Confronting a Controlling God:

Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination.

© 2015, Catherine Miles Wallace PhD

Interview with Cate

 

Chapter 1. Confronting Fundalemtalism: The Dangerous God of Control-and-Condemn

     Christian fundamentalism speaks for God with breath-taking arrogance and sweeping authority, laying out in no uncertain terms what God demands and whom God condemns. For instance, God demands that all schools officially endorse Christianity by having public prayer and Bible reading. God condemns geology and evolutionary biology and now, it seems, climate science. Strictly speaking, theologically speaking, such claims are a variety of idolatry. They are the result of unskillful theology that puts something else in place of God. Specifically, here, fundamentalism deifies and then worships human control needs inflated to the cosmic level. Fundamentalism proclaims and worships this idol in an effort to legitimate a reactionary political and social agenda. That agenda is diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught and what Jesus inherited from the Jewish prophetic tradition before him.

     Their God of radical control-needs is the product of Christian theocracy in the West—the thousand years in which Christianity was the established religion of the Roman Empire and its successors. As I explain in Confronting Religious Violence, chapter 3, the political function of religion in a theocracy is to serve as the public relations organization of the emperor or the king. Theocracy is never about putting religion directly in charge of the state: spiritual enlightenment (by whatever name) cannot be imposed by force of law. The name of the game in a theocracy is using religious language and symbolism to legitimate the authority of whoever holds power—or seeks power.

     And so, Christian fundamentalism does not seek the just, humane, inclusive society preached by Jesus of Nazareth. It offers "religious" cover to a political agenda that is sharply opposed to democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people. For secular reactionaries, the price of collaborating with Christian fundamentalism has been endorsing policies and legislation attempting to impose "Christian morality" upon the nation as a whole. In God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), historian Daniel Williams points out that alliance with secular reactionaries offered religious reactionaries something they had never had before: an economic agenda (radical laissez-faire predatory capitalism) and a foreign policy agenda (aggressively militaristic "neocon" imperialism). This complex and somewhat contradictory alliance made it possible for the Religious Right to make a major play for control of the Republican Party. That's the story Williams tells in scholarly detail.

     In his book In God We Trust: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (2015), Princeton historian Kevin Kruse describes how this alliance began. It began in the 1930s, he explains, as an initiative by major business leaders opposed to such New Deal developments as Social Security, unemployment insurance, banking regulations, and labor reform. They wanted to undermine the New Deal and to shore up the reputation of the banking industry, which was widely condemned for its role in the Great Depression. And so they began channeling money to Right-wing clergy who thought that the New Deal was "unbiblical." Kruse documents this process in rigorous scholarly detail from its origin in the 1930s and 1940s through the merger of piety, patriotism, and reactionary politics in the 1950s.

     In With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (2005), Rice University historian William Martin continues the tale Kruse tells. Martin documents the arc of fundamentalism from the mid-1950s through the end of the twentieth century, focusing on opposition to civil rights: racial equality, gender equality, reasonable freedom of conscience for women regarding their own healthcare, and the separation of church and state generally. In denouncing civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions assuring civil rights, the Religious right repeated arguments first made in opposition to the New Deal: such initiatives were "intrusive government regulations" disrupting "the American way" and "our way of life." Government itself was declared the enemy, the beast that must be starved into submission—by electing candidates who would defund regulatory agencies, and cut taxes on businesses and the wealthiest households. (That's how this alliance operated.)

     As historians explain, the Religious Right provided to the radically libertarian, anti-government political Right something it had never had before: extensive grass-roots support, local political networks, and above all people willing to vote against the economic interests of their own families and communities. Slick, theologically dishonest manipulation has slowly turned this complex alliance on the hard Right into a major threat to American democratic traditions and processes.

