Friday, December 30, 2011

Chance Encounter & Confessional Identity

We were both working through the philosophy and religion section at the bookstore. We courteously attempted to give one another space despite the fact that the same books were sharing our glaze. I knew by our similar perusals in philosophy and theology that we could probably enjoy a conversation, but I decided to avoid starting one. Then he reached over and pointed to a Timothy Keller book defending theism and said, “This is a good one.” Needless to say, I did not buy a book last night; instead, I had the honor of meeting and chatting with who appears to be Ethiopia’s most prolific Christian author: Tesfaye Robele.

Encountering thinkers like Tesfaye can be quite a rewarding experience. We intelligently discussed middle knowledge, process thought, open theism, Whitehead, Molina, Pinnock, and Boyd, and in so doing, we probably annoyed more than a few people within earshot. When I enter into a conversation with someone that I know I disagree with, I try to negate myself; I try to take in what the other person is saying and to put my agendas aside. This for me is a spiritual-humanitarian discipline, and I find it enables me to humbly and genuinely encounter the mind and perspectives of another. Tesfaye’s gentle and attentive manner suggested to me that he was doing similarly. But, why is it good to rub shoulders with those who differ in perspective? Why—it enables me to feel and perceive the limitations of my own thinking, perspectives, and presentation.

Tesfaye asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I hesitated. He had already shared with me his background and education, and I knew that answering in the affirmative would have been diplomatically easier. In many ways I do identify as Christian. Culturally and theologically, I am profoundly influenced by the full spectrum of Christianity, but, in my estimation, I would not qualify as Christian in the way he meant. I mean, I have a multi-spiritual identity, I advocate for religious pluralism, I am atheistically agnostic about the existence of the God of classical theology, and I take issue with many fundamental Christian doctrines and ethics. I answered in the negative and went on to give a four-point, two-sentence outline of my religious identity: “I was once Orthodox Jewish, and then I identified with Messianic Judaism. Later I became atheist, and I find aspects of process theology appealing.” I could have spent a lot more time qualifying any one of the points above, but I decided that this would suffice.

When I said the above my heart sank. I felt the powerlessness of an absent identity confession. In hind-sight I would have felt better asserting a positive identity, “I am [fill-in-the-blank].” I would have felt better offering a compelling, positive identity. Tesfaye then asked me, “Why do you find appealing about process theology?” I am taking away several benefits from this conversation, but this question might be the best. Aside from my ongoing attempt to construct confessional identities (a repeated theme in my writing), I am seeing that I will feel better about my thinking if I have ready, coherent answers to questions like, “Why aren’t you a Christian?,” “Why do you find process theology appealing?,” and, “Why don’t you believe in God?”

So, for example, “Why do you find process theology appealing?” Let me practice:

-- promotion and acceptance of religious pluralism
-- discursive methodology
-- absence of dogma
-- ability to look its own impossibility in the face
-- acceptance of naturalistic science
-- use of dysteleological evolution
-- placement of moral reasoning in the realm of humanity

Now, will I remember this the next time I am asked in person?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Psychological-Referential Revelation and Ethical Development

Before I propose what to many will be a new model of understanding Scripture, I will present the two following difficult-to-accept passages from the Qur'an and the Hebrew Bible. I chose them for their similarly regressive sex-gender ethics.

When Appropriate to Beat One's Wife

I am often reluctant to criticize material in the Qur’an for two reasons. First, I do not want to contribute to xenophobia. Muslims in America are a minority, and they are more often than not misrepresented especially by Evangelical Christians. I prefer to work against misconceptions rather than to feed into them even if this means avoiding legitimate criticisms of Islam and its sources. Second, there is a lot of good, a quantitatively overwhelming amount of good, to be lauded in the Qur'an and in Islamic traditions. The presence of such good does not negate the presence of qualitatively negative material, but I fear that focus on negatives will likely fuel xenophobic minds eager to find fault within Islam for the wrong reasons.

