Monday, August 20, 2012

Qui Est Veritas?

So just what is "Truth" anyway? Well, that question might be too big for a blog post.
Today, rather, I want to ramble a bit about the issue of utility. My question, in a nutshell, is this: Could Christianity still be useful even if its claims weren't "true" -- and I mean "true" in the old-school, commensense sense. True in the sense of the "correspondence" theory of truth, if one must put it this way: My "true" statments "mirror" some external, "objective" reality. Truth in the sense upheld by the naive realist. True in the sense of the toddler who cries out, "Daddy, the bee stung me" rather than that of a  mediocre poet who opines, "Idaho is great!"

But I digress. This post is not going to be about epistemology, a thicket into which I'm not prepared to wade at this time. Let's just assume, for the sake of this post, the "commensense" notion of truth so I can get on with it. I mean true in the sense in which "I'm sitting at my desk" is not a metaphor for "I'm riding an aardvark", or vice versa. I mean true in the sense that the statement "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" cannot be confused as a metaphor for statement "He didn't."

I'm not really equipped right now to delve into the more constructivist notions of truth that one might find, for example, among pragmatist philosophers. So I won't do so. It would be impractical, and it would reveal rather painfully what a philsophical diletante I am after all.

So, then, "Qui Est Utilitas?"

(I don't read Latin, by the way, so if I've made a blunder, please cut me some slack. The internet deconstructs all grammatical conventions anyway.)

I once attended a discussion between two high powered intellectuals, who were both, at that time, faculty members at a prominent divinity school. The theology club there had invited the pugnacious atheist religious studies scholar Professor Eleanor Lane to join the theologians for a brown-bag lunch conversation. Representing the constructive theologians was Professor Penny Rigby, whom I great admire. (Names, perhaps even genders, have been changed to protect...well, me.)

Professor Lane, a Marxist and avowed secularist, is notorious for being adamantly opposed to constructive disciplines like theology and ethics having a place at the table in academic religious circles. For some reason, she had accepted the invitation -- I don't think lunch was provided, so it couldn't have be that.

Ms. Rigby argued very ably -- but rather ineffectually, I think, in this particular contest -- that Christian theology had a distinctive contribution to make within the context of the secular arts and sciences. Now this, on the face of it, seems resonable to me; yet this claim is not self evident to everyone who doesn't teach at the University of Virginia.

She gave a sort of pragmatic defense for theology as a discipline that might prove its usefulness by helping to promote human flourishing and social justice. Such an approach takes seriously and seeks to answer the common claim that religion as such is intrinisically oppressive.

Such a rehabilitation of theological discourse is promising. Indeed, it happens all the time. Intereligious discussions of ethics and justice come to mind. It's reasonable to expect theology to have some real-world value. This approach to theology appropriates one of the legitimate demands articulated by theologies of liberation: Make it real.

But is this really enough? For some of us -- even for Ms. Rigby herself -- theology means a whole lot more.
My question here is just how adequate a strictly pragmatic approach to the content of the faith could be, especially for the believer who has made a life-consuming commitment to this faith. I think my tentative answer has to be: Not so much.

At this luncheon, the atheist Professor Lane would have none of what Ms. Rigby and we bumbling theology students had to offer. In her view, she had nothing to discuss with the theologians. The  methodological vantage points and commitments of the secular theorist and the commited religious thinker were inherently contradictory -- or, as a postliberal might put it, incommensurable.

One of the theology students, a bright young man with long hair, seconded Ms. Lane's assertion:
Theologians are making claims based on an understanding of revelation. The secular oponent will never be able to concede this, so there is an impasse in the dialogue. We should all stick to an area in which we all could agree: The divinity school cafe had the best coffee on campus.

I found what this student said refreshing (Perhaps by now he's the star faculty member at some conservative Christian college, for all I know.)  Why is this? Possibly, in part, because we were in cramped seminar room where I had to sit on the floor, and I was a little grumpy. But maybe there's more.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we conceive Christianity as a sort of salutary "myth." Here I don't mean "myth" in the more positive and nuanced sense often articuated in theology and religious studies; that usage, roughly, would conceive myth as conveying profound yet non-literal truths. No, I mean "myth" more in the sense of "I-can't-believe-you're-asking-me-to-swallow-that-crap." Like the myth that the Rothschild family secretly engineered the recent disasterious Facebook IPO. -- Okay, I just made that one up, but you get the basic idea. "Urban myths" aren't metaphors: They're baloney -- metaphorically speaking, that is.

Let's say one conceives Christianity as a kind of Santa Claus myth. (The last theological treatment of the Santa myth was in Miroslav Volf's superb book Free of Charge) Of course, all adults know that Santa Claus is not real (No, no, please calm down. I'm speaking hypothetically here). Common grown-up wisdom is that Santa is an imaginative construct in whom only young children -- and a few rather stupid teenagers, perhaps -- actually believe. Nonetheless, one might say, the Santa myth is worth perpetuating because it motivates children to behave, at least in the weeks following Thanksgiving. Santa is "real" in that Johnny believes in him and doing so makes Johnny behave well. Santa Claus doctrine and ethics have a certain social utility; therefore parents, toy manufacturers and advertizers are justified in perpetuating this myth.