     Whether the "Republican establishment" can regain control from this alliance has become a very open question. They need to, because as Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and James Robinson (Harvard) explain in Why Nations Fail (2012), strong central government and appropriate "level playing field" regulations are essential to entrepreneurial opportunity and a vital economy making good use of people's talents and hard work. For example, carbon-emissions regulations of some sort have broad support in the business community, where smart and morally responsible executives realize that this is necessary. But it will be expensive, and only wise legislation can ensure that environmentally responsible companies are not penalized. This is common sense—desperately needed common sense. But common sense is not politically viable because of climate-change denial has been widely advocated by this devastating alliance between fundamentalist religious reactionaries and radically libertarian economic reactionaries.

     This alliance is responsible for acute dysfunction in Washington and for the commonplace spectacle of wildly contra-factual and irresponsible political grandstanding to the fundamentalist "Republican" base. We all know that. What too few people appreciate fully is the straight theological illegitimacy of this fundamentalism. Specifically, the controlling God of fundamentalism is a dangerous illusion. Such theology, if I can dignify it with that label, is a malignant development within Christian tradition. As I have explained elsewhere in the Confronting Fundamentalism series, the God proclaimed by the Religious Right is perhaps best understood as a "modernist" distortion of authentic Christian theology.[1] The distortion was most notable or most extreme in the US, because the controlling-and-punitive God was famously embraced by the Puritans.[2]

     As Charles Taylor documents at great length in A Secular Age (2007), the West began to reject Christianity and to move toward secularism not because people preferred science to religion, but rather because there is something both morally repugnant and unconvincing about this hyper-controlling and vindictive God. In God's Problem (2008), biblical scholar Bart Ehrman does a fine job of exploring the moral problems attendant upon a controlling God. He concludes that God does not exist and Christianity is false, because the only God he can imagine is a God in absolute causal control of everything.

     I'd reply to Ehrman that the God of Jesus cannot be defined as control over causality. Christian humanism as I understand it makes that claim with great confidence and on the basis of generations of rigorous scholarship. Strictly speaking, Christian humanism is the genuinely biblical and conservative tradition here. Fundamentalism—Protestant and Catholic alike—is a dangerous Victorian brew of theological nonsense and political expediency. I delineate its origins from many different perspectives in other volumes of the Confronting Fundamentalism series.

     I believe that we need to reclaim an older and very different set of ideas about who God is. That's one way to confront fundamentalism. It's not the only way. But it's a start, and it is perhaps the most effective way of confronting them: other Christians are best situated to deny fundamentalism the religious legitimacy and the powerful cultural capital it tries to exploit.

     Consider this: radical misappropriations of Islam can only be stopped if other Muslims speak up clearly and get an audience when they say, "that's not Islam." Similarly, Christian fundamentalism is not Christianity. It does not represent the teachings of Jesus—nor the faith of millions of American Christians, including plenty of educated, thoughtful evangelicals.

What's at Stake Today

     How God is defined or understood should matter even to nonbelievers because extraordinarily powerful cultural capital is at stake. These resources must not fall into the wrong hands. To whatever extent that has already happened, it behooves all humanists—regardless of our religious affiliation or non-affiliation—to recognize and oppose this misappropriation. In God and Empire: Jesus against Rome Then and Now (2007), biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan explains why. He argues forcefully that fundamentalist Christianity is in fact a far more dangerous threat to the global future than fundamentalist Islam. Here's the issue as I have come to see it: Christianity has completely lost control of its brand. Pope Francis may be trying to reclaim it; but the odds are against him, just as the odds are stacked again politically progressive, theologically sophisticated mainline Protestant denominations.

     Let me explain what's at stake in Christianity losing control of its brand. Here's the threat: fundamentalism is dangerous in part because Christian symbolism permeates Western culture. Both consciously and unconsciously, both visibly and in deeply submerged or coded ways, Christianity shapes archetypal Western narratives and our most powerful cultural images. You don't need a degree in marketing to recognize how potent such resources can be. Brands are a stories, marketing folks insist. And at the core of the brand story is a compelling image. Christian stories and images provide some of the most potent symbolism in Western culture.

