B. A. Gerrish’s “Saving and Secular Faith”

The concept of faith is obviously of great importance in Christianity, but there’s not necessarily agreement on what it means. Faith has been defined as intellectual assent to certain propositions (such as those taught by the church or contained in the Bible). But it has also been interpreted in a more “existential” sense as “trust.”

In Saving and Secular Faith, his short “invitation” to theology, Reformed theologian Brian Gerrish tries to steer a middle course. He rejects views of faith that define it as simply assent to a set of revealed truths, but he also maintains that faith must have some cognitive content. As a working definition, he ends up adopting John Calvin’s account of “saving” faith as “steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God.” He later elaborates on this, saying that it “is both (1) perceiving one’s experience under the image of divine benevolence (fides) and (2) a consequent living of one’s life out of an attitude of confidence or trust (fiducia).” For Christians, this gift of faith is given through Christ–specifically through the impact of the narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

For Gerrish, Christian faith is a particular instance of faith defined in a more generic way: the perception of meaning and purpose in one’s life through commitment to an object of ultimate loyalty in which one finds security (p. 33).  Faith is a “construal” or a “construction” of the meaning of reality: our experience is interpreted through a particular lens. (Calvin compared revelation to a corrective lens that allows us to see reality more truly.) This doesn’t mean that the faith one adopts is arbitrary, but there is an irreducible element of subjectivity. Our construal of reality is one that we typically absorb from our community, such as a religious community.

Gerrish argues not only that Christian faith shares resemblances with other types of faith (somewhat awkwardly, he refers to these, religious and non-religious alike, as “secular” faith), but that virtually every approach to reality requires what he calls “elemental” faith. At a minimum, he says, nearly everyone, even a hard-bitten scientific naturalist, assumes that the world exists independently of our minds and that it displays a certain order and regularity. Similarly, when push comes to shove, almost all of us recognize a moral order–duties that we have whether we like it or not. There is a sense in which we are–all of us–practically committed to things we can’t prove.

He goes on to defend creeds and confessions as tools, not for persecuting heretics, but for establishing and maintaining the identity of a community and its construal of reality. But he is equally insistent–in good Protestant fashion–that these must be open to revision. Gerrish also considers, briefly, how religious pluralism and the quest for the historical Jesus affect Christianity’s confession of Jesus as Savior. In short, “saving faith” as Gerrish has defined it does not exclude the possibility that such faith can be mediated through traditions other than Christianity. Nor is it dependent on the results of the latest historical research. What has historically mediated this faith is the “image” of Jesus contained in the New Testament and passed down through the ages by the church, and this is not falsifiable by historical research.

I have some reservations about Gerrish’s argument. In particular, I think his understanding of faith would have been more persuasive if he’d demonstrated more concretely how it would apply to non-Christian traditions. And I’m less comfortable than he seems to be with historical agnosticism about Jesus. But I still found it a winsome approach to theology and faith standing within the venerable liberal Protestant tradition exemplified by Schleiermacher: that is, one that is open to modern thought and experience but which takes Christian uniqueness and tradition seriously. (This is not terribly surprising, since Gerrish has studied Schleiermacher and wrote a very illuminating study of his theology.)

Modern science, classical theism (3)

One of the impulses motivating “revisionist” views of the divine nature (process theology, et al.) is not only that they can seem more consonant with modern science, but that they provide a more intimate and relational view of God. Many theologians have argued, in fact, that seeing God in responsive, relational terms such as those offered by process theology is truer to the biblical portrait of God. This view has widespread currency in recent theology. Even theologians with important differences from process theology have accepted that God is in some respects changeable and affected by what happens in the world. These included feminist, liberation, and other “contextual” theologians as well as “neo-trinitarian” thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson. Such thinkers tend to emphasize the differences between the biblical God and the Greek-inspired God of classical theism.

In light of this, Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod (see previous posts here and here) ask “Can a transcendent God be a personal God?” That is, can a God who exists “outside” of time and space and who brings the entire history of creation into being through one timeless divine act also be related to individual human beings in a personal and responsive way?

