(RE)VISIONING OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

A (RE)VISIONING – NECESSARY UPDATES

Most of us have had the experience of having to install updates on our computer or smartphone or even install a totally new operating system. We do this because the old system has flaws and design limitations and we’re promised that the new features or system are better.

And we all hate these update experiences because they take time to download and they make us change things we were familiar and comfortable with. And if we’re honest, most of the changes are for the better in the long term, although not all the changes bring their promised benefits.

Christian theology and spirituality need some badly overdue intellectual updates and operating system upgrades. These changes are required for the sake of the truth as well as for the sake of the long term viability of the tradition in general.

And these needed theological upgrades, like software and computer updates – take time to download and will result in uncomfortable, even sometimes painful changes. Yet sometimes we even need to delete data and start over with new code and instructions.

The choice is ours – upgrade and change – revise our understandings – or allow our old, outdated systems and programs to eventually freeze up and crash.

GETTING CHRISTIANITY TO MAKE SENSE AGAIN

The updates I speak about are necessary, because the typical educated, individual in the postsecular culture is unlikely to accept a theology that requires simplistic belief in resurrected corpses, virgin births, and miracles involving bread and wine. Also unlikely is their acceptance of infallible authorities or arguments for the inerrancy or divine authorship of scripture. Conversations about sin, hell, salvation, spiritual rebirth, redemption, or angels and demons will also likely fail to convince or even interest them.

The notion that these same individuals simply need to be properly evangelized by earnestly sharing the above, or quoting scripture, or explaining the Four Spiritual Laws or sharing about God’s love, might be well intentioned, but is misplaced at best. In fact, the efforts will likely repel them.

Modernity and beyond sees the world through a a factual-historical, evidential mindset, the result of science and evidential reasoning. Those who identify as secular, and even those who don’t, tend to be formed by and immersed in this epistemological worldview.

Ironically, the same intellectual influences have led many Christians to reify and literalize Christianity’s myths, symbols, metaphors, and rites. The result is the concretization and literalization of originally mythopoetic claims and language. Arguing for a literal six day creation destroys one’s credibility in the eyes of the secular, naturalist culture. It’s also a gross misreading of the texts and the authors intended messages and meanings.

Our culture is increasingly formed by a soft naturalist, scientific mindset that asks for evidence and appeals to reasoned experience when presented with claims, and many, many Christians engage and present a theology which contradicts this mindset.

Granted, human nature is not a computer program, reason is only one aspect of the human person, and people are idiosyncratic. The human psyche includes not only rational functions, such as thought, evaluation, and conceptualization, but also functions such as intuition, symbolic imagination, and the ability to experience awe, gratitude, belonging, and love.

Christianity, revisioned and rightly explained, may possibly be appealing enough to be reconsidered by secular individuals, or at least cast in a better light. Yes, the effort involved in this revisioning is significant. And yes, the effort to re-present Christianity to the secular culture is a massive undertaking whose chances of success are perhaps slim. But Christianity has little choice if it hopes to remain meaningful, vibrant, influential, and above all, coherent and truthful.

SUPERNATURALISM?

Philosophy and theology overlap and are intertwined. Good theology is philosophical theology, and all theology is at least implicitly philosophical. This is because issues of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and ethics are all within the purview of theology.

Most Christians adhere to what might be generally termed a supernatural worldview. They believe in God and sometimes angels and demons. They see these supernatural entities as beyond the natural order, yet operative within it. However, most Christians aren’t nuanced or well versed in metaphysics, so their claims about the supernatural often border on fantasy and magical thinking.

The term supernatural has layered meaning.

The term transcendent often is part of conversations that touch on supernatural claims. And like supernatural, transcendence emmits of various meanings and uses. Christians often use the term transcendent and supernatural interchangeably, but transcendence is a term that need not evoke or rely upon supernatural presuppositions.

Transcendent roughly means beyond, but that notion of beyond not mean beyond the natural order. For example, one can assert that human dignity is transcendent in that it an inherent quality of persons, and therefore goes beyond the individual person and universally present, or goes beyond governmental and political granting or bestowing.

This leads us to scholastic notions of transcendental properties of all beings, meaning qualities that everything that exists possess by their nature. Various scholastic philosophers argued for more or less transcendentals, but the qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty are typically accepted by most. While scholastic thinkers wrote much on transcendentals, the notion finds earlier roots in Greek and classical philosophy.