     In particular, how we define God reveals or provides the cultural source-code for how we understand ourselves. The medieval church called this the "imitatio dei," the "imitation of God." That is, we are called to imitate God to the best of our limited human ability. Who God is—the identity of God—thus delineates what we can legitimately expect of ourselves and what we can legitimately demand of one another. That expectation can lead us spiritually in two very different directions depending upon how we define God.

     First, the "power of God" can be defined spiritually and morally as the transforming power of compassion, generosity, and hospitality. If that's how we think of God, then our theology leads us spiritually to trust in compassion, to endeavor to cultivate compassion in ourselves, and so forth. Or as the prophet Micah said in 700 BCE or so:

He has showed you, O man, what is good;

and what does THE LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8, RSV)

 

     That's the tradition I'm referring to here when I say that Christian humanism is the genuinely conservative Christian tradition.

     Second option: the power of God can be defined physically, as control over outcomes at all levels. God is causality deified. Worse yet, the God of Control also sees to the eternal torment of sinners who defy his control (thus proving to them that his power cannot be eluded in the long run). If this is how God is defined, then humanity is led in a very different spiritual direction. We have a basis for claiming that our own control needs are in effect "sacred." They have cosmic legitimacy. Our own control needs are in effect deified. We are encouraged to act out our own fears and hatreds by attacking others—and to call that "the will of God."

     That's how Christianity got itself involved in crusades, inquisitions, and horrific religious wars in the 1500s and 1600s.

Fundamentalism and Totalitarianism

     There is a second reason why definitions of God matter even to non-believers. In political terms, a controlling God provides theological cover for the human abuse of political and economic power. That's what's going on when fundamentalists claim that their religious liberty is at stake if democratic government attempts to block their effort to impose on everyone else what they see as God's rigidly controlling moral demands (for instance, that birth control and gay marriages are forbidden, or that abortion is forbidden even in cases of rape, incest, maternal medical complications, or severely-damaged conceptions). The theology of an ultimately controlling God legitimates—indeed, requires—human political tyranny at the hands of "believers." When these same believers are biblical literalists immune to arguments based on rigorously-established facts, we are really in trouble.

     I acknowledge that I am making a deadly serious and quite complex claim about the theological roots of a profound threat to American democracy and the rule of law. I discuss it from other perspectives in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus, chapter 11 and again in Confronting Religious Violence, chapter 4. I deconstruct both biblical literalism and papal infallibility in Confronting Religious Absolutism, chapters 6–8. In this volume, I will be deconstructing this malignant theological aberration from within the resources of Christian spirituality.

     Fundamentalism arises in the same mid- to late-Victorian cultural matrix as secular totalitarian ideologies. That includes Marxism and the conceptual foundation of Nazism. It includes the eugenics movement, derived from Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spenser, misleadingly called "Social Darwinism." It includes blind belief in the "free market" elevated into a god and "competition" regarded as the universal solvent that wipes away all problems everywhere. Each of these "modernist" ideologies is an effort to bring human affairs under strict causal control. (And it's hardly surprising that the control thereby asserted just happens to increase the power, privilege, and wealth of a pre-existing socioeconomic elite.) In the twentieth century, the effort to impose such control caused the death of millions.

     We see the same desperate effort to assert top-down control in the "law and order" agenda that the hard Right has pursued since the early 1930s. It has pursued this agenda by creating negative community—community organized around the scapegoating of some target group. (I explain this in more detail in in Confronting Religious Judgmentalism, chapters 7–11.) Like social bullies, but on a much larger scale, the negative community defends its own status, privilege, and boundaries by attacking some other group as immoral. They are the damned, not the saved. Like bullied children on a playground, these targeted groups are excluded and attacked in an effort to proclaim the superiority of those claiming to be "morally upright."

