The Scylla and Charybdis of Bourgeois Theology: Charting a Course

Intelligence Squared: US is a debate-style podcast that centers around one motion under investigation. Typically, IQ2US (their preferred shorthand referent) doesn’t put out content that’s particularly interesting. There are a lot of episodes on economics and global politics which, while important, are boring as far as I’m concerned.

A few weeks ago, however, I finally listened to the debate surrounding the motion “The More We Evolve, the Less We Need God.” Two pairs debated each other, one side arguing for the motion and the other against. In favor of the motion were neuroscientist Heather Berlin and “public intellectual” Michael Shermer. Against the motion were Deepak Chopra, well-known in part because of his spiritual relationship to Oprah, and physician Anoop Kumar.

This debate was an enlightening exchange for a number of reasons, but the reason I want to key in on relies not so much on the minutiae of argumentation but on the general spheres that the two sides represent. IQ2US will typically put a question to task and assign respondents who, in large measure, represent widely held beliefs in respect to the motion under review. That is to say, you can rely on IQ2US to put people on stage to represent the majority-held “horns” of the argument; rare is the radical. Of course, the accepted field of debate for IQ2US’s audience will be different than for the general American audience, but we will look at that more in a moment.

Their tendency to use mainstream spokespersons is what made this particular debate so interesting. On the one side, you have a pair of strict materialists. The neuroscientist and the skeptic both argue that there can be no god–and no use thereof–because there is no immateriality. Consciousness, even–that intending-toward which demarcates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom–is the result of the bio-neurological processes of the brain. One will eventually explain all things through the rigorous analyses of the sciences, and to revert to god-talk is merely to make use of a “god of the gaps,” an unacceptable acquiescence to ignorance. All fairly mundane, as far as scientism is concerned, and representative of a growing cultural trend.

On the other side, you had Deepak Chopra, famous “new age”[1] doctor and occasional dabbler in metaphysics. (Kumar’s contributions to the structure of the debate were relatively minor, and they can safely be subsumed under Chopra’s larger project.) Chopra defines from the beginning what is meant by the word “god” when he and Kumar speak of god. “God” is “the consciousness in which all experience occurs.” Consciousness/god is the potentiality and actuality of every and all experience. There is no external being who stands beyond experience; “god” is, to abuse Tillichian terms, “the ground of experience.” There can only be god qua consciousness, potential and actual. Succinctly:  “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves.” Through consciousness and through it alone, we know ourselves.

Now, to explain the title. There’s a point in The Odyssey wherein Odysseus must make a choice:  be willing give up six men to death or risk losing his entire ship. He’s to pass through the Strait of Messina, and on one side is the six-headed monster Scylla, who will snatch six sailors at will–and if you tarry, she’ll snatch six more. On the other side of the strait, a sea monster named Charybdis would appear three times a day, destroying everything within her reach at these points. There would be no escape were you to be caught in Charybdis’s terror. Odysseus chooses the guaranteed loss of six versus the potential loss of his ship and crew in toto.

Along the lines of our phrase “between a rock and a hard place” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to represent choosing the less-worse of two awful options. Treading a middle ground would not do; you’re as likely to wreck on both accounts simultaneously than to avoid either. As far as IQ2US is concerned, the horns of this dilemma (what is god, and what is its use?) are simple:  god is either a wholly irrelevant myth or merely the sum total of all consciousness.

With reference to Christian orthodoxy, neither one of these options are appealing. Fortunately, I would wager that the popular understandings of god have not yet devolved there. The ideas articulated by Chopra and Berlin are still too radical for most. Elements of strict materialism or vacuous new age mysticism may be incorporated into popular thought, but they won’t be assimilated wholesale for some time.

Nevertheless, history seems to demonstrate that the ideas fermented in the upper echelons of culture tend to trickle down. For the moment, Berlin and Chopra’s projects are limited broadly to the bourgeois strata of our society:  well-educated, self-satisfied, little experience with material poverty. Such an environment breeds a view of god which strips the divine either of substance or of existence. Who needs a god in the comforts of wealth? The American upper classes have determined either that god does not exist or that god’s existence derives solely from our experience of consciousness; making your way through the middle of the strait merely invites an attack from both sides.

