Monday, May 19, 2008

Explaining Progressive Theology to Atheists

Professor James McGrath knows a lot more about theology than I do. It also appears that his Christianity is bit less orthodox than me. (Not that there is anything wrong with that!) In the past week there has been a very interesting dialogue on several blogs between McGrath (and other progressive Christians) and some atheists about progressive theology. McGrath tries to explain the necessity to use metaphor to talk about the ultimate. The atheists keep telling him to speak more plainly.

Actually, it is a great dialogue. And a great tutorial about som erecent theologians to boot. Here is a sample of McGrath's efforts to explain progressive theology:

Paul Tillich, one of the great and extremely influential theologians of the 20th century, spoke of God as Being itself rather than "a being". In other words, the discussion is not about a certain type of being (immoral, invisible, omniscient and omnipotent and presumably omnivorous as well) that exists in the universe, whether he be called Yahweh or Zeus or Ba'al Shamayim. The discussion is about the nature of Existence itself. Is reality deep? Does it have transcendence as one of its characteristics? Of course, we cannot answer that definitively from our perspective. Could the mitochondria in our bodies be expected to perceive the nature of the existence of the bodies of which they are a part? We have only metaphors and a perception that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which transcends us and embraces us. The language we use is symbolic of mystery and is not intended to be an explanation.

. . .

No one suggests that science isn't science because it doesn't hold the same conclusions that science did a few hundred years ago. But Christians are berated by atheists as not really being Christians because they don't hold precisely the beliefs Christians did almost two millenia ago. Am I the only one who can see the irony in this?

Theologians have been exploring understandings of God other than those of classic theism and contemporary fundamentalism for centuries. Yet those who are unfamiliar with this intellectual and spiritual enterprise continue to ask questions that are the theological equivalent of "If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"

So if you are looking for evidence that ancient deities and angels exist, with or without wings, residing on Mt. Olympus or just beyond the moon, I don't believe that such entities exist. They were ancient explanations for what we today recognize as natural phenomena. But if you are asking about language that can give symbolic expression to the sense of awe many people feel about the "miracle" that anything exists at all, much less that we exist and can ponder the nature of our existence and wonder about these mysteries, then theology has a lot to offer. Not logical arguments for the existence of invisible persons, but metaphors that allow us to give voice to our limited and inadequate perception of life's inexpressable mystery, then theology has a lot to offer. That doesn't mean that amateurs can't do theology, or write poetry, or make music, or even make scientific discoveries. But in every field, there is a body of knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated that allows one to not repeat all the mistakes and positive groundwork done in the past and build on what has gone before, rather than reinventing the wheel. If one wishes to discuss theology at that sort of level of academic sophistication, it involves significant reading and research to inform oneself, and not simply a handful of conversations with fundamentalists.


Read it all here. McGrath's other posts as part of this dialogue are here, here, here and here.

The conversation continues on several other blogs, including Barefoot Bum, and Doug Chaplin,

And it all started with atheist Larry Maran, who posts here, here and here.

3 comments:

Michael said...

Chuck,

I really like this discussion. Our gay priest just talked to us about the idea of the trinity. During her homily, she suggested that the trinity was not something that Jesus came up with, it was invented later at the council of Nicea. She said people killed each other over this idea.

She said it is just a way that we try to make sense of the idea of God. This departure from orthodoxy irritated one member of our congregation.

I have an instinct that tells me that everything must be open to discussion. It seems that every departure from current orthodoxy causes tension. But I still want to hear open inquiry about our faith.

With hundreds of organized religions on our planet, it seems to me that we most likely have it wrong in every one. The only saving grace I feel about my own beliefs is that I know that most of what I believe is in error. I just cling to that feeling of love when I feels God's presence.

seamus said...

Why aren't there more comments on your blog? It has excellent breadth and insight. This as well as the Bultman/Wright reflection is a good example
of this.

Where did I hear that closet approximation of the belief in God is not to believe in him?

Chuck Blanchard said...

Seamus:

Thanks for the comment--and the kind words. I guess my answer to your question is that I am still building a readership here--and my interests are pretty eclectic. i get about 200 readers or so a day. thus, the 4-5 comments I am now getting a day are reasonable.

I must admit that when I often post something expecting a big reaction (like my post today on abortion) and am surprised by the lack on reaction.

Spread the word! Grin. (By the way, how did you find me?)