Shuck and Jive

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me)

I received a special issue of Presbyterians Today in the mail. The cover says, "What Presbyterians Believe."

Charles Wiley, the coordinator of the PC(USA) office of theology and worship, wrote the first article, "Reclaiming the Trinity." The subheading reads:

The Trinity is not an optional 'extra' to God; it is the very nature of God as revealed to us in Scripture.
In the article he writes:
We haven't rejected the Trinity outright; we simply do not seem to need it anymore. If we can express our faith using only "God," we have become functional Unitarians.
He is not happy about that. He wants us to "reclaim the Trinity."

I like Charles Wiley. I have met him. He is a great guy. I wish I had half his intellect. I would love to spend hours hashing this stuff out with him. I also appreciate the magazine,
Presbyterians Today.

But I disagree that we need to reclaim the Trinity except as one metaphor among many.
If it is true that we Presbys have become "functional Unitarians" it may not be because we are bad or wrong. It could be because the Unitarians are more persuasive. (Many of the Unitarians I know have moved beyond "God" altogether).

I do not mean this as an insult, but I find much of our modern theological work little more than dealing in antiquities. The Trinity, the person of Christ, the sacraments, the authority of the Bible, eschatology, and so forth were invented in the pre-modern era and are best suited for that time period.

This does not mean that we are smarter or more hip than the people who invented these ideas. We simply have changed. Trying to retrofit our belief systems to a modern understanding of the Universe, Earth, and Earth's inhabitants turns theologians and pastors into pawn brokers for ancient religious relics that fewer and fewer people embrace.

If folks aren't interested in the Trinity and have become functional Unitarians, it could be because they have moved. Rather than make people feel bad, theologically inept, or heretical--"You are not Presbyterian unless you believe all of this stuff"--maybe we should listen to what people are really saying.

While I find the Trinity to be poetic and artsy, I have a hard time finding any reality to it. The only reason I am forced to care about it is because of the power issues regarding ordination. We require modern people to affirm anachronistic "vows" thus forcing them to take great liberties in their interpretation.

We could make another decision. We could change. We could change our theology and not try to make old concepts fit new realities. We could decide and say clearly that the creeds, doctrines, and confessions tell us where we
were (and some of us still may be), but now we are on the move.

The issues that plagued folks in the 4th, 16th, and 17th centuries are not ours. We have different issues. We honor and learn from our past but we are not beholden to its ideas.

In response to "What Presbyterians Believe" (except me), here are a few things I think about.

I title the following "What
This Presbyterian Believes."
I believe...
  1. in evolutionary theory. This obviously includes human beings. Evolution and science in general have had major implications regarding theology that we mostly ignore or in our worse moments deny.
  2. in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible like all other books are human products (what else could they be?) and should be read as such as opposed to special revelation from a divine being.
  3. that all religion is a human construct. Its primary purpose has been and should be an attempt to find and evoke meaning amidst life's contingencies as opposed to speculation regarding supernaturalism.
  4. that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
  5. that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another.
  6. that there is no "end" in human time. Earth is four billion years old. Earth was here long before human beings. Earth will spin on its axis and revolve around the sun long, long after the last human being has breathed her last. We will have to find meaning and our "eschaton" in this life.
  7. that Jesus may have been historical but most of the stories about him in the Bible and elsewhere are legends. But he's cool. He serves as a human ideal and a focal point for devotion (like an ishta deva).
  8. that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality.
Those are some of the things that I think about. Again, I don't insist and I could change many of my ideas tomorrow. That is where I find myself in the present. I guarantee you, I am not alone. I do think it would be in our denomination's interest to step out of our doctrinal boxes and face squarely these changes.


  1. I agree with you, John. Most of the problems I have with the Church and the way it practices Christianity can be answered by your manifesto. Not all but most. It is unfortunate that the more the Christian Fundamentalists see their authority slipping away the more they sow hatred, fear and all of the myriad of negative things which are so opposed to the Christ Spirit as I understand it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. There is no area of human knowledge or activity that I know of, in which what was believed in 1640 AD or 400 AD or 100 AD is considered to be the last word on the subject. We _Learn New Things_. But in religion the clock is stopped. This is what frustrates me about the mainline church -- functionally they are moving in new progressive directions, but in the theological lip service, they have to pretend the clock is stopped. Ending the disconnect would be more satisfying for everyone.

  3. Thanks Jay! I hope it doesn't get too ugly before it gets better...

    @Michael Theological lip service is an apt phrase. We are going there, but not saying we are are.

