When Christians set out to deal with contradictions between, say, the Bible and science, or between doctrine and science, they are tempted to put their mind into reverse, and back away from science as fast as their arguments will take them. When they do this they look as stupid as Governor Perry of Texas, who, at a recent campaign event in New Hampshire — whose state motto, “Live Free or Die!”, I have some sympathy for — told a kid that evolution is just “a theory that’s out there,” and that he didn’t know, and he didn’t think anyone else did, how old the earth is. Here’s a little snippet from ABC News:
h/t Jerry Coyne
Now, that just looks stupid! And that’s what happens when you put your mind into reverse.
Is there a way of holding onto your beliefs and still give the appearance, anyway, of moving forward? Well, a lot of religious people, especially theologians, think there is, though not as many, I suspect, as is sometimes imagined. The problem with reinventing doctrine is that it takes an enormous degree of familiarity with the sources in the tradition even to make it sound plausible. I know, because I played the moving forward game for several years, and if you don’t know your stuff pretty well, then you won’t be able to convince others that reading the sources differently, metaphorically or figuratively, retains the really important stuff that gives religion its edge.
I knew an Anglican priest, fresh out of theological school, who said to me, shortly after he had moved to his first parish, “If I told the people here what I really believe they would think I’m not really a Christian.” The problem is to put what you really believe in words that are — well, let’s call a spade a bloody shovel! — evasive enough that people will think that, while you express it in a way that differs from anything they have ever heard, you still believe roughly what they believe. It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it, though if you don’t know enough someone will be sure to trap you with one of those embarrassing “Aha!” moments, when it becomes crystal clear that you really do believe something different, and it isn’t what they’ve been taught all these years. It helps, of course, if you actually think you are unfolding the real meaning that is there, in the texts and the doctrines, and has been hidden all these years, and only became obvious over the last few decades.
In other words, I don’t think that most clergy and others who do this kind of thing are being insincere. I certainly wasn’t. I just thought that this was the way that theology was done, and there are plenty of books by eminent theologians that explain or depend upon this way of doing theology. Most conservative Christians call it liberal, but liberal theologians themselves don’t think of it as a disingenuous way of talking about their beliefs. A good example of this kind of theology is the theology of Gordon Kaufman, who actually wrote a fairly short book entitled An Essay on Theological Method, explaining how this kind of theology is done. It’s worth taking a look at a couple of things he has to say about it.
For example, Kaufman takes theology to be a constructive activity, and he explains:
To say theology is largely a constructive activity does not mean that it is empty or untrue or dealing with the unreal. A world which we create is no less real than one that is given us. 
You can see how he equivocates on the word ‘world’ here. Suppose we were to rewrite that last sentence as follows: ”A world which we create in imagination is no less real than the real world that is given us.” This is basically what he is saying, but if you write it out longhand, like this, it doesn’t seem so obvious any more, does it? The idea here is that human beings in fact create the world, and that, since we are all somehow “in” the world, there is no standpoint from “outside” the world that can distinguish absolutely between the different ways that people have of constructing their world(s).
Don Cupitt, a Cambridge theologian who has written more books than most of us have had hot dinners, describes our situation as outsidelessness, and thinks that, in terms of modern philosophy, there is not much to choose between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact he says, in a Guardian Face to Faith piece, in 2007 that:
The upshot of all this is very severe; so severe that from the point of view of modern philosophy even Richard Dawkins believes in God. He has abandoned popular belief in God (Derrida’s “restricted theology”), but clings to what Derrida calls “general theology”, a belief in one ready-made truth of things out there, waiting to be copied into our language. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ god is now dead too.
Cupitt thinks that this means that Christian theology is in crisis and that both Rowan Williams and Joseph Ratzinger know that it is, and that the only resolution to the problem (at least for Christians) is a massive revision of Christian theology that acknowledges the outsidelessness of our situation. What he would suggest for Richard Dawkins and science is less clear. Indeed, the fact that he does not acknowledge that there is a significant difference between science and theology is, I think, a telling failure to understand, not only science, but the whole modern world, about which he is otherwise such a keen and accurate observer.
