Thursday, September 26, 2013

God and Post-theism

(I've been writing short reflection papers for a seminary course at Emmanuel College that is required for me as a new UCC pastor. This week's paper was on how we speak about God in the UCC.)

When I was a child, I knew that heaven was up there, and that that other, unspeakable place, was down there. So I suppose that it was only natural that when I came to church, I expected that if God was anywhere in the building, he must be up there somewhere, in the rafters. I always wished, as a kid, that I could have a ladder to check it out once, to have a look.

So, years later, I dragged a very tall ladder into church, climbed to the top, and announced to my congregation that in spite of my childish hopes, I could not find God up there. The illustration was a bit dramatic, but it did serve as a good introduction to the theme of the sermon, taken from Isaiah 45:15, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” By way of this text, and others like it, I preached a sermon on the inscrutability of God.

Except, ironically, looking back on that sermon now, I realize that I went on to list quite a few things that I thought I did know about God. By the time I was done preaching, he was not only mysterious, but a saviour for human kind, a God who listened to our prayers and answered them, a God who was merciful, and so on. For the most part, I treated the hiddenness of God as a consequence of our sinfulness, and went on to confidently list a set of standard divine attributes.

A few years later I was called to pastor a church that, if anything, was used to hearing the exact opposite from its previous pastor. He styled himself and his approach “post-theism.” The etymology of that phrase suggests it might mean something like “after God.” After listening to many people in my congregation try to describe to me what was practically meant by that phrase, I distinguished three primary definitions for post-theism, not mutually exclusive.
            For some people, “post-theism,” is a kind of strong agnosticism, almost atheism, about God. And in fact many things do argue against God’s existence. The universe seems to be explainable by the laws of science. On average, Christians who pray don’t seem to live longer than people who don’t pray. Evil still runs riot everywhere. In spite of scriptural assurances, it doesn’t seem like many prayers are answered. My wife and I, for example, have been praying for peace in the Middle East for over thirty years to no avail. And we are not alone!
            Even Bible writers are frustrated by God’s absence. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist writes: "When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'" Or, "Your way is through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen" (Psalm 77). Isaiah writes, at one point, "Truly, you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Saviour of Israel" (Is 45:15). 

            So I have sympathy for people who identify post-theism with strong agnosticism or even atheism. This is, in its own way, a Biblical sentiment. Important questions for such people include these: “Why do you still come to church? Why do you sing the hymns? Why, in fact, bother with God at all?” Or is it just that ritual and old hymns are comforting? Perhaps, in the absence of God, we still go to church for community or discussion times and just put up with the liturgy?
            A second definition of post-theism that I’ve heard in my new congregation suggests that the term refers to society’s disappearing belief in God. For these people, post-theism means that whoever or wherever God is, he or she obviously isn’t very important to most people in our secular society. God is, in fact, largely irrelevant and that is what we have to come to grips with in church.
            I also resonate with this answer. Not only nonbelievers but also people who say they believe in God don’t go to church anymore. Prayer has long been eliminated from our schools and workplaces. The old religious rules we used to go by—you can’t have sex before marriage, you can’t drink, you can’t preach if you’re a woman—these old rules that used to be synonymous with the faith of our fathers just seem stupid to most people, and proof that Christianity will be forever irrelevant. Pope Francis’ hesitant nods in the direction of birth control and gays underline just how hopelessly irrelevant, in fact.
            On the other hand, even if the religious right isn’t now (and probably never was) a moral majority, it remains a powerful force in American politics. And the violent conflict between the fundamentalist kinds of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism suggests that theism is still a very powerful force in our world. It is just not our kinder and gentler theism—not the “luv” theism that Douglas John Hall describes somewhere. But the bottom line here is that only segments of society and only the rare world culture is truly post-theist. In most places round the world, God matters very much—even if the sort of God that seems to matter isn’t one that we like very much. Perhaps the most important question for people who see post-theism as a secular, mostly Western, development is, “well, what about everybody else? How are you going to respectfully, and thoughtfully, address their theisms?”
            A third kind of answer I get to the question of “what is post-theism?” is not atheistic, it is not about where our society is at, but it speaks to our old-fashioned ideas about who God is. We may believe in some kind of God, but we don’t believe in God as a great big guy in the sky, anymore—the guy of this viral poem that someone once sent me in an email:

It's a good thing God above,
Has never gone on strike
Because He wasn't treated fair,
For things He didn't like.

