The radical theologian…

I was recently tagged on facebook by someone quoting me as “The radical theologian, Chris Eyre”, which pleased me more than was reasonable. Yes, I try to do theology, notably what is called “constructive theology”, which means, to me at least, not the analysis and categorisation of systematic theology, but branching out into new expressions of theology, and sometimes entirely new concepts. I do this largely from a panentheistic root understanding, and in conscience I do it at all largely because there isn’t a great deal of theology written from this precise perspective. Yes, there’s “Open and Relational” theology (Tom Oord is an example of that who is currently making waves with his popular book “God Can’t”), and there’s “Process Theology”, of which John Cobb and Bruce Epperly are prominent examples, but neither of those is specifically panentheist.

The thing is, I don’t have academic credentials in theology, and regard my writing as “baby steps” in the discipline. Indeed, they may never be more than that, because I prefer to carry on doing constructive work, as much as I’m able, rather than going through years worth of academic programmes which will teach me about theologies which aren’t tailored to the panentheist. Also, I probably don’t have enough years of productive life left in me to spend 10 or more of them in an academic setting.

But what kind of theologian am I? I would tend to say that I was a Liberal Theologian, given the description in this blog post. Though I don’t particularly see myself as following Schleiermacher, who I’ve never actually read, I definitely start (as he does) from “deep inner experiential awareness”. We all, I think, prioritise one side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I start with my experience (which is mostly non-negotiable*), pay massive attention to scripture (which I regard as an account of the experience of those in my tradition who are accepted as authoritative over the whole tradition), significant attention to tradition (which I regard as the experience of other members of the tradition in bulk over the years) and, in looking at all these, use reason. My problem with that label is that a lot of constructive liberal theologians pay much less regard to scripture and tradition than I do (which is a feature picked on regularly by conservatives!)

A lot of theologians who I read with significant fellow-feeling are described as “progressive”. So, am I a Progressive Theologian? There are some similarities, in that those with that label tend to work more closely with scripture and tradition than do those labelled “liberal”. But “progressive” turns out to be a label which says that you’re a former Evangelical (which, to my mind, is why they have more time for scripture and tradition), and I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Evangelical. OK, I’ve spent time in the pews at a couple of churches which brand themselves as “Evangelical”, but I was always somewhat semi-detached from them, and was typically labelled as their token Liberal.

Radical, though, is a word I really like to describe what I try to do theologically. “Radical” means “going to the root of” something, and I have a lot of sympathy with the project of stripping away layers of interpretation and looking as closely as I can at the root of all theology, namely experience. “Radical” also has the connotation of going in new and completely unexpected directions, and I certainly try to do that, as much as anything on the basis that in a field in which the base experience is a numinous one, thus extremely difficult to be precise about, having a few additional stories about it can only be a good thing.

Yet, when I look at theologians who are commonly called “radical”, I come across names like Peter Rollins, Thomas J.J. Altizer and Kester Brewin, all of whom are in the Altizer tradition of being “death of God” theologians. I worry that “radical” implies that I base myself in some way on “death of God”, and possibly as well on existential concerns – Kierkegaard and Bonhoefer tend to figure large in radical theology. I am not really a “death of God” theologian – for one thing, I can’t stand Nietzsche, who coined the concept (OK, he had a few very good lines, but on the whole I dislike the way his thinking went). Yes, I can take on board “death of God” meaning the fact that old conceptions of God as am interventionary supernatural force in the world are dead, but not the ontological or psychological meanings which Peter Rollins is in the process of expounding in a new series of lectures on “death of God” theology going on at the moment (Note, these are patron-only lectures, but a few dollars for a month or two does get you a lot of Pete’s previous work…)

I’m more familiar with Pete’s work than that of other radical theologians, but note that Pete is very concerned with the existential questions of fear of death and fear of nothingness or absence of meaning. I don’t fear death (although I have a healthy fear of many of the means of getting there – I don’t like pain very much), and fear of nothingness doesn’t make sense to me, nor does the question which exercises philosophers of “why is there something rather than nothing”. My suspicion is that if I were ever have going to have developed such concerns, my peak mystical experience aged 14 put paid to that possibility. For me, peak mystical experiences remove fear of death (which becomes merely a rearrangement in the All) and concern about nothingness (the experience tends to produce a paradoxical “everything and nothing at the same time” sensation, which you get used to – and in any event, gives you an absolute assurance of the existence of the All). What much of Pete’s work seeks to do is to rid you of the wish to avoid death and nothingness, whereas to me mystical experience gives you exactly the solution to those problems; I can’t help regarding his approach as a little like Origen’s solution to having sexual desire which he didn’t think he should indulge – he famously castrated himself in an appallingly literal following of Matthew 19:12.