(Actually, I think the notion that Santa faith actually makes kids act any better is more implausible than the actual story itself.)

Well, what have the critics of Christianity been saying? "Shame, shame, shame on you! What cynical people you are." Ludwig Feuerbach leads the chorus of whistleblowers, followed by his progeny: Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Christianity is projected, all made up, manipulative, they say. And that's a bad thing. Words like "alienation," "wish fulfillment", "ideology", even "neurosis" enter the lexicon. Religion used to dupe and control a docile populace. Faith used to stunt your true potential. To avoid facing your mortality. False hope. False consolation. Pie in the sky by and by when you die. And so on.

Again, I'm not arguing about whether we can or should consider the positive, public, pragmatic potential of faith and theology. Of course we can. William James wrote that religious experience, in part, should be judged by its fruits. The Gospel of Matthew says something similar too, with a bit more gusto.

The question is whether such pragmatic criteria by themselves will be enough for the believer to be fully committed. What if it all turns out to be based on a lie? Is this a problem? I think so.

Christianity has a pesky way of conflating the good, the true and the beautiful. Something that isn't really true can't be ultimately beautiful, and the good subsists only in that which is true. And blindly following a lie leads you into a ditch, or worse.

Just check out the Gospel of John, for instance, where the Evangelist talks about "doing the truth." This "doing" flows from faith, and faith is rooted in the object of that faith, and that faith is Truth himself. And only within that Truth are faith and works -- and theory and practice -- ultimately unified.

Monday, August 6, 2012


This past weekend, I went with my wife and three-year-old son to an event marking the 67th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. This evening was not just a remembrance, though, of the of the victims of the atomic bomb "Little Boy" that killed or wounded an estimated 170,000 people. It was also a kind of pep rally to raise consciousness and bloster resolve for the political battle to rid the world both of nuclear weapons and of nuclear power.
Growing up, I had been taught in school that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tragic measures that were, nonetheless,  necessary to end the war, potentially saving the lives who would be lost on both sides in an Allied ground invasion of Japan. I grew up never questioning these assumptions. I also grew up believing that a nuclear apocalypse was virtually inevitable.  I had many dreams about what it might be like for those of us who survived to crawl out of those bunkers after the attack.
On Sunday, the guest speaker read selections from her book chronicling the horrors of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. She drew the obvious connections between the horrors happening in Japan and vigorous local efforts to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a facility about 45 minutes due north of us on the Connecticut River. She passed around a New York Times clipping about some 200,000 people who had gathered in Tokyo to protest the country's nuclear power. I think that clipping was one of the most moving things I experienced all evening. 
The event was convened at a liberal Northampton Protestant church whose members are well plugged into the local activism scene. (On this sweltering summer evening, a discussion of climate change no doubt would have been received sympathetically too.) We put our chairs in one big circle -- there must have been at least 50 or 60 people in that crowded hall -- and went around the room, introducing ourselves and a giving brief statement about why we were there.  (There was good free food, an excellent incentive to make the trek in the drizzly heat.) In the room were political activists connected with all kinds of local organizations, some of whom have been at it for decades.
I have absolutely no activist credentials. At the very least, I try to learn what I can and to lend moral support to friends and acquaintances who have struggled personally with injustice or who are directly involved in Occupy protests or other causes.
My son slept in his Radio Flyer wagon for the first part of the event. His pillow was my backpack, which hid my main current main read, the outstanding biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Wightman Fox. I thought that Niebuhr probably would not have been too much of a hit with this crowd, ad that thought sparked a certain cognitive dissonance.
I felt a certain disconnect in the presentation itself too. I'm not trying to be dismissive here, not at all, but am just sharing an impression. On the one hand, the language about Fukushima and the effects of nuclear power was starkly apocalyptic. Pretty believable, actually, though I don't know the relevant science that well. The speaker talked about the effects of the wounding the earth receives from nuclear madness as lasting "for all eternity." I found that language interesting, disconcerting actually.
On the other hand, the vision of a nuclear-free future that animates the activism had a more of a utopian ring to it. I would like very much to believe in that vision, but why is it that the apocalyptic horror stories seem much more real to me? Many people in the room, who had been doing anti-nuclear work since the '60s and '70s, seem to really have expected that the warheads and power plants would have all been scrapped by now.
For idealists of any stripe (and I would include the neo-cons here as well), Niebuhr is a spoiler. Beginning in the 1930s, Niebuhr eschewed passivism as wistful idealism and articulated a "Christian realist" stance that claimed violence was sometimes necessary in pursuing justice within a fallen world. Later in life, he argued -- notoriously -- that a limited (!) use of nuclear weapons might be necessary in some circumstances. Perhpas Niebuhr, who died in 1971, would have known better if he'd had to watch the faux-reality nuclear apocalypse movie The Day After that kept me up late one night in 1983.
But I ask you, Professor Niebuhr: Just what is reality anyway? And how do you know?
I find Niebuhr's life and thought fascinating and frustrating -- an icon of the ambiguities that riddle liberal theology and ethics, on the one hand, and the critique of and use of American power in the 20th century and today, on the other hand. Our current President claims Niebuhr as a major influence on his poltical philosophy. One wishes, perhaps, our politicians would broaden their reading in religious ethics a bit more.
I've been thinking a lot lately about American politics and what the ethical scope and limits of political action might be. I've especially been puzzling over various models of integrating Christian theology and discipleship with political thought and action. I had better save my more stunning insights for the Major University Book Contract that is almost certainly around the corner.
For now, though, just some musings: Just what does it mean to walk around Northampton, Massachusetts, with Niebuhr in my backpack? 
And perhaps also a few extra unwelcome ions in my bloodstream.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Onward and ... Onward

