Friday, October 12, 2012

Alternatives - Part 2: Absolute "Freethought"

In my previous post in this series, I presented some of the stronger criticisms of theism as an absolute world view or heuristic.  Classical “supernaturalistic theism” was found to face difficulties with scientific naturalism (a redundancy used here for emphasis), to cultivate the problems of theodicy, and to hold the potential to turn into abuse of ethical priorities and human rights.  It should be noted that the criticisms so far developed related to theism as an heuristic, that is, as an interpretive lens through which one attempts to make sense of the world and to align reality.  These criticisms do not necessarily mean that theism is incorrect or somehow unsalvageable; however, as I will show later in this series, there are alternatives to both the absolutes of theism and atheism.

In speaking of theism and atheism as absolutes, I am hearkening to the useful spectrum of theistic-atheistic possibilities developed by Richard Dawkins.  This spectrum holds a polarity between a Level-1 Theist who holds unquestionably to the proposition that there is a personal God and the opposite end Level-7 Atheist who asserts unquestionably that there isn't a God.  In this spectrum, Level -2 Theists and Level-6 Atheists maintain the “de-facto” stance that, though an absolute conclusion on theism and atheism is beyond verification or final proof, each respective platform is held as true beyond reasonable doubt.  Within this spectrum, it should be noted, Dawkins himself identifies as a Level-6 or “de-facto” atheist (Dawkins).

Freethinkers – Platonic Disciples of the Enlightenment

Freethought can be defined as the proposition that:
…individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason.  Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas (Wikipedia, “Freethought”, accessed October 12, 2012)
In my criticisms that follow, I want to emphasize that I identify largely as a freethinker, and thus I speak as a self-critical and thus self-aware practitioner.  There are some profoundly important methodological aspects to freethought that are, unfortunately, more often than not asserted in a profoundly na├»ve manner.  I hope to point this out in the process of this post. 

Plato maintained that ideas are prior to matter and knowledge transcends situation.  For Plato conceptual knowledge trumped the limits of the physical world.  Knowledge, real knowledge, is absolute and transcends without necessarily excluding the situations in which a knowledge is expressed.  Any philosophy which asserts that knowledge is extrinsic thus expresses a fundamental agreement with platonic thought.  

Freethought seeks to escape the shackles of subjectivity, culture, convention, tradition, and prejudice – it seeks to lay hold of that “true knowledge” which is thus extrinsic to these presumably inferior limits.  The freethinker thus relies on “objective fact” and not “subjective emotions” or convention.  In these regards, freethought is platonic.

British-Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, the author of the “duck-rabbit”illustration asserted:
The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt…It belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted (1969, p. 342)
If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The practice of doubt itself presupposes certainty (1969, p. 115).

Wittgenstein thus maintains that it is impossible to question, to doubt, or to practice skepticism without having a foundation upon which to stand.  Tilley (2000) proposes:
To attempt to analyze, inquire, doubt, or question a given item in a tradition requires participating in some tradition (perhaps not the tradition under inquiry).  …the Enlightenment thinker’s commitment to rationality arises within a tradition.  Numerous contemporary philosophers have even argued that such a commitment is a faith commitment, in the sense that it is not founded on an argument but is grounded in hope and sustained and supported by fellow practitioners (pgs 20-21). 

What is the tradition that the freethinker aligns with?  The freethinker is aligned with the Enlightenment trajectory that crystallizes into modernism.  The practice of modernism is heuristically, at its best, worked out in positivism (or verificationism) and methodological naturalism.  Positivism is the position that the only questions worth asking or answering are those which can be answered empirically, that is, through science, and science relies by definition on the use of methodological naturalism.