  4. This atheist believes you have more in common with my tribe than with your own. :-)

  5. Thank you! This Presbyterian agrees with you.

  6. "maybe we should listen to what people are really saying."

    Indeed. Isn't that part of what makes us Presbyterians? Moving of the Spirit through our community and all?

  7. This Unitarian Universalist Christian who counts progressive Presbyterians very close to my heart applauds...I especially like Michael_SC's comment: "There is no area of human knowledge or activity that I know of, in which what was believed in 1640 AD or 400 AD or 100 AD is considered to be the last word on the subject." Amen...

  8. Hey Dad, thanks!

    And yes, Amen,indeed.

  9. I think your ideas come very much from the end of the modernist era. As we move out of the industrial era I personally think that we will need a new attitude towards those things defined as religious that go beyond both realism and non-realism insomuch as the truth of either should be of no account.

  10. @MP You have a huge point, there. As Industrial Civilization collapses we will be in for some intense spiritual shakeups. I wonder where people will locate meaning and what structures will exist to mediate it. I can envision two general streams.

    One that moves toward a pre-modern understanding with meaning, eternal life, etc. outside of this life. This will certainly have a powerful pull. "This life really sucks, so glad this world is not my home."

    The other toward a more pagan Earth-focused understanding where meaning is located within this life. "Life sucks. But it is what it is. We will make do and find our bliss amidst the natural rhythms of Earth."

    I am in the second stream. I only hope when times get tough that I don't wimp out and try to jump over to the first from fear.

  11. But why the dichotomy? Surely that is still talking in late modernist terms. My hope is for a universalism based on what we don't know. Where there is equal doubt there is equal validity.

  12. Equal doubt is good. If I speak in modernist terms then that is because it is the world we inhabit.

  13. Hi. As a UK Anglican I identify with much of what you say and wanted to applaud and say hello.
    At the same time i do hear something of what MadPriest is saying. - But most of the church around me is still stuck at somewhere pre-modern.

  14. @MadPriest - what you say seems to resonate with what might be described as the "apophatic" strand of religious thinking, which has emerged from time to time in Christian theology, (and I include both ancient and more recent apophatic thinkers). This strand of thinking has been much valued by some, but has never become mainstream.
    Would you recognise this comparison? If so, do you think this way of thinking is any more likely to become mainstream in the future - or will many people continue to need something more "concrete" to hang on to?

  15. Yes, insomuch as I accept that, at this moment in time, god(s) cannot be an object for us and therefore we can only define god(s) subjectively. The subjective is always uniquely personal so the definitions of god(s) is as myriad as the number of people believing in god(s). Logic dictates that this means, at the most, just one person has the true definition and even that is incredibly unlikely.

    However, I do not think that this necessarily creates a dichotomy between concrete and vague or leads to a necessary syncretism. My belief in the Christian God is boringly orthodox and realist (concrete). I am content with my present definition of God. However, at the same time, I must accept that I am most probably wrong in my definition of God to some degree and this means I must be evangelically humble when in conversation with people of people with different beliefs or non-belief, who are everybody else in the world.

    I would emphasise that I am only concerned here with the definition of what god(s) is. The things we deduce from our individual definitions of god(s), ethics, morality, ecclesiology etc., are, in my opinion, the product of human reasoning and invention and so open to human discussion with as much or as little humility as one's personal rules of life allow.

  16. Kudos, John, you heretic! I read the issue last night and saw that every writer justified historical tradition and did so by calling on scripture. This led to proof-texting. Further, where these writers call on scripture, they assume that all scripture says the same thing and can be harmonized. The church that seeks to tighten the reins (reigns?) on doctrinal belief will die. There are no self authenticating truths any more.

  17. Thanks all for the very wise comments. I do agree with the humble part. My direct and short statements likely come across as certainty. I am not certain, but I don't want to hedge either on what I think I mean to say. There is much more to say as well. I don't think anyone should ever feel bashful about saying what they really think. That is way we are honest and can move ahead.

    As we move away from realism to non-realism from the less threatening "Were Adam and Eve real?" to the money question "Is God real?" we find folks taking their stands at different points.

    For instance, some might say, "All else may be metaphor, but I stand on the resurrection of Jesus being real."

    Others might say, "All else may be metaphor (including Jesus' resurrection) but my consciousness survives my death and there is an afterlife."

    Many people have a point where they are not willing (yet--or never) to pass.

    In a sense we are all a combination of realist and non-realist. At different points we stake our claim.