Viewed ontologically, the transcendentals are understood to be what is common to all beings. From a cognitive point of view, they are the “first” concepts, since they cannot be logically traced back to something preceding them. The transcendentals are not contingent upon cultural diversity, religious doctrine, or personal ideologies, but are the objective properties of all that exists.

Which is not to say that science is helpless in the face of all supernatural claims and possibilities. Its methods are very good at debunking the claims of people—professional psychics and alleged practitioners of telekinesis, most notably—who insist that they have rendered the numinous predictable and found a way to consistently harness invisible powers to visible ends. But this debunking is possible because of what’s being claimed by the Uri Geller’s of the world—a pretty-much-consistent power, with mostly-consistent results, that’s under direct human control.

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French Jesuit, Henri de Lubac offered innovative ways to understand overly simplified notions of the supernatural.

Henri de Lubac argued that a dualist conception of nature and grace or between the natural and the supernatural was incorrect, yet unfortunately commonplace in Roman Catholic theology: this concept is ‘pure nature.’ Pure nature is human nature, considered without reference to grace or to the supernatural destiny of personal union with God. Further, de Lubac argues that Catholic theology, in assimilating this idea, has departed from the sound tradition represented by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. He holds that the notion of pure nature leads inevitably to the self-exclusion of Christianity from the affairs of the world-when, in fact, the light of the Gospel ought to be shed on all aspects of human existence. 

For some, de Lubac’s account of these matters represents a recovery of the breadth and depth of the authentic Catholic tradition, a renewal of the vision of Christian humanism that unites patristic and high medieval thought and that informed the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For others, de Lubac’s writings on nature and grace represent a “distortion of the Thomist legacy” that has “influenced for the worse a large percentage of Catholic theologians and philosophers trained since the Second World War” and “contributed to the destabilization of Catholic theology.

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Perhaps at the heart of the Christian conversation on the supernatural is the question of the ontology of God. What is God? Is God a being among other beings, albeit at the top of the hierarchy of being?

Inherent within how one answers such questions as above, will be glimpses of what is meant by supernatural. Assertions of the supernatural often imply a dualism – the rendering of all that exists into two broad categories – the natural and the supernatural orders.

Scottish Franciscan scholastic, Duns Scotus, proposed a view of the univocity of being. In medieval disputes over the nature of God, many theologians and philosophers (such as Thomas Aquinas) held that when one says that “God is good” and that “man is good”, man’s goodness is only analogous to, i.e. similar to but distinct from, God’s goodness. John Duns Scotus, while not denying the analogy of being à la St. Thomas, nonetheless holds to a univocal concept of being. It is important to note that Scotus does not believe in a “univocity of being”, but rather to a common concept of being that is proper to both God and man, though in two radically distinct modes: infinite in God, finite in man

The claim here is that we understand God because we can share in His being, and by extension, the transcendental attributes of being, namely, goodness, truth, and unity.

Many philosophers and theologians interpret Scotus’ work as stating that God is a being among the category of all other beings, yet the ultimate or infinite being. This interpretation lies at the heart of much of the criticism of Radical Orthodoxy as Milbank and others in the movement understand the univocity of being to be the root of all secularization.

Contemporary Eastern Orthodox thinker David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God, attempts to distill the common essence of God – God’s meaning – shared by most major religious traditions. According to Hart, that essence is God as the transcendent and ineffable Ground of All Being, above all things yet immanent in them.

Hart’s reasoning aligns with similar notions in Patristic thought, Origen for example, as well as notions within Eastern Orthodox theology going back to various Eastern Fathers. Within all these variations of thought is the wrestling with God’s ontology – is God a thing like all other things or is God not a thing, and if so, can any claim of God’s existence be valid?

Hart carefully argues that God is not another thing among things, like a tree, a rock, or even a human, but that God is the underlying wellspring of all being, the noncontingent, creative, ordering source of all that is.

Hart’s reasoning harkens back to the work of Paul TIllich, a mid-twentieth century Protestant theologian who wrote extensively about God as the ground of being.

Paul Tillich was critical of the view of God as a type of being or presence. He felt that, if God were a being, God could not then properly be called the source of all being (due to the question of what, in turn, created God). As an alternative, he suggested that God be understood as the “ground of Being-Itself”.

He felt that, since one cannot deny that there is being (where we and our world exist), there is therefore a Power of Being. He saw God as the ground upon which all beings exist. As such, God precedes “being itself” and God is manifested in the structure of beings.