Personally, I think Origen’s action (which, to be fair, may be apocryphal) is ridiculous. Perhaps Pete’s removal of concern might be more sensible – after all, it does appear that only a small minority of people historically have been able to have peak mystical experiences, though the incidence of people reporting such experience has shot up in recent years, making me hopeful that in fact everyone might be a mystic in the future – but I still consider it extreme.

Most other theologians called “radical” are in something like the same mould; they are in the Altizer tradition.

And yet, I really like the concept of “radical”, both in the fact that it indicates one is trying to “go to the root” of things. I am, I suppose, always trying to look behind the descriptions of experience of God to “that which is God”, and that definitely counts in my book as “radical”, and in the process I also tend to try to look at things afresh and independently of the tradition of interpretation, which leads me to writing things which people view as “radical” in the other sense, of being something “outside the box”.

Perhaps the one “radical” theologian who does not seem to me to be so much a “death of God” thinker is John Caputo, whose thinking in and following “The Weakness of God” is very much to my liking – it ignores conventional concepts and strikes out in a new direction. Thomas Jay Oord, whose writing has generally been considerably more conventional in most senses, has recently written “God can’t”, which has the same kind of radical tinge to it (let’s face it, all of us were probably brought up with a concept of God which was above all else omnipotent)… perhaps he may start being referred to as “radical”, at which point I will feel that I comfortably fit within the description.


* When I say the experience is non-negotiable, I do not necessarily include what I can identify as the interpretation of the experience. How much of it is interpretation has shifted a little over the years, particularly as the uninterpreted experience is very difficult to talk about. Such experiences as I have had were definitely experiences, were definitely mystical experiences, using the thinking of Happold, James and Underhill to verify that fact, and in the case of several of them were as far as can be established not the result of any physical or mental stressors, mental abnormality, drugs or any other environmental cause.

Salvation by correct theology?

Henry Neufeld, who is the CEO of Energion Publications, for which I’m Editor in Chief, has put up a video on the subject of “Salvation by Correct Theology”. My own often-stated view is that, in the debate between salvation by works and salvation by faith, the option of “salvation by correct intellectual conception” is never mentioned. Indeed, I think it’s a non-starter, given Jesus’ suggestion that we need to be as “little children” (who are incapable of forming complex intellectual conceptions) and many instances, including the thief on the cross,  where there is no evidence of much in the way of theology.

And yet, I’ve just listened to an episode of the “Patheological” podcast (which I recommend, particularly the series which ends with this episode, which talks a lot of depression) in which the guest, Scott Curry, uses Job 42:7 to suggest that what you think about God is of supreme importance, and noted a facebook post in the Liturgists group which quotes an unnamed source as saying:-
“Peter Harrison in the acknowledgements in his Cambridge University Press book “The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science” quotes a University of Queensland faculty friend Ed Conrad that the bible does not describe a world but creates a world.
What a helpful statement.
THAT is why bad theology is so horrific and good theology is so important.
Our reading of the bible and what we do with it through our theological thinking creates either a world of beauty, holy love, and wonder at what it means to be human, loving our neighbours inhabiting this astounding planet.
we can create a world full of ugliness, avarice, finding ways to accuse and exclude those with whom we do not agree rather than in and through loving hospitality speaking the truth
or to put it another way – this is why serious, informed, educated reading of Scripture is important.
Reading of Scripture, if it is without learning and wisdom, can lead to terrible theology with appalling consequences.”

It hasn’t escaped my notice, too, that when Henry and myself inveigh against salvation by correct theology or salvation by correct intellectual conception, we are saying that the correct theology, the correct intellectual conception is not “salvation by correct theology or correct intellectual conception”, so, to the philosophically minded, we are possibly destroying our own premise just by stating it. I have little patience with this kind of philosophical argument, which sets up a self-referential, absolute, statement in order to destroy the premise – if nothing else, you can escape from the loop by commenting that a statement about statements is of a higher order than a mere statement, and cannot legitimately be included in the lower-order case. (I say this despite being very keen on Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which uses just such a self-referential structure in order to “prove” its point – I think the conclusion there is correct, even if the argument is faulty!). I would also point out that using this kind of argument, even if everything in fact is relative, this argument apparently disproves what is then the fact that everything is relative; there has to be something wrong with the method of argumentation! (I point to the fact that every word in your dictionary is defined by other words, i.e. is relative to other words).