Uncritical Practitioners

Unfortunately, many freethinkers are not practicing a self-critical skepticism, and rather than realizing the limits of our own methodologies, we elevate them all too often to the level of metaphysical absolutes.  Clayton and Knapp note, “...the presumption of naturalism is methodological not metaphysical, because otherwise the presumption would be arbitrary, a matter of (nonreligious) faith or dogma" (2012).  A self-critical skepticism turns its lenses back onto itself, recognizes the historical-cultural location of its own methods, and is aware of the point at which a methodology becomes a metaphysic.

 Caputo and Gianna (2007) assert the following propositions about human knowledge:
…there is no experience of truth that is not interpretive.  I do not know anything that does not interest me.  If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in a noninterested way (Loc 285).
…knowledge is not the pure, uninterested reflection of the real, but the interested approach to the world, which is itself historically mutable and culturally conditioned (Loc 316).

When the situatedness of human knowledge is forgotten, the practitioner is at risk of elevating her perspective to the level of a “God’s eye” perspective.  And this is the irony of absolute atheism: it practices the dogmatism of asserting a “God’s eye perspective,” that is, it falls into the temptation of the mythical Adam and Eve who seek to know, who seek to grasp what is not possible and so to leave behind the ultimate situatedness of human knowledge.

Abusive Absolutes in Freethought and Atheism

As touched on in the last post, absolute theism presents the ever-present risk of “masking social oppression and grant[ing] legitimacy to the status quo” (Ellison, p. 24), we also need to exercise caution about science masked as “objective” or “God’s eye” truth.   Ellison observes, “Science reflects ideological interests and helps to promote them as legitimate.  …science has the power to constitute and not merely observe difference.”   Ellison then observes how biology was used to legitimate status quo gender differences to make them appear natural rather than political in origin (p. 36). 

We hence see that freethought and science (which are not synonymous) can be abused when they are used to legitimate power interests.  In fact, calling skepticism by the epithet “freethought” can be a source of abuse because the implication explicit in this term is the “freedom” of the practice from situatedness in tradition, culture, politics, and power interests. 

There are other options to the absolutes thus far critiqued, and they do not require the dissolute.  That is, the only alternative to absolute is not dissolute relativism.  In the next most I will introduce one alternative.

Works Cited:
Caputo, John D. & Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God – Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. New York: Colombia University Press, 2007.
Clayton, Philip and Knapp, Steven. The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1996).
Tilley, Terrence W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Ansombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1969; as quoted in Tilley, Terrance W. Inventing Catholic Tradition. New York: Orbis, 2000.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Alternatives - Part 1: Absolute Theism

Theism Defined

What is theism?  Classical theism as understood by Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be defined as follows:

...the belief in an unchanging God, external to the world, who nevertheless miraculously and supernaturally acts in the world at specific moments in its history (Epperly, p. 13). 
Classical theism has been called by philosopher of religion and science Philip Clayton, "supernaturalistic theism" (p. 120) in which God works as an agent outside of the cosmos, independently "looking in."  Classical theism generally conceives of God and the world (the cosmos) as substances which by definition are essentially spatial and cannot overlap.  In this context God is an absolute, unchanging, immutable being who is by definition sovereignly separate from the material cosmos which is inferior because it is always in the process of change.  God is perfect; the world is imperfect.  God is absolute; the world is contingent.  

Creation from Nothing: A Theistic Essential

An essential pillar of classical theism is the doctrine or idea of creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing").  God created the cosmos out of nothing and all aspects of the natural world from the laws of nature to the existence of humanity are contingent and so unessential.  In turn, God is not restricted by the cosmos, and God's power is not limited by the the nature of the cosmos.  How do the contingency of the cosmos and the unrestricted will of God relate to creatio ex nihilo?  Erickson (1985) explains this well:
God did not work with something which was in existence.  He brought into existence the very raw material which he employed.  If this were not the case, God would...have been limited by having to work with the intrinsic characteristics of the raw material which he employed" (p. 374).
Grudem (1994) similarly asserts:
...were we to deny creation out of nothing, we would have to say that some matter has always existed and that it is eternal like God.  This idea would challenge God's independence...[and] his sovereignty (p.264). 
Grudem uses the following diagram to illustrate the God-world relationship:

Grudem's God-World Model
Both Grudem and Erickson agree that creatio ex nihilo is essential to the otherness and absolute nature of God.  With God utterly independent from the material cosmos, Erickson (1984) affirms, "...a definite supernaturalism -- God resides outside the world and intervenes periodically within the natural processes through miracles" (p. 304).