C&O think the answer is yes:

[C]lassical theism presents us with a God who is infinitely responsive, who has responded so fully and so completely in the one divine act of creation that no further response is possible or needed[.] In the one infinite act of creation, past, present, and future for us , God responds to all our prayers and petitions, answers all our needs, all guided by an infinite divine loving wisdom and wise loving. . . . And while God’s response to us is itself eternal and unchanging, it unfolds for us in the fullness of time. Thus God responds to this prayer in our here and now. And if we do not pray, God does not so respond. Prayer is meaningful, it does change the situation, and God does act in response to our prayers. But this does not amount to some intervention along the lines of stirring an inactive God into action, but is part of the one creative act of God who brings into existence everything that is. (p. 128)

God has, in effect, “already” taken into account every action, intention, prayer, and desire in the history of the universe and responded accordingly in the single, eternal creative act.

But even on this view, there seems to be an aspect of God that is contingent, namely God’s perfect response to the world. For if God had chosen to actualize a different world from among the (presumably) many possible ones, then to the extent that the choices, prayers,etc. of the people in that world were different from ours, God’s response would have to have been different. This seems to imply that God is not wholly unchangeable, at least on the assumption that God’s actualization of other worlds than this one was a genuine possibility.

Maybe C&O would respond that God is nevertheless not dependent on creation because it is God who chooses which possible world to make actual. This certainly distinguishes their position from those forms of process theology that deny creation ex nihilo and appear to give creation an independent ontological status. I agree with C&O in rejecting such a view. But I’m less certain how much daylight there is between their position and the more moderate “dipolar” theism espoused by someone like Christopher Southgate or Keith Ward. Both Southgate and Ward affirm creation ex nihilo and thus God’s ontological ultimacy; but both also argue that there is an aspect of God that is involved in and affected by what happens in the world.

It’s not clear to me that C&O couldn’t accept the modified dipolar theism of Southgate and Ward while still upholding their other positions. In fact, both Southgate and Ward make arguments similar to theirs in relating theism to modern science. Alternatively, C&O could bite the bullet and say that the actual world is the only possible world. God’s creative act would give rise to this world out of necessity, rather than from God’s free choice. This seems to be essentially the view of Schleiermacher, whose views C&O’s arguments echo at several points. While this would salvage divine impassibility, it would seem to mean giving up on genuine contingency in the world. If this is right, it raises the question of whether “classical theism” is as stable a construct as it seems.

These questions aside, I don’t want to suggest that Creator God, Evolving World is a bad book by any means. I found it incredibly stimulating (as these posts might suggest!) and also found a lot to agree with. Plus, at a time when “classical theism” has become something of a bogeyman, it’s refreshing to see it defended and brought into conversation with contemporary issues.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

On “exemplarist” theories of the Atonement

In a post at “Jesus Creed,” John Frye criticizes–in the form of, er, a poem–“Abelard’s Moral-Influence theory [of the Atonement] (via Schleiermacher),” which he claims is making a resurgence (I’m not sure among whom). The gist of the poem is that this theory reduces Jesus to a “poster boy,” an example to follow and that this falls short of the transformation we need. “We need an Invader, not an example.”

The problem here is that Jesus as “an example to follow” doesn’t accurately describe the Atonement theories of Abelard or Schleiermacher–or “exemplarist” theories generally.

In Abelard’s most frequently quoted passage on the Atonement (which comes from his commentary on Romans), he writes:

It, however, seems to us that we have been justified in Christ’s blood and reconciled with God in this: God has bound us more to God through love by this unique grace held out to us – that God’s own Son has taken on our nature and in that nature persisted unto death in instructing us through word as well as example – so that the true love of anyone kindled by so great a gift of divine grace would no longer shrink from enduring anything for the sake of God.

Abelard’s point here seems to be that the Son has taken our nature and shared our lot in life, teaching and instructing us, even unto death, and this gift kindles in our hearts a love for God. In other words, we love God because he first loved us. Jesus here is far more than an example to follow, but is the incarnation of God’s love in our world, which calls forth a loving response from us.

