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

Monday, March 01, 2010

Let Us Undermine Our Confidence in Scripture

I read a letter to the LayMAN which included the line:
Our denomination’s seminaries, which are supposed to be bastions of Christian learning, are instead undermining our future pastors’ confidence in the Scriptures....
The author of the letter thought it a horrible thing. Many letters and editorials echo this lament.

I thought, "Amen. The seminaries are doing their jobs."

As Charles Hedrick wrote in the latest Fourth R, "Obeying the Bible is a Bad Idea."

It's a bit of a flimflam on the part of pastors, Bible teachers, and true believers when they urge us to "obey the Bible"--by which they mean trying to do what the Bible says. Although many claim to try, they are never able to succeed! Here is why. The Bible is an ancient book describing the origins, history, and faiths of two different antiquated religions, both of which are, in turn, quite different from their modern counterparts. I am not saying the Bible is without value, or that nothing can be learned from these antique religions. There are many valuable lessons for moderns to take from the ancient Judeo-Christian traditions that comprise the Bible, but directions from God on how life should be lived in the modern world are not among them.... p. 2
As much as our denominational leaders think we wouldn't be unraveling if we only thought 'theology mattered', did more to 'lift up Jesus', believed in the 'bodily resurrection', or became 'missional', from my vantage point all of that is a lost cause.

The gods with big or little gs are dying. The sooner we face it, the sooner we can get on with something that does matter.

The March-April Fourth R has a number of articles along this theme. Davidson Loehr in his essay, "Straight Talk about God-Talk" argues that theology (God-talk) has been going the way of alchemy for some time and wonders what will replace it:

What's clear is that religion and life aren't about gods, and God-talk at its best only strikes our enduring questions at a glancing blow. We need to be able to talk and argue in plain language about what is most important to us, what values and allegiances we need to grow into fulfilling lives and a healthy world. Theologians and preachers may not claim, and anyway are no longer granted, any privileged position in this discussion.

Redefining God-talk as quaint is a bit like doing the same with the old vocabulary of alchemy...During the psychology-centered twentieth century, first-rate religion scholars like Mircea Eliade and psychologists like Carl Jung showed us that alchemy-talk was just an esoteric way of talking about the yearning for a deep psychological transformation, turning our own "lead" into "gold." With that, the old language was discarded but the cargo was saved, and we were empowered to speak of it in more honest and accessible terms.

It's important to bring these topics down to earth because that's where we live, and where everything really important to us happens....When we talk of our deepest yearnings and our provisional answers to them, whether in prose, poetry, or plain old ordinary language, we are not speaking theology. We are speaking in the deep language of head and heart that was the forerunner, and is the legitimate heir, to what was once called theology. pp. 12, 24.
Bill Lehto writes about radical theologian, "Don Cupitt: An Appreciation." Cupitt has been one of my favorites for some time. He embraces postmodernism with gusto. All God-talk is human language. But instead of fleeing from the abyss,
Cupitt floats. Cupitt embraces life's temporality and finitude because he realizes and accepts that it could not be otherwise, that it would make no sense for it to be otherwise. p. 20
One of my favorite Don Cupitt books is Life, Life. Life is the word we use instead of God. Listen to people (including yourself) talk about what is important and how you phrase it. Be conscious of the number of times and ways you use the word "life" to describe well...life.
Life happens. Life is what you make it. That's life. Live your life.
In terms of life, "God" is rather awkward. He is an extra large suitcase full of neckties on a beach trip. Bill Lehto quotes Cupitt:
[the] postmodern vision of the world is one in which there is no longer any absolute Beginning, Ground, Presence or End in the traditional metaphysical sense. So there is no anchorage whatever, in any direction. p. 19
How do we live with this freedom? Bill Lehto writes:
Cupitt's own response to this incredible freedom is what he calls "Solar Living," in which people live their lives on the principle of the sun: in giving of itself to life, it burns itself out. "Life is a gift (with no giver) that is renewed every day, and true religion is expressive, 'solar' living. By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and pour itself out into symbolic expression through me." p. 21.
Another interesting article is by Solomon Schimmel, "The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs." We all have encountered the true believers who spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and passion seeking to convince themselves and others about the truth of their scriptures. Schimmel writes about what is at stake for these folks.
There are several defense mechanisms, or strategies, which the believer is not necessarily aware that he is "using" as he responds to logical or empirical challenges to his beliefs. Among these are cognitive restructuring (which includes selective attention, selective interpretation, and selective evaluation) and the discrediting of contradictory information. p. 4.
Quick definitions:
  • selective attention: "believer takes note only of facts and arguments that support his beliefs, while ignoring those that challenge them."
  • selective interpretation: "believer tends to accept the interpretation that confirms his belief or that neutralizes the threat that the event or fact poses to his belief."
  • selective evaluation: "believers see congruent events as more important than incongruent ones. For a believer the occasional report of a miraculous cure can never be out-weighed by reports of innumerable failed ones."
  • discrediting contradictory information: "...fundamentalists often claim that critical biblical scholars are anti-Semites or heretics or evil or ignorant of traditional Jewish modes of dealing with the challenges posed by modern scholarship."
Why does the church, its ministers, and its true believers keep up the charade that their "theology matters"?
It is precisely because they have invested so much of their intellectual, emotional, social, and financial energy and resources into their belief system and religious way of life that they are afraid or reluctant to examine its foundations. It is because they sense that the pillars of all they believe and have invested in might be exposed to be pillars of sand. Better to be an intellectual ostrich with respect to their religious beliefs than to face the reality of the demise of all that is dear to them, which they imagine (rightly or wrongly) will be the consequence of honestly studying biblical scholarship. p. 6.
The real issue is that beliefs are so closely tied into the social benefits of religion that they are difficult to separate. Schimmel writes:
Religion in general satisfies many human needs: social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual....there is a reluctance to give up the belief out of fear that doing so will undermine the positive emotions. There is also the anxiety about feeling guilty for betraying loved parents, friends, and teachers. Therefore, the believer harboring doubts will expend a tremendous amount of intellectual and emotional energy in defending the beliefs, even appealing to arguments that he would not find convincing in the absence of an emotional attachment. pp. 8, 24
It would seem that the important task of religion from seminary to clergy to pew is to help folks keep the benefits of religion while letting go of its superstitions. It is not impossible. It just takes courage, wisdom, and patience. It also takes cultivating a culture of doubt. Doubt is not an vice but a virtue. As David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone put it:
I am heartened by the number of people who see their religions clearly and remain strong in their faith without requiring departures from factual reality.
If our friend writing to the LayMAN is right that seminaries are "undermining our future pastors' confidence in the Scriptures...." then I can only say, thank you. Keep it up. In the long run, we will all benefit.
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