If He ever once sat down,
And said, "That's it -- I'm through!
I've had enough of those on earth,
So this is what I'll do.

I'll give my orders to the Sun:
Cut off your heat supply.
Turn off the oxygen and air,
'Til every breath is gone."

You know that He'd be justified
If fairness was the game
And yet He carries on and on,
with all the favors of His Grace.

           A large group of Evangelical, and perhaps Catholic, perhaps even Mainline Christians still think of God this way. I used to think of God in this way. But many of us have changed our mind, and now speak of the mystery of God or the kenotic God or a suffering God. I resonate most with this definition of post-theism.

            But for me, the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.

            God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in. Scripture emphasizes certain themes about God that we are comfortable with—God’s faithfulness, God’s justice, and God’s mercy, for example. But these themes are mixed with others—God’s vindictiveness and violence, God’s jealousy, and God’s hiddenness come to mind. So, while scripture is very suggestive, it is incomplete and contradictory.  

            Philosophy, other world religions, and even those who deny God’s existence help fill out this confused picture. But these approaches, in the end, do not add up to much more on the certainty scale, or even on the trust scale. I am wracked by doubt. Kearney’s helpful rejoinder is, “Without the abandonment of accredited certainties we remain inattentive to the advent of the strange; we ignore those moments of sacred enfleshment when the future erupts through the continuum of time” (7). He argues, in a section where he quotes Derrida, that “Unless we let go of God as property and possession, we cannot encounter the Other as radical stranger. . . . The felt absence of the old God (the God of death) ushers in a sense of emptiness that may provoke a new desire, a seasoned desire for the return of the Other God—the divine guest who brings life” (63).

            So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

           This stranger has, in the course of human history and in spite of our self-serving orthodoxies, mysteriously tugged at human psyches again and again. Perhaps that is why  most of us, through time, have a sense that God cannot be far away, perhaps just around the next corner. But we wonder if upon turning the corner and running into him, or her, we will recognize God. And I pray that just as Peter had a moment of divine terror when he realized who the stranger on the beach was, so that Jesus had to say, “do not be afraid,”—I pray that one day, when I encounter the divine stranger, I can have such a moment of divine terror too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More on Confessions and Unending Conversations

            I am not crazy about official Creeds, Confessions, or Statements of Faith. This is especially so if I have to officially subscribe to them in some way. However well-intentioned, a subscription requirement is coercive in that it is meant to set limits on what Christian Reformed (CRC) pastors—and pastors in many other denominations—may discuss, believe, or publish. The usually unspoken threat behind such subscription is deposition from ministry by church councils that decide you have strayed too far from the path of orthodoxy. Few, if any pastors go there. Mostly, they keep their doubts or disagreements to themselves, expressing them only privately. In the Christian Reformed Church I heard many, many such expressions of doubt going back many years. Even now, I note that a previous post on this issue in my blog has received nearly 10,000 unique visits (see Many CRC members are obviously not all that happy with the status quo.

            At first, as a young seminarian who had never had opportunity or occasion to think differently, the subscription requirement wasn’t a problem. In seminary, I even challenged the confessions, a bit, on the fringes, arguing for example that the doctrines of election and reprobation as stated in the Canons of Dordt were not equally ultimate (which, by the way, is a hard sell given the language of the Canons!). This was a safe adventure, given that well-known Christian Reformed theologians had made similar arguments before and gotten away with it. But focus on these sort of fringe issues was also a sort of rut on the way to ministry, in that they helped keep students focused on a very narrow set of safe issues, rather than giving permission to dream of real doctrinal innovation.