The Qur'an is often more progressive than the Pentateuch on sex-gender ethics. Unlike the Pentateuch, the Qur'an grants women the right to private property, the right to individual earning, a status beyond that of male property, etc. This contrasts with the Pentateuch which treats women (wives) as the property of their husbands, does not grant women property rights (with the exception of an absent a male heir, Numbers 35), and does not allow women the right to individual earnings. This being said, what amounts to likely the most regressive passage in the Qur'an, relates to the husband-wife relationship in the passage the follows:

Men are the maintainers of women, with what Allah has made some of them (men) to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion (rebellion, Pickthal & Khalifa), admonish them, and leave them them alone in the beds (banish them to beds apart, Pickthal) and chastise (scourge, Pickthal / beat, Khalifa) the. So, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely Allah is ever Exalted. Great. 4:34 (Maulana Muhammad Ali)

There is a multitude of views on this passage among Qur'anic scholars, and there is considerable debate regarding the permissibility of beating the “disobedient” or disagreeable spouse. Muhammad is reported variously as having stated that the beating Allah referred to was “as with a feather” and “ such a manner that it should not leave an impression” (TR. 10:11). Progressive Muslim thinkers today have even found creative (itjihad) manners in which to make this into an absolute ban on physical “chastisement” or beating.

This passage should cause the reader outrage on multiple levels, but I am focusing on the permissibility or the prescription for wife beating. To think that the husband is permitted or prescribed the option, even if as a last resort, of beating his spouse is outrageous and barbaric. In the West, we have been powerfully affected by the Victorian era and feminism. We see marriage as a consenting partnership between two adults who practice mutual respect and who allow the other room for differentiation and autonomy. At least in theory, we encourage disagreement between spouses—we allow for differences of style, interest, decisions, etc. This passage flies against the last three hundred years of cultural amelioration for women in the West.

Retail of Daughters in Moses

At the early outset of the Sinai revelation in the book of Exodus, the following passage marks the second pericope of caustic civil-social law, preceded by regulations on indentured servant hood:

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she please not her master, who hath appointed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; to sell her unto a foreign people he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouse her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another woman, her food, her raiment, and her oils, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money. Exodus 21:7-11

Some (Wright & Copan) have noted the protections afforded here to the retailed daughter. She is not permitted to be swapped between the buyer and his son. Likewise, the buyer cannot sell her to a foreign people—he can only sell her (“let her be redeemed”) to someone within the nation. Likewise, if the daughter in her concubinage is not granted the rights of food, clothing, and oils (possible reference to sex), she apparently has the right to leave without being sold off (“without money”).

For every possible progress this passage might pose against its historical-cultural context, this passage remains a dinosaur of regressive sex-gender ethics. If a man today put his minor daughter to work, let alone sold her into concubinage, he would be deemed a criminal. Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant expression of God's mind have a problem here. Psalm 19:7 declares, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect...” Torah here refers to the Pentateuch, most likely, from which this passage is drawn. How can a perfect Torah (law) contain such regressive allowances?

It should be clear that sexual ethics change. What was once progressive polity is now regressive. When Scripture, though, is deemed inerrant, the reader today will most often ignore offensive passages. Because such passages are incongruous with the reader's values, their import and significance is often glanced over and missed. They are not revisited later as most do not even see the issues. What these passages, and others, testify to, though, is how culture changes. Where arranged marriage and patriarchy were once normative, consent and romantic love are deemed necessary conditions to marriage, and marriage is esteemed a cooperative, mutualistic endeavor. Cultural values change.

New Paradigms for Scriptural Authority and Contingency

Cultural values change. What does this mean relative to Scriptures? What roles can Scriptures play in setting and crafting ethics?

Influenced largely by process theology and thought, new paradigms for understanding the God-world relationship have been developed that have opened the door for reinterpreting how divine revelation works. One such model is Knight's (2004) psychological-referential model of revelatory experience. He maintains,

Any authentic experience of God that occurs through this divinely given “natural” tendency always...takes on a form that is appropriate to a particular cultural and psychological environment. Because of this it can never be absolute. It has a genuine referential component, recognizable in principle through the “puzzle-solving” character of the theological language to which it gives rise. It also, however, inevitably has a culturally conditioned instrumental component that makes the link between experience and referential doctrine a complex one (pp 56-57).

In Knight's model, revelatory experience is conditioned by its context. This is not enormously different thus far; however, Knight goes on to assert that the contextual-cultural conditioning makes revelatory experiences relative. To Knight, such experiences are not absolute. In turn, the later interpreter of revelation needs to understand the conditional and contextual nature of the revelation. Revelation is packaged and limited by the horizons of its context. It does not unilaterally interrupt and shatter the intellectual, ethical, or theological horizons and limits of its recipients. Hence, the reader is given responsibility to think on her own. She is not given license to set her mind on the altar of another person's ethical and theological conclusions—the process is alive.

