The God-shaped Hole: Whither Theology?
I recently came across the following exchange between the late Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell:
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian. [Emphasis added]
I have enormous respect for Hitchens and his extraordinary eloquence, intellectual integrity, and encyclopedic knowledge of history, literature, and art. His position is one of the New Atheist talking points, shared by his colleagues among the “Four Horsemen” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris — which argues that religion loses all meaning when it’s released from its supernatural and superstitious moorings.
This is one point — perhaps the only point — on which fundamentalists and the New Atheists wholeheartedly agree.
We like to think of fundamentalists as the bastion of archaic religiosity, “That Olde Tyme Religion.” And they certainly seem to claim that kind of heritage and authority, as if they are the mouthpiece of Old Testament prophets rising up from the Ages and calling us all to repentance. And while their theology and practices do resemble the orthodoxies of the past, such as Puritanism, few people probably realize that the term “fundamentalism” was coined in the 20th Century as the culmination of a Protestant revolt against the steady liberalization of Christianity in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
To witness the tone of present-day religious talk permeating the airwaves, books and magazines, blogs, and social media, it seems that liberal Christianity has all but entirely faded from public consciousness. It has been relegated to a footnote in modern theological history, of interest only to eccentric students of fringe ideas. And yet the story of liberal Christianity — from its roots in the Enlightenment to the role of Liberation Theology in the developing world — offers an intriguing counterpoint to the virulent debates currently raging between atheists and fundamentalists, the Religious Right and social libertarians, and the so-called Culture Wars.
One of the most intriguing precursors to liberal Christianity is seen in the effort by Thomas Jefferson to produce a new bible. He removed all references to the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, as well as a number of the ideas he felt were wrongly attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers. In a letter to John Adams, he wrote:
The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.
Jefferson held that religious belief ought to be subject to illumination by science and reason, and that the inclusion of incomprehensible supernatural flights of fancy or infantile superstition merely distorted and corrupted the value of true religion. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote that he was a Christian, “in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” And that within the words of Jesus “a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”
Jefferson was accused of atheism by his political opponents, and citizens apparently buried their Bibles when he was elected president for fear that he would confiscate them. Jefferson, it seems, sought to interpret Jesus and Christianity in the only manner congruent with reason. In spite of this, Christopher Hitchens declared that “Thomas Jefferson was by no means a Christian.” If the only definition one will accept for Christianity requires superstitious belief in the literal divinity and resurrection of Jesus, then one adopts a fundamentalist and conservative view of Christianity that, by definition alone, prevents any sort of evolution or escape from Iron Age supernaturalism. Both fundamentalists and New Atheists achieve the same effect: they force Christianity into a narrow dogmatic mold; the former, in order to persecute heretics and undermine the political authority of secularists, the latter in order to accuse Christianity of refusing to bend to common sense rationality.
Liberal Christian theology found its best first systematic formulation in the life and works of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834), a German preacher, professor of theology, and philosopher who sought to reconcile orthodox Protestant faith to the flowering of rational Enlightenment thought. Unlike the childish prattering of today’s Creationists and the abuse of science inflicted on us by the Intelligent Design crowd, Schleiermacher seemed to feel that blind religious orthodoxy can and must give way — on matters concerning the natural world — to science and reason; that dogmatic belief in supernatural events described in the Bible are not important to religion.
Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.
On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799
Schleiermacher was not alone. Theologians like William Ellery Channing, Rudolph Bultmann, Adolf von Harnack, Paul Tillich, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin contributed to, and helped liberalize traditional, orthodox Christianity. Taken together, what they produced can be (for the most part) summarized in the following points:
- The Bible was written by human beings — reflecting what they were thinking about God at the time, within their specific cultural context.
- The Bible should be read more like poetry than a history or science textbook. And at least some of the Bible’s authors probably didn’t expect to be taken literally.
- God, as a divine creature that created the universe and intervenes in its affairs, is a childish notion, if not an outright insult to common sense. Theology focused on a God that can be framed in such concrete terms is idolatry.
- Science is the only reliable source of truth concerning nature, human origins, the beginning and end of the universe, etc.
- Reason is the proper grounding for morality. The idea that we would not be moral if it weren’t for the rewards and/or punishment of an all-seeing God is an offense to human dignity. No self-respecting parent would behave toward her children the way this wrathful God is imagined to behave towards humans.
- The heart of religion is found in the religious experience. All the other trappings of religion have been added after the fact, including supernatural beliefs and superstition.
- Religion is, essentially, an art form for talking about these experiences.
- Everything important about Christ comes from his teachings — such as the Sermon on the Mount — and crucifixion (i.e. — courage, non-violence, and self-sacrifice). His virgin birth, resurrection, divinity, and all the miracles are not only superfluous to Christianity, but fly in the face of our understanding of the world and how it works. Those who erected religion on the absolute truth of these concepts have missed the point entirely.
