Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Church and Reason: Four Responses


The Church has had a conflict with Reason for centuries. I mean by Reason, higher criticism (literary criticism, historical criticism, etc.) and science (physics, mathematics, cosmology, biology, etc.)

In this conflict, there have been (for sake of convenience), four responses:

1) Reject Christianity as unreasonable. Europe has basically gone here. Many Americans have as well. They are, as Bishop Spong calls them, "The Church Alumni Association." They call themselves atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or humanists. Secular higher critics and scientists are here. For them Christianity is a lost cause. They tend either
to tolerate it benignly or to challenge it actively. An example of the latter response is Debunking Christianity. Some have embraced an alternative philosophy or spiritual path. They are a growing tribe.

2) Defend the Christian Confessions against the inroads of Reason. Here you find the apologists of varying stripes. They see Reason (higher criticism and science) as a threat to the church and to faith. They may use some of the methods of Reason but only to the point that it does not challenge their confessional tradition.
Usually they practice some kind of smoke and mirrors to show that traditional dogma is reasonable. They do this with the use of fuzzy terms like "postmodern." NT Wright, Mark D. Roberts, and others are here. They are some of the most vociferous opponents to the Jesus Seminar for instance.

3) Ignore Reason and continue doing Church as if the Enlightenment never happened. The majority of clergy in my denomination are here. They don't care about higher criticism or science that much as far as their Christian faith is concerned. Even though they generally assent to it, they see little relation between higher criticism of the Bible and Christian origins (let alone evolution and cosmology) and their ministry. Higher criticism and science detract from their other agendas such as keeping church people happy in their traditional beliefs, embracing social justice causes, or trying to keep their communities afloat.

4) Embrace Reason (higher criticism and science) and try to reframe or reinvent the symbols of faith and the tradition in a way that not only makes sense in light of Reason, but gives 'heart' to Reason. This group, like group 1, recognizes that Reason is the default reality. Theology, if it is to be meaningful, must be based on and speak to reality as we know it through Reason. Unlike group 1, this group thinks that the discipline of theology has a place. Marcus Borg, Michael Dowd, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Matthew Fox would be here along with many other progressive Christian theologians. The Center for Progressive Christianity, Creation Spirituality Communities, and the Jesus Seminar would be examples of organizations of folks in this group. (Although some in the Jesus Seminar would be in group 1). There are many other movements in this group, roughly called progressive Christianity.

I am not sure exactly where to put the "emerging church." Brian McLaren is the leading icon. I am thinking that much of what I see fits in group 4, but the majority is in group 3. They, too, use that fuzzy term, "postmodern," without defining it. This leads me to think that it is used as an excuse to shy away from critically evaluating and reforming the tradition. Nevertheless, I hold out hope for this group. They push some boundaries. It remains to be seen whether they will push confessional boundaries as well by embracing science and higher criticism.

I put myself in camp number 4. Those who might find the JSOR or the Michael Dowd event interesting would fall into this camp.

I should add that 1s will enjoy these events too. They will be pleasantly surprised that these events are held in the Tri-Cities and will want to support them. I really hope some 3s will show. They need it and so do their congregations. 2s are welcome as long as they behave and don't make annoyances of themselves.


It will be interesting to watch if my denomination, the PC (U.S.A.) will circle the wagons and dismiss the 4s completely. If so, the 4s likely will become 1s and then we will have further polarization between the 2s and the 1s. The 3s are asleep and as such let the 2s set their theological agenda. Maybe they will wake up.

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