Both Curry and Conrad, however, have a point. In the case of Job, I might suggest that the take-away is that the use of theology in order to make people feel bad is a bad idea; Job’s friends spend much of the narrative attempting to say that his misfortunes are ultimately all his own fault, and the picture of God they end up putting forward is one of a vindictive judge. The fact that the whole book of Job suggests that God’s motive is not vindictive but is actually to prove a point to Satan (at this point a minion of God, tasked with putting forward counter-narratives), which is in no way actually a better picture of God, is by the by.

That is echoed in the piece from facebook – our conceptions of God matter inasmuch as they can reassure us or destabilise us, make us community-minded or defensively individualistic, compassionate or accusing, inclusive or builders of walls. I think Henry would agree with me that, in the face of a God whose chief characteristic has to be love (and who is sometimes identified with love), it does actually matter what our conceptions are. For my part, however, I feel I need to re-stress that our intellectual conception, our theology, can never be regarded as wholly true (“now we see through a glass darkly”), at least not if we are talking of what-it-is-to-be-God.

This leads me on to another line of thinking. I am not sure in what sense Conrad means the bible does not describe a world but creates a world”. It may be that the underlying thought is that scripture (and thus theology) is in some way performative – stating something makes it the case, as when a person with appropriate authority declares two people married. This could be regarded, in postmodern terminology, as “an event”. He may mean that the stories in the Bible and our theologies exist in what I call “concept space”; the issue of the extent to which they are true (given that I am strongly sceptical of our ability to state anything which is true in an absolute sense) is secondary to how they fit together and what they do, i.e. the effect they have on humanity. With fiction, for instance, it is pointless asking whether the story is true or not, the issue is whether it conveys something to which I relate, from which I can obtain a truth.

Things in concept-space can, of course, propagate as what Richard Dawkins has dubbed a “meme”. As Dawkins notes, memes can be extremely damaging (or extremely beneficial, though he tends to focus on the damage they can cause). Followers of Jung, however, go futher than this and posit the idea of a “collective unconscious” in which such concepts exist; it seems inevitable that Jungians believe in one or both of a form of telepathy and the inheritance of concept-structures. This, of course, raises the issue of concepts which we create “coming back to haunt us”; Voltaire famously remarked In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” When we consider memes or the collective unconscious, the image we create of God has an existence independent of any individual, and if we create for ourselves an image of a vengeful, capricious, unfeeling and unmerciful God, we are, perhaps, creating that as a reality rather than just a concept, at least in some sense.

That God-concept is, in my mind, Satanic, and not in the sense of ha-satan of the book of Job, but in the picture which developed later, not of an aspect of God which acts as accuser, as tester of concepts, but as the adversary of God, a spiritual power in its own right, the inheritor of the “equal-and-opposite-to-God force of evil in the world” concept of Ahriman in Zoroastrianism, opposed to the God-figure of Ahura Mazda. We should not give it our thoughts to feed on…

And, in respect of the Satan of the Intertestamentals and the New Testament, which I blame on the percolation of Zoroastrian ideas into Judaism (possibly aided by the Babylonian captivity), my watchword is “If Satan existed, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”.

We are not saved by intellectual conceptions, but we can be horribly damaged by them.



Wrong question…

A comment on a facebook thread got me thinking. The commentator said that she had been approached in the street by a total stranger, who asked “Are you a Christian?”. In her case, she instinctively answered “no” before starting to dwell on how many times she’d been told she would be damned to hell for denying Jesus, which she commented was equivalent to not being a Christian – and that gave her an answer.

It’s a while since anyone has done that to me. I think the last time it happened, I said “It depends what you mean by ‘Christian'”. A discussion followed…

I think, though, that my reply would now have to be “Wrong question” and, if they followed up with the alternative “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” to repeat “Wrong question”.

The right question is “Do you follow Jesus?”, to which my answer is “Yes”, or more accurately “Yes, but not very well”. “Christian” generally carries the subtext of “are you an evangelical?” and so exactly the same as “have you accepted Jesus…?”, but it’s hugely problematic. (I’ve heard people say several times in response to the question “what were you before you became a Christian?” that they were Anglican, or Catholic, or Methodist…) Do I want to identify myself with a movement which wants to deny women and homosexuals (plus, plus) equal rights and inclusion? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which seems to make a habit of excusing pedophilia in its leaders? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which currently seems to give Donald Trump unquestioning support? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which believes that the only sensible issue on which to cast their vote is abortion, and that the entire recorded sayings of Jesus can be ignored in favour of that one issue? No. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers care for the environment irrelevant because God is about to destroy everything anyhow? Absolutely not. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers that most of humanity is both irretrievably depraved, no matter what they actually do, but is also destined for an eternity of conscious torment? Hell, no.

