Is there a liberal Christian theism? I
It has been suggested that there may be problem at the heart of the new atheist project. If so, then it needs to be addressed. We can put the problem in this way. Now, please note, I do not say that it is a problem, but that it may be one. I want to look more closely at it, in order to say whether, first, it is a problem, and then, second, if it is, whether it has been adequately dealt with. There are a number of atheists who believe that this is a problem, and that those who dismiss it are being superficial and unnecessarily dismissive of religion. While atheism is not just a negative dismissal of theism, it is at least that in part. However, if its status as a rational dismissal of theism is to stand, it must respond to theism’s efforts to present itself as rational and able to take on board the kinds of criticism that are often made of the theistic world-view. Quite aside from the question of the existence of God, which is not going to be settled to anyone’s satisfaction within the lives of anyone living today or tomorrow, there are other questions as to the acceptability of faith, and those who dismiss religious faith must have an answer, in addition to scepticism about the existence of God, why more liberal approaches to religious belief are unacceptable to nonbelievers who persist in opposing even liberal religion, and have shown themselves reluctant to join even with the exponents of liberal religion in attempting to bring about justice and peace in our societies and in the world.
Aside from arguments pertaining to the existence of a god or gods, amongst the strongest arguments against theism are those pertaining to the use of scriptures by most theistic religions, that is, the belief in and use of texts considered to be holy and revelational of the nature and purposes of the god or gods believed in by the religion concerned. This is also the area in which liberal Christianity has made the most effort to be contemporary and open to change, so it is an important test area for the question of whether there is a genuinely liberal Christian theism. We are all familiar with the fairly intemperate putdowns of the idea of sacred writings which are believed to contain (in some form or other) the very words of a god. They have been dismissed off-handedly as bronze-age scribblings, the camp-fire maunderings of Middle Eastern goat-herders, and various other dismissively derogatory things, none of which, even if true, would necessarily show that the works do not contain the words of a god. It is a simple informal fallacy to suggest that the origin of a propositional claim is in itself sufficient to defeat it. In any event, the writings of, say, the Jewish Tanach were probably none of them written by goat-herders (notwithstanding the fact that David is depicted therein as a shepherd of the tribe of Benjamin); and, besides, the most primitive parts of the Tanach were probably written during the transition from the bronze age to the early iron age, the later parts originating entirely in the later iron age and extending into the historical period. So it will really not do, however rhetorically clever it is thought to be, to dismiss the writings as flawed because early, or flawed because originating in a period of rudimentary technology.
As for their sophistication, some of the writings of the Tanach are indeed highly sophisticated. In their original Hebrew they do not have the crushingly boring effect that the monotone style of the King James (or Authorised) Version (to take but one example) imposes upon them, and those who have read them with attention and devotion have been able to derive from them, by means of traditional hermeneutic within a living community, a richness of nuance and subtlety which is simply lost on the 21st century reader. Indeed, one of the things which the contemporary reader is unlikely to give to the works is the kind of undivided attention that only the aura of devotion and worship with which they are approached in the religious context can give to the words, making them come alive on the page, so that they are seen as, in some sense, pregnant with personal meaning. So, any believer responding to the criticism of unbelievers will generally say that for those who have the time to read with reverence, and with a religiously elevated spirit, the Bible will be seen to contain the lively oracles of God. Without such reverence, it may be said, they may be as dull as cardboard, but this, the believer may say, is not the fault of God’s Word itself.
This is, of course, one of the problems with fundamentalism, because fundamentalism seems to think that the very surface meaning of the words – that is, meanings which are open to those who can read them with minimal attention, and without any awareness of the possibility of deeper meanings, let alone an ability to derive them by means of focused study and deliberation within a tradition of discourse and interpretation – are sufficient in themselves to provide an unerring guide to God’s word, that the words are themselves large and simple enough in their signification that he who runs may read. This simplistic idea of the meanings of words, let alone the meanings of religious texts, has led to so many idiotic beliefs — using the word ’idiot’ in its more or less original meaning as that which pertains to a single person – that it is hard to believe that some sophisticated intellectuals and even scientists have been fooled into believing, in their religious personas, at any rate, beliefs which their more sophisticated intellectual minds should have rejected as childish and foolish.