            But as time passed, I found that my private arguments with the confessions were becoming more substantive. I wanted to pass on election as well as reprobation. In my final few years in the CRC, I realized I questioned Reformed doctrines concerning hell, substitutionary atonement, eschatology, the historicity of Adam and Even, original sin, and so on.

            In the end I felt I had to come clean with my church council and peers in ministry. By then I had also changed my mind about moral issues such as homosexuality, reproductive choice, and marriage. I resigned from the CRC and moved to the liberal United Church of Canada.

            But leaving the denomination I grew up in, one that I was for many years a visible leader of, that I continue to love, was hard. It felt, on one level, like I was forced to disown myself from membership in my own family. How is it that the confessions should count for so much? Compared to the love I had for my parishioners, for example, or compared to my freedom in Christ? In any case, by now the very word “confession,” triggers me, no matter how it is used. I become unaccountably angry and depressed when I hear the word. I still wish there was an alternative measure for faithfulness in the CRC than subscribing to a list of sixteenth century doctrinal formulations.

            Perhaps in the metaphor of “unending conversation,” I’ve found that alternate.

            The American philosopher Kenneth Burke first came up with the metaphor that describes history, and especially the history of ideas, as an “unending conversation.” He puts it this way in his The Philosophy of Literary Form.

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110,111)

            I resonate with Burke’s metaphor. From Ebionism to Arianism to Docetism to Nestorianism—and that’s just a few options with respect to the nature of Christ, for example—the church as a whole has rarely been sure for long or lacked thoughtful alternative guesses about issues impossible to resolve. We debate such doctrines in treatises, call church councils to try and forge a consensus, publish resulting creeds or confessions to rally our side, form smaller factions pro and con the sub-points, and then write more treatises, sometime reinvigorating the conversation, at other times changing the topic. All is flux.

            Or is it? Creeds and Confessions (Statements of faith in the United Church of Canada), though part of the discussion, have historically also been understood as repositories for the non-negotiables when it comes to the unending conversation about faith and theology in the church. That is ultimately why, in the CRC (and many other denominations), leaders are asked to subscribe to the creeds and confessions.

            It is not so, however, in the United Church of Canada (UCC). That is not to say everyone in the United Church agrees on the force that confessions should have, or even whether or not there is an unchanging core at the heart of our theology.

            On the one hand, old UCC stalwarts such as T.B. Kilpatrick, in his Our Common Faith, insists that even though the church must give expression to its faith in “the language and the forms of present-day experience and reflection,” (67) it has also, on the other hand, “conserved all that is vital and permanent in the creeds of the past (67f).

            An early moderator, however, Richard Roberts, was less sure. Writing in the late 1920s, Roberts was influenced by the Process Theology of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, in turn, was influenced by the new science of Quantum Mechanics, with its uncertainty principle and recognition that all data is perspective- and value-laden. According to this perspective theology must be tentative rather than final, and is relative rather than objective. So, although Roberts loves the systems of the past—Calvinism, for example, and especially the Westminster Confession, “the greatest of all confessional instruments,”—Roberts also champions the constant creation of new systems. Every old system is at best (in a memorable turn of phrase), “a wayside inn, a bivouac” (11). Leaning on the poetry of William Blake, Roberts seems almost prescient about paradigm shifts, even celebrating them, long before Thomas Kuhn first described the concept. It is no wonder, then, that Roberts believes confessions or statements of faith need to be reviewed from time to time, and no one ought to be forced to subscribe to anything other than their “general substance.”

            But there it is again, something that doesn’t change, “the general substance,” a doctrinal deposit for all times. And certainly, references in both documents to the divinity of Jesus, as well as his resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit, suggest that some theological matters are not open for discussion or paradigm shift. Perhaps Process Theology was so new that Roberts wasn’t yet ready to dive in with both feet, or perhaps he couldn’t conceive of just how much even his relatively liberal theological presuppositions might come to be questioned by a new generation of UCC pastors and theologians.

