals are not the result of some peripheral aspect of religion; most religions’ central texts are full of contempt and condemnation–and often damnation–for the wealthy and powerful. The idea that they were designed to act as an opium of the masses doesn’t fit the history or the texts. The truth is more complex than that. However, such skeptical dismissals of religion aren’t all wrong–it’s clear that many, really, all, religions, once they become popular enough over a given group, are often appropriated by elites for their own ends. So even if the vestments weren’t sewn in the first place to act as the Emperor’s New Clothes, they certainly are often custom-tailored to the purpose later on.

Fundamentalism represents the primary approach to this appropriation in the modern era. While I’m now definitely diving out of theology and more deeply into politics, I don’t think one can understand fundamentalism without talking about politics. The initial reaction of a number of theologians and Christian leaders to Darwin’s Origin of Species, as I mentioned above, was actually positive. They saw his theory of natural selection as a newer, more scientific way of interpreting God’s creative agency in the universe. But within a few years, that sort of open-minded critical engagement with science was being dismissed, especially in North American Evangelical Christianity, as surrendering to an ominous new threat. Battle lines were drawn, with “Bible-believing” Christians on the one side and the Enemies of Civilization on the other. Industrialization had created vast new wealth, but had also plunged millions into not only horrific poverty, but grindingly inhuman work. The social order was being completely overturned, and many elites recognized a serious threat to their power within society. And a number of Christian leaders decided to step in, ally themselves to those within power, and offer their services to keep at least one sizable segment of the population from embracing any unsettling new ideas–scientific or political. They overlooked the fact that at its heart, the Gospel message is one of liberation, of equality, and of rejection of power, wealth, and privilege, and instead crafted–like so many church leaders before them–a modified Christianity designed not to nurture, enlighten, and liberate their fellow Christians, but rather one customized to keep their fellow Christians in their place.

In the 20th century, the clearest demonstration of this is the “Culture Wars” which were launched by conservative thinkers in the 1970s. Christian allegiance was reinterpreted to mean toeing the line on a limited number of issues–especially a rejection of gay rights and an absolute ban on abortion. Other issues much more central to the Gospel–combating poverty, resisting war, denouncing wealth and power, building loving and compassionate societies–were all sidelined or completely ignored, because they represented a threat to those in power. Gay rights and access to abortion are largely unimportant to powerful people, who have the money, access, and immunity to pursue whatever sexual lives they choose, and the resources to access, for example, contraceptives or abortions if they need. Money can buy anything, even if its illegal. So these two issues are great ones for the elites’ fundamentalist allies to focus on, since by focusing millions of Evangelicals on them, other questions will be left unaddressed, and the status quo can be much more easily maintained. The fact that this has led many Christians to hate, persecute, and even attack and kill homosexuals, their allies, abortion providers, women who seek abortions, and their allies, is seen by fundamentalist leaders not as deeply un-Christian and shameful, but rather as evidence that the Culture Wars are being won.

So what does all of this mean for theology? What does all of this political maneuvering have to do with our understanding of God? Well, the fundamentalist vision of God is one crafted not out of intellectual or spiritual exploration or research, but one that has been designed to fit into the fundamentalist social framework. So, through fundamentalism, politics invades theology and subjugates legitimate theological questions to partisan interests. Not surprisingly, then, the fundamentalist vision of God is not only childishly simplistic, but out of line with Biblical and Patristic theological viewpoints. Fundamentalism isn’t a re-capturing of Christianity’s traditional core, its an utterly warped caricature of that core.

The heart of the most central prophet books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as well as the Christian Gospel was and is a cry for social justice. Isaiah, for example, in chapter 10:1-3, warns “…those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?” Psalm 12, verse 5: “Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” Jesus told his disciples, “[i]f you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In the Epistle of James, chapter 2:3-4, the writer warns his readers that “if you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been social justice. God was seen time and time again as the Avenger who would punish the wealthy and powerful for their arrogance, selfishness, and oppression. Fundamentalism’s primary role is in distracting modern Christians from this reality and convincing them that their faith obligates them to toeing a partisan line designed to make it easier for rich people to exploit them. The very heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion and resurrection: a poor peasant from a peripheral province of a vast empire is killed by the State for sedition. His resurrection was seen then as the proof of God’s promise to overturn the corrupt worldly order and institute the Kingdom of Heaven, where, in the words of Isaiah, chapter 40:4-5: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together…” Fundamentalism is the modern incarnation of the effort by those in power to obscure this message, and replace it with a reactionary one designed not to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven, but to keep the current social order intact for as long as possible. As such, fundamentalism is a betrayal of Christ’s message and a huge failure on the part of the church.

OK! So that ended up being way longer than I originally intended. I recognize that my “history” of fundamentalism is very simplistic; I wasn’t trying to describe all the specific historical causes involved in creating the modern fundamentalist movement in all its complexity, but rather in explaining what I think essentially motivates it. I’ll address the other two major modern approaches to theology in later posts, and then try to outline the alternative(s) that many people are developing and that I think is(are) crucial for the future of spiritual systems in general and Christianity in particular.

