04 March 2021

Credible faith, part one

In the sometimes tedious rhetorical duels between liberals and evangelicals, this quotation from a Church of England rector struck me as a dose of welcome sanity:

It has never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable. There is simply no market for a church which doesn’t really believe in God. If you’re going to take the social hit of admitting to being a Christian, you might as well actually be a Christian.

(Marcus Walker, "God's Comeback," in The Critic.)

It was Jessica Hoff's blog post "How Unbelievable?" that pointed me toward Marcus Walker's essay. Hoff and (indirectly) Walker are addressing assertions by a retired Anglican parson, David John Keighley, that the main reason for the church's decline is its hopelessly outdated theology.

“Traditional faith is dying,” he [Keighley] said. “Traditional supernatural theism is dead. A belief system that is unbelievable to a scientifically educated population, and is based on ancient, unintelligible creeds and outdated concepts, cannot remain the foundation of Christianity in the changed and developed culture of today.

Hoff observes that the generation of leaders (and maybe the attitudes?) represented by Keighley might in fact have something to do with this decline. I remember visiting a meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting during which an elderly Friend got up and preached along these same lines. I wondered, what was he thinking we would hear in his message? -- that every person of more or less orthodox faith was a plodding idiot?

I believed then, and still believe now, that whatever decline the church is suffering (and it certainly is!), this decline does not come from some stubborn church-wide insistence on superstition. There are very lively conversations going on among theologians and scientists, many of whom in the 21st century are drawing on insights ranging from biology to cosmology and quantum mechanics, all challenging the conventional boundaries between theology and science. Biblical scholars have equally fertile dialogues on the composition and ratification of the Scriptures, and sometimes even deign to tell the rest of us what they're talking about in language we can understand. Eastern and Western Christianity challenge each other's conceits, while both learn how to relate with the rest of the world's faiths, and with the atheists whom God loves as much as any of us.

The scandal that repels and expels people from the church is not its ability to express mystery and hope, nor its claim that we can have a meaningful relationship with the Creator who desired us into existence. It is our willingness to hide all that amazing stuff in the background in favor of our cutting and one-upping each other, cruelly exiling those we don't approve of, and straining all that is holy to ingratiate ourselves with the powers that be.

As I am writing this post, the case of Bethany Christian Services, the largest evangelical adoption and foster-care agency in the USA, is riling the gatekeepers. Bethany has decided that their services will be available to gay and lesbian families, to the outrage of certain self-important leaders. I would go on about the predictable rhetoric of Albert Mohler and his allies, but you can probably already guess where I'm headed. What are those families and their extended social networks to make of Mohler's unstated implication? -- namely that these very people and the rights they've won are evidence of the nation's revolutionary choice to turn away from God.

Given this wicked, anti-evangelistic, and totally unnecessary (but utterly routine) insult to LGBTQ Christians and non-Christians alike, it's so interesting to read this observation from Marcus Walker's article:

And of the younger priests, it’s the gay ones who are often at the forefront of the battle to defend the creeds and Christian orthodoxy (if my more traditional readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the separation of questions of sexuality from orthodoxy). A study by the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary showed that, across the American church, “our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments”.

I've spent my whole adult life as a small-e evangelical Quaker. In some Quaker settings, such as Canadian Yearly Meeting, that put me in a small theological minority. Since I loved those people who, without fail, encouraged and affirmed me along the way despite our differences, I had to think a lot about why those differences might exist.

I slowly realized that doctrines are not accepted or rejected solely on people's personal preferences or inclinations, nor yet on their having encountered, or not encountered, one or another persuasive Christian mentor, celebrity, or book. So much depends on temperament, worldview, historical accident, and countless other factors -- rendering any sort of arrogant assumption about someone else's beliefs completely out of order. What my faith told me that I owed others was a simple and honest account of what I found true about Jesus, and its ethical consequences, and about the community that gathers around him. Their response was their business; I could not hold them as emotional hostages.

These words from Hans Küng in On Being a Christian, which I first read forty-some years ago, gave me comfort, and still do:

If someone still has no idea or very little idea of what to make of the miracle of the resurrection, of the new life, but regards this Jesus as the ultimate criterion of his mortal life and finite death and thus as living, then it cannot be denied that he [sic] is a Christian. And he is different from that other person who regards Jesus' resurrection as a great miracle, but draws no conclusions from it for his own life and death.

Credible faith, part two.

Rachel Havrelock revisits Jericho and offers a biblical exegesis of violence in Israel and America.

The push toward Jericho culminated on January 6 in Washington, D.C. where blasts of the ram’s horn signaled their preparation “to take back America.” The night before, I recognized the battle plan to overtake the Capitol and perhaps the government, yet I could not think of whom to call with the claim that, as an expert on the book of Joshua, I knew there would be violence.

Perpetual War Department: William Astore on the U.S. military's cancel culture, or lack thereof.

No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Hello Frances Perkins. (This day in labor history.)

The Russian government's ongoing clampdown on political speech reaches Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. (In all fairness, the previous threat to RFE/RL came from the Trump administration.) Meanwhile, here's RFE/RL's update on Navalny's location.

The last idiot standing: A dream job at Mad magazine.

Shannon Brink, the reluctant missionary.

We grieve T. Vail Palmer, biblical scholar, Friends minister, and faithful student of the connections between faith and practice. To register for his memorial meeting on March 13, follow this link.

"Good Morning Little Schoolboy" ... Tamara Zaritskaya and Ilya Giverts.


Marshall said...

Um, yikes. I have a lot of disagreements with this.

For one, I have spent the last twenty years living in places (Omaha and Billings) where it is cool to go to church. And frankly, that is why the evangelical crowd is big, politically powerful, and able to own Nebraska and Montana for Donald Trump, without bothering to actually be Christian.

