Shuck and Jive

Monday, March 01, 2010

Let Us Undermine Our Confidence in Scripture

I read a letter to the LayMAN which included the line:
Our denomination’s seminaries, which are supposed to be bastions of Christian learning, are instead undermining our future pastors’ confidence in the Scriptures....
The author of the letter thought it a horrible thing. Many letters and editorials echo this lament.

I thought, "Amen. The seminaries are doing their jobs."

As Charles Hedrick wrote in the latest Fourth R, "Obeying the Bible is a Bad Idea."

It's a bit of a flimflam on the part of pastors, Bible teachers, and true believers when they urge us to "obey the Bible"--by which they mean trying to do what the Bible says. Although many claim to try, they are never able to succeed! Here is why. The Bible is an ancient book describing the origins, history, and faiths of two different antiquated religions, both of which are, in turn, quite different from their modern counterparts. I am not saying the Bible is without value, or that nothing can be learned from these antique religions. There are many valuable lessons for moderns to take from the ancient Judeo-Christian traditions that comprise the Bible, but directions from God on how life should be lived in the modern world are not among them.... p. 2
As much as our denominational leaders think we wouldn't be unraveling if we only thought 'theology mattered', did more to 'lift up Jesus', believed in the 'bodily resurrection', or became 'missional', from my vantage point all of that is a lost cause.

The gods with big or little gs are dying. The sooner we face it, the sooner we can get on with something that does matter.

The March-April Fourth R has a number of articles along this theme. Davidson Loehr in his essay, "Straight Talk about God-Talk" argues that theology (God-talk) has been going the way of alchemy for some time and wonders what will replace it:

What's clear is that religion and life aren't about gods, and God-talk at its best only strikes our enduring questions at a glancing blow. We need to be able to talk and argue in plain language about what is most important to us, what values and allegiances we need to grow into fulfilling lives and a healthy world. Theologians and preachers may not claim, and anyway are no longer granted, any privileged position in this discussion.

Redefining God-talk as quaint is a bit like doing the same with the old vocabulary of alchemy...During the psychology-centered twentieth century, first-rate religion scholars like Mircea Eliade and psychologists like Carl Jung showed us that alchemy-talk was just an esoteric way of talking about the yearning for a deep psychological transformation, turning our own "lead" into "gold." With that, the old language was discarded but the cargo was saved, and we were empowered to speak of it in more honest and accessible terms.