These are the Scylla and Charybdis of bourgeois theology. These are the relative positions of debate. Because this is the case, we need to consider developing an articulation of theology that broaches one or the other construction in order to speak intelligibly to the culture. It’s no secret that the nation’s Christian heritage[2] is withering, which means that the cultural cache of Christian thought can no longer be relied on to create common ground. To borrow again from Tillich, we must develop an apologetic theology that takes seriously the location and direction of our culture’s theology.

In hopes of not stretching the metaphor too far, we should wonder which bourgeois position corresponds to the Scylla and which to the Charybdis. That is to say, which threatens the destruction of Christian doctrine wholesale, and which merely threatens certain aspects? It may be the case that both positions are so threatening that we have no other choice but to remain aloof, in a certain sense, to the dangers that loom on either side. However, that would have to be a last-case scenario, having exhausted all other options. Such a posture bespeaks the fundamentalist impulse of any theology worth considering; it’s Balin’s Tomb.

Grant that we have an obligation to consider one side or the other. Which side risks a total loss? Which risks less? For my money, I’m far more wary of Chopra than Berlin. As much as Dawkins- and Harris-inspired ideologues drive me insane (which is what Shermer seems to represent), Chopra’s project would do far more lasting damage to future attempts at theologizing and evangelism. By Chopra’s radical redefinition of god as the ground of experience, he maintains a spiritual flair to “god” while at the same time utterly stripping “god” of anything transcendent. I have found myself closer to Berlin in certain respects,[3] and I’m fairly certain that we can articulate a post-materialist theology more easily than a post-rudderless-mysticism theology. We can’t forget, however, that whichever route we choose will be fraught with hazards. Obviously, neither position are ideal carriers of Christian theology, but I do not believe that we are at the point where we must revert (a la Dreher) to strictly Christian communities and raise the drawbridge. Because these positions are still largely restricted to the higher classes, the church has some time to prepare adequate responses for whatever form materialism and new age mysticism may take in popular culture.

[1] Whenever you read “new age,” whether here or elsewhere, you can substitute “bastardized concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism in a Western context,” and you won’t be far off.

[2] Don’t read more into the phrase than intended. The predominant religious and cultural influence in this nation has been some version of Christianity, and only an ideologue would bother denying this. This historical foundation has been eroding for generations, and the erosion has accelerated of late. That is our “new normal,” and it is not necessarily good or bad.

[3] This proximity is most clearly seen in this piece on Aaron Hernandez.


Review: Why I Believe (2017)

Apologetics is one of the facets of Christian thought and practice that one either thoroughly enjoys or avoids, although it is in fact essential for Christian fidelity. Indeed, the “defense” (gk: apologia) of the Christian faith is one of those things enjoined by the New Testament (1 Peter 3.15). However, frequently neglected by pastoral staff, apologetics will often find itself relegated to being an “extracurricular” course for discipleship rather than being material studied by every Christian for their edification. Whatever a church can do to correct this tendency and train properly the people of the church, the better.

In service of that institutional lack of focus on apologetics, Chip Ingram published Why I Believe: Straight Answers to Honest Questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity. Purportedly written “to provide well-researched and practical guidelines for us ordinary people to fully understand the intellectual and historical basis for our faith, and to talk intelligently and confidently with our friends, family, and coworkers over a cup of coffee about why we believe,” (15) Why I Believe attempts to situate itself as a resource to be referenced when questions of faith and theology arise in the hearts and minds of laypeople. He addresses some common apologetic themes, including the veracity of the resurrection, the trustworthiness of Scripture, and the place of scientific understanding (over against the Genesis account).

As far as can be told from the book, Ingram seems to have assumed that the reader has never experienced a lesson in apologetics before. In every manner, Why I Believe serves as introductory material. Yes, the work touches on many of the current problems in Christian apologetics, but the touch is so slight that one wonders how much of a substantial benefit the reader actually receives from the book.

Due to a dearth of cited material, and in large part what amounts to fundamentally superficial treatment of the question at hand, I wonder to what degree Why I Believe serves its intended purpose. The book provides pat answers to very difficult questions–answers so concise that an honest thinker should be curious if Ingram has thoroughly addressed the issue. Although Why I Believe serves as a kind of compendium for Christian apologetics, the book’s treatment is so brief and the answers provided are so accessible elsewhere that one must wonder if the purchase of this work is at all necessary considering the existing landscape of resources in apologetics.