            Roberts’ and Kilpatrick’s different perspectives on the status and weight of the church’s confessions and creeds—and scripture—has been practically decided, in the United Church, mostly in Robert’s favor—though perhaps to a degree that even Roberts would have been uncomfortable with. So, for example, we live in an era where post-theistic theology is openly discussed and promoted by United Church pastors such as Greta Vosper and critically examined in the United Church’s magazine, The Observer, as in its February 2011 issue.

            So, as statements of faith for the denomination to rally around, UCC confessions (or statements of faith) such as the Basis of Union or A Song of Faith are obviously problematic. As a matter of fact, while many people will still nod in their direction, it has been a long time since anyone has been compelled to do so.

            Perhaps this is understandable. By their nature confessions are really personal statements, not corporate ones—at least if the word “confession,” is used in its plain English sense. A confession is something that lives in the heart but must necessarily find expression on the lips. A confession is personal, deeply felt, and one’s own. It is hard to imagine that where two or three people gather they could ever have the same confession. People make up their own minds.

            The idea that a corporate entity, like the church, can make a confession belies this fact, trading on the fiction that corporations are persons. We know that as soon as some idea is put to paper, it divides all readers into pro and con camps. When a confession is written down on behalf of many, it will be only a short time before we start arguing what the authors meant. Such arguments, in turn, have almost no traction or weight in the pew. The chancel needs to be painted and a color chosen, after all. Now there is something to get excited about!
            So confessions are, one a key level, elaborate fictions. They are documents usually conceived of and written in committee, not confessions or personal statements at all. Or if they are written by a person—like the Belgic Confession was written by Guido de Bres—they were later adopted by committees for entire denominations. As corporate documents they do not live in more than a few people’s hearts. Sales of books and pamphlets about the Confessions in the CRC show that subscription surely isn’t the same as heart conviction. Confessions rarely can inspire much by way of unity, unless that unity is coerced by forced subscription.

            So, where does that leave us in the UCC? Well, for one thing, it leaves us in Burke’s parlor, where the conversation takes place, with our friends and acquaintances having the conversation. The ongoing and shared substance of our heritage is not so much any particular theological formulation as the fact that we talk about such formulations within the context of a church community we love and a book, The Bible, which we look to for guidance. That church is a unitive place where we want to be and party and do good, and converse. The unity is rooted in the loving community trying to follow Jesus’ example, and not in sixteenth or even twentieth century statements of faith. The conversation in our parlors will go where it will. Perhaps, in recognition of the primacy of community over “statements of faith,” we ought to give the statements a new name. “Our Conversation So Far.” A bit awkward, I know. But no more awkward than the name another series of statements of Faith: “The Fundamentals.” At least “Our Conversation,” is more humble and realistic take on what we can know of God, and demand that others agree with us on.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Seminary Education