It's important to bring these topics down to earth because that's where we live, and where everything really important to us happens....When we talk of our deepest yearnings and our provisional answers to them, whether in prose, poetry, or plain old ordinary language, we are not speaking theology. We are speaking in the deep language of head and heart that was the forerunner, and is the legitimate heir, to what was once called theology. pp. 12, 24.
Bill Lehto writes about radical theologian, "Don Cupitt: An Appreciation." Cupitt has been one of my favorites for some time. He embraces postmodernism with gusto. All God-talk is human language. But instead of fleeing from the abyss,
Cupitt floats. Cupitt embraces life's temporality and finitude because he realizes and accepts that it could not be otherwise, that it would make no sense for it to be otherwise. p. 20
One of my favorite Don Cupitt books is Life, Life. Life is the word we use instead of God. Listen to people (including yourself) talk about what is important and how you phrase it. Be conscious of the number of times and ways you use the word "life" to describe
Life happens. Life is what you make it. That's life. Live your life.
In terms of life, "God" is rather awkward. He is an extra large suitcase full of neckties on a beach trip. Bill Lehto quotes Cupitt:
[the] postmodern vision of the world is one in which there is no longer any absolute Beginning, Ground, Presence or End in the traditional metaphysical sense. So there is no anchorage whatever, in any direction. p. 19
How do we live with this freedom? Bill Lehto writes:
Cupitt's own response to this incredible freedom is what he calls "Solar Living," in which people live their lives on the principle of the sun: in giving of itself to life, it burns itself out. "Life is a gift (with no giver) that is renewed every day, and true religion is expressive, 'solar' living. By faith, and without any qualification or restriction, I should let life well up in me and pour itself out into symbolic expression through me." p. 21.
Another interesting article is by Solomon Schimmel, "The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs." We all have encountered the true believers who spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and passion seeking to convince themselves and others about the truth of their scriptures. Schimmel writes about what is at stake for these folks.
There are several defense mechanisms, or strategies, which the believer is not necessarily aware that he is "using" as he responds to logical or empirical challenges to his beliefs. Among these are cognitive restructuring (which includes selective attention, selective interpretation, and selective evaluation) and the discrediting of contradictory information. p. 4.
Quick definitions:
  • selective attention: "believer takes note only of facts and arguments that support his beliefs, while ignoring those that challenge them."
  • selective interpretation: "believer tends to accept the interpretation that confirms his belief or that neutralizes the threat that the event or fact poses to his belief."
  • selective evaluation: "believers see congruent events as more important than incongruent ones. For a believer the occasional report of a miraculous cure can never be out-weighed by reports of innumerable failed ones."
  • discrediting contradictory information: "...fundamentalists often claim that critical biblical scholars are anti-Semites or heretics or evil or ignorant of traditional Jewish modes of dealing with the challenges posed by modern scholarship."
Why does the church, its ministers, and its true believers keep up the charade that their "theology matters"?
It is precisely because they have invested so much of their intellectual, emotional, social, and financial energy and resources into their belief system and religious way of life that they are afraid or reluctant to examine its foundations. It is because they sense that the pillars of all they believe and have invested in might be exposed to be pillars of sand. Better to be an intellectual ostrich with respect to their religious beliefs than to face the reality of the demise of all that is dear to them, which they imagine (rightly or wrongly) will be the consequence of honestly studying biblical scholarship. p. 6.
The real issue is that beliefs are so closely tied into the social benefits of religion that they are difficult to separate. Schimmel writes:
Religion in general satisfies many human needs: social, emotional, psychological, and intellectual....there is a reluctance to give up the belief out of fear that doing so will undermine the positive emotions. There is also the anxiety about feeling guilty for betraying loved parents, friends, and teachers. Therefore, the believer harboring doubts will expend a tremendous amount of intellectual and emotional energy in defending the beliefs, even appealing to arguments that he would not find convincing in the absence of an emotional attachment. pp. 8, 24
It would seem that the important task of religion from seminary to clergy to pew is to help folks keep the benefits of religion while letting go of its superstitions. It is not impossible. It just takes courage, wisdom, and patience. It also takes cultivating a culture of doubt. Doubt is not an vice but a virtue. As David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone put it:
I am heartened by the number of people who see their religions clearly and remain strong in their faith without requiring departures from factual reality.
If our friend writing to the LayMAN is right that seminaries are "undermining our future pastors' confidence in the Scriptures...." then I can only say, thank you. Keep it up. In the long run, we will all benefit.


  1. Ha! What fun. Great bit of work. It's got me wanting to read a bunch of people Thanks, John. I'll have to give it another look later, when I'm not so drawn to move on to another part of life: wine, food, music, and family. Have at it!

  2. I'm glad you found my "Straight Talk About God-Talk" article helpful. It's encouraging to find professors and ministers who are trying to take Bultmann's question seriously: what can a demythologized Christianity offer to people? From the ancient three-tier universe where the whole universe was pretty much a local affair, to living in "deep time" and a nearly infinite universe -- this forces all serious inquiries to adopt the attitude of humility in order to do honest work. But that's a good thing. The root of "humility" is the same as the root of "human."

    Our most intransigent idolatries are the linguistic and habitual expressions that we tend to reify. The Buddhists have a wonderful metaphor here, when they see all of the best teachers, wisdom, traditions, etc. as "fingers pointing to the moon," where "moon" alludes to our ultimate concerns, deepest and enduring yearnings, all true gods, etc. Here, "true gods" mean those nodes of insight, meaning and feeling that connect us with what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature." The road ahead -- for non-supernatural but deeply serious/spiritual faith -- is best understood as "secular religion in ordinary language." The "secular" means trying to find ways to live more fully and wisely here and now rather than elsewhere and later. The "religion" means "reconnection" -- the -lig root refers to a connective, as in our words ligament and ligature.