An odd mixture of evidentialism with hints of presuppositionalism, Why I Believe suffers from a lack of methodological purity that tends to blunt its impact. “I believe because of archaeological reasons X, Y, and Z, but I will also cite Jesus as evidence in passages A, B, and C.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an approach so long as the apologist clearly articulates the place for each particular field of evidence within the broader schema of apologetics; as it is, Ingram’s approach reads as throwing evidence at the wall and hoping something sticks. Why I Believe isn’t helped by Ingram’s concluding acquiescence that “at the end of the day, the reason many do not believe has nothing to do with the evidence. It is a moral problem that keeps them from receiving the light and the love of God.” (208) After 200 pages of outlining evidence, Ingram acknowledges that the defense (evangelistic in essence, if you believe some apologists) for which one has been preparing “has nothing to do with the evidence.” Rather than equipping the reader to engage with that spiritual component, we were instead treated to (at times) sophomoric defenses of the Christian faith which would not withstand scrutiny.

Why I Believe may be the first apologetic work a Christian reads. Pray it’s not the last.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Circularity and Presuppositionalism, via Kuhn

This summer I’ve been waddling through Berger and Lockman’s The Social Construction of Reality and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Both have fairly extensive ramifications for critical reflection on the nature of theologizing, and as soon as I finish Kuhn’s work I’ll offer a review of both works together here.

In any event, Kuhn touches on the nature of scientific revolutions and on the way in which one scientific paradigm is substituted for another. He points out that, when there are two fundamentally competing visions for the world or when the first principles are under fire, one doesn’t win the argument by appealing to the first principles in question. One can’t settle the debate by asserting, again and again, the veracity of one’s position. The question has been settled when a respondent has been persuaded by or has ultimately discarded the new vision.

It isn’t as though the brute existence of the world-as-it-is has made itself readily apparent to the audience such that they can immediately intuit which paradigm is correct. Rather, those hawking their wares have delicately (or indelicately, as the case may be) shown to those who would listen that their vision for the world better equips them to make sense of it. This inductive, risky method may or may not generate a convert; and the failure to do so cannot be attributed properly to a failure of the potential convert’s intellect. The method of persuasion (or, perhaps, the obstinacy of the hearer) prevented the change. In either case, the heart of the matter rests with the subjective appropriation or rejection of a new paradigm by virtue of subjective persuasion.

Kuhn writes,

… Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense.

The resulting circularity does not, of course, make the arguments wrong or even ineffectual. The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defense can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice — there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.[1]

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  2nd ed. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science: Foundations of the Unity of Science, Vol. 2 Num. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 94.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Postmodernism and Presuppositionalism

I, along with the rest of the millennial generation, am a child of postmodernism. Postmodernism is the pervading ethos of the current generation, for good or for ill, and it’s nigh impossible to outright ignore it. Whether by appropriating particular tenets of postmodernism or by discounting and discrediting its validity, contemporary intellectual enterprises must grapple with postmodernism, as was necessary for modernism in the early 1900s and romanticism in the 1800s.

In theological circles, postmodernism has not gone unnoticed. Baker Academic, for example, has published an excellent series titled The Church and Postmodern Culture. (Westphal’s volume Whose Commnity? Whose Interpretation, for example, is one that I would recommend to any reader of Scripture willing to examine her own method of reading.) One of the charges laid at the feet of the postmodern is that “all truth is relative.” Although this grenade is usually tossed by well-meaning, though overly protective, conservative scholars or pastors, one must be careful to differentiate between the different streams of postmodernism. While some postmodern would say that all “truth” (howsoever defined) is relative, another would say that statements of faith are always historically-, socially-, and culturally-conditioned, and as such they ought to be treated not as once-for-all statements of fact but as statements which may be true but are always open to revision and re-interpretation or re-imagination. May it suffice to say that not all postmodern positions necessarily entail that absolute truth is a myth.