On the other hand, it must not be thought that literalism itself is only to be found amongst fundamentalists, for, from the beginning, in some fairly straightforward sense, it seems that the “literal” meaning of sacred texts has been thought to underlie their religiously important signification. Many defenders of Christianity today are very quick to point out Augustine’s claim that the Bible should not be read literally, but figuratively, when it comes to known facts about the world. It will be worthwhile to consider what Augustine has to say in his essay on Genesis, which I have uploaded (for convenience) here (thanks to the College of the Holy Cross). This is important, for it underlies the defence that so many Christian theists have offered to the atheist critique of religious revelation. “You are being overly simplistic,” they say.
We do not read the scriptures as you suggest. Indeed, you are ignoring everything that has been said by biblical scholars over the last couple centuries, where the original context of the scriptural texts is explored, and the meaning related to particular social and cultural contexts which are very distant from ours. We cannot, therefore, simply accept the words as written, but the words as they were understood when first collected in the Bible, and as they have been successively understood in church and synagogue since then, until we reach today, when we are seeking their meaning for our own times. That we accept them as sacred today does not mean that we are committed to their original significations. Indeed, to do that would be unfaithful to the word as we have received it, for we only receive it through a growing tradition of understanding and interpretation. Fundamentalists may be tied to the surface meaning of the text; those who take the text seriously as a word of God must take not only the contemporary situation into account, but also the transformations the contemporary situation imposes upon the text. Indeed, it is a criticism of a religious leader if they fail to take into account, not only science, but the new hermeneutic context in which the text must be read (which, of course, includes science as well as contemporary history and social change).
This is a significant challenge to nonbelievers who have a tendency to read the scriptures as simplistically as the fundamentalists appear to do, and when they do that they have actually opened up a breach in their own defences which can be closed only by taking a serious look at contemporary uses of scripture in contexts where fundamentalism is looked upon, not only as simplistic, but as unfaithful. Read, for example, James Barr’s book Fundamentalism, for a closer consideration of the fault lines between those who read scripture with intellectual sophistication and those who read it as a simple expression of God’s word. We will return to Augustine towards the end, for we need to have a little background before we consider his words.
For, of course, even what I have so far intimated is not sufficient to distinguish fundamentalists and sophisticated believers, because the fundamentalist also reads the Bible with hermeneutic spectacles. Indeed, in many respects, fundamentalists are more constrained in their reading of the text by theological presuppositions than are contemporary biblical scholars who are committed to the critical-historical reading of biblical texts. It was the so-called “higher criticism” of the Bible, after all, which was the main catalyst for the growth of fundamentalism in the first place, by eliciting, from those who would hereafter be called fundamentalists, from the name they gave to themselves, the theological parameters within which, in their view, biblical hermeneutics must confine itself.
They did so, at the outset, in a series of essays collected in volumes with the simple title of The Fundamentals, edited by R.A. Torey. These are still taken as definitive for many Christians today, and the four volume text (or parts of it) is now available in a number of places online, here, here and here. A fairly small number of “fundamental” theological presuppositions govern the fundamentalist reading of scripture. Considering only Christian fundamentalism, these fundamentals can be read off from the titles of many of the essays collected in The Fundamentals. Here are a few of them:
The Deity of Christ
The Person and Work of Christ
The Certainty and the Importance of the Resurrection
The Virgin Birth of Christ
At-One-Ment, By Propitiation
The Biblical Conception of Sin
Justification by Faith
The Decadence of Darwinism
The Coming of Christ
It is important to take note of the fact that the Bible is being read through these (as well as other) lenses, if we are to understand why fundamentalism is so resistant to the simple expedient of rational criticism, such as that provided, within the churches themselves, by the critical-historical study of the Bible. The Bible is not being read “literally,” as is so often suggested; it is being read according to a fairly comprehensive collection of theological presuppositions in terms of which the Bible must deliver a specifiable saving message for which (it is held) evidence can be found in the words of the Bible correctly read. Indeed, the term ‘literalism’ itself is a two-edged sword, and implicitly convicts the accuser as well as the accused.
