Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.

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