The Task of Theology in the 21st Century

The 20th Century witnessed, through a number of religious communities, though especially in Christianity, a realization that if traditional spirituality was to have any relevance in the future, it was going to have be able to reinterpret and re-express itself in the new language and understanding of modernity. Not just the traditional myths, but even central ideas like God, salvation, and sin would have to be re-understood. The alternative, as many saw it, was irrelevance and rapid extinction of older religious forms, especially Western Christianity.

This hadn’t actually begun in the 20th Century, but had started in the 19th Century at least, arguably the realization could be traced back to the 18th Century and the Enlightenment. It was in the 19th Century, primarily in what is now Germany, that “liberal” theology was launched. Liberal theology essentially aimed to turn Christianity into a morality tale, a set of teachings that could be easily digested and inserted into modern life. But eschatology (ideas about the end of the world), sin and atonement, and even the role of a deity were largely sidelined. Jesus was viewed largely just as a moral teacher whose message, far from being radical or apocalyptic, fit neatly with European bourgeois values.

This line of thinking was carried into the 20th Century and would become a dominant force in the mainline Protestant denominations of Western Europe and North America. Though it made for a Christianity that fit more easily with a Newtonian/Copernican universe, it also made for a Christianity that inspired little if any devotion, love, or dedication. It stripped some of the most radical and essential aspects of the Christian message from Christians’ lives, and the result was as rapid as it was predictable: attendance at the mainline Protestant churches dropped precipitously throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

Now it’d be a huge leap to claim that the introduction of liberal theology was single-handedly responsible for this drop; obviously a wide range of political, social, and economic factors were at play. Nonetheless, the hollowing out of Christian theology no doubt played a role, which is further attested to by the success of those denominations that didn’t embrace liberal theology, especially the various Evangelical churches that have come to such cultural and even political power in the last few decades.

However, these churches, though they haven’t embraced liberal theology, have embraced something really much worse: a stripped-down fundamentalism that distorts Christ’s message even more. Christ is turned from a mystical social critic who spoke in tricky parables and hung out with prostitutes to a moral absolutist cheer-leading for war and capitalism. The liberal interpretation may had cut out a lot of Christ’s character; the fundamentalist interpretation totally reversed it. Their Christ seems more like his evil twin than anything else.

Throughout these developments, Christians throughout a number of denominations continue in their faith through an ever-more confusing terrain of belief. In many quarters, there is a recognition that neither the liberal nor the fundamentalist theology will suffice, that neither really captures the heart of Christ’s message. And yet the past few centuries of theology don’t offer a lot of immediate alternatives. I think that the future of theology will lie in both fully embracing the scientific critique and our most ancient and committed traditions.

At first, this approach seems to mix oil and water. But the heart of our traditions are not as reactionary as many might assume–and the scientific viewpoint, evermore complex since the development of quantum mechanics, will prove, I think, less an obstacle to a spiritual perspective than many believers may fear. I hope to contribute to this emerging understanding of the reality we live in, and on this blog I hope to engaged in conversations about how we should craft, critique, and perfect that understanding.

>Two Visions of a Christian Ontology

>Most people today, both Christians and non-Christians, are familiar with Christianity as a faith that is focused on individual salvation effected by a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. I would guess that almost all modern people assume this is what Christianity is, at its base. And I think too that it is this understanding of Christianity that, along with the intolerance, oppressiveness, and resistance to modernity that are also associated with the faith, leads many to reject Christianity outright. But is this judgmental, personal-morality-obsessed Christianity the only, or even the most legitimate, form?

Answering this question forces us to reach back much further than recent Christian history. At the heart of this vision of the faith is a specific ontology, or understanding of what exists. If we roll back the years and peer at the very beginning of the Christian, and even proto-Christian community, we see (at least) two distinct communities coming together. At times their visions were synthesized and combined into a newer and more robust concept; but at other times they clashed, and one vision won out over the other. How does this inform modern debates both between Christians and non-Christians and, I think more importantly, within Christianity itself?

Christianity began as a Jewish movement. Jesus was Jewish, and so were all 12 14 apostles (we must not forget Matthias and Paul nor simply ignore Judas Iscariot). Our best guess is that all of those present at Pentecost were Jews. All of the initial missionaries who moved out into the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia were Jews. Christianity is, at its base, a reformation and re-visioning of Judaism. Within a decade or two of Jesus’ death, that began to change. More and more gentiles joined the new faith, and as they did, it began to evolve. The ‘Jewishness’ of the followers of Jesus began to dissipate. Paul, who was himself a Jew, was at the heart of this shift. He argued that faith in Jesus resurrected represented a new covenant, and that a stringent upholding of Jewish Law was the old, and outmoded, path. He exhorted his brothers and sisters to live in love, to ‘discard the works of the Law for the works of Love’. In this, he was echoing many of the same sentiments that some Pharasaic Jews had been preaching for decades. In place of the complex set of Jewish regulations which touched on every minute aspect of Jewish life, this vision instead gave two broad principles: to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul; and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Implicit in this debate was something less obvious, and of less immediate concern to the earliest Christians. Few of them had the training or time to engage in philosophical debate. But one of the big chasms between a Hebraic, or Jewish ontology, and a Hellenic, or Greek ontology, is their different understandings of the nature Reality at its most basic level. For Jews, there is the material world, and there is God, who transcends any normal conception of ‘being’. For Greeks, however, there is the material world and there is a metaphysical world as well, what Plato called the realm of the Form. Additionally, there is an unknowable Source. This metaphysical reality contains something like a Mind or a collection of ideas which interacts with, but is separate from, the material world. Ideas, in this conception, actually exist as independent things, and they are made of a sort of very light, ethereal ‘matter’. There are many, many implications to these two different ontological visions, but I’d like to focus right now on how these two visions affect our salvific theology, or our understanding of salvation and justification.