I’m not very happy with the movement which tends to self-identify as just “Christian” as it is at the moment. However, even when I was casting around for a faith community 50 years ago, which was before the first four of those became hot topics, I didn’t want to identify myself with the historical persecution of Jews (and any group of other Christians who had a slightly different conception of Jesus or God than did the mainstream), I didn’t want to identify myself with forced conversions and the dismissal of native peoples all over the world as not being worthy of consideration as “they were not Christians”, I didn’t want to identify myself with massacres, pogroms, witch burnings, the crusades (particularly the Fourth and Albigensian) and the attitude which would kill or main people over whether there should be another “i” in the word “homoousion”.

How about “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and saviour?”. Well, all Jesus seems to have asked is that we follow him. That might, I suppose, mean accepting him as Lord – certainly, I’m happy to identify him as more “Lord” than anyone carrying that title (or a higher one, or indeed any title) these days. “Saviour” is a different matter. I have never thought that the biblical witness requires us to believe a particular account of Jesus’ significance, granted that (for instance) John and Paul are both confident that Jesus saved them, and extend that to humanity generally, though I could with some effort say that Jesus has saved me and may well save me again – I just wouldn’t mean by that what most Christians mean by it. It is sufficient for me that Jesus said “follow me” and that I attempt to do that. His disciples weren’t all that good at following him either, which gives me significant comfort!

And, of course, the formula is so identified with evangelical (meaning fundamentalist) Christianity that I would fight shy of it anyhow.

The trouble is, even though I hear the question as something like “are you a pedophile?” or, in England these days “are you a credulous fool?”, I cannot do what the writer of the facebook comment did and say “No”. With considerable reluctance, I have to accept that I am somewhere in the general mass of what has historically been called “Christianity”, even if that does not mean to me what someone asking me the question means by it. But then, I have to accept that I’m British, too, and that comes with a historical baggage which makes it an admission rather than a boast to a large proportion of the world population.

There will be roombas in heaven…

On James McGrath’s “Religion Prof” podcast is an interview with Douglas Estes, which talks of the intersection of technology with Christian belief (my link is to the second part).

Estes is more conservative than McGrath, and definitely far more conservative than I am. He talks, when discussing Revelation, of interpreting scripture in many ways, including metaphorical and symbolic, but when it comes to resurrection and the “New Jerusalem” plumps for a literal answer. This leads to the conclusion that, as on this view we will have new material bodies and will be living in the New Jerusalem which is located on earth (albeit, one assumes, a remade earth), we will also have technology. Including smart phones and roombas…

I find that a ludicrous image. I grant that if you accept Estes’ presuppositions, it’s a logical consequence of this view of the resurrection, and it’s a fascinating play with concepts – but to me, it means that at least one of the ideas on which the logic is based is wrong, and I strongly suspect that taking the passage literally is the best candidate. It’s a kind of reductio ad absurdum – the absurdity of the conclusion means that the premises of the argument are false.

Even before hearing this podcast, I was quite confident that the scripture (Revelation 21:9–27) was a visionary experience, and thus will have involved a substantial usage of symbols from the mind of the person who experienced it. As is probably appropriate, given Prof. McGrath’s interest in the intersection of Christianity and science fiction, it is best regarded as a vision of utopia. Estes’ vision of utopia, were he to construct one today, would probably include smart phones and roombas. Personally, I can’t construct a vision of utopia in which I can have any real belief  – not only am I confident that, as technology advances, the concept will change radically, but I am also extremely sceptical that any embodiment which might occur would be in a body which is anything remotely like the one I currently occupy (or, probably more accurately, a body which I am). Indeed, I recoil at trying to constuct any vision of utopia – too often, if you push the conception far enough, our utopias turn out to be dystopias…

It is fairly probable that the visionary in question was Jewish, and will therefore have been working with Jewish conceptions of what is possible – and the Jewish mind of the time (unlike the Greek) regarded non-material entities as needing to be embodied (Walter Wink gives an extended argument for this in “Naming the Powers”). Any conception of post-mortem existence will thus have had to be in a physical form, and the writer will not have had available to him various forms of technology in which we can now envisage the essence of “that which is us” being preserved, such as those who expect in due course that we will upload ourselves into the cloud. A similar line of thinking leads to the Jewish insistence that the particular is important, indeed often more important than the general, resulting in the Talmudic statement “He who saves one person, saves the world”.