These ideas took hold and gathered a considerable following over the course of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In fact, it was near enough to mainstream that it caught the attention of traditional theologians such as A. C. Dixon and Reuben Archer Torrey, who compiled and edited the tome that gave birth to the term “fundamentalism” — The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth. It was intended as a direct response to the challenge posed, not only by the rapid advance of rational knowledge, but to the theologians who would deign to recognize the religious experience for what it was, a human enterprise. They did not accept that there was anything left of theology or religion without its supernatural dogmas.
Let us then, by repudiating this modern criticism, show our condemnation of it. What does it offer us? Nothing. What does it take away? Everything. Do we have any use for it? No! It neither helps us in life nor comforts us in death; it will not judge us in the world to come. For our Biblical faith we do not need either the encomiums of men, nor the approbation of a few poor sinners. We will not attempt to improve the Scriptures and adapt them to our liking, but we will believe them. We will not criticize them, but we will ourselves be directed by them. We will not exercise authority over them, but we will obey them. We will trust Him who is the way, the truth, and the life. His word shall make us free.
~ F. Bettex, D.D, “The Bible and Modern Criticism”, The Fundamentals
The core concepts of the new Christian fundamentalism can be summarized as follows:
- Biblical inerrancy and infallibility.
- The historicity and reality of miracles.
- The historicity and absolute truth of the Creation; the Fall of Man; the Virgin Birth; the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection; Judgment Day
- The reality of sin and necessity for redemption and salvation.
- The divinity of Jesus as literal Son of God
- Dispensationalism — a progression of Biblical ages (i.e. – dispensations) in which the various covenants with God are established and fulfilled. Belief that humanity is in the premillenial dispensation and expecting the imminent Second Coming of Christ.
Above all, the fundamentalists were convinced that liberal Christian theology would lead, inexorably, to apostasy and atheism.
The Fundamentals was distributed for free to pastors, religious schools, students, and congregations throughout the country. The First World War and the Communist Revolution in Russia precipitated a rising American religious nationalism (liberal theology was a European and largely German import), and by the 1920s evangelical minister Billy Sunday had supercharged the movement with his energetic sermons preaching fundamentalist principles with simple but electrifying rhetoric.
Then, in 1925, fundamentalism suffered public humiliation in the spectacle made of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The national press descended on Dayton, Tennessee to witness two intellectual giants pitting the Genesis creation story against the theory of evolution in the schoolroom: Clarence Darrow (on the side of evolution) and William Jennings Bryan (for biblical creationism). Although Darrow lost the case, commentators such as H. L. Mencken excoriated Bryan’s creationism in the press and lampooned the southern states and fundamentalists as backward, humorless, and willfully ignorant. Bryan, a three-time Democratic nominee for president, populist, and political mouthpiece of the fundamentalist movement, died in his sleep only five days after the trial. The loss of such an influential figure, and the fundamentalists’ failure in the subsequent decade to dominate both the Presbyterians and Northern Baptists, and the horrendous failure of Prohibition (the crowning achievement of fundamentalist moralizing) precipitated a retreat from the public eye.
But the fundamentalists were far from defeated. Having witnessed the extent to which Babylon held sway in the popular culture, they were content to sequester themselves in their own pockets of Zion, eagerly anticipating the Rapture and return of Christ while the rest of the nation educated and liberalized themselves right to Hell. They established their own congregations, seminaries, publications, bible schools and colleges, and radio stations. Shifting their focus away from the public square, they sought to purify Christianity in their own congregations.
From Civic Religiosity to Moral Majority
In the years following the Scopes Trial, a series of rather more earthly crises capture the popular attention — the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, and the Cold War. It was in the midst of these events that, as fundamentalism turned inward, a new Christian movement rose to prominence, calling themselves Evangelical (or Neo-Evangelical) and preaching a middle path. While affirming the Bible as divinely inspired, the special creation of Adam and Eve, the divinity of Christ as God-made-flesh, and the Resurrection and eventual Second Coming, they nevertheless sought a more positive engagement with broader society. Theological debate took a back seat to civic virtue, a reformation of Victorian values, and a more practical Christianity.
Perhaps no figure better personified the new evangelical spirit more than Billy Graham. Distancing himself from the brimstone and hellfire of the fundamentalist call to repentance, Graham saw post-war Communism as the adversary. He positioned his new brand of American civic Christianity as the heart and soul of freedom, democracy, and industry. In Communism, Graham saw the apotheosis of a godless religion in which common human decency was casually cast off in the satanic pursuit to defeat Christ, the Bible, free enterprise, and dignity. In the shadow of the Red Menace, theological differences were put aside in favor of an ecumenical national Christian identity. While unashamedly fusing political issues of the day into his sermons, he generally eschewed basing policy and legislation on religious morality, except when he felt it necessary to prevent political encroachments on matters of religious conscience. He did not support Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and has been widely quoted as saying, in 1979, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex, to human freedom and social justice…. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.”