    We're now in the chrysalis stage of creative chaos, in our slow metamorphosis to a this-worldly kind of faith that can "fly." (The Greeks got here first: their word "psyche" means both "soul" and "butterfly").

    Davidson Loehr

  3. @Michael Thanks!


    Welcome! Thank you for the article and for coming by to comment! I also appreciated the "bad boys" (Dawkins, Dennett et al) and think you are right that we liberals are missing the point of their critiques.

    I hope this post will inspire folks to subscribe to the Fourth R.

    Trying to be a butterfly,

  4. Two questions:
    1) How can a 'de-mythologized Christianity' still be worthy of the name Christ?

    2) If the Bible, the bodily resurrection, the mission of the church, and all these other hallmarks of orthodox Christianity are outmoded or useless or silly, why be a pastor in a Christian church? It sounds to me like you should be running a secular humanitarian relief agency (nothing wrong with this - it would just be more honest than claiming your ministry is Christian).

    side note: I don't hunt down your blog to provoke you. The titles pop up on the CCBlogs website and I come to them and, generally, the more outrageous the title, the more likely it is to be your blog.

    P.S. If we are undermining our confidence in Scripture, then where should our confidence lie? Our own potential? Politics? Universal good-will?

    And don't take the french postmoderns too seriously. If all language is simply part of a power game, we should all be Nihilists. Check out Alisdair Macintyre for a better kind of postmodernism.

  5. Gee, John. You've never been asked those questions before, have you?

  6. "then where should our confidence lie?"

    John correct me if I've got this wrong but I think the answer is in a kind of post-modern modernistic spirituality.

  7. You got questions. I got answers:

    1) How can a 'de-mythologized Christianity' still be worthy of the name Christ?

    It looks like a question. It has a question mark, but it is a statement. Thanks for playing.

    If the Bible, the bodily resurrection, the mission of the church, and all these other hallmarks of orthodox Christianity are outmoded or useless or silly, why be a pastor in a Christian church?


    Gee, John. You've never been asked those questions before, have you?

    A day without that question is a day without sunshine.

    If we are undermining our confidence in Scripture, then where should our confidence lie?

    Now you are getting somewhere.

    Our own potential?



    Unlikely at least for me.

    Universal good-will?

    Not sure what that is, but if it works for you.

    John correct me if I've got this wrong but I think the answer is in a kind of post-modern modernistic spirituality.

    That is a question that looks like a statement. Same answer as above: not sure what that is, but if it works for you.

    Perhaps there is nothing of which we can be confident. As Cupitt says we are floating on a sea of faith.

    We are and one day we will not be.

    We can invent, inherit, and reforumulate God, doctrines, myths, and whatever and pretend they will navigate our lives (and if we are especially controlling) the lives of others.

    We also can have a conversation using down to earth language about what is important for our lives together.

  8. "...we are floating on a sea of faith."

    Seems to me, y'all, that the idea is that you can retain a sense of faith and still doubt what you've been taught the Scripture means. That you can ask questions of it, make demands of it, expect better of it, play with it, tease it, wrassle around on the floor with it, in other words "have that lover's quarrel" with it, and still find a reasonable faith, if that's what you need.

    The only way that would be a threat, as far as I can see, is if you have grown accustomed to using the Bible to hit others over the head when it is more convenient than thinking - or acting - on your own.

  9. Coming at this from a different angle, me being a bit of an academic and all...

    What I find truly amazing about the LayMAN letter and its ilk (we've seen this sort of thing many times before) is what it means for seminaries which are, I thought, supposed to be institutions of higher learning.

    Apparently the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales and scolds believe that, in addition to telling everyone else how to live their personal lives, they should also be the arbiters of all seminary syllabi. They're not interested in academic freedom, they're only interested in indoctrination. And of course, the indoctrination they support is, not surprisingly, only that propaganda that supports their own ideology.

    Once again I'm left to wonder why someone with such notions ever joined the Presbyterian church in the first place when they so clearly don't understand anything about being Presbyterian.

    If they were actually confident about their beliefs, wouldn't they be comfortable with an open discussion of all points of view, knowing that their views would win the day?