For another, I encounter a lot of outspoken atheists on Facebook and Friendica, and like it or not, the one and only angle of attack that most of them have on religion is the crazy, crotchety, stilted and disagreeable concept of God they carry in their own minds. It doesn’t matter that believing Christians such as those I hang out with don’t share their point of view; they need to believe, for their own internal reasons, that our point of view is somehow discredited by their attacks on their own. And while I have no evidence that a majority of the unchurched share their attitudes, I suspect that a sizable minority share enough of those attitudes in a more fuzzy and unconsidered way that they feel able to dismiss the claims of the early Christian Jesus-is-a-direct-descendant-of-David-and-was-born-of-a-virgin,-and-John-of-Patmos-saw-how-it-will-literally-end Weltbild, and thereby (quite incorrectly) dismiss Christianity in toto.

Liberal Christian assertions that this whole Adam-to-Revelations Weltbild is unnecessary, and that you are saved if you are simply good, no matter what you believe, only succeed in augmenting that problem and adding to the sense that Christ and church are unneeded. Nebraska and Montana defend the church at the cost of dumping liberalism. Augustine, nearly two millennia ago, was IMHO quite right in seeing that a Weltbild putting Christ at the center of the revolving universe is somehow necessary, but the church needs a wiser and more heart-guided Weltbild than his.

Of late I have been re-reading the critiques of the construction of the Old Testament, written by the scholars who follow the “higher criticism” model from Spinoza through Wellhausen to the current generations. I am not persuaded that this academic movement has been on the right track, and while I recognize and salute the fact that they have successfully undermined the credibility of the OT, and implicitly of the NT as well, I do not see that they have done any service whatsoever to the credibility of the Gospel that might balance that undermining. I think (again my humble opinion) that you give them a credit they do not deserve.

I still think the Quaker Gospel of the first Friends, the Gospel of the Voice in the heart and conscience, is the one strong answer to all of this.

Brerarnold said...

I love Hans Kung's writing. "On Being a Christian" is good. I prefer "Does God Exist?" Whether you accept his conclusions or not, for me reading that book was a great intellectual adventure. Gripping, in the way a well-crafted suspense novel can be.

I've come to my own conclusions. I wrote a sermon for the local UU church many years ago on why I call myself a Christian. I had intended to take it and flesh it out into a book after retiring. I might yet, although for now I'm enjoying having another experience of retirement which isn't so much like work LOL.

Here's a link to the essay, in case you're interested: https://lettersfromthestreet.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/why-i-call-myself-a-christian/

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Marshall. Thanks for not emphasizing my hypocrisy! Even though I criticized the cutting and one-upping spirit we display so often, then I go and do just that to people on both ends of the spectrum -- Keighley and Mohler.

Walker's article does deal with the issue that his own context, the UK (where it's "never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable"), is different from the USA. There are places and subcultures in the USA, too, where there's no social benefit to attending church -- although I think the Bible Belt evangelicals exaggerate the size of the anti-church crowd, just as they exaggerate their own righteousness

You make a very good point about that "disagreeable" concept of God. Some atheists seem emotionally invested in that concept and aren't really available for the argument that, actually, almost nobody believes in it. I wasn't really arguing this point; I was more concerned to emphasize God's love for atheists. (This is probably incompatible with some forms of Calvinism, but I wasn't about to go there.) As Anthony Bloom said, "Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not. God believes in them!" In fact, in some contexts it IS important, but Anthony Bloom is just saying that the Creator's viewpoint is not the same as ours.

I'm not a universalist; I believe that some atheists will always cling stubbornly to a wrong "angle of attack" and might even reject God's clear offer of mercy. However, as I've said before ("God's sweet revenge"), I don't think this is what is going on with most atheists. If I'm wrong, at least I'm wrong on the side of grace.

You're right that this atheist angle of attack doesn't just consist of disagreeable concepts of God, but also the straw Christian that, in their minds, conveniently reduces all Christians to doctrinally brainwashed robots. Many of us have trouble believing that every biblical metaphor is to be taken literally; others have no trouble believing all of it; and of course many of us are simply trusting that when we are face to face with God's reality, all these issues will be resolved. What does irritate me is the apparent assumption among people like Keighley that orthodox Christians haven't thought deeply and prayerfully about these things in the full "light" of contemporary science and scholarship.

That brings me to your last point. When I referred to biblical scholars in my post, I didn't mean to approve everything they say. I find the dialogues between very different viewpoints "fertile" despite my doubts about, for example, the Jesus Seminar. I simply wonder whether people like Keighley or some atheists simply are unaware how much actual brainpower (as well as heart-power) goes into making Christian faith credible and accessible in today's world.

Johan Maurer said...

Bruce, thanks for sending me to your blog. I remember reading this at the time you published it, and thinking long and hard about the different roads we took in our lives, to land at a point where the word "Christian" is important to our respective identities. To point to just one contrast, you were raised in a Christian home, whereas I was raised in an anti-Christian home.

One thing you don't touch on in that post is the importance or non-importance of a conversion experience, which is a central moment in my life and which may help explain why I'm more willing than some others to accept elements of faith which might loosely be categorized as supernatural. I prefer to say simply that they help me to understand Christian faith in terms of relationship rather than propositions, doctrines, or metaphysical ideas.

I realize that you do talk about experience, just not the specific experience of conversion. I hope I'm not arguing from silence; I realize that just because you don't mention a specific word in a blog comment, it doesn't give me license to conclude anything. In any case, I'm in unity with your last paragraph.

Marshall said...

Johan, I have never thought of you as a hypocrite. Your further comments, in your response to mine, are both helpful and enjoyable. Thank you for taking the time to write them out and share them with me.