For their willingness to collaborate with and accommodate those with whom they had theological differences, the new evangelicals were declared apostate by traditional fundamentalists, who insisted on strict scriptural separation from those they held were in theological error.
For his part, Jerry Falwell marked the return of fundamentalism to the public stage of American politics. The Counterculture Revolution of the 60s, the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and the perceived betrayal by evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter precipitated the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979. While criticized by the fundamentalists from which he emerged, what Falwell achieved was to attract a large following of conservative evangelicals who had become concerned with what they saw as the increasing liberalization of large parts of the evangelical movement. Many evangelicals, having been deeply altered by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, began to focus increasingly on social action over theology. Perhaps unwittingly, liberal evangelicals were putting into practice what liberal Christian theologians preached almost two centuries prior (e.g. – a theology centered on personal experience of the divine, and a practice centered on service to the poor and afflicted); likewise, it seemed to confirm the fundamentalist fears that engagement with broader society leads only to apostasy.
Falwell combined a reformed fundamentalism with hard-line political activism into a new religious movement that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House and lobbied on behalf of social issues that conservative evangelicals cared about: the ERA, abortion, school prayer, creationism, homosexuality, and traditional family values. After the collapse of the Moral Majority by the close of the 1980s, a postmillennialist branch of fundamentalism emerged and coalesced into the Christian Coalition. Although the religious right in America remains a diverse collection of often competing factions, the postmillenialist stance and Christian Reconsructionism (its related social program) have become an increasingly potent influence in conservative and politically active evangelical Christianity.
What Happened to Liberal Theology?
In spite of the rise of fundamentalism and the new evangelicalism, liberal theology did not disappear. In fact, for the first half of the 20th Century, it seems to have dominated theological seminaries of mainline Protestantism, perhaps best indicated by the formation of the National Council of Churches in 1950, which was well known (and criticized) for its ecumenism, liberal theology, and left-leaning positions on social issues. Since the 1950s, the mainline denominations have experienced a steady reduction in church membership and attendance, while evangelical churches (both liberal and conservative) have experienced rapid growth. A few of the movements that sprang out from liberal theological roots include:
The Social Gospel, a Protestant movement that thrived in the early 20th Century. Like liberation theology among Catholics, it was primarily focused on the plight of the poor — particularly among the urban working class. It was influential in the labor movement, adopted socialist theories, and was heavily involved with the YMCA. It held that the doctrines and creeds of the Christian church had supplanted the original “Kingdom of God on earth” message of Jesus, which was more about correcting the “sinfulness” of oppressive institutions of power and had nothing to do with crucifying a god-man in order to redeem original sin.
Christian existentialism, an application of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy to Christian theology. Leading figures include Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, and Karl Barth. Postmodern Christianity is a derivation of this movement by way of Heidegger’s philosophy.
Liberation theology among Catholics, which emerged in the political struggles of Latin America and focused on social justice, human rights, and the systemic oppression of the poor by the ruling class. Its detractors accuse it of embracing a Christianized Marxism.
The Jesus Seminar, formed by the Westar Institute in 1985 with the goal of developing profiles of the historical Jesus without reliance on dogma or creeds. The portrait of Jesus that emerged was an ordinary mortal human being, who did not perform miracles, did not redeem the sins of mankind by his sacrifice, and who did not return from the dead. The Westar Institute includes scholars, theologians, and lay people with the mission of increasing religious literacy as a counterpoint to doctrinaire claims of scriptural authority.
Progressive Christianity, similar to the Social Gospel, but with an infusion of mid-to-late 20th Century progressive views of social issues, including sexuality, the environment, social activism, etc.
Emerging church movement, including Emergent Village, originating in the 1990s. As an extension of postmodern theology, it often organizes among members of existing congregations and denominations, emphasizing non-judgmental dialogue, a narrative and contextual approach to theology, values radical diversity, and seeks to engage with other denominations in the spirit of Christian charity rather than condemnation. Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, favors a narrative theology and is commonly associated with the emerging church movement, but its founder, Rob Bell, claims no direct affiliation. It is one of the fastest growing megachurches in the liberal evangelical tradition.