     Specific targets of hard-Right campaigns have varied over time. In the 1930s it was unionized workers and anyone who else benefited from the New Deal's effort to dial back the rapacious excesses of the Gilded Age "Captains of Industry." In the 1940s the target was American of Japanese ancestry and, by association, anyone of any Asian ancestry. In due course, the target list included "Leftists" and "liberals," black people, career women, gay people, poor people, progressives, immigrants and refugees, Hispanics, Muslims, environmentalists, experts, and now moderates. Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist who writes regularly in the New York Times, repeatedly describes the same dynamic as it shows up among Right-wing economists and politicians talking about economics: they have an orthodoxy that trumps the facts of the matter. Being proved wrong by the data does not slow them down.

     Although the target changes, the hard-Right attack stays the same: these people are threats; they are dishonest; they are immoral and sources of moral disorder; they must be stopped at any cost (including shutting down the federal government, defaulting on the national debt, and bringing the legislative process to a complete standstill). These are always ad hominem attacks against personal character, not issue-based arguments based on objective facts or peer-reviewed research by scholars at major institutions. They denounce as moral threats to the fabric of the nation anyone in the "reality-based community" who argues on a factual basis for policies serving the common good or protecting our equality before the law. And why? Because the "morality" of the libertarian Right presupposes the ruthless, radically individualist contest of each against all—each of us as miniature gods and goddesses, attempting to impose our will upon one another. Nietzsche: "The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall be given every assistance."[3]

     What would Jesus say? Quite possibly something bitterly hilarious. He was a much wittier man than most people realize: centuries of cultural change have obscured his laugh lines. (I do my best to restore some of that brilliant satire in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus.)

     Given the wealth and public-relations talent that have been channeled toward the hard-Right co-opting of Christian tradition, it's hardly surprising at all that growing numbers of political moderates and progressives now want nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. The religiously non-affiliated (the "Nones") are now numerous enough to count as a major religious denomination all by themselves. The non-affiliated, the vast majority of whom are ex-Christian, constitute more than twenty percent of the population, and more with each succeeding poll. This group is also disproportionately young. According to the Pew Forum (2015 data), thirty-five to thirty-seven percent of adults under forty have distanced themselves in this way.[4]

     If that's a rousing generational rejection of hard-Right fundamentalist nonsense, it's great news. But it's also the loss of a major cultural heritage. And that's a disaster. Fundamentalism has co-opted resources of immense cultural value, resources that we need now more than ever in their authentic, pro-social form. This co-opting can be halted, and these prosocial resources reclaimed, by extricating the God of Jesus and the symbolism of Christianity from the clutches of the Religious Right.

Two Approaches to God-Talk

     It's difficult to talk about God in clear, non-dogmatic language that neither presupposes personal belief nor rejects belief as illusory or irrational. But I'm going to try.

     Here's the best approach that I see for open-handed framing of the issues at stake: there are two very different approaches to defining God. Let's call these two approaches "theology" and "spirituality." Those labels are a bit imprecise (I'll get back to that momentarily), but they are reasonably workable.

     Spirituality defines God as the reality attested to by human spiritual experience. Theology defines God as a philosophical concept. At its best, Christian tradition keeps these two categories of definition in some coherent balance, such that each guards against the excesses or liabilities of the other. At its best, Christian tradition endeavors to combine the best insights of each approach because, of course, there is an inevitable interplay between spirituality and theology.

     Here's why: how we think about God (theology) inevitably influences how we interpret our own spiritual experiences. And our spiritual experiences, if we trust them, shape our theology. In the end, this dynamic interplay explains why so many spiritually sensitive individuals reject Christianity: the controlling God of fundamentalism is wildly at odds with their own intuitive encounters with what they recognize as "holy" or as "sacred."