Tillich saw the root of atheism as rejection of the traditional image (of God as presence/being) and he thought that an alternative symbolic image could potentially be seen as acceptable.

Tillich appreciated symbols as the only way to envision something as meaningful and abstract as God. He saw God as a symbol, and appreciated the image of a personal God as a way for people to relate or respond to the ground of being, which he discussed as ultimate concerns. Likewise, he felt that, by re-envisioning stories that had been previously been accepted literally, major themes in Christian imagery could remain meaningful.

Tillich states in the introduction to the Systematic Theology:

Theology formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated. This point, however, is not a moment in time.

The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm. Their content cannot be derived from questions that would come from an analysis of human existence. They are ‘spoken’ to human existence from beyond it, in a sense. Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself

A thinker to offer similar ideas was mid-twentieth century, Jewish theologian Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan conceived of God as a metaphor for what he labeled the power of salvation, God as a unitiive symbol of all things that fulfill and actualize human persons.

All of the above begins to show that the concept of the supernatural is layered and complex. Most Christian’s, lacking formal training in philosophy and theology, fail to present the necessarily nuanced and sophisticated explication on such matters. This leads to tendencies of magical thinking and images of God that resemble Santa Claus, which I call Santa-God.

The ideas of the above thinkers also raise the question of whether dualism is necessary or even valid. If God is not a being, but instead the ground of all being, then while God may be transcendent, such a claim does not require the posting of supernatural order separate from the natural order.

Such insights immediately suggest that Christians think and speak carefully concerning their claims of supernatural activity, for the God they assert is a rudimentary, popularized, anthropomorphized version of deeper philosophical concepts. And those concepts do not immediately lead to claims of God as person, the validity of claims of miracles, or other related supernatural beings and/or activities.

REVELATION & APOCALYPSE

Revelation is a ‘break through’ in human society. Revelation is related to human progress and psychic growth, the convergence of many into one. It is a reflection of God in our consciousness; it does not come from without, but from within. Revelation is a new mode of human consciousness; it is the process by which God works from within history and tradition to lead to a higher consciousness. As such, revelation always correlates with human questions arising out of a cultural and historical context. Jesus Christ stands as the high point of this consciousness. God is not an object, but a horizon.

Reason is involved, not discursively, but as an attempt to think through new possibilities and new meanings; the truth which revelation gives is not propositional, but pragmatic. History (and the Bible) is useful as it testifies to previous break through experience, and gives meaningful paradigms of human self-transcendence that are still useful in the present.

Revelation as New Awareness. According to this model, revelation means a transformation of human subjectivity, a “fulfillment of the inner drive of the human spirit toward fuller consciousness”. Revelation does not disclose God as an “object”, even though God might be “mysteriously present as the transcendent dimension of human engagement in creative tasks”. In essence, revelation is more about seeing the self and the world in a new light than about knowledge of God.

The “crucial moment of revelation” for this model is the “the stimulation of the human imagination to restructure experience in a new framework.” Revelation occurs by active involvement and immersion in the world. It is a reflection of God in human consciousness and is ongoing, not to be confined to the past.

The strengths are that symbols and experience can produce and induce a divine consciousness. It is also not as rigid and as authoritarian as other models. The weaknesses of this model though are quite substantial for the evangelical. Since God is not the object of revelation, the lack of content and rejection of verbal revelation are serious problems.

METHODOLOGY – EVIDENTIAL THEOLOGY

To return Christianity to a healthier, reasoned, and vibrant state will require a willingness to rethink the tradition through various forms of theological reasoning, namely a regaining of familiarity with mythopoetic language and illyative reasoning, and an updated interpretation of theological claims through the application of evidential reasoning.

The claims of any discipline or form of analysis must align with reality, and theology is no exception. Such a requirement derives from the heart of realism and reason itself. Theology and religion are not exempt from such requirements. Theological claims must be reasonably explained, justified, and verified. To the degree they cannot pass such testing, they should be put aside.

For religion to be authentic and have the power to improve human lives, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Authentic spirituality is rooted in evidential thinking and operates from an epistemological conservatism and realism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer a theology that aligns with that understanding. Our religious thinking should conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.