Since the Enlightenment reached full steam, liberal minded theologians have engaged in an intense struggle against conservative orthodoxies that seek to maintain an ever tighter grip on outmoded dogmas and unyielding creeds. This has resulted, within the broader Christian world, in a dynamic and shifting kaleidoscope of religious streams, each in constant flux — some drifting farther from orthodoxy, sometimes to the point of losing all religious characteristics altogether; others being drawn back into superstition. Fundamentalist communities splintering over minute points of doctrine, each accusing the other of apostasy; liberal communities failing to unite on a cohesive (or sometimes coherent) expression of non-dogmatic faith — or even to agree on a definition of the term. In the middle there is a weak form of Christian religiosity that does not believe in Hell, but believes the essential supernatural claims about Christ’s divinity and atonement (though not necessarily the miracles).
The New Atheists, it seems, would take a bulldozer to the whole lot.
No True Scotsman
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”
~ Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking, 1975
This has come to be known as the “No True Scotsman” informal fallacy. Put more simply:
Donald: “No Scotsman dislikes haggis.”
Clyde: “My uncle, Hamish, can’t stand haggis!”
Donald: “Well, no true Scotsman dislikes haggis.”
This is a special type of circular reasoning, a form of begging the question, in which the conclusion is assumed by the definition. Only in this case the definition shifts when presented with a counterexample.
Dawkins, Hitchens (in the example at the beginning of this post, for example), and numerous of my fellow atheists with whom I’ve discussed theology seem to be guilty of the same fallacy. First, they lambaste Christianity for its host of supernatural claims and superstitious beliefs; they excoriate Christians for insisting on holding stubbornly to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and engaging in argument from authority. Then, they are shown a Christian pastor who agrees that the Bible was written by human beings, and is therefore fallible, and as such is full of the sort of supernatural claims and superstitions that you would expect from all-too-human authors writing within their particular cultural milieu; that a Christian is entitled to look past the mythological elements (just as Thomas Jefferson did) and preserve an essence of the text that is relevant to the current time and place. And like clockwork, my fellow atheists reply that the pastor must not be a true Christian, because true Christians hold supernatural and superstitious beliefs, and hold stubbornly to Biblical inerrancy. QED!
It’s not too surprising, since it seems that few within the atheist community have much more than a passing familiarity with the rich historical tapestry of Christian theology. It’s as if the fundamentalist doctrines laid down in 1911 established the single authoritative litmus test for the entire Christian world, past, present, and future. While often arguing that theology is a meaningless waste of time, they strain to insist on only the most damning reading of Christian thought.
But, as I have hopefully shown in my lengthy (yet woefully generalized) survey of the past 200 years of Christian theology, there have been major streams of establishment Christian thought that would not meet the criteria that Hitchens and Dawkins think they discovered that allows them and their fellow nonbelievers to tell a real Christian from a fake.
Here, the New Atheists are in complete agreement with fundamentalist Jeremiads against theological error. Once you begin down the path accommodating the Bible to science, any semblance of religion is done for. Once you acknowledge that the Bible is the product of human beings, the first books of which were compiled and edited from older traditions, probably beginning early in the first millennium before Christ and redacted in 450 BCE, then every word is up for question, debate, and ultimately there will be nothing on which to hang any semblance of religion. Once the Bible is seen as literature, then it is no different than any other mythical religious text, and takes its place among the stories of Olympians, the Norse Gods, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. There is, therefore, no reason to be Christian any more than there is to be Apollonian or a follower of Thor.
But does the rationally minded student peering into history treat all ancient texts in the same manner? Do we say that Plato’s treatment of the Divine Form, or Socrates’ proofs concerning the immortality of the soul mean that if we do not accept their superstitions we have nothing left of Platonism, or Socratic philosophy? (Not counting the fact that Plato was not very kindly disposed to the atheists of his day.) Plutarch, for his part, insisted on a literal reading of Plato’s Timaeus. What we find there is an account of the dialectic between the creator god and the indefinite dyad (or chaos and disorder). Shall we read no further of Plutarch, having discovered his ignorant faith in a Creationist account of the world, and his dogmatic insistence on literal interpretation? When we refer to Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and W.V.O. Quine as modern platonists, do we insist that unless they accept the creator/dyad myth, they aren’t in any meaningful sense, platonists? Karl Marx believed he had an ironclad scientific argument that the dialectic between the ruling and working classes of society led inexorably to the collapse of capitalism and with withering away of the state. Shall we insist that anyone calling herself a Marxist must accept this dogma, as if there was nothing else intelligible that Marx had to say on the topic of economics? And if such an economist devotes herself to the study of Marx and embarks upon a project to reformulate Marxism so that it accommodates subsequent economic findings, do we find it proper to declare her a heretic if she labels herself a Marxist?
We might as well say that, if one does not accept Newton’s belief that the orbits of the planets must be corrected by God’s hand from time to time, one is not in any meaningful sense a physicist. (No scientist would believe that God must correct the planets’ orbits; Newton was a scientist! No true scientist….)