Some scholars, like Thomas Williams, have argued that this only represents one pole of Abelard’s thought, and that he also affirmed something like penal substitution. Whether or not that’s the case, though, it’s clear that Abelard thinks of Jesus as much more than an example of virtue for us to copy. As the baptist theologian Paul Fiddes puts it in his defense of a broadly “Abelardian” Atonement theory, for Abelard, “the love of God is. . . poured out from the event of Christ” (Past Event and Present Salvation, p. 155) and the Christ event results in “an infusing of love into the human heart” (p. 198).

Schleiermacher might more plausibly be read as holding to the “Jesus as example” theory. But even he sees our relation to Christ in much more intimate terms than that. Salvation, for Schleiermacher, consists in entering into a “living fellowship” with Christ so that we might share his perfect “God-consciousness.” This is much more akin to a mystical union than a relationship of imitation.

More recent examples of “exemplarist” theories also emphasize that it is the love of God manifested in Christ that saves us–not our following of Christ’s example. For instance, the British theologian-philosopher Brian Hebbllethwaite defends a broadly exemplarist view of the Atonement in his essay “Does the doctrine of the atonement make moral sense?” He characterizes this view as

exemplarist, not just in the sense that the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ sets us an example to follow, but much more in the sense that the nature of God’s costly forgiving love is exemplified in the life, passion and death of God incarnate. (in Ethics and Religion in a Pluralistic Age, p. 80)

The death of Jesus, for Hebblethwaite (as for Schleiermacher and perhaps for Abelard), is not a condition that has to be met for God to extend forgiveness to us; rather, God’s forgiving love is “manifested and enacted in Christ’s passion and death.” The passion shows that God’s forgiveness is costly, but God did not require the death of his Son as a kind of payment in order to be able to forgive.

Hebblethwaite goes on to argue that the Atonement has two aspects, relating to what have traditionally been called “justification” and “sanctification.” These two elements–relating to the forgiveness of our sin and our transformation into the likeness of Christ–are what constitute our reconciliation, or at-one-ment, with God:

In other words, justification and sanctification–the two elements of atonement–are best understood in terms of God’s free forgiveness and the effective transformation of sinners, the moral seriousness of the former being shown in the whole story of the Incarnation, including the passion and way of the cross, and the moral seriousness of the latter consisting in the fact that conformation to Christ is no easy, automatic transformation but a winning of our penitence and commitment by that incarnate love and an inspiration from within by the Spirit of that same Christ enabling us to become more Christlike in the Christian fellowship and eventually in the communion of saints. This may be regarded as objective a theory of atonement as we can hope for. (pp. 82-3)

My point here isn’t that this is necessarily the correct account of the Atonement (though I have a lot of sympathy for it). It’s that many criticisms of “subjective” or “exemplarist” Atonement theories rest on a strawman version of what their proponents are saying. For Abelard, Schleiermacher, and Hebblethwaite, there’s much more to the Atonement than a good example for us to follow.

Models of God and the Christian life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.

As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.

Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.

The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)

As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.

But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?

Reading highlights of 2012

This was the year I finally got into Civil War history. My reading of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, mentioned in the last post, was a follow up to reading Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery earlier this year. I really enjoyed Foner’s book, but felt that I lacked an understanding of the broader context of the war, which led me to McPherson’s book. Now I’m looking forward to moving on to James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, a copy of which I received as a Christmas gift.

On the theology front, Friedrich Schleiermacher loomed large this year. I read his systematic theology, The Christian Faith, and it has had a significant effect on how I think about theological questions. I supplemented it with Terrence Tice‘s and B.A. Gerrish‘s introductions to Schleiermacher–the latter was particularly helpful. Currently I’m working through F.S.’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

I’ve also been revisiting the work of Paul Tillich. I read a lot of Tillich in college, but hadn’t paid him much attention in years. This year I read two collections of his sermons–The Shaking of the Foundations and The New Being. Right now I’m just over halfway through his History of Christian Thought, and I have The Courage to Be and Theology of Culture on deck. I’ve discovered that I still find Tillich’s approach to theology helpful, even if I may not agree with all his specific conclusions.

