This weekend I will finish reading two books that we were given through the podcast (thank you publishers). The first is Peter Rollins new on The Idolatry of God and the second is Phil Snider’s Preaching After God.
I have recently edited podcasts with both of these authors. [We put out the Phil Snider TNT last week ]
It is very clear to me that we have an emerging situation (trying not to say problem) on our hands. With the introduction of a new wave of postmodern or ‘radical’ theology [listen to the Caputo introduction here] – progressive and emergent christians are drinking in lots of innovative and challenging concepts about God that may not have a real God behind them.
This is fine IF the listener/reader knows what they are imbibing. What is increasingly concerning for Tripp and me is the consequence when people don’t know that the god of the 21st century philosophers is not exactly the god you hear about on Sunday morning.
Is there a danger in people reading a ‘how (not) to speak of god’ and then just quoting it from the pulpit like they would quote any other historical person? Folks in the deconstruction camp are not real eager to answer this one.
I have some thoughts on the matter so I thought I would throw them out here for consideration.
Intro: It is severely unhelpful to frame this in an either/or way. “Either God is X like the Bible/Creed/Tradition say OR Religion is the equivalent of Santa Clause &Tooth Fairy and we might as well all go home.”
That reductive approach is foolish and silly. There is far too much going on in religion – and the Christian religion specifically – to say things like that.*
I propose that there are – at least – 5 things happening IN the christian religion:
- Potentially Something Real
Experience – People who were not raised in the faith convert and/or have crisis experiences that powerfully impact them. People experience the presences of something they interpret as bigger than themselves.
We can talk about transcendence or phenomenology but what we can not deny is that people experience something in religion. As someone from a charismatic-evangelical background it is so clear to me that much of our talk about God and religion in progressive-emergent circles misses this very real component.
Is experience the whole story? NO! And those who reduce it down to that are equally as errant. It is not the main thing nor is it nothing. It does not account for everything but neither can it be dismissed outright. People’s experience must factor into the equation.
At minimum do the Kantian thing and say that religious people’s experience is real but incomplete to understand the whole picture (noumenon) – like 6 blind people with their hands on different parts of the elephant – each thinking they are describing something unique: a tree (leg) a rope (tail) a wall (belly) and a giant leaf (ear) and an enormous snake (trunk).
Formation – I get in trouble for liking the post-liberal writing of George Lindbeck (Nature of Doctrine) but I think that this is exactly where it comes into play. The role that the christian tradition, sacred text and vocabulary plays is that forms us a people. It forms character within us as well as the way that we participate in community.
I am in dialogue with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) for this very reason. While I disagree with his solution, I think that he is spot-on in his analysis and concern. Not only does our culture live in a chaotic time – but the very ethical assumption that would allow us to even HAVE the conversation have been eroded and now we can’t even debate! At least within the Christian church there is a common vocabulary. We may debate the definition of the terms but we have an arena in which to engage each other.
In this sense, the faith functions. As Elizabeth Johnson (She Who Is) is so good at pointing out: the words that we use function in our imagination, our communities and in the tradition.
Event – John Caputo (Weakness of God) and those who follow his Derridean ways prefer to speak of the name of God as an event. There is an event housed in the name of God the beckons us – we respond to this call … and are not that concerned wether there is a caller, or if we can know that there is one.
It is undeniable that something happens when God’s name is invoked. It triggers something in us. It calls for something from us. It makes some claim or demand to be dealt with differently than other words and concepts.
I like Caputo’s illumination of this shadow world. There is something deeply insightful about his explorations. Those who want to dismiss it because it isn’t enough on it’s own, are missing the point. Something happens if ‘God’ is invoked … and that would happen even if there were no ‘God’ per se because (as I said above) the concept functions. – it does something in us,
Voltaire said,”If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” That is because ‘god’ does something in us – demands something from us. It maybe not ripping off our customers, it may get us through a tough time or help us to sleep at night – or even face the end of life with dignity. But in the name of God is an event that lays hold of us.
Mystery – I am fascinated with the apophatic tradition. I have no interest is appropriating it … but I am mesmerized by the fact that it even exists. Describing god by what she is not? Brilliant.
I also have been looking in historic understandings of analogy. Which works for me because I do not believe in univocal speech. When we call god ‘father’ we are using an analogy – god is like our best conception of father-liness … but it saying that is also included an understanding that God is not actually a father. Our use of the word is not a 1:1 equivalence.
Elizabeth Johnson challenged us over a year ago that every time we say ‘god’ that we must say it three times. I do this every day now!
- God beyond us. This is that transcendent other or Kant’s noumenal real.
- God within us. This is the experiential component.
- God at work all around us. This could be the event.
When I say ‘god’ I always say God beyond me – within me – and at work all around me.
Potentially Something Real – the final component in my 5 sided web is the possibility that there really is something to all of this – more than just phenomenon or imagination or tradition or vocabulary – and that the language of religion is at least getting some of it right.
If we don’t leave open the potential that something real is really happening – that a real god is actually acting – then we may be missing the biggest part of the puzzle and thus have an incomplete picture.
* Just because YOU haven’t thought of the multiplicity of layered meanings happening in the Christian expression doesn’t mean that it is an all or nothing game.Don’t be that person who says “If Santa Clause isn’t real, then Christmas isn’t worth celebrating”. Or “If Creation did not happened exactly like it is described in Genesis then the whole BIble is untrustworthy and unbelievable.”