There is a process by which we lay down a continuity of thought from the present to the past. This is how we engage texts. We do not, in any sense leave the writings of the past unmolested. Indeed, we fold, spindle, and mutilate them — if necessary — in order to make them relevant and meaningful to contemporary concerns. Science is not the only discipline that has a process for picking and choosing from previous work in the effort to improve our understanding of the present. All branches of philosophy do the same. And in Judaism there is a tradition of Biblical exegesis called midrash, which often reinterprets, synthesizes, and proceeds from tangents in surprising ways. Among liberal Jewish scholars, the reinterpretation can be quite radical and highly metaphoric. This is how they can reconcile often difficult passages of the Bible to modern, rational sensibilities. It offers a path for maintaining a connection with tradition while reinventing it.
Some may argue that a religious system that has been stripped of all supernatural beliefs and superstitions is no longer religious at all. In fact, it is the very supernatural aspect that gives religion its religious character. Without that, it becomes a philosophy; perhaps a better term would be tradition. Now, on my account, that’s not a bad argument — but neither is it a given. There are counterarguments from semantic and well as anthropological views.
Suppose we accept that any religion that discards all supernatural beliefs is no longer a religion, but becomes a tradition. And suppose that a majority of Episcopal congregations in the United States and Canada decide to adopt an entirely naturalistic stance toward the Bible, and the life and teachings of Jesus, and the creeds of the church — while remaining largely unchanged in structure, observance, ritual, and practice. A handful of congregations reject this move and label themselves Episcopal Orthodox. If we now must refer to the mainstream Episcopal Church as the Episcopal Tradition (a change in terminology unlikely to be accepted by the congregants and pastors), what difference does it really make? It would be unreasonable to deny them the customary privileges granted to a religious organization, simply because they decided to take a rational stance. They should retain their tax-exempt status, their pastors should continue to serve as chaplains in the military, officiate at weddings, funerals, rites of passage, etc. And yet, even if we must call it a tradition, it remains a distinctly Christian tradition — in a very meaningful sense — that singles out and engages the teachings and acts of Jesus (barring the miracles), the sacraments, the liturgy, the holidays, rituals, and observances. They remain Christian in all ways but one — they need not check their intellect at the chapel door. To make a point of distinguishing tradition from religion in such a case is to mince words in a semantic parlor game.
From an anthropological perspective, the problem starts with the definition of religion. Now, many of the atheist stripe may insist that supernatural belief is a universal characteristic of all religion. But this search for universals has proven frustratingly difficult. At one time, religion was seen as intrinsically monotheistic, and that nothing less was considered religious in any meaningful sense. Encounters with Hindu and Buddhist civilization forced that criterion to change. Likewise, Confucianism fills the role traditionally held by religion — and some call it that, while others call it a tradition or philosophy. In any case, Confucianism does not change by virtue of the English word we use to categorize it. Anthropologists debate vigorously over the definition of religion, which should give us little reason to think the matter so easily settled as by a few pronouncements by some physicists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, or cultural critics and essayists.
I would think that, if we want to know what religion is, we should prefer to study what the variegated spectrum of communities that consider themselves religious think, say, and do — rather than the strict definitions cast forth by the narrowly fundamentalist (and those among the nonreligious who happen to agree with them.)
The God-shaped Hole
There is a famous quote, falsely attributed to Blaise Pascal, saying, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing….” The origin of the quote seems to have been lost forever, but the sentiment captures an essential point about liberal theology: the primacy of the ecstatic religious experience.
To much of liberal theology, the doctrines and creeds, dogmas, scriptures, observances, and all other formal structures of religion are merely decoration, inessential and sometimes a harmful distraction. As pointed out above, Schleiermacher believe the focus of theology should be on an “intuition or feeling” of the infinite universe acting and moving through the finite self and all the finite things of the world; and vice versa.
It is true that religion is essentially contemplative. You would never call anyone pious who went about in impervious stupidity, whose sense is not open for the life of the world. But this contemplation is not turned, as your knowledge of nature is, to the existence of a finite thing, combined with and opposed to another finite thing. It has not even… to do with the nature of the first cause, in itself and in its relation to every other cause and operation. The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal. Where this is found religion is satisfied, where it hides itself there is for her unrest and anguish, extremity and death.
~ Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Second Speech — The Nature of Religion”, On Religion, 1799
Albert Einstein seems to refer to a similar experience when he wrote:
The most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science. If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.
~ Albert Einstein, quoted in The Private Albert Einstein (1992), Peter A. Bucky and Allen G. Weakland
The accounts of religious experiences (or mystical, spiritual, mythic, or what have you) are remarkably similar. One’s sense of self as an individuated being fades, accompanied by a deep a sense of connection to all living things, and to the cosmos itself. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Carl Sagan (among others) approach it when they describe how the atoms of our bodies came from exploding stars — that we are all “star stuff.”