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
-- Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
-- James 2: 26 (NRSV)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
-- Matthew 6:33 (KJV)
Don't worry, gentle reader. I'm not advocating "works righteousness." I'm not trying to undercut the claim that salvation is the gift of sheer grace. My evangelical-reformed-Anglican moorings are still intact.

I'm not about salvation, directly, anyway.  Rather, I'm picking up the thread of several posts a few weeks ago on the question of what theology is.  Theology, I argue, is not faith itself, but a "work" of faith. Some postliberal theologians like to define theology as a "second order reflection" on the basic Christian confession. For reasons that might become more clear as we go along, I don't find this construal of the matter particularly helpful.

Back in June, I was exploring the classic definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding." Now when theologians are seeking to define and describe their craft (Hey, "craft" instead of "science" -- that suits my purposes nicely),  it seems to me they usually focus on one of the two terms , "faith" or "understanding", or perhaps on the relationship between these two.

So one might focus on "faith" as the affirmation of sacred truths deposited with the apostles and passed down by the church through the centuries. That, more or less, is how the Council of Trent understood faith.  Or one might counter, with Luther, that faith is more an existential attitude than a posture of intellectual assent.  Faith, in this view, is more like trust (which, conveniently for Protestants, is close to the meaning of the Greek term pistis). When you say you believe "in" God, that's analogous to what you mean when you say you believe "in" your partner; for example, you believe that she isn't cheating on you, or if she is, then she feels really bad about it. So faith is not so much about signing off on some abstract claims.

You might try out Calvin's attempt to offer a balanced definition of faith that integrates both knowledge and trust. If you want to go existentialist (if so, please do so on your own blog....Just kidding!),  you might echo Tillich's boringly unobjectionable definition of faith as "ultimate concern."

And what about "understanding"? Is the understanding that theology, ostensibly, illuminates more akin to theoretical knowledge or to practical wisdom? And how do you relate theory to practice? Liberation theologians claim to have integrated theory and practice into praxis -- knowledge-formed practice, if you will. I'm okay with that.  I do wonder, though, to the extent that they are still pressing this claim whether the liberationists are still presupposing some sort of theory-practice dichotomy. Since I'm not about to cite any actual texts right now, I'll just leave it at that.

Or maybe the understanding is not so strictly conceptual and objective at all but more like a kind light that suffuses the human capacities of intellect, feeling and wheel. That kind of claim would put you more in line with Romantics such as Coleridge or Schleiermacher, among the illuminati: You don't need Fox News to tell you like it is. You don't need Rupert Murdoch and his minions to show you what really matters in life. You don't need his reporters to tap your neighbors' phones so can know what they're up to.  All the items within your vision twinkle within the glow of a sort of deep, non-conceptual effervescence.

But when it comes to the question of theology, I propose to change the subject. My former teacher Kathryn Tanner's book Theories of Culture has helped me come to understand theology as a set of practices, as a series of processes with specific ends in view. Theologians are not just thinking about something: They are doing something.  More specifically, in more economic terms, they are producing something -- articles, books, lectures, podcasts, blog entries, etc. (There is a vast literature on this topic which I have barely begun to explore.)

I want to focus on that neglected middle term of that classic definition -- namely, seeking.

Theology seeks. I am skeptical, so I keep seeking. I am orthodox, so I keep seeking.  I am timorous and tentative, so I seek solidity. I am confident and brazen, so I (had better) seek humility and wisdom. If I don't seek humility, no matter: It has a way of finding me nonetheless. I am a theologian: Hear me question.

This seeking, as I'm envisioning it, goes beyond just "living the questions." It's more than just the personal faith journey. It's more than just contemplating the mysteries of life.  It's spiritual. And social.  And political. And transformative. And personal.  It's...well...revolutionary.

This seeking is not just the ambling journey through the meadows of life, stooping on occasion to sniff the flowers that sprout from the seeds of contemplation. No, the seeking the theologian (as I understand her) envisions is more like the engine of a steam locomotive.  It's driving something. It's pulling something. It's going somewhere. Theology is not just the script. Rather, it's script plus enactment. Theology is like the improvs they do at the Second City club in Chicago -- new, fresh, on the move -- before Lorne Michals and NBC come along and try to tame them.

But what might all this mean? What would it look like?

Seek and ye shall....