Knight goes on to assert:

...there is in this understanding no a priori reason for believing that genuine revelatory experience can occur only among members of some particular religious grouping. ...a number of factors suggest rather strongly a pluralistic...understanding of the faiths of the world (p. 57).

I love this last conclusion. If revelation is psychological-referential, then it can come in diverse packages among diverse peoples. Revelation might then not be limited to he Jewish and Christian Scriptures, we can also look the the wonderful thoughts and betterment offered in the Qur'an. Likewise, the ultimate circumambient reality, God if you will, is not limited to working with prophets of old. We, today, are just as capable of trailblazing, of crafting new horizons and demolishing old idols as those we unfortunately and all too often deem as sacrosanct. We can today add the scathing and salient denouncements of prophet Dawkins to the weighty and progressive calls to justice from the Hebrew prophets. We can listen to Muhammad and Moses, disagree with them when wrong, and build upon their shoulders.

Works Cited

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011

Knight, Christopher C. Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh. In: In Whom We Live, Move, and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

Knight, Christopher, C. Wrestling with the Divine: Religion, Science, and Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001

Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004

Friday, December 9, 2011

Objections to the Virgin Birth

Theodicy and Antinaturalism
Theodicy is the term used for the manners and theological-philosophical systems by which one levels or balances blame for moral and natural evil in the world with the assumed goodness and omnipotence of God.
“If God is good and all powerful, why doesn't God intervene and end suffering?”
“If God is all powerful and good, why does God permit natural and moral evil to prevail?”
Beginning with classical theistic models in which God is indeed both all good and all powerful, there are no good solutions to these questions, and theodicy rightly becomes a high moral ground for atheism. The God of classical theism stands wholly outside of creation, able to intervene as desired but withholding goodness and reprieve at every moment. In classical Christian soteriology, God does intervene to enact redemptive events. The classical models have God, in Jesus, “coming down” to dwell with humanity, entering the womb of Mary through a miraculous interruption of the created order. Deus ex machina. Just as humanity was about to propel itself off the precipice of depravity, God interrupted the human narrative, stooped down to the estate of a Jewish peasant, and was born of a virgin.
Classical Christian theology bequeaths substance language to theological discourse. It is hence difficult to speak of God-world relations without using a substance rhetoric that depicts God as substance in distinction to the world/creation as another substance. Despite my objections to substance language, I am using it.
Theodicy and Incarnation
Theologian Knight (2004) asserts, “...there is a widespread sense that the doctrine of the incarnation can be safeguarded only through a strong antinaturalist stance” (57). What is an antinaturalist stance? Antinaturalism is a position that gives countenance to breaks in the natural order of cause-effect. With regard to the virgin birth, antinaturalism is a description of the deus-ex-machina interruption of natural events to cause the virgin birth. The virgin birth is a preternatural event; it breaks from the normal course of cause-effect by removing the necessity of the natural human sperm meeting the human egg.
A God that interrupts the natural order to affect the virgin birth is considered antinaturalist. The same antinaturalist God who is capable of interrupting the natural order is the same God who is also the enigma and moral monster of theodicy. The fact that God can interrupt and doesn't, this is the effective fuel of atheistic theodicy. This is where classical theism collapses into monarchial-patriarchal models of God the seemingly arbitrary agent and giver. God the monarch-patriarch coercively delivers the seed; creation passively and irresistibly receives it as a vessel of God's bidding (Hartshorne, p. 60). God is absolute Power and unchanging Potentate, capable of intervening as demonstrated in the virgin birth but withholding good things from his children. The virgin birth then is a philosophical argument in favor of the failure of classical theism and theodicy.
Alternate Models of Incarnation
There are models of incarnation that maintain the integrity of naturalism and close the door on classical theism and its failed theodicy.
Knight (2004) states:
The divine aspect of the person of Jesus not something essential alien to the world—a supernatural intrusion—but rather a coming to fullness of something present in the world from the beginning (p. 58).
Knight goes on to develop models of incarnation that depict a “bottom-up” movement for the incarnation in which the incarnation is the coming into maturity, the blossoming into flower, of something already present within the natural order. Though I will not be developing his position here, he presents what he calls pan-sacramental naturalism in which God, as in the Anglican understanding of the eucharist, metaphorically works in, with, below the natural order and is limited thereby by either kenotic self limitation or ontological necessity.
Aruther Peacocke, the late and esteemed theologian and biochemist who wrote extensively on the relationship between science and faith, opines as follows:
[The incarnation] uniquely exemplifies [the] emergence-from-continuity that characterizes the entire process whereby God is “informing” the world... [W]e can now interpret “incarnation” not involving a “descent” into the world by a God conceived as “above” (and outside) it—as so many Christian hymns wokuld have us believe—but as the manifestation of what, or rather of the One who, is alread in the world though not recognized or known (which is what the first chapter of John actually says). The human person Jesus is then to be seen, by virtue of his human response and openness to God, as the locus, the ikon, in and through whom is made explicit the nature and character of the God who has never ceased to be present, continuously creating and bringing divine purposes to fruition in the order of energy-matter-space-time (pp. 37-38).
Peacocke's God-world model presents God in mutual dependence on the cosmos: panentheism. His panentheism is wholly naturalistic—God works persuasively within the natural order, not interrupting the laws of nature or the chain of cause-effect. Resorting to substance language, God's power is limited by the space required for the cosmos. That is, the freedom of the natural order and of human moral agents is a limit to God's power. In his model, God cannot interrupt, God can work at the level of persuasion and creation can chose to cooperate, or not.
For Peacocke then, incarnation is a coming into being, a germination of what is already present in the natural order. God does not cause incarnation unilaterally, God woos, persuades, and draws into being, into incarnation. Incarnation is realized by a bottom up process. What practical implications does this hold for doctrine of incarnation? I appreciate Peacocke's words below.
We have come to Jesus the Christ as the distinctive manifestation of a possibility always inherently there for human beings by virtue of their potential nature. This makes what he was relevant to what we might be, for it entails that what we have affirmed about is Jesus is not, in principle, impossible for all humanity (38).
It should be noted that this model of incarnation and God-world interaction provides a fruitful venue for further thought about the integrity of science, the place of faith, questions of theodicy, etc. In my next posts on this topic I will address the passages of Scripture that are either used to support the virgin birth or that do actually teach it. It will be found that the “Old Testament” does not teach the virgin birth, and the “New Testament” went too far with the idea.