I think that it’s worth highlighting the remarkable similarity between deGrasse Tyson’s words, “We’re in the universe, and the universe is in us,” and Schleiermacher’s reference to “the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal.” Can there be any meaningful doubt as to that they refer to the same fundamental human experience?
Sam Harris, during a debate with William Lane Craig, remarked on the higher possibilities of experience. Namely, that while atheists can and do experience “self-transcending love, and ecstacy, and rapture, and awe,” they do not then proceed to make unjustifiable claims about the nature of reality. Schleiermacher would likely have agreed with Harris on this point, except that he did not consider himself an atheist in any sense. And it would certainly be strange to argue that a German Christian theologian, who in 1799 was a hospital chaplain in Berlin, and eventually rose to a theological chair at the University of Berlin, preaching sermons every Sunday, was not a Christian. It is true that the orthodox accused him of atheism and Spinozism, a charge that he vehemently denied while maintaining and teaching a naturalist theology to throngs of enthralled students without reference to supernatural claims.
Many atheists argue that there is no such thing as a naturalist theology, or that it is meaningless nonsense. When Paul Tillich describes the God of theism as a concept we use to point at being-itself or the Ground of Being, Daniel Dennett admits that he does not know what that means. At least he has the good sense not to speak too much on a subject he doesn’t understand. But at the same time, perhaps he dismisses it too quickly. He encounters the work of theologians like Tillich, perhaps seeking to find therein Tillich’s liberal arguments for the existence of God, but the prose that has moved well beyond such claims. Instead, Tillich explores those experiences that lead us to point at something and call it God. To focus our attention on the ineffably mysterious thing we’re pointing to when we say “God” causes us to lose touch with everything important about the experience. It must be apprehended in a different language than the one we use for rational discourse. We can only highlight it with words, like signposts. Those who can’t see the landscape will peer only at the signs and be disappointed.
Another argument runs like this: theology is the study of God and His attributes. If there is no God, then there can’t be any attributes to talk about. No God = no theology. This is another semantic game that doesn’t actually contribute anything to the discussion — it’s a blocking maneuver designed to shut down the topic. Science, as Thomas Kuhn argues, is defined by what scientists do. Likewise, theology is defined by what theologians do. And for a couple of hundred years at least there has been a highly influential and controversial stream of theology that, instead of focusing on God as some thing out there, examines the “God experience” as something entirely in the mind. To say that they aren’t doing theology is to deny a natural progression of thought that is available to every other human endeavor.
Sam Harris refers to Tillich as “a blameless parish of one” and Dawkins states that “decent, understated religion is numerically negligible.” On the one hand, this serves to protect their arguments against the accusation that they’re erecting straw men; on the other hand it implies that there can’t be much to all this talk of people holding to a more palatable theology, since there aren’t very many people doing it. Of course, there aren’t that many atheists either — most people would trust a rapist before they would trust an avowed atheist. Perhaps this indicates that there is a motive among atheists to frame liberal theology as something trivial, empty, and not deserving of attention. Finding it difficult to critically examine poetic language touching on the ineffable, it’s far easier to trivialize it.
It seems a natural response from conventionally bright people encountering an idea they don’t easily comprehend; especially when it’s an uncomfortable one. It’s rather like reading an e. e. cummings poem and wondering why it doesn’t rhyme.
But Sam Harris, in his remarks during the debate with Craig (above), makes a point that suggests something important:
Given that people have had these [profound] experiences in every context, while worshiping one God, while worshiping hundreds, while worshiping none, that proves that a deeper principle is at work. That the sectarian claims of, of our various religions can’t possibly be true in that context. And all we have is human conversation to capture these possibilities. We can either have a first-century conversation, as dictated by the New Testament, or a seventh century conversation as dictated by the Qur’an — or a twenty-first century conversation that leaves us open to the full wealth of human learning. [Emphais added]
First, it’s worth noting that the conversation for which Harris is advocating actually started three or four centuries ago. And he seems to miss the fact that the likes of Schleiermacher and Tillich were active participants. Perhaps if we spent more time engaging those ideas, we’d find it easier to escape the first or the seventh century arguments — at least in the regurgitated form delivered by latter day fundamentalists.
But more importantly, neuroscience may be shedding some light on that deeper principle to which Harris alludes. Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is the Director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine. His research centers on the neuroanatomy of the frontal lobes, including their evolution and role in mediating religious experience. His book, The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, contains an exhaustive survey of the neurological research done in the field. In it, he describes three areas of investigation that have illuminated our understanding of the particular role that religious experience plays in the development of self: Neurological disorders and brain injuries; the operation of chemical agents on the brain; the neurology of religious experiences in healthy persons.