For Greeks, their ontology meant that salvation, as it were, entailed escaping from this material realm, which was crude and full of suffering. When Socrates drinks the hemlock ordered on him by the leaders of Athens, he assuages the grief of his students by assuring them that his soul, a sort of metaphysical spark, will ascend to or through the metaphysical realm to rejoin the Good or Source of existence (largely comparable to the Judeo-Christian God, with some significant reservations). I think everyone will immediately see parallels to contemporary Christianity: Christians claim that at death they will join God in heaven and enjoy the pure goodness of that realm.

But anyone who reads the Jewish Bible (which Christians refer to the Old Testament; Jews oftentimes refer to as the Tanakh) will note a conspicuous absence of any talk of going to heaven with God. Heaven is referred to in the Jewish Bible as the seat of God–but not as a place where humans go after death. The afterlife is actually little talked about in the Jewish scriptures. There are basically two strains of comment about it within its pages: one, there are many references to Sheol or ‘the Pit’. This seems simply to refer to the state of nonexistence or decay that all beings experience after death. Later, the writers of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other of the major prophetic works, talk of a coming resurrection–but it’s important to note that they are talking about a physical resurrection, here, on earth, and a perfected Kingdom, also here on earth. There’s nothing ethereal or metaphysical about that Kingdom of Heaven: it’s the realization of God’s will on this planet. It should be said that this vision is corporate rather than individual–salvation comes to the whole of creation, not just to particularly righteous humans.

So it becomes clear that the Hellenic, metaphysically dualist (not to be confused with theological dualism as seen in Manicheanism and Zoroastrianism) approach eventually won out as the dominant ontology of Christianity. Explaining why is well beyond both the space here and my own understanding, which is quite limited. But my own quick summary would argue that as the Christian community came to terms with the fact that Jesus was not returning imminently (which the New Testament makes clear was their assumption and hope), the promise of immediate glory in Heaven began to replace the eschatalogical (or ‘end-of-the-world’) vision that was both more Jewish and more in line with Jesus’ teachings. The fall of the second Temple and the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 70 CE and 130-135 CE, respectively, probably reinforced this trend and spelled the end of Jewish Christianity (oftentimes associated with the Ebionites). But it’s worth noting that a fully Hellenic ontology did not totally win out either. The more Greek-influenced forms of Christianity, like Gnosticism and Marcionitism, didn’t survive much past the third century. The orthodox form of the faith that was agreed upon at the council of Nicaea in 325 CE was a synthesis of both strains. Christians have never stopped talking about the Apocolypse, or the coming resurrection. But these elements have been downplayed and the more personal approach to the faith has been emphasized, with promises of a sort of Elysian Fields dangled before believers.

So what, exactly, does this mean for Christians today? I think reanalyzing our ontology is critical to the continued relevance of our faith in a number of ways:

1. A more Hebraic ontology seems more consistent with contemporary science. Hebraic Christianity, as it were, does not demand any belief in a literal, metaphysical Heaven to which good people ascend after death; in fact, such a position violates the corporate, united understanding of salvation that is central to the Hebraic outlook.

2. This vision of Christianity is humbler, more compassionate, and less individualistic. Much of the arrogance and judgementalism that is both so unpalatable to non-Christians and, more importantly, so at odds with the life Christ demands of us, is less tenable under this more Hebraic ontology. If our salvation comes with the salvation of all creation, then we are all in this together. There is no longer a division between the predestined righteous and the evil sinners, condemned to Hell. There is only one body of people, all God’s children, who must work together to build the Kingdom.

3. Hebraic Christianity lends itself to real ecumenical dialogue and progress. Christians who see all of creation as the recipients of Christ’s sacrifice can begin to see Truth all around them. Not only those in other denominations of Christianity, but members of other religions and those who assert no religious faith whatsoever, are all our brothers and sisters. More specifically, the doors of reconciliation with Jews, who have for so long been oppressed, marginalized, and murdered by our Christian forebears, are opened ever wider under this vision.

I hope that shifting our vision to a more Hebraic ontology can both reform and reignite the Church. Instead of obsessing over personal morality, especially sexual morality, we can begin to see our job as participating in the building of God’s kingdom in humility and penitence. This is, of course, not to say that personal morality is unimportant, but it should be balanced with a more holistic vision of what it means to follow Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, Jesus was the first fruits, and the general resurrection will be the rest of the harvest. We have work to do. Let’s get to it.