Sound theology therefore accepts a correspondence approach to truth – that truth consists in the adequate alignment – a correspondence – of our propositions and judgements, our claims about reality – and reality itself. Accordingly, theology must assess the adequacy of its religious claims concerning their alignment with reality. Such a task is an ongoing process. And such a task must be informed by and align with science and its findings.

Humility therefore must be a core theological-intellectual virtue. We must avoid ideological theology that lacks humility, makes unwarranted claims, and arrogantly demands that reality conform to its narrow views. Are our theological convictions and narrative formed by reality or do we force reality to conform to them? Any theology that imposes itself on reality in ideological, militant fashion, without regard for reason and the truth that emerges from lived experience, is false theology.

We must recognize that the further our theology moves away from reality – the more abstract our claims, the more internecine and insular our preoccupations, the more removed from our everyday experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become, especially to the secular culture.

The challenge for for any spiritual tradition in the postsecular age is to remain credible and influential. Yet for Christianity to remain a viable enterprise and cultural influence it must now dramatically reconsider its claims and core convictions – simply doing business as usual and continuing to cling to the same understandings will diminish any tradition and likely force it into terminal decline.

Many today simply find claims about supernatural realities implausible. Many Christians, too, are uncomfortable with the inauthentic pretense they feel compelled to uphold when they involve themselves in religious practices that presuppose a supernatural worldview. And they seek a serious spiritual practice that fits their evidentialist way of living and understanding the world.

Once we peel away the unjustifiable supernatural lingerings of the ancient worldview, what wisdom is there to cling to and develop? The insights into human dignity, the wisdom of what leads to human wholeness, the value of freedom, equality and inclusivity, compassion, care of the poor and marginalized – the resistance to the dehumanizing forces in our culture – such things have incommensurable value and can still resonate with our postmodern sensibilities.

AN ANGLICAN SUGGESTION

Christianity is not monolithic, it’s varied and diverse. In reality, it’s more accurate to speak of Christianities that have developed and have been expressed through the ages, in various subcultures, and in diverse denominational structures. In this light, each denomination within the overall tradition likely has some wisdom to contribute to our project of revisioning.

In particular, the manner in which many Anglican’s understand their theological enterprise might be especially valuable to our efforts. While there is diversity within Anglican theology itself, it generally approaches the theological task as a balance of engaging and understanding tradition and scripture through reason and experience. This balance has been spoken of in many ways, including the somewhat well known analogy of a three legged stool (tradition, scripture, and reason.) Regardless of how many legs, let us examine the merits of this approach further.

Many Anglicans, although not all, tend to affirm that reason is the main arbiter when attempting to understand Christian tradition and the scriptures. If one comes across theological claims or assertions that are contrary to reason and common experience, Anglicans are more willing to put aside a literal or simplistic understanding of the claim, in favor of an approach that takes modern methods of interpretation into account. Therefore, many Anglicans will adhere to and keep the forms of tradition (a generous orthodoxy) while interpreting the meaning of the claims of those forms in light of current knowledge, including science.

My own preference is to talk about the general schema of the Christian theological enterprise being a balanced application of reason and experience (including science) to tradition, which includes the scriptures, since the tradition produced and compiled those texts.

Therefore, sound theology first must understand the historical and cultural contexts of the Christian tradition as well as be well versed in the claims of the tradition itself. Yet the task cannot end there, it must then engage the tradition and its claims with reasoned reflection on experience, essentially engaging in what I have described as evidential theology.

A second trait of Anglican theology that is worthy of consideration is that interpretive authority is not centralized, but resides with the individual within communities. Yes, there are bishops, and the unifying symbolic role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but each national Anglican church is autonomous, and bishops and clergy claim no infallibility or authority to require theological or intellectual conformity from the laity. Yes, a basic and broad orthodoxy is expected and takes shape, but a diversity of views is also tolerated within the contextual guardrails established by the reality of the tradition itself.

Practically, theological issues are hammered out in conventions with bishops, priests, and lay representatives all having a say in a more or less democratic, dialogic, discerning decision making process. Anglican unity is maintained by voluntary association, ongoing dialog, mutual tolerance, and above all, shared liturgical forms, especially the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist.

The Anglican approach toward reasoned interpretation without central authority, conducted by individuals reasoning together in communities offers us insights and suggestions on how to engage in evidential theology. And it is this evidential theology that offers itself as the methodological tool for revisioning Christian theology and practice in such a manner as to make it understandable and possibly appealing to the mainstream, secular mindset.

All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)

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