There is a remarkable consistency in all three areas of research. Persons suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), schizophrenia, schizotypy, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) among other disorders experience a pronounced heightening of religiousness. Successful treatment for these disorders corresponds to a reduction in religiosity. The areas of the brain involved in these disorders represents a circuit of interacting nodes:
I believe that when taken together the clinical data suggest that the limbic system (particularly the amygdala), portions of the basal ganglia, the right temporal lobe (particularly the anterior portion of the medial and superior temporal lobe), and the dorsomedial, orbitofrontal, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are the crucial nodes in a brain circuit that mediates religiosity. [The] circuit, in turn, is regulated by the mesocortical dopamine (DA) and various serotoninergic systems.
When this circuit is stimulated in the right way, you get religious ecstasy. When the circuit is overactivated, you get various forms of religiously tinged aberrations. When cortical sites (right temporal and frontal) play the leading role, you get ideational changes in belief systems and outright delusional states. When limbic and basal ganglia sites play the leading role, you get changes in ritual behaviors as well as increased interest in religious practices such as prayer and other rituals.
And what about healthy persons performing religious acts — prayer and glossolalia, meditation, reading the Psalms? Quite remarkably, the very same circuit of nodes are at play among the wide spectrum of religious activity and people. Rather than an indicator of mental disease, the data suggest that religious experiences represent something quite the opposite: they are part and parcel an aspect of ordinary human brain function. Neurological disorders experiencing extreme or dysfunctional religiosity appear to be malfunctioning nodes and/or interactions within the otherwise normal human circuit for religion.
Furthermore, the nodes and structures in the brain that mediate religious experience are all connected to each other anatomically. If so, then this suggests that they operate together as a single functional system. One fact that significantly reinforces this notion is the susceptibility this system has to chemical influences (i.e. – drugs!):
At the neurochemical level, the reduction in agency/intentionality is mediated by a reduction in serotoninergic activity in the prefrontal and anterior temporal cortices, thus transiently inhibiting prefrontal/temporal cortical function. There is a transient diminution in prefrontal dopamine activity that corresponds to suspension of intentional states at the onset of a religious experience. In entheogenic experiences LSD, psilocybin/DMT (dimethyltryptamine), binds to 5-HT2A receptors in prefrontal and temporal lobes and blocks other serotonin (5-HT) receptors as well. Serotonin is known to exert tonic inhibitory effects on DA neurons, particularly in the limbic system, and thus removal of the inhibitory 5-HT influence enhances DA activity resulting in religious and hallucinatory experiences. Gradually the inhibition of [prefrontal cortex (PFC)] wanes, and the combination of high limbic activity in the limbic system and the coming back online of the PFC yield a process of learning and insight. The anterior temporal lobes are densely interconnected with both the limbic system and the prefrontal lobes. The prefrontal lobes are in mutual inhibitory balance with the temporal lobes. Thus, the removal of the inhibition on the temporal lobes (with the drug-induced inhibition of the frontal lobes) as well as the DA stimulation enhancing activity levels in the limbic system yield a hyperactive temporal lobe. As the PFC comes back on line it slowly reestablishes the mutual inhibitory balance and normal activity levels with the temporal lobes. We have seen… that interactions between the PFC and the temporal lobe are associated with hyperreligiosity.
Both DA and serotoninergic systems converge on the frontal lobes. We have seen that 5-HT2A receptors are abundantly expressed in PFC and that stimulation of these receptors inhibits prefrontal function (and perhaps DA activity in the PFC only) while simultaneously enhancing limbic DA activity. When the physiologic changes are extreme, this condition mimics psychosis. Religious practices appear to be able to enhance both limbic and prefrontal systems but only after an initial and transient inhibition of prefrontal function. Prefrontal activity slowly returns to normal levels and thus, in interaction with limbic and temporal sites, contributes to the phenomenology of the religious experience. [Emphasis added, and citations removed for readability]
The interaction of drugs with this circuit tends to highlight the interdependence and interoperability of the nodes that make it up. This is an extraordinary early stage in understanding how religious experience impacts personality development and social cognition. The nodes that make up the religion circuit are the same that mediate for sense of self. McNamara argues that this is not merely fortuitous, but that religion “functions, in fact, to construct an executive Self — an autonomous, self-regulating, mature individual…. [Religion] is an engine that enhances consciousness and self-consciousness in particular.” In fact, it seems that this circuit and its relationship to the development of an executive self manifest the hallmarks of an adaptive trait oriented as an evolved solution to a problem set which the species faced at one point, and may yet still face. To be related to biological fitness a behavioral trait must be universal, relatively inborn or easy to acquire (i.e. — not learned through significant ergs of effort), and supported by observable physiological and anatomical structures. McNamara’s religion circuit seems to indicate just that; which means that there is good reason to suppose that religion solves an important problem for human beings.