     In each of the other volumes in this series, I have laid out different aspects of the specifically theological failures of fundamentalism in its portrait of Christianity as absolutist, judgmental, anti-gay, anti-science, chronically hostile, and so forth. I've kept theological complexity to a bare minimum in those books by focusing relentlessly upon practical issues of immediate political and social concern to any reasonable person. In this volume, I want to talk about spirituality in the same way. I'll do so by looking critically at certain universal human experiences attested to across all cultures and across centuries. These experiences can be and have been explained in many ways. Christianity is one such tradition.

     Fundamentalism rejects the sophisticated nuance of Christian spirituality just as it rejects the intellectual complexity of Christian theology. Here's the problem with their account: they think they know it all.

     And the rest of Christian spiritual and theological tradition humbly and repeatedly admits that we don't know it all. We can't know it all. Not if God is God. Christianity 101 (Intro to God-Talk) flatly insists that the sacred cannot be captured in the nets of analytical intellect no matter how finely woven they may be. We are creating an idol of our own devising when we define God in philosophically absolutist terms as Cosmic Control Incarnate. And we are spinning that idol into a politically dangerous fundamentalism when we use what we have concocted to drape our own fears, hatred, ambitions, and control needs in pseudo-religious legitimacy

     Over four thousand years of Jewish and then Christian tradition, many perfectly sane and ordinary people have experienced God as something real. But we simultaneously experience God as something inexplicable. We experience God as beyond all explaining, despite the volumes of learned commentary and explication offered by systematic theologians—the best of whom also admit that God is beyond anybody's explaining. Christian spirituality among ordinary people is rooted not in the heritage of creeds, catechisms, and church dogmatics but rather in spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, service to others and the brilliant heritage of religious art, architecture, music, poetry, and storytelling. The arts and the spiritual practices of classic Christian tradition can evoke religious experience without explaining it.

     The experience of God is like this, or it's something like this: anyone who sees the Grand Canyon realizes simultaneously that all of the Grand Canyon cannot be seen at one time. The experience of God is something like that. It's as if, standing on the rim of that incredible canyon, as if it were clear that by definition no one could ever know all of this. Even more to the point, it's also clear that the effort to define—the very effort to "see all of it"— is a literal-minded failure of moral imagination. It's a clueless effort to confine, contain, delimit, and hence control that which invites and indeed compels us even while eluding us. God eludes us easily, but not because God is trying to be elusive. The problem is that our expressive resources for articulating such experience are far too small. That's why the arts—including the performance art of liturgy and ritual— have always been so central to Christian spirituality.

     All of us know the deep, resonant silence of experiences beyond our ability to articulate. We have all had experiences that we don't have words enough to describe. Furthermore, we all know what it's like to share that silence with someone, to share that sense that there's no words for this. For the believer, faith is rooted in some of those moments. Faith is an interpretation of some of those moments. Whether or not you share my interpretation—a commonality I am far too sensible to assume—I am confident that at the human level we both know what such moments feel like.

     Religion that is rooted in such moments has a profound humility and an instinctive, compassionate deference to others' encounters with the same inexplicable Reality.

My Major Claim

     Here's the major claim I'll be making in the pages ahead: Christian spirituality confronts Christian fundamentalism with a simple but profound insight: all God-talk is necessarily and inescapably symbolic. That is, the word "God" functions as a symbol in any statement anyone makes about "God." Explaining what I mean by that—and why it matters—is my goal here. Furthermore, I believe that the properly symbolic God-talk of Christianity requires a mix of humility, compassion, and moral courage. However we acquire such attitudes, they are crucial. Without them, humanity may destroy this planet at some point in the next five hundred years.  

     The first step toward averting that catastrophe is believing that we are not inevitably radically self-seeking "rational actors." We are capable of not killing ourselves off. The first step is believing that humanity is deeply and inherently motivated toward collaboration, generosity, courage, compassion, self-sacrifice, and creativity. My faith offers such assurance. What I've been calling "Christian humanist tradition" offers such assurance. With so much at stake, surely these resources within Christianity are worth considering. Doing so may convince you that it is possible to collaborate with believers and with our communities in what must be a global endeavor enlisting all reasonable people everywhere. We don't need to have identical motives, much less identical belief-systems funding our motives. We do need to find one another, and to find ways of working together, despite differences in our belief systems.