    Or is academic investigation yet another thing from which we must protect our fragile, doddering, old God? Like how they think we must protect Him from our scary naughty bits. Truly it is sad how delicate and decrepit the creator of the universe has become in his dotage, according to the BFTSs.

  10. In the personal process I've been following of commenting first on the Revised Common Lectionary, and now just working my way through Luke/Acts (intending to do Matthew next year -- I already did Mark), it has occurred to me that it's vital to know what those stories say, how they were told, and why.

    If they no longer speak to us, or if those stories no longer have meaning, and cannot be "reclaimed" for post-modern cosmology, then throw them out.

    I notice that criticism of liberals concerning the resurrection makes a distinction about "bodily" resurrection -- as though a resuscitated corpse was what we are to believe in, and that trusting in our own participation in Jesus's life work -- the Great Work of Distributive Justice-Compassion -- as the real meaning of "salvation" was somehow illegitimate, and could not be considered "Christian."

    Maybe "resurrection" cannot be reclaimed. Maybe "body of Christ" cannot be reclaimed. But there are some pretty talented theologians (Borg, Crossan, Fox) who are doing so, and I put myself in their company.

    But if eventually those pre-modern terms are not salvageable from the pre-modern cosmology in which fundamentalism traps them, then Christianity must indeed change completely. Because the pre-modern form will definitely die.

  11. And just to rant a bit, I tried to get published on CC Blogs all last year, but they continually screwed up everything I did, so that my work could not get noticed.

    "Faith" is the conviction that you make a difference in the face of no evidence.

  12. Alan said "Or is academic investigation yet another thing from which we must protect our fragile, doddering, old God? "

    Apparently so. Several years ago, Minnesota's chair of the State Dept. of Education, Cheri Pearson Yecki, tried to have the concept of inference removed from state curricula because of her concern that students might learn to question Scripture. Thankfully she was fired. Sadly, it seems the state of Florida didn't call for a reference, as she was the Chancellor of Education there until 2007. Now, she is dean of graduate programs for Harding University, a private liberal arts Christian university located in Arkansas. I'm sure she feels at home there.

  13. @Alan They're not interested in academic freedom, they're only interested in indoctrination.

    Even the president of my seminary who was evangelical and notoriously anti-gay championed academic freedom. He told us (and especially the BFTSs) on more than one occasion that we were a seminary not a Bible college.

    @Sea Good thoughts. Folks are at a different place along this journey. Having the discussion and giving ourselves and others permission to question and examine without having to "protect our fragile, doddering old God" is our task today.

  14. "We can invent, inherit, and reforumulate God, doctrines, myths, and whatever and pretend they will navigate our lives (and if we are especially controlling) the lives of others."

    What? Really? Is there no revelation? Who invented God?

    And as far as "throwing out" stories we cannot "reclaim," this is simply dishonest. There is much that "post-modern" cosmology cannot live with - which is why our lens should be the Bible and not postmodern cosmology.

    And Crossan and Borg are not theologians, they are historical-critical scholars of the Bible. Which is why their attempts at theology are terrible.

    Perhaps a better question for this gang: what is the church for? And as pastors and theologians, I hope you have a better answer than 'potlucks'.

  15. And as pastors and theologians, I hope you have a better answer than 'potlucks'.

    And what if we don't, Pastor Mack? Gonna send your big, bad god after us? Or are you just going to come over and crap on the carpet every now and then?

  16. Or are you just going to come over and crap on the carpet every now and then?

    That would put the Donkey out of work.

  17. Potlucks, it seems to me, is a perfectly fine answer, actually.

    Being in communion with others, sharing a meal is a key notion in both the OT & NT. And these are not just metaphors, but actual events that point to an intimacy between believers that makes the BFTSs deeply uncomfortable. Notice the condescending way "potlucks" is thrown out there as if the fellowship of believers isn't worth anything.

    At our potlucks, people always bring more than needed, so those who can't or didn't bring anything can share too. Also not a bad lesson to learn, and one that is eminently Biblical.