God can hence suspend, annihilate, or reverse natural law as God pleases.  In fact, natural law becomes illusory because there is nothing natural about it.  The ultimate essence of the cosmos is characterized by supernaturalism, or as Griffin (2004) notes, "...the 'laws of nature' can be interrupted because they are not really natural in the sense of being inherent in the very nature of things" (p. 36).  

The God of classical theism, the God of the classical God-world metaphysic, the God of ontotheology is thus 

- Absolute
- Unchanging
- Independent of the cosmos (in sovereignty and in actualization) 

Having set these foundations, let us consider how atheism is the best answer to the God of classical theism.


The God of ontotheology is a failure.  If the concept of creatio ex nihilo is correct and God is radically independent of the cosmos, the implication is that God could intervene at any time.  Hence, "...any evil that has occurred--from the rape of a child to the Nazi Holocaust--could have been unilaterally prevented by God."  Further, if God is the independent author of natural law, then all "natural evils" from birth defects to earthquakes to tsunamis were freely created by God and God, " hypothesis could have freely created a world with all of the positive values of this one but without the possibility of these evils" (Griffin, p. 38).  

For many with "punitive oriented, rewards-punishments positions" (Epperly, p. 39), there are no problems with an unrestricted, all-powerful, omnipotent God who doesn't intervene in the affairs of the world to prevent or to bring cessation to suffering.  Such positions, however, run the risk of canonizing and sacralizing structural injustices as the will of God, and, indeed, there is a rather poor scorecard on the part of many theists who have done exactly this and exonerated institutions from patriarchy to slavery with appeal to the absolute nature of God.   

Dissolution of Science: Gaps and Ignorance

The natural world is characterized not by supernaturalism but rather by what appears to be a closed-causal system of cause and effect.  At no point in the explanation of observable phenomenon from the rising of the sun to the conception and birth of a baby does one need to appeal to supernatural agency--everything happens within the context of natural law.  And, it seems that this same observation and the methodology it implies--naturalism--can be used to explain not only what is observed today but also what we know happened in the past including the origin of life, the change of life over time, and the processes that brought the cosmos into its present form.  

Many of the observed phenomenon that we now attribute to natural law were once deemed to be supernatural acts of God.  Many today, however, resist the explanatory value of naturalism and insist that there remain and will always remain "gaps" in the causal order of natural law, of cause-and-effect relationships.  These gaps, some insist, will forever point to the outside intervention of a supernatural God and will never lend themselves to the causal explanations of naturalism.  Science, however, operates only by naturalism and the use of naturalism to methodologically explain the natural world.  To insist on a God anchored in supernaturalism is to ultimately lay a logical foundation for atheism.  As soon as a naturalistic explanation has been found for what was once thought to be attributable to the divine, miraculous agency of God, God is no longer necessary.  Supernaturalism hence logically leads to atheism.  

Abusively Absolute Alerity

Theologically, alerity is the otherness of God.  God in classical theology exists outside and independent of the material cosmos as an absolute, unaffected by the material cosmos.  In turn, God is abstract, nonrelative, and that which is attributed to the status of God's will is also traditionally seen as absolute.  God's will is thus seen as absolute truth and deemed "nonrelative to anything else, absolved of all interdependence, all conditions, all vulnerability, all passion, all change (Keller, p. 16).  As mentioned under theodicy, this results in sacralized structural injustices.  It was God's will for Europeans to exploit and colonize North America, India, and Palestine.  It is God's will for millions to die of AIDS in Africa because condoms are sinful. It is God's will for American blacks to be economically disenfranchised.  It is God's will for the West to exploit cheap labor markets.