In fact, this second stream of postmodernism intuitively seems correct. Short of a simplistic view of language or a naive conception of the history of dogma, the proposition that any doctrine X is subject to change does seem inarguable. Although the hope of anchoring theology in an unchanging list of fundamentals might engender confidence in the conception of an historically-consistent orthodoxy, the evolution of theological conceptions does militate against that idea. (It would not do, either, to suggest that all deviations from the presently-conceived orthodoxy are, in fact, a result of “the liberals” or whomever else tampering with the fides receptus.)

If we grant the premise that any theological formulation can be revised and corrected, what becomes of theology as a received faith? That is to say, if we believe that statements of faith are always tentative (one of the central theses of Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming),  can it reasonably be asserted that there is a static orthodoxy? Furthermore, and more pressingly, can it be reasonably be proclaimed that this Christianity deserves obedience over against that Christianity or even that other religion?

These kinds of questions are apologetic in nature. One of the methods of arguing for this form of Christianity over against any other has been van Tillian presuppositionalism, given a definitive treatment most recently in Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics. I will not spend much time outlining Oliphint’s book. In short, presuppositional (or covenantal)  apologetics begins with the notion that all systems of thought begin with a certain set of first principles. The soundness of any system depends on the truthfulness of those first principles. In response to the growing modernism of early 20th century theologians, van Til correctly put his thumb on the problem, which was that certain theologians were embracing first principles that directly contradicted (what van Til said was) the plain meaning of Scripture. And so, van Til’s apologetic centered on the premise, first, that Scripture comes from God and can be trusted when correctly interpreted.

Presuppositional apologetics has been heralded by many because of the high place that it gives to Scripture, and because its practitioners do not need to be experts in history, science, philosophy, etc. They need simply to believe the Bible and not move from that, because all people have presuppositions and it just so happens that the presuppositional’s presupposition concerning the Bible as an epistemological foundation is correct. Now, I don’t intend to investigate the tenability of presuppositionalism as an apologetic method. However, I believe that it is does have some problems.

The chief problem is the one of external verification–that is, proving a system to be true with evidence that does not belong within the system itself. For example, one external verification for Scripture’s truth could be archaeological finds that correspond to the witness of Old or New Testament history. However, the presuppositionalist would find such external verifications as merely tangential to the witness itself. The external evidence can only either support the system or be ignored/explained away/etc. And yet, it’s not difficult to imagine this as a plugging-your-ears kind of approach. This, when combined with the proper impulse to want external verification, makes presuppositional seem not so much as a logical argument as either a) a stubborn refusal to listen to others or b) more of a rhetorical tool than a rational argument.

Nevertheless, because the presuppositional argument must begin with a belief in the veracity of its own starting point, it’s necessarily circular and engages in question begging. Of course, it can be argued that any system of thought is necessarily circular. However, the presuppositionalist embraces the circularity, pointing out that others are circular as well. Any foundationalist epistemology will have this “problem.” Wolterstorff’s Reason within the Bounds of Religion is an incredible and short work that effectively demolished foundationalism as a tenable model of knowing. If we do away with foundationalism, and with it traditional presuppositionalism, what’s left?

In terms of persuasion, from the human perspective, how is it that somebody moves from a denial of or apathy concerning the truth-claims of Christianity to a whole-hearted acceptance? One cannot deny the Spiritual work in the person. There is always some act of God in conversion. But, on the other side of the equation, what is the motivating force behind conversion?

The concept of intuition would seem correct, although what comes across as intuitively correct depends on the cultural within which one knows (contra Reid, who believed that “common sense” intuition was transcultural). I’m not convinced that intuition as such can be completely discarded, but it ought to be tempered. (Perhaps the intuitive impulse should be trusted more when the intuition would seem to contradict what had been traditionally believed by the individual?)

A more promising capacity could be what Calvin referred to as the sensus divinitatis, or the “sense of the divine.” Of course, the sensus doesn’t necessarily entail that a God exists. One could interpret it evolutionarily, as Armstrong does, as man being homo religiosus — that is, humanity has an innate impulse to seek the “ineffable.” Whether the sensus is a result of an imago dei anthropology or some evolutionary feature, it would seem to be an innate capacity that could motivate individuals to seek God. Of course, one would have to be careful to point out that the capacity is not infallible. But, it’s a reasonable first step.