    Frankly, attending a church that is only some blow-hard preaching from the pulpit, without any of the spiritual enrichment that comes from such lowly things as "potlucks" may be fine for some. I guess I just see our experiences with each other to be far richer, and more complete than just what happens between 10 and 11AM on sunday mornings.

  18. A number of the parables of Jesus and the activities of Jesus centered on meals. The scandal of Jesus was that he ate with those whom the BFTSs disapproved.

    He practiced the open potluck.

  19. John

    You are right. I put it as a statement but it was a question. My bad. I wasn't so much trying to label you as to figure out where you are.


    Things usually go better with food. The best thing to do at presbytery (at least in a large one like Philly) is to sit down and eat with people you don't know. And a bit of 12 year single malt MacCallan is helpful too. I can't convince my session of the latter.

  20. Unfortunately, our Presbytery meetings, organized as they are by the mostly retired and/or ministerial types are often held at times when folks with typical jobs can't attend. But I go as when I can, and I certainly enjoy the meals as they're the most convivial time of the meetings, generally, and they seem to be the only part of the meetings most people enjoy.

    I've never quite figured out why we don't hold the meeting during the meal, but perhaps that would be mixing what we Presbyterians see as sacred (ie. meetings) with the profane act of enjoying food and each other's company.

    Or more likely, it would simply ruin the meal and then we'd have nothing at all to look forward to. :)

  21. Alan

    I serve on the committee of Philly Presby that plans meetings and worship for presbytery. I think our best presbytery meetings have been when we sat around circular tables and talked about stuff (not regular presbytery business). I remember one at which we talked about what we were proud about in our local congregations and what we would change if we could. Total confidentiality. It was great.

    A couple years ago we also instituted having the Lord's Supper at every presbytery meeting thinking that sharing the sacrament might calm people down some. I don't know if it was that, having great moderators, or what but people are more polite and listen to each other more now.

    Oh, and I originally joined the committee to try and get rid of people reading to the presbytery what we already had before us on paper. I haven't succeeded entirely but we've made some progress. Now if we could only get the people who tell us we should give more money to presbytery to use power point presentations with pictures of where the money goes I would be very happy.

  22. And we have tried to hold presbytery on Saturdays but the clergy grumble really loud. We do have presbytery in the evenings 2 x a year but it still means we only get retired folks most of the time. We even tried having it at the presbytery camp and attendance dropped by about 50%. But we did get a lot done . . .

  23. Our Presbytery meetings are in the evening, but they usually start very early. Given that it takes almost an hour to get to anywhere in Detroit from anywhere else in Detroit, it means that most people can only make the meeting and miss out on the fellowship/food ... which is why the meetings are annoying and no one knows each other, I think. (Though from everything I've heard, our meetings are far, far, far less contentious and are much more amicable and well-run than most.)

    Our committee meetings are just as bad. Back when I was on Presbytery PJC (imagine the number of BFTSs that just did a spit-take after reading that! Hi kids!!) people were actually confused and puzzled as to why I couldn't make a meeting at 2PM in the afternoon on a weekday. Heh.

    We had, as part of a Presbytery meeting last year, an hour of Bible study. It was part of discernment on last year's New B. It was, as far as I know, the only time we have, as a Presbytery, done that. In spite of the controversial topic, it was great and one of the few times I actually had a chance to talk to people I didn't know.

    But we only do that sort of thing when we have something to disagree about, I guess.

  24. Of course you have a great Stated Clerk too.

  25. Yeah, he keeps things running smoothly.

  26. Pagans can have potlucks. I know enough eucharistic theology to know the value of a meal, but without a reference to Christ it might as well be a Golden Corral in hell. I was looking for some evidence of Christian theology, maybe even a working ecclesiology. But seeing as how I just read a sermon on here with hardly a mention of Jesus, I think I've got it figured out. I knew the PCUSA was theologically left, but this is ridiculous. You've not only picked up modernity's ball and ran with it, you've taken it to the endzone, danced a jig, and spiked it. But you're all really snarky, so you have that going for you.

  27. You know, pastormack, it is really OK. Folks can choose whatever potluck they wish to attend.

    Your menu is pretty common around these parts. Folks can go there and I am happy they are fed.