In this post we have considered some of the abuses associated with classical theism.  In the next post will will consider naturalism as a metaphysical absolute.  In a third post will start to consider alternatives to the standard theistic and atheistic absolutes. 

Works Cited:
Clayton, Philip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.
Epperly, Bruce G. Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.  New York, T&T Clark International, 2011. 
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker, 1985.
Griffin, David Ray. "Panentheism: A Post-Modern Revelation" (pages 36-47) in In Whom We Live Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Clayton, Philip and Peacoke, Clark eds. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994. 
Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gym Frog

Without glasses, I couldn't make out if what I was seeing slowly leap past was a frog or a toad.  I was at the gym, on an elliptical, and in the middle of an HIIT cycle.  The desire to finish the cycle overruled the temptation to leap off the machine to capture and rescue the little leaper from what would eventually be certain death by  foot or dehydration.  In my mind I had the leaper classified as either a common toad or a wood frog, but because wood frogs are relatively uncommon here, I ruled out the possibility of a wood frog classification.  I finished my HIIT cycle and prepared myself to rescue the toad.

I was favorably surprised and happy to find that it was indeed a wood frog that had decided to visit me at the gym.  I dropped to the floor and snapped a half dozen pictures from different angles.  In my excitement and with some concern for the scene I was making, I didn't take enough pictures with the gym in the background.  A wood frog with the unnatural background of florescent lighting, treadmills, ellpiticals, cardio monkeys, and gym rats would have been meaningful. 

Wood frogs are fascinating for their ability to survive with all of their cells crystallized into ice.  Where most amphibians spend their winters hibernating below the frost line buried in mud beneath ponds and lakes, wood frogs actually hibernate within the frost line. In turn, their respiratory systems will often come to a complete halt, freezing over completely.  Wood frogs are unique among North American vertebrates for this ability to survive being frozen.  Garter snakes have a similar ability to survive below freezing temperatures, but their success is attributed to blood properties that mimic anti-freeze and so retard the advancement of ice.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Differential Blues


This is currently stationed in the Keller Lounge at my church as an entry in Grand Rapids' Art Prize.  In fairness to the artist, I will add the artist's placard after next Sunday.  I did not think to take a picture of it yesterday.

I see the relationship between the church and members of the LGBTQ community to be parallel to the early church's relationship between its founding Jewish members and the non-Jews.  A pressing question in the early church was, "Do non-Jews have to convert to Judaism before entering the church?"  Are non-Jews permitted to retain their distinctive cultures and practices as members of the church?  Similar questions can be asked about the relationship between LGBTQ peoples and the church.

My experience with LGBTQ peoples has been formative in my understanding sexual identity.  In particular, a former pastor at Fountain Street, a partnered gay man, dramatically illustrated to me that it is possible to live out a deeply authentic multi-spiritual identity (he utilized practices and disciplines from Judaism, Catholicism, etc.) as a self-identified gay person.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Blog Spotlight

I'd like to spotlight a blog that I came across this morning: 

I am incredibly impressed with the balance, maturity, and thoughtfulness that this blog expresses.  From what I can gather about the author, she is a former Methodist become Catholic who, with her husband, once enjoyed a sacramental life within the Roman Catholic communion.  I do not know her entire story, but she now identifies as a "not-theist" Unitarian Universalist and a free thinker.  She often writes about what she misses in her sacramental life as a Catholic--she still craves the ritual life she once had.  I don't know her reasons for leaving Catholicism, but her thoughts about wanting a sacramental-life without all of the baggage of the Catholic church resonate well with me. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Somatic-Sacramental Worship at Fountain Street Church

After a summer church hiatus, my wife, family, and I return to our regular weekly church attendance at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids. I've been thinking about sacramental worship lately, and I would like to offer the following reflections and questions: 

The Roman Catholic mass is outlined in two sections.  The first section is a liturgy of the word and the second is the liturgy of the altar. During the liturgy of the word, the prayers and movements are directed toward preparation for readings from the Gospels.  The liturgy of the altar is the congregation's generally active participation in the sacrifice of the eucharist where the host is believed to be literally offered sacrificially and the congregation eats thereof.  A mass can only exist with both liturgies expressed.