     One step toward that goal—what I have been trying to offer all along—is a way for outsiders to distinguish between authentic and fraudulent God-talk within Christianity. Here my Confronting Fundamentalism project reaches its natural conclusion in a discussion what can—and what cannot—be said about God. The position I take is as familiar a theological commonplace as anything the tradition has on offer: none of us speak for God. None of us know for sure who God is. We have only our own, partial glimpses. That fact alone confronts and deconstructs the dangerous pretenses of Christian fundamentalism.

     The larger, longer Christian tradition flatly insists that God eludes any claim made about God. It says that in texts going back to about 1250 BCE—somewhere on the cusp between the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. Given this antiquity, what I will be arguing here is not postmodern. It is a re-claiming of classic theological humility that Christianity lost sight of in its mistaken effort to transform theology into "the queen of sciences."

     In the last five hundred years, the West has tinkered with a dangerous experiment in supposing that all paradoxes can be resolved into simple fact or else dismissed as insignificant illusion. In doing so, we have cut ourselves off from sources of insight about the human condition, wisdom that now we desperately need. Worse yet, libertarians among us are trying to translate this ancient wisdom into marketing rhetoric for an intransigent, Right-wing refusal to collaborate, to examine facts honestly, and to accommodate to multiple honest perspectives on stunningly complicated problems about how best to serve the common good. The hard Right does not care about the common good. They are radically individualist. Competition is the greatest good, in fact the only good—utterly ruthless competition in which the rich would get richer, the middle class would steadily disappear, and the exploited working class would slowly be reduced to Third World desperation.

     The God problem—the problem of how to define an elusive God—forces us to grapple with paradox. It forces us onto the ground of the is/not. That's the landscape of literature and the arts. It's the landscape of metaphor and symbolism. It is also the terrain of quantum physics and nuclear weapons. We have to find a way to live on this ground—to live together on this ground—if we hope to solve the problems that face us collectively.

~ ~ ~

     Let me say it again, one last time: stories and poetry are the most robust, most durable, most nuanced resource we have yet invented for grappling with and successfully transmitting human insight. Implicitly or explicitly, every statement about God is an is/not symbolic claim. In the last analysis, such claims arise from the moral imagination, whose primary speech is metaphor and symbol. Symbolism and metaphor take us beyond the black–and–white, yes–or–no, either–or logic whose most dangerous culmination is us–versus–them.

     Us–against–them scapegoating will culminate in none of the above unless we learn, and relearn, how to live in a world constituted by paradox.

     Overview of Chapters Ahead

     In chapter 2, I will begin as always with a story—in this case, a story not about God but about silence. It's a story about the limits of language. Language has its limits. We can communicate successfully—and understand intuitively—far more than we can explain in words. We can also feel more than we can say.

     In chapter 3, God-Talk 101: The Art That Is Christianity, I lay out the two essential difficulties framing anything anyone might say about God. First, the human experience of God is both partial and elusive. Second, the human ability to attend to these experiences and to live in the light of these experience is an artistic practice akin to the practices underlying every other human art. That's a claim I've alluded to repeatedly in every volume of my Confronting Fundamentalism project. Now it comes into the foreground.

     What does it mean to reframe the long, complex heritage of Christian God-talk as insight into human experience and wisdom about life-choices and their consequences? At least for me, that reframing brought lots of fascinating stuff into focus.

     And as it all slid into focus for the very first time, I abruptly understood why religion has been such an enduring aspect of human culture globally and for thousands of years. It's simply not possible to fool that many people for that long. I realized that Christianity is not the elaborate lattice of improbable doctrines that for so many years I so easily ignored as transparently irrelevant to my own life. There's something to it. "God" is not the only one way to explain it. I grant that. But there's something there, however you want to explain it.