    On the other hand, the "Golden Corral in Hell" offers up some tasty alternatives for the adventurous.

    Take your pick!

  28. "But you're all really snarky, so you have that going for you."

    Pot, meet kettle. Boy this guy must have quite the "pastoral" relationship with his flock. One can only imagine the conversations this "pastor" must be part of. Is there a chapter on being an ass in CPE? If so, clearly I think we can be sure pastormack aced that test!

    "But seeing as how I just read a sermon on here with hardly a mention of Jesus, "

    Sorry, pastormack, but your superstition doesn't qualify as evidence of Christian theology either. If a particular sermon doesn't use your list of magic words, then what? Do you have a magic number of times Jesus must be mentioned in a sermon? That must be a Methodist thing I'm not familiar with.

    But you can have your "hocus pocus". I'd rather have a grown-up spirituality that doesn't depend on majik phrases to insure salvation.

    That would be "pagan", kitten. ;)

  29. You know, being a religous liberal (of sorts) I say, "Whatever helps you keep your kyak upright as you navigate this Sea of Life is fine with me. As long as you don't harm others in the process." But hey, that's just my opinion, man...

    Now, as we make our way through this life, across this sea of infinite mystery, we have and do encounter folks who have formed a flotilla of sorts. Think of it as a Holy Ghost Ship if you want to (or not if you don't). Generations have come and gone without straying from the perceived safety that this grouping might seem to provide. Some of us, however, are compelled by forces which we may not profess to entirely understand to 'jump ship'.

    It's kind of nice to encounter others who have abandoned orthodoxy. I think most of would acknowledge that we do so at our own peril, but I can really speak only for myself. At any rate, following my own conscience as truly as I am able, I find that I am unable to abide what I perceive as primitive and untrue doctrines that I think Pastor Mack maintains.

    Again though, that's just my opinion, man...

  30. @Steve

    From an enjoyable book. Daniel Ladinsky translates (loosely) Sufi Mystic, Hafiz:

    The great religions are ships,
    Poets the life boats.
    Every sane person I know
    Has jumped overboard!
    That is good for business,
    Isn’t it,

  31. @Steve

    I should also add that I like Alan's orthodoxy. It is the ones who constantly claim to be so that make sane persons jump overboard.

  32. "Alan's orthodoxy"

    Heh. That would be (at least) the second phrase in this comment thread to make the BFTSs do a spit take. :)

  33. It always surprises Alan but I like his orthodoxy too. Of course he did go to Calvin College.

  34. Depends who uses the word. In the mouths of the BFTSs it represents superstition at best and malevolent action at worst.

    Heard Marcus Borg last week at a local college. He said he was orthodox. Like me, he doesn't give a hoot about it but will claim the label when he can if nothing more than to show that the claptrap of the busybodies is anything but orthodoxy.

  35. Well, these days orthodox is as much of a dirty word as Christian, unfortunately. And that's the result of those in churches who claim to be orthodox, but aren't, and claim to be Christian, but don't act like it.

    But, I do find it fun to poke at the "orthodox" and "classical" busybodies, fusspots, tattletales and scolds out there in blogland, puffing themselves up with phony piety, whose views of salvation are Pelagian at best; whose views of ordination are classical ... classically Catholic, that is; whose views of Presbyterian polity are simply popery dressed up as a committee or a confession; whose "traditional" theology is no more than 90 years old at best and it lost then too; who have no belief in the authority of Scripture, only the authority of their own reading of it; who believe that going out therefore and making disciples of all nations is best done by following Gladys Kravitz instead of Jesus Christ; who believe that our God is a feeble God who needs their almighty protection from the dirty queers; and who believe that anyone who disagrees with even one molecule of any of that is not only not orthodox, but should be fitted for a millstone and drowned.

  36. Yeah, well, ok, I'm kinda orthodox myself, really.

    My dentist buddy fixed me up with some braces on my lower front teeth after he pulled the 'one too many' that had overcrowded the beauty of my smile for about forty five years, uh

    ...or am I still confused?

  37. Alan

    You forgot to mention that some are Donatists.