A faith not rooted in supernaturalism

By George Clifford

In March 2010, philosopher Daniel Dennett and social worker Linda LaScola published “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” first in Evolutionary Psychology and subsequently on the web. The article attracted considerable attention, including at the Episcopal Café. “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” reports on their study of five Protestant pastors who self-identify as having lost their religious faith. The one woman who was originally part of the study, an Episcopal priest, withdrew shortly before the study ended.

What, if anything, does “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” say to the Church?

Prima facie, the study says little to the Church. Five anecdotal stories provide interesting narratives but without any quantitative data about the prevalence of clergy who perceive themselves as hypocrites indicate nothing about the magnitude of this purported problem. Some percentage of every vocation become disillusioned with that vocation’s prevailing ethos or purpose while concurrently feeling vocationally trapped by extenuating factors (family, finances, etc). Furthermore, the Church in its early centuries wisely decided that an individual cleric’s belief did not determine the validity of the sacraments at which that cleric officiated. By extension, the same is true for sacramental acts such as preaching, teaching, and other forms of ministry.

Ministry, unlike most other callings, has no objective standards by which to determine efficacy or content. I, like the five interviewed clergy, have ministered to people who relied upon a literal interpretation of Christianity as a crutch that helped the person to cope with life. Many of these people, in my estimation, would have floundered, perhaps drowned, had I or another cleric attempted to introduce them to a less literal faith perspective. Judiciously employing multiple faith perspectives to help people live more abundantly coheres well with a theology that emphasizes respecting the dignity and worth of every person and that presupposes human language can only speak of ultimate reality through words as metaphor, symbol, and icon.

The study does highlight an important conceptual chasm that separates many twenty-first century Christians and adherents of other religions from some of the most vocal, high profile critics of religion. Contrary to the profoundly mistaken presumption of Dennett, LaScola, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al. – as well as the five clergy in their study – religious belief does not inherently entail supernaturalism. The guilt that some of the study’s participants feel from abandoning supernaturalism says more about study participants than about the possible viability of non-supernatural theology.

Anglican Bishops John A.T. Robinson and John Shelby Spong have both worked to deconstruct theological concepts of a supernatural God while adamantly affirming their continuing belief in God. The ancient tradition of the via negativa (God lies beyond all words; words at best function as metaphors, symbols, or icons and at worst construct an idol) certainly does not necessitate supernaturalism. More recently, process theologians, Tillichians, and others such as Episcopal priest John Keenan (The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology) have sought to speak of God in non-supernatural language. These projects have admittedly struggled to gain widespread traction, failing to articulate icons, symbols, or metaphors that capture modern imaginations. Theological reconstruction is obviously a far more difficult task than is theological deconstruction. However, critics apparently prefer to pillory the supernatural straw man rather than to engage non-supernatural theologians in meaningful dialogue about premises, possibilities, etc.

Finally, Dennett and LaScola’s study illuminates one often-ignored cause of the current Anglican Communion conflicts over sexual ethics. Admittedly, those sadly vicious disputes have several roots. One important root is the issue of authority: will the Anglican Communion continue as a voluntary association of Churches in communion with Canterbury or will the Anglican Communion adopt a more authoritarian, tightly bonded organizational structure consonant with Archbishop Williams’ recent actions? Another important root of the conflict is the opportunity that non-Anglican conservatives saw to use this controversy to advance their own anti-GLBT agenda. Contributions from these conservatives have substantially funded cross-border incursions, disaffections from the Episcopal Church (TEC), and the media attention the resultant conflict has received.

But another, less visible yet significant cause of the deep conflict within the Anglican Communion is the divergent Christian worldviews represented among Anglicans. In a sweeping generalization with numerous exceptions, the many Anglicans who subscribe to a supernatural theology tend to believe that scripture communicates propositional truths that include definitive teachings about human sexuality. This position is more common among people who do not engage in critical study of the Bible but by no means unique to them. Conversely, the many Anglicans who reject supernatural theology, explicitly (they have given the subject conscious thought) or implicitly (they use the language of supernaturalism but hold a worldview that de facto excludes supernaturalism), tend to disbelieve that scripture communicates propositional truths about human sexuality.

Theological deconstructions of supernaturalism have usually emphasized clashes between science and supernaturalism. Fewer deconstructions recognize globalization’s important consequences for diminishing the attractiveness of supernaturalism. Globalization often increases a person’s awareness of: our common humanity that transcends cultural differences; the theological, ethical, functional, and social commonalities Christianity shares with other world religions; and the exclusive truth claims found in the scriptures of various religions. Analogous to the way in which science pushes theology to abandon comfortable, time-honored images of a supernatural God for a deeper, less easily articulated but more immediate awareness of the holy, globalization pushes theology to broaden its perspective, freeing itself from culturally situated language. In a development unimaginable in prior centuries, some contemporary Christians (clergy and laity) find ideas or praxis from another religion sufficiently insightful or helpful that the person incorporates the material into her or his Christian theology and praxis. Some, but not all, of these Christians have difficulty with that integration, adopting positions that seem oddly incongruous or incompatible. Others, like Episcopal priest John Keenan, manage the integration with a fidelity to their Christian identity.

Following the American Revolution, colonial Anglicans distanced themselves from the Church of England. This was an existential necessity: continued allegiance to the British crown would have effectively sounded Anglican’s death knell in the nascent United States; continuing as Anglicans required the post-colonial Church to obtain bishops who could administer confirmation and ordain clergy.

TEC’s current struggle within the Anglican Communion is also existential. Denying full inclusion to all people, GLBT as well as heterosexual, puts TEC on the right side of history, something each passing year makes more obvious. Insisting that all faithful Christians tenaciously cling to an anachronistic supernaturalism with its attendant claim to discern propositional truths about sexuality and sexual ethics in scripture will surely sound Anglican Christianity’s death knell. Similarly, moderns with scientific educations or global perspectives increasingly find themselves choosing between the atheism of Dennett and company, agnosticism, or trying to chart new theological understandings in light of the deconstructions of Robinson and company. Not surprisingly, these struggles occasion much conflict in the Church.

Anglican’s traditional “big tent” genius allowed people to pray together in spite of sharply opposing views. Preserving “big tent” Anglicanism represents a better future for the Anglican Communion than does adopting a more authoritarian structure. Trying to enforce homogeneity stifles creativity, unhelpfully masks dissent as assent, fosters schism, and eventually leads to institutional ill health, as glaringly evidenced in the Roman Catholic Church’s history and problems. TEC does well to stay its present course faithfully of practicing a radical hospitality that welcomes everyone and of commending that practice to the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

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