        I’m back in seminary. This week I begin taking a course, “Confessing Our Faith,” at the United Church’s Emmanuel College. It is a requirement for ministers who transfer in from other denominations. Of course, in the United Church, there is no requirement that ministers subscribe to these confessions, of which there are several. These confessions serve mostly as a formative and instructive summary of what many in the United Church have believed. Since I left my previous denomination because I could no longer, in good conscience, subscribe to its confessions, I find it a bit ironic that the first class I’ll be taking is one on confessions in my new denomination—but it’s a pleasant irony.
         But registering for a seminary class made me a bit nostalgic about Calvin Seminary and the time I spent there. Mostly, it was very good—though with a few caveats. But then, most of us have mixed feelings about the time we spent in school. I’ll get to my main caveat later.
         I don’t really know what Calvin Seminary is like today. But when I went, I loved it. As with any graduate school, there were a lot of hoops to jump through, and they sometimes caused a bit of anxiety. I got through my Greek and Hebrew comprehensive exams okay. The Bible knowledge exam took two tries.
         I also remember the moment I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was at my final oral exam. Prof. Neal Plantinga—one of my favorite professors—got things off to a rocky start when he asked me what I knew about Rupert of Deutz. I tried to remember. I wondered if it was someone we had studied in Church History. Maybe in Systematic Theology. Maybe he was a proto-reformation guy? I toyed with the idea of trying to wing it. There was a lot of silence. Finally, I answered, “I don’t know.” My heart sank.
         Plantinga responded by saying he didn’t know either, but a former student had sent him a paper about Rupert and so he thought he’d ask me what I knew. All the professors round the big table laughed. Big sigh of relief from me. The rest of the exam went okay, I guess. I graduated. And now I miss those days. One of my biggest regrets, now, was that when I was asked to teach an elective class there one semester it was later cancelled due to poor enrolment. I consoled myself by remembering that there never really was room for electives in anyone’s schedule back in those days.
         That’s because the education was rigorous. Much was expected. That was fine. I knew what I was signing up for.
         But now the caveat.
         For all the great academics, Calvin turned out, in hindsight, to be a place where I learned much too late that communication between paradigms is incommensurate. Let me explain that.
         As deep and wide as Calvin’s education was, it was an education informed by a very specific theology and the worldview that theology was part of. Its approach to scholarship was mostly one of filling empty vessels with what they need to properly water the flock when they graduated. As a result, we students—and almost certainly our professors—just didn’t get the opportunity to really wrestle with different perspectives, at least in public. Deep, empathetic communication between our Dutch-Reformed theological paradigm and others was impossible-incommensurate. Even when the language of the liberals or Pentecostals was the same language we used, it meant different things, it was valued differently, and it came with all sorts of baggage specific to that tradition that all together made it impossible to really get, or really consider, those points of view.
         Sometimes, this was pretty obvious. When I took a course on Karl Barth, the professor was, frankly, dismissive of Barth. Whenever some theme in Barth was brought up, it was to undermine or dismiss it. But more often, the impossibility of understanding the language of other traditions or religions was simply not discussed, as if no such problem of understanding existed.
         Of course, some argue that the problem of incommensurability between paradigms just can’t be avoided. That’s what I learned from reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions during the postgrad year I spent on the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship team that studied "Creation and Cosmogony." Any education that comes from a certain perspective (and they all do) is going to have this problem. It’s unavoidable. And to a certain degree, I agree. My own long, and often agonizing journey away from the worldview I grew up with has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to really learn about, consider, and weigh new perspectives.
         But where I fault Calvin is that this problem was not given any consideration. We were never challenged to understand and embrace our limitations when it came to other perspectives. The unspoken foundation of our education was always something like, “of course, our Reformed perspective is how it really is.” We learned about other traditions not so much to learn from them but to learn the error of their ways.
         When I began graduate school at Wayne State University, however, I was surprised to find that incommensurability of communication between paradigms was one of the first topics we were asked to wrestle with. I did a PhD in Communication Theory, which I sometimes explain to my friends as an education in secular hermeneutics. My classes were filled with people who had all sorts of interesting intellectual commitments—Christianity, Marxism, pragmatism, postmodernism, and even the odd pagan, to name a few. And we were constantly asked to explain ourselves and to at least try to understand where the others were coming from and why.
         The thing is, Calvin Seminary is like a closed-shop professional school. The only analogy I can think of is going to get an MBA from a graduate school owned by Apple and only providing training for Apple employees. Again, it is hard to fault Calvin for being that—it is a denominational school that requires everyone who teaches there to hold to certain beliefs. But again, what is surprising, looking back, is that so little, if any, attention was paid to incommensurability as an academic and spiritual disability. We didn’t learn to truly empathize with different perspectives because we were not ever really challenged to understand the problems with trying to do so.

         I suppose I shouldn't rue this too much. The seminary was being what it was created to be and wanted to be. But if someone asked me what seminary he or she should go to today, I’d suggest they go to one where they are with people and professors who don’t all see things your way. It makes for some tough discussions, where mutual understanding is at a premium. But such a seminary would also force students to really wrestle with their own understanding, too.