     In chapter 4, The Copernican Turn of Christian Humanism, I draw the obvious conclusion of my reframing. Christian faith does not orbit around Christian dogmatics and doctrines. It does not orbit around the Bible. It does not orbit around the authority of authoritative intuitional leaders, no matter what claims they make to the contrary. Christian faith orbits around the experience of God.

     In chapter 5, Quantum Theology: The Symbolic Character of God-Talk, I complicate matters a bit further: any statement about God is necessarily a symbolic claim. Nothing anybody ever says can function as the last word or the absolute truth about God: God cannot be defined or specified, just as we cannot measure simultaneously the momentum and the position of an electron.

     In chapter 6, Theological Weirdness (1): The Symbolic Claim That God Is a Person, I examine the single strangest Christian belief about God, which is that God is personally present to each of us. That belief rests upon three key features of inward spiritual experience. [note to self: GJ likes very much.]

     In chapter 7, Poets as Theologians: The Moral Imagination of Christian Humanism, I focus on an obvious problem with the belief that God is personally present to each of us. It looks like a set-up for umpteen kinds of dangerous craziness. Why is Christianity not a morbid mix of unconscious projection and potentially psychotic delusion? Christianity is not lunacy because “God is personally present” is a symbolic claim, not a literal claim. And it follows, then, that poets, classically defined as artists of any kind, are the premier theologians. Symbolism is the primary “language” of any of the arts.  

     In chapter 8, Moses Debates with a Burning Bush, I offer a simple close literary reading of a few crucial exchanges the debate between Moses and his burning bush. These are the exchanges within which God explains to Moses who God is. They are the central biblical text for my claim that anything anyone has ever said about God must be understood as a symbolic statement, not an absolute truth.

     In chapter 9, Moses v. Plato: Translation and the Authority of Theologians, I take a quick look at why this scene was translated first into Greek and then into Latin in the strongly Platonic ways that it was. They had their reasons. None of these reasons are valid today. We'd be much better off reclaiming the image complex offered by the original Hebrew, which portrays God as both inherently dynamic and essentially beyond human definition. That dynamic indeterminacy accords with our world-view far more coherently than a God who is static, radically unchanging, and self-defined as a philosophical proposition.

     In chapter 10, Theological Weirdness (2): The Symbolic Claim That God Is Necessarily Impersonal, I examine the spiritual traditions, alternatives, and antidotes to literal-minded misunderstandings of the belief that God is something like a "person" who is "personally present" to each of us.  

     In chapter 11, What, Then, Can Be Said about God?, I ask an obvious question: a God about whom we can say nothing definitive might be only theoretically different from a God who does not exist at all. Do I deconstruct Christianity into airy nothingness? Or does Christianity as I understand it in fact provide what Shakespeare called "a local habitation and a name" to centrally important, deeply paradoxical human experiences?

     Ultimately, each of us must answer that question in good conscience, with deep respect for the conscientious decisions made by others. But at least this much will be clear: absolutist claims made on behalf of a controlling, violent, and vindictive God are fraudulent claims. They fail accurately to represent the Christian heritage.

     And the real heritage, I've discovered, is actually quite interesting. It has profound insights into human experience. These can be explained plainly, without presupposing (much less requiring) belief in what Christians gesture toward with the word "God."

     But first, as promised, that story about what can be said and what cannot be said.

 

[1] I explain fundamentalism as a modernist distortion in Confronting Religious Denial of Science, chapter 5, and again in passing in Confronting Religious Absolutism, chapter 5

[2] I discuss the Puritans and the Great Awakenings in Confronting Religious Judgmentalism, chapter 10.

[3] Nietzsche, The AntiChrist, section 2.

[4] "'Nones' on the Rise" and "America's Changing Religious Landscape" from the Pew Research Center.

 

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