In Protestant traditions, the eucharist (more often called communion by Protestants) is not believed to be a sacrifice but rather a symbol, an intellectual assent to the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection.  High-church Protestantism aside, historically Protestants have not celebrated a liturgy of the altar: the focus of worship is on the liturgy of the word.  As a result, Protestant worship is markedly cerebral and more a matter of intellect or a thought exercise than acts carried out with the body.  For the historic Protestant, the Reformation affirmed that "works of the law" (read as human deeds) are not and cannot be a means of grace; therefore, worship is not sacramental.  Worship is foremost a matter of the heart.  This results in varying degrees of dualism -- separating the heart and mind from actions done with the hands and experiences of the body.  Enter many a Protestant into a Catholic or Orthodox church, and there are often reports of formalism and "works-righteousness."  In addition to a liturgy of the altar, in Protestant churches icons and high-church architecture are also often absent--diminishing the somatic-physical experience of the congregant.  More could be said here with regard to social justice and the fundamentalist-modernist divide relative to Evangelical-Protestant dualism.  

Fountain Street Church -- "a liberal religious community in downtown Grand Rapids" (a phrase rehearsed in our weekly self-definition) -- has a markedly Protestant heritage. Up until the mid-1900's, Fountain Street Church was a mainline-Protestant church in the American Baptist denomination.  Since I have been attending, most of its ministers are ordained in the Unitarian Universalist denomination, and one of its ministers is ordained Methodist.  Though officially independent, the congregation relies heavily on Unitarian Universalist materials (e.g., curriculum for Sunday school and the hymnals), and has a markedly Unitarian Universalist feel -- these are all attributes of Fountain Street that I love.  How, though, does Fountain Street Church compare to historic Protestants in regard to liturgies?  Is Fountain Street worship a liturgy of the word? Is there an altar liturgy?

Because Fountain Street is not officially Christian, it does not have an official word or altar.  There is no eucharist, no communion. The Bible often is present, but so are readings from rabbinic literature, Dr Seuss, the Quran, humanists, and other sources of edification.  However, in terms of worship service, Fountain Street's main service is more a liturgy of word than of altar, and this requires significant qualification. 

Entering into the sanctuary of Fountain Street is a moving experience.  It is beautiful.  The vaulted ceilings; stained glass murals of biblical scenes and people significant in the movement of our society toward democracy, scientific advancement, and inclusive justice (including Darwin, Hume, and Lincoln); icons of angels and Jesus; American-Gothic architecture (a true oddity for a Baptist church in Grand Rapids!); and the nostalgia-inducing, incense-like scent of "church" all work together to deepen the somatic experience of entry and worship in the sanctuary.  The building is a sort of sacrament, an encounter with something larger than oneself including the contributions of generations to the life of the church--its building and its people.  

However, largely true to its Protestant heritage, Fountain Street's main worship service is a liturgy of word, a exercise of the heart and mind.  I state this not necessarily as a criticism.  Catholic and Jewish liturgies are both areas of interest to me, and I value manners of worship that are more engaging of the body-person.  I write this, though, more as a launching point.  Can congregational worship in non-eucharistic, liberal religious communities be more engaging of the body-person?  Can they be more sacramental without hurting the independent and liberty-valuing nature of an inclusive, progressive liberal body?  

...a few thoughts on my mind this morning.

Note: these are my own thoughts and observations and not officially representative of Fountain Street Church