In my own rather simplistic philosophical stance, I am inclined to something much like the Jewish position – for me, there is “stuff” and there is “pattern”. We don’t have access, ultimately to the “stuff”, although at a higher level we can distinguish between (for instance) a chair made of metal and one made of wood – there is no chair there absent the metal or the wood, but neither material is essential to there being a chair. If there is, post-mortem, something which can legitimately be called “me”, it will need to be the “me-pattern” expressed in some kind of stuff. At the moment, the “me pattern” is a biological entity, whereas if one day I could be uploaded to the cloud, the “me pattern” would need to be expressed in patterns of electrons. Personally, I question whether that would capture enough pattern to be regarded properly as “me”, but I could be surprised.

The concept of a set of patterns of humans resident in some way in a distributed sense over a lot of computers is, of course, a concept which I in the 21st century can just about get my head round, but would be totally inconceivable to a first century Jew. And similarly, what (if anything) awaits me post mortem is very likely to be as inconceivable to me now as the cloud (or, for that matter, a roomba) was to John of Patmos. But the scriptural picture we have which is supposed to represent that is in 1st century concepts… update it at your peril!

Tim Minchin thanks God…

There has been some discussion in a group I belong to on facebook about this video from Tim Minchin, including quite a bit of suggestion that Minchin was being arrogant and bullying.

Oh dear. Let me preface this by saying that I’d dearly like divine healing to work, and I do pray for it on occasion. But I don’t believe it does, at least not in the simplistic sense which Minchin’s Sam was clearly suggesting. Even trying the conventional “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”.

I have seen a few apparent cures myself (all for relatively minor ailments), but *massively* more cases of no cure at all. Notably, perhaps, none for anyone in my family or who I care about deeply.

There are, of course, all the factors Minchin mentions which can skew reports of cures, but above and beyond that, in order to say “God caused this to happen” we would need to see something at least approaching correlation, and we don’t. The results of attempts by scientists to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation are, to say the least, disappointing.

At best, one might say that perhaps, just perhaps, God might work *with* some other factor or factors, and without that (or them), nothing will happen. That is probably not, so far as I can see, the level of belief of the person cured or of those praying – I’ve seen too many cases of rock-solid belief producing nothing, and a few of at best lukewarm belief apparently producing a cure to accept that – and I don’t like that explanation for practical purposes, because it tends to end up with blaming the victim. (I will mention that a reasonably positive outlook of the sufferer does seem to have some effect in recuperation rates and perhaps on illnesses with a track record of remission, to be fair).

There is, of course, the possibility that what is needed is one or more human beings with a healing talent (possibly in combination). Some of my friends, mostly in the past, have been entirely convinced that this occurs (and some of those haven’t believed that prayer is of any assistance, but still report some positive results – or, of course, pray to “the wrong God”). I can’t say I’m convinced by that either, but if there is to be an effect at all, and if God is remotely reliable, some combination of people seems the only possible route.

Otherwise, if cures *are* the result of divine intervention, God is totally capricious and arbitrary. This is not what I understand God to be, but it may be that that is what is effectively being said. Were that to be the case, I would have to re-examine Gnosticism, and probably conclude that the interventionary God was the demiurge and so a created usurper of God’s position.

Back to Mr. Minchin. Yes, he comes over as somewhat arrogant, I suspect because “Sam” is not one incident but many – but what of “Sam”? He expects Minchin to be convinced of the existence of God on the basis of one hearsay report, assuming, possibly (and if so with little regard to knowledge of him), that Minchin is too polite to suggest that he may be mistaken or worse. And extremely ill-informed and/or gullible.

I’ve had a number of “Sams” talk to me in similar terms, and have some difficulty not giving them a piece of my mind, and I actually believe in God (for some value of the term, not including a supernatural theist one). What I actually do is concentrate on the positive; it’s great that X has been cured, let’s thank God for that (not sarcastically, like Minchin, but genuinely). And move on.

Back in my atheist days, I’d probably have been a LOT ruder than Minchin… but that was before a mystical experience left me with a compassion overload and over 50 years to mellow a bit.