    Personally, I tend to think that religious language more likely than not does not have a real thing to which it points but does have a real feeling or need reflected. That may be the subjective that MP is talking about. Some may express that subjective sense in orthodox language (as I think MP, you are saying you do).

  18. How timely. I just realized that this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. How a non-realist deals with the Trinity. Film at eleven.

  19. The story of Adam and Eve is beyond doubt, except for the narrative in which it is placed. Sometime in the history of humans (or maybe before that) one of our ancestors had the first thought that could be regarded as philosophical rather than instinctive, and somewhere in our history one person realised that he or she was going to die. I delight in both narrative and science and believe that my life as a thinker would be rendered miserable if I was to have to decide which is real and which isn't. So I don't. This is a wilful decision on my part as is my religion. And it is the will that gives us worth above a lump of rock or a cog in the theist's watch. Without will there is no morality as morality has to come out of choice.

    So, no, John. I don't believe in a feeling. I believe in an object. But I can't observe the object which I believe in so my claims about it must be subjective and such claims cannot demand adherence from anybody else. But I can talk if people want to listen and the language I use in those situations is realistic and not metaphoric from my point of view. How the listeners regard it is up to them.

    My criticism of your philosophy, John, is that it seems to demand adherence.

  20. Oddly enough, it is not my philosophy that demands adherence. I will be taking no one to heresy court. In our glorious history the demanding of adherence has come from the other direction. People are free to accept or reject anything I have to say and make up their own minds as do you.

  21. No. You do not demand adherence. Your philosophy, of itself, does, because it is a scientific philosophy. You can only say "I know" or "I don't know." You cannot say "I might know."

  22. You are twisting things around. The church has been realist-oriented throughout the centuries. That philosophy has demanded adherence. The very fact that my posts raise eyebrows is testimony to that.

    The realist philosophy demands that if you are not realist you are not really on the team. Some realists may be nicer than others and tolerate the non-realists, but the very presence of non-realists as a legitimate point of view threatens the very notion of realism.

    If a non-realist says (and receives no condemnation for saying it) that the resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor then that that destroys the realist structure.

    Why are our church denominations dividing? In part, it is because the realists cannot abide the non-realists in their midst.

    BTW, your interpretation of Adam and Eve is very non-realist.

  23. Heck, it's not my church anymore, so I can't be included in the way it looks at things. I'm just putting forward my own views on stuff which I can do now. I don't think I've claimed anywhere that I speak on behalf on anybody else. That, surely is the whole point of what I've been saying.

    I am both a realist and a non-realist, whatever suits. But usually I don't even pay any heed to the differences as that would be so modern and modernity and its certainties have done more damage to the world than the devil and all his minions ever achieved.

  24. "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Now where's the reception being held?"

  25. ...modernity and its certainties have done more damage to the world than the devil and all his minions ever achieved.

    Especially since the devil and his minions aren't real.

  26. John!!!
    Surely non-realism hasn't made you non-humourous.

  27. I thought what I wrote was pretty funny. Good thing I entered ministry and not comedy. : )

  28. No, I deliberately said "devil and all his minions" as a knowing joke between the two of us. You know, it's easier working with Grandmère Mimi.

  29. If none of this is anything more than a metaphor, why should I bother with religion? Why not just stay home and save my money and time and effort?
    You're wasting your time on something that even you don't believe in. Why do you try to get other people involved in this nonsense?

  30. No reason to bother with religion at all Nixon, or for even reading a religious blog for that matter.

    If folks don't like my philosophy or my blog or my church, then what might possibly be an answer to such a conundrum?

    Can anyone imagine a possible solution to that problem?

  31. Way back to @Red Reverend,

    It does all come down to proof-texting. Meanwhile our little box of meaning with its Trinity and creeds gets smaller as the world outside of it gets larger.

  32. I myself am a Unitarian Universalist and the list of your beliefs couldn't match more to mine, even had I written them myself.

  33. RE: The other toward a more pagan Earth-focused understanding where meaning is located within this life. "Life sucks. But it is what it is. We will make do and find our bliss amidst the natural rhythms of Earth."


    Not all of paganism (which isn't even "a" religion, but more like a "category" of paths) can be defined as "Earth centered." Many pagans are more focused on clan, ancestors, culture, the Gods/Holy Powers, etc.

  34. John, this was a delight to read. I identify as a "Christian Atheist", and your explanation of your worldview was music to my ears. Even though I am philosophically convinced that no supernatural beings exist, I think that "God" can be a powerful story, a life-changing parable, a name that I give to my religious experiences, and a personified metaphor for the beauty of the universe. Keep up the good work! Kurious Iesous.