If it is reasonable to entertain the possibility that religiousness is an adaptation, what does that imply for the evaluation of religion itself? First, it suggests that when authors dismiss religion as a dangerous delusion, they are probably wrong to do so. Indeed, if religion is an adaptation, it likely is not a delusion or an illusion…. Religion has for centuries generated public rituals and dogmatic traditions that have presided over millions of births, weddings, and deaths. Established religions and their attendant rituals and dogmatic traditions are the result of centuries of work by nature and flawed human beings. They are a collaboration between nature and humanity. They are often not pretty, but they are always, like nature itself, protean, wild, elaborate, and functional.
Indeed, if religion is an adaptive trait, then we may be at the threshold of marking out the shape of the God-shaped Hole in human consciousness — the interlocking nodes of the brain that make up the circuit of self and religion. We may be discovering that we are hardwired for the religious experience, itself, in such a manner that it contributes powerfully to the development of the executive, and social, self. If we have discovered maladaptive characteristics in the social institutions that have evolved to support and exploit our unique neurophysiology, then it is reasonable that we should allow those systems to evolve in such a manner that preserves the adaptive nature of the human impulse to religion. In which case it would be fair to conclude that it is worthwhile to discard the doctrines, creeds, and dogmas of institutional religion, while maintaining the essential characteristics of those social systems that support and make good use of our brain anatomy.
It would be rather obvious, then, how this neural apparatus does not respond as readily to critical reason as it does to what Erich Fromm called the Forgotten Language, or the language of dreams, fairy tales, and myths. It may explain why, when Tillich discusses the Ground of Being, some experience a profound stirring of the soul while others, like Dennett or Dawkins, may be left standing scratching their heads. (One can presume that the self/religion circuit may not be as highly developed in some as in others.) And it may serve as a beacon that indicates the boundary between ordinary aesthetic experiences and those that trigger a uniquely religious response.
The Enlightenment precipitated a strain of theology that recognized our deep impulse for religiosity, and yet understood that — as Sam Harris has recently discovered — we need not proceed from the religious experience to assert unjustified claims about the nature of reality.
And yet, it should be clear that there are devoutly religious people who have become so attached to the supernatural belief systems associated with the social religious process, that to challenge their superstition is to inflict a direct assault on the self/religious map, itself. And perhaps one reason that atheists elicit so much distrust among the general public lies in the simple apprehension that the overtly rationalist character is relatively clueless to the innate religiosity of the human brain. In which case, it would behoove us to encourage, rather than hastily dismiss, the efforts of a significant number of religious thinkers to bring theology into the Age of Enlightenment.
There is an intense struggle in the world of theology over the soul of the church. There are those, it seems, who are desperately trying to preserve the 1st century or 7th century character of religion, much to the dismay of rationally minded folks in the atheist and secular humanist communities. And it may very well be that theologians such as Karen Armstrong speak in a language that seems intensely foreign and unintelligible to a particular class of scientifically-minded rationalists, like Christopher Hitchens. So it would be reasonable to expect that they might be talking past each other much of the time. And yet, when we observe the affect of Neil deGrasse Tyson as he describes the process by which we are all connected to the barely conceivable celestial crucibles of life, itself, we detect a glimmer of the piety that the scientific mind can produce. And we can hope that this common connection we all have, in the circuitry of the brain that produces a universally accessible encounter with the infinite, will eventually allow us to recognize that when we have such experiences — mystic, scientist, poet, and engineer alike — we are pointing at the same ineffable, mysterious, wondrous thing that for millennia we have named “God.”
Now that would be a 21st century discussion worth having.
 Buescher, John. A History of Fundamentalism. http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24092
 Jefferson, Thomas. Letter John Adams. April 11, 1823. http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html
 Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Benjamin Rush. April 21, 1803. http://www.angelfire.com/co/JeffersonBible/jeffbsyl.html
Youtube. Hardball: Christopher Hitchens vs Ken Blackwell on the US Being a Christian Nation. April 8, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISylK4g6UM&t=4m36s
F. Bettex, D.D. “The Bible and Modern Criticism.” The Fundamentals. Vol 1, Ch 4. http://user.xmission.com/~fidelis/volume1/chapter4/bettex.php
David W. Cloud. “Graham Was Warned Many Times.” Evangelicals and Rome. Feb 28, 1999. http://www.wayoflife.org/database/grahamwarned.html
Neil Campbell, Alistair Kean. “Contemporary Evangelicalism.” American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture. p111. Jan 10, 1998. http://www.scribd.com/tranduykhiem/d/66923303/30-CONTEMPORARY-EVANGELICALISM
Youtube. Part 6 of 9 – Sam Harris vs William Lane Craig – Debate: Does Good Come From God – 7 April 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAcdg2RlUJY&t=4m56s