Fiction-wise, the high point of my year was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Great Expectations (which I read late last year) was my first foray into Dickens, but Copperfield edges it out in my estimation. While Expectations is more tightly plotted, Dickens’ famous knack for generating larger-than-life characters is on fuller display in Copperfield. I’m thinking about finally tackling Tolstoy in 2013–possibly Anna Karenina.

What were your favorite books this year?

Thinking about the nature of religion with Schleiermacher

Although I don’t agree with Schleiermacher on everything, I do think his overall approach to religion is a fruitful one. To get clear on what this is, it’s helpful to think of his position as occupying a middle ground between two unpalatable extremes. On the one hand, it’s possible to think of religion as a purely theoretical undertaking: “God” is a hypothesis that is purported to explain various features of the world or human experience, or is the conclusion of an abstract argument. On the other hand, it can be thought of as a purely practical endeavor whose purpose is to guide human life but which makes no truth-claims or ontological commitments. (Such “non-cognitivist” views of religion were popular during the heyday of logical positivism in the early 20th century.)

Schleiermacher rejects both these extremes. In insisting that the essence of religion is a “sense and taste for the Infiinte” (in his speeches on religion) or a “feeling of absolute dependence” (in The Christian Faith), he’s clearly at odds with a purely theoretical understanding of religion. He allows that “speculative” theology may be a valid enterprise, but it’s distinct from dogmatic theology. Christian theology is a reflection on religious experience, particularly the experience of redemption in Jesus. But contrary to how he’s sometimes interpreted, Schleiermacher is also not an non-cognitivist–that is, religious language has more than just a pragmatic purpose. Religious experience has an implicit referent–the Infinite, or God–and the propositions of theology are reflections on the nature of that reality to the extent that it’s disclosed in experience. The propositions of dogmatic theology set out what the experience of redemption in Christ implies about God, the world, and humanity.

So for Schleiermacher, the goal of religion is to evoke and strengthen the experience of redemption. But this experience is rooted in a Reality that transcends the finite, created world–and this Reality is the object of religious devotion. Unlike “pure” philosophy or science, the goal of religion is not disinterested theoretical understanding of the world, but it does bring us into contact with a reality that exists independently of us. Theology describes this reality insofar as it is discernible by its effects on us, particularly in being the source of our redemption. Religion is a practical, existential undertaking, but it also makes claims about the nature of the world.

There are a couple of things to be said for this broad view. First, it seems to me to home in on what most religious traditions consider to be the essence of religious life: namely, redemption, or salvation, or liberation. That is, religion is neither purely theoretical nor purely practical but is fundamentally about bringing human beings into a correct orientation toward an independently existing ultimate reality (or a right relationship with God, to put it in more explicitly Christian terms). This captures both the subjective and objective aspects, or poles, that seem essential to religion.

Second, a broadly “Schleiermacherian” account of religion can potentially make sense of religious pluralism: the experience of redemption/salvation/liberation never occurs “neat,” but is always conditioned by its social and historical context. Thus, theological reflection will be conditioned by these historical and cultural factors, resulting in a legitimate (and possibly unavoidable) epistemic pluralism. (Schleiermacher himself, it should be noted, clearly thought Christianity was the “highest” religion, but at the same time he was clear that this judgment was made from within a commitment to the Christian community.)

Finally, this view helps explain why our theology needs to be open to re-thinking and revision. Since it constitutes reflection on the experience of redemption, theology itself shouldn’t be considered “revealed” or infallible. It has to be tested and refined in light of ongoing experience and new knowledge about the world (e.g., scientific discoveries), while remaining faithful to its original source. (The Christian Faith itself is a model of this approach, even if, like me, you sometimes disagree with Schleiermacher’s particular conclusions.)