Works Cited
Hartshorne, Charles. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York, 1984: Albany.
Knight, Christopher C. “Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh” in In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Eerdmans, 2004: Grand Rapids
Peacocke, Arthur. All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century. Fortress Press, 2007: Minneapolis.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Truth and Remythologizing God

Nietzsche answers his own question:

What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage, seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account but merely as metal (p. 143).

We forget that we construct the worlds and the meanings that we dwell in. We forget that what were once current life currencies have lost their socially-established value and have become mere pieces of metal. Nietzsche raises a challenge to theology. We mustn't passively rely on the seemingly “fixed, canonic, and binding” illusions of “worn-out metaphors” which have lost power and currency. Instead, “the constructive character of theology must be acknowledged,” and with awareness that the social world which we inhabit has changed and is changing, we must “think experimentally, [we] must risk novel constructions” (McFague, p. 6).

Implicit in Nietzsche's statement is the need to deconstruct metaphors. The avant-garde of the conservatives have already engaged theology in deconstruction. For example, models of God like “Father” or “Monarchical Patriarch” are being appreciated for their metaphorical value. “God does not literally posses male gonads, does he?” However, deconstruction is insufficient. We need new metaphors, ones that address the environmental, economic, and erotic exigencies of today. I appreciate the following remarks from McFague:

One of the serious deficiencies in contemporary theology is that though theologians have attempted to interpret the faith in new concepts appropriate for our time, the basic metaphors and models have remained relatively constant: they are triumphalist, monarchical, patriarchal. Much deconstruction of the traditional imagery has taken place, but little construction. If, however, metaphor and concept are, as I believe, inextricably and symbiotically related in theology, there is no way to do theology for our time with outmoded or oppressive metaphors and models. The refusal to deal with the constructive task results in either a return to anachronistic models—a conservative retreat—or a move away from all images toward abstract language (xi).

McFague goes on to assert that the task of today is to “remythologize” the relationship between God and the world. On the level of the literal, most of theology is fiction, illusion; however, the fictional and illusory become truth when lived and experienced through the dynamism of myth. Models of God that need to be developed and extrapolated for today include the “death-of-God” and God as Mother, Participant, Goddess, Sensual, and Liberator (vs. Savior).