If Cupitt’s (and Kaufman’s) point were true, then Rick Perry’s world is as valid a world picture as Richard Dawkins’, but this simply can’t be right. You can’t protect theology by undermining science. This doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that the theological imagination can contribute nothing to our self-understanding. I think this is just wrong, but the stress here on imagination is vital. Richard Holloway, for instance, a former bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and one-time Primus of that church, has written a number of subtle, imaginative works which take Christian theology as their point of departure, though I believe that he would describe himself now as an agnostic. The Wikepedia entry under Richard Holloway states that:
His own theological position has become increasingly radical and he has recently described himself as an “after-religionist”.
That, at least, seems obscure enough to be vaguely theological.
So far, this has all been preamble, since when I set out what I wanted to do was to consider the last paragraph of David Lose’s HuffPo piece on “Adam, Eve and the Bible,” which Jerry Coyne quotes in the post linked above. Here it is:
If, however, we look to Genesis not for [an] historical datum from which to construct a pseudo-scientific cosmology we find a different story all together. It’s a story about the insecurity that is endemic to humanity and the ever-present temptation to refuse the identity that comes from the vulnerability of authentic relationship in favor of defining themselves over and against each other. Read this way, the story of Eden is the history of humanity writ small, and Adam and Eve are, indeed, the parents of us all. It’s a more complicated story, for sure, than we’ve sometimes been offered, but it is also more interesting and compelling and, ultimately, one I’m inclined to believe.
Now, I think Jerry is exaggerating when he says that he “has no idea what he is talking about.” It is fairly clear that Lose wants to reinterpret the Adam and Eve story as telling us figuratively about the nature of being human, and how that nature is, in some sense, intrinsically destructive. To understand what Lose is saying here you have to remember that Christian faith in God is all about relationship. God, through Jesus, restores the relationship between God and humanity that was broken by the sin of Adam and Eve. This is what Christians call redemption or salvation. Lose is trying to tell us that, rather than see this as something that is derivable from a particular historical event — Adam, Eve, the garden, and eating the forbidden fruit — we should see this mythical event as descriptive of the human situation in which human beings give way to the temptation to avoid vulnerability in personal relationship by defining ourselves over against each other. And this failure of relationship is something, in Lose’s view, that demands resolution, and this resolution, presumably, is found in Jesus’ death on the cross, und so wieder.
Now, doubtless, from a liberal theological point of view this makes sense. We find something in our world and experience that answers to something that is called temptation and fall in the Bible, and then we put this in the place of the myth as a theological explication of the story. The trouble is, however, that even if that makes some kind of sense, it simply begs the question. The story is supposed to account for the need of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. Through that sacrifice — “by his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5 – the suffering servant passage that is interpreted by Christians as prefiguring the Passion of Christ – as Mel Gibson tried to show in sadomasochistic detail in his movie — … anyway, through that sacrifice we, who have been estranged (see how this plays into Lose’s interpretation), have been reconciled with God. However, while it might have made some kind of sense to say that there was a particular event in the past through which humanity became in some sense irrevocably estranged from God, it is not obvious at all that it makes sense to take a particular aspect of the human situation — that we tend to think in terms of them and us, for instance — something that we can probably explain in terms of evolution – and say that this shows that we need reconciliation with God. This just begs the question, and Lose, who is inclined to believe the story as he has retold it, doesn’t notice that it equivocates over precisely the point that is at issue: namely, whether we are estranged from God, or, for evolutionary psycho-social reasons, just from each other. Only in the former case is the reconciling action of Christ necessary — if, that is, it is necessary, because the Fall describes a great cosmic event – and this we might well be inclined not to believe. Which just goes to show that you can’t eat your theological cake and still keep it for elevensies tomorrow.