Of course, amongst those fundamental presuppositions are conceptions of the Bible and its truth, and here we come upon one of the most serious shortcomings at the basis of all Christian doctrines, namely, belief in revelation as in some sense unproblematic. Even those who read scripture in a more critical fashion still rely upon the conception of the Bible as “holy writ”, that is, as something in itself holy or sacred, something with unique significance and authority. Without this assumption there is no reason, other than historical, for giving such priority to one collection of texts. But this is in itself problematic. Even if the text itself were to claim authority, this would not automatically confer authority upon it, since anyone or any text could similarly claim authority, or have authority claimed for it, and it has in fact been claimed for many, both persons and texts. How could such a claim be justified, apart from presenting evidence that what it says is indeed, in relevant ways, true?
Here is the central problem facing anyone who, for example, wants to claim any kind of “revealed” authority for a text. Suppose that, instead of reading the Christian Bible through the theological lenses used by the fundamentalists, we were, instead, to take seriously the findings of the critical-historical criticism of the Bible, as some more liberal types of Christianity claim to do. So, instead of accepting the Bible as true in every word, we will qualify that claim by saying that that the Bible represents the Word of God in the words of men (and, if Harold Bloom is right, at least one woman, namely, the J, or Jahwist, author of the Torah or Pentateuch). In this case, God is thought to speak (in a sense) obliquely through the fallible words of human beings, but God’s word, nonetheless, we are assured, is expressed in and through the biblical text. Now, of course, if is accepted that it is only to be found at one or more removes from the biblical text itself, as that text enters the ongoing and possibly never finished conversation of the church, then it is not clear that any particular reading of the text can be ascribed any kind of definitive status. But here is where the two-edged sword (mentioned above) comes in, for, if it is impossible to hear the word of God directly from the scriptures, as a clear and undisputed word from the Lord, since the scriptures are acknowledged to be the work of human authors, and therefore fallible as all things human are, the question immediately arises as to why these particular works, from amongst all the fallible works written by human beings, should be so privileged as to be distinguished from all other writings as in themselves uniquely conveying God’s Word in human words?
This problem was evident to the first fundamentalists, who therefore went to great trouble to shelter the biblical text from the imputation of human error by any means of studying or considering the contents thereof in such a way as to expose its content to the vagaries of historical criticism. It is even more likely, for the same reason, that Muslims will be unwilling to submit their holy text to the same kinds of interpretive insecurity. They already have an example of how such forms of historical study erode a text’s unique authority. For once interpretation is as free, say, as that practiced by the Anglican bishop John Spong, is there any sense in suggesting that the book should be given some kind of unique authority, in relation to other literature of the same or similar kind, in either our personal or our social lives?
This is basically the question asked by C.H. Dodd, a Welsh New Testament scholar and Protestant (Congregationalist) theologian, author of the book, The Authority of the Bible. After telling us of the Bible as a record of the religion of Israel, he says:
We come back therefore to the same question from which we started, What is that world of experience which in religion must provide us with the authoritative data for all our thinking? [First Edition, 1928, 152]
However, looking at the history he has recounted he has to admit that
[t]his does not tell us why, under this head, we should attach unique authority to the Bible. Any historical literature, equally sincere, equally broad in its outlook and profound in its knowledge of human nature, would bring us this communion with the life of our kind. Perhaps we should have to look very far for a literature equal in these respects to the Bible. But its specific authority for us rests upon further considerations. [152-3]
And then he points us forward to Chapter XII, which is entitled “Progress in Religion,” which we will consider in the next instalment of this post; for this one is already becoming cumbrous and long, so a closer look at Augustine and a further look at Dodd will have to await “Is there a liberal Christian theism? II.” At this point, then, we take a break, but if you wish to read the next installment, it will presuppose much that is said here. The most important question is whether there is really a radical difference between fundamentalist “literalism” — which is, as I have suggested, already a hermeneutic reading of the text — and the alternative hermeneutic of liberal Christianity. I am not convinced that there is. I will address this question in “Is there a liberal Christian theism? II”