McFague, Sally, Models of God. Fortress Press, 1987: Philadelphia.

Nietzsche, Friederich, “On Truth and Falsity in Their Ultramoral Sense,” 1873 in Works 2:180.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I believe...

“I believe in order that I may understand.”

This famous statement by Anselm is understood and used by many to show that one “must first force one's mind to accept blindly a host of incomprehensible doctrines” (Armstrong, 132). That is, one must lend full intellectual assent to a set of dogma or doctrines, however unsupported, before one can understand how credible they actually are. Fault then is on the individual who rebelliously refuses to forgo reason and accept belief.

This interpretation of Anselm misses an essential meaning of “believe.” The Latin verb for “I believe” is credo which literally reads “heart to put,” that is, to apply oneself to something as in a discipline or course of action. Anselm's statement might better be read as “I involve myself in order that I may understand.” Armstrong summarizes Anselm's meaning well, “...religious truth [makes] no sense without practically expressed commitment” (p. 132).

Etymologically, the words for “belief” and “faith” in Hebrew, Greek, and in English are rooted in the meanings of action, fidelity, faithfulness and less in the notion of intellectual assent. “I believe” meant “I am engaged/committed/loyal.” To believe something is to live something, to embrace a truth that dwells at the level of mythos and not always accessible to logos or reason (Armstrong, p. 115). Allow me to borrow from Armstrong's example with the doctrine of the Trinity:

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” is inaccessible to rational analysis. It was a meditative device to counter the idolatrous tendency of people like Arius, who had seen God as a mere being... (p. 115).

Trinity was an activity rather than an abstract metaphysical doctrine. It is probably because most Western Christians have not been instructed in this exercise that the Trinity remains pointless, incomprehensible, and even absurd” (p. 117).

Though no doubt there was a metaphysical component to the Trinity, Armstrong emphasizes the practical, discipline of the Trinity as a meditative or sacred pathway away from logos/reason into mythos and truths not necessarily identifiable by logos/reason. According to Armstrong, Arius' error was making God into “mere being” and a subject of rational analysis.

For me God is a call to action—an expansion of vision, a set of circles that encompasses more and more of the world around me. I believe in God as a discipline, a sacred pathway and as a vehicle for meaning making. God for me is not the monarch of metaphysics but a dimension of my own existence.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Direction of this Blog

My blog is taking a new direction. Central themes of free inquiry, skepticism, science, biblical studies, etc. remain; however, I am no longer calling myself an atheist. I have not abandoned atheism as I still find atheism a viable and appealing perspective. Instead, as I explained in this post: Houses to Dwell In, my perspectives are better represented with a spectrum. I work with and mull over multiple perspectives, and I find it much too intellectually, creatively, and ethically unsatisfying in the long run to limit myself to just one paradigm or point of view. You might say that I am paradigmatically promiscuous as I cannot stay with just one partnering paradigm for long.

It should be noted that this new direction is not really new. It is neither out of step from the composite nature of the blog nor out of spirit with the blog’s name, Approximations. In the history of this blog’s development, I have expressed divergent views on several topics—I do not present a monolithic perspective here. Early on I was more agnostically theistic later to become more atheistic. Because this blog represents me, older posts will remain as examples of the good, the bad, and the approximations in between. I am not afraid to be wrong.

Atheism remains an intellectual and ethical paradigm for me. As I have previously explained, atheism is not a comprehensive world view in itself (see Atheism an Incomplete Worldview). Atheism, for me, is most comprehensive and compelling when it leaves the realm of the negative (e.g., a denial of god/gods) into the realm of the affirmative (e.g., humanism, naturalism, monism, etc.). I remain decidedly committed to several affirmations that are often found in conjunction with atheism such as humanism and anthropological monism. I am, though, also embracing aspects of the following meta-paradigms: process thought, process theism, and panentheism. Interestingly enough, none of these paradigms is inherently exclusive of atheism, and more may be developed on this at some point.

The goal of this post is not to defend any given position, and I might never take a defensive approach to any of the above. I will, though, present a range of perspectives that represent my own thinking on the topics that I address. I have not taken much time in the last few months to work on this blog, so this is a first attempt in a while. I am reformatting the margins and my links, so be patient with my progress. My tabs above will be developed more soon including updates to by biography as needed (we're having a baby in less than eight weeks).