Preachers Who are not Believers

Daniel Dennett, a fairly well known evangelist for atheism, has recently published an article (no one in their right mind could call it a “study” as he does) about preachers from five different denominations who are now, as he describes them, “non-believing clergy.” It is primarily about pastors and church leaders who do not share their true beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, etc. with their congregation because they feel the congregation would be shocked and ask them to leave. Now let out a big breath, because I am not one of them. I think I am pretty up front with how I see these things, both in Bible studies and from the pulpit. I am not hiding my true beliefs, even though some of them are not shared by all members of this congregation. I mention this because as this article becomes known I want the people of Faith to be assured of where I stand (you can read the article here: http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf

I also want to briefly address the issue of faith, what it is and what it is not, because this is where the article really falls through. Daniel Dennett wrote another book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In it Dennett attempts to describe all religion as a natural, Darwinian phenomenon. Unfortunately he fails to critically define “religion,” and, as pointed out by theologian David Hart, finds himself emulating the Bellman in Lewis Carroll's “The Hunting of the Snark.” In that poem the characters are briefed by the Bellman about the Snark, a creature which he, nor they, neither know nor understand, but about which the Bellman speaks with great gravity and authority. However, since they know nothing about it, they are free to be as vague or detailed as they wish: some Snarks are feathered and bite, some have whiskers and scratch, some are harmless, but others are Boojums (a nonsense word made up by Carroll). So they hunt it with care, forks, hope, railway-shares, smiles and soap. In the same way Dennett is as vague or detailed as he likes as he describes “religion,” a concept that he assumes every one has the same definition and working knowledge of. Since Dennett never clarifies what he is arguing against, he can make his attack with whatever weapons are at hand at the moment, whether it be soap or smiles. Now admittedly he does this very cleverly, but nevertheless, it is Snark hunting that Dennett is doing.

Dennett continues to Snark hunt in “Preachers who are not Believers.” He goes to a small effort to define God along a spectrum from extreme anthropomorphic, with arms and legs, to extreme amorphousness like “The Ground of Being.” While this would be a flimsy foundation for any article, it has almost nothing to do with the topic of the article itself which is captured in the title: What does it mean to be a believer? This question has been wrestled with through many generations of the church. What does it mean to believe in God – and even more important perhaps: What does it mean to disbelieve in God? Dennett ignores this question completely, though it is at the heart of his article, and so once again utterly fails to grasp the matter at hand because he is trying to bag a Snark.

But what is faith? Let me give you a brief two part answer, a kind of stab at things to try to hone down what we mean when we say faith. First is intellectual assent. This means to believe that something exists or is true, like “I believe the earth orbits the sun.” Though he never states it, this definition seems to be primary for Dennett. Intellectual assent is the most basic and least important part of faith; it is the least assured and least effective. To quote the apostle James, “even demons believe – and shudder.”

Secondly, and much more importantly, is faith in the sense of trust. Not to “believe that” something but to “believe in” something. This is faith that leads to relationship and transformation, that raises the dead and makes blind eyes see, that transforms bread and wine to the bodily presence of Jesus. This is faith that connects us to God in an ongoing and living conversation about what it means for us to follow Jesus. It is this faith that influences and shapes our lives, much more than the first (though we often think of it as secondary). Think about it: Philosophically, it is very hard to prove that my wife exists, that life is not a dream. However that doesn't prevent me from having an active relationship with her. Which is more important?

It is important to distinguish between these two different parts of faith, while also being attentive to their interconnectedness. They can both influence one another, cause the other to grow, and regarding both we can have doubts. But doubt is good; doubt is healthy. Doubt is after all one of the most important ways we grow. By trusting in God with the second kind of belief I can face doubts in the first kind of belief – and vice versa. As I learn things about God through the first kind of belief, it will change my relationship with God, influence my understanding of the God in whom I have put my trust and bring about transformation yet again. We need to keep these two aspects of faith in mind when it comes to questions of belief and how we think and feel about our own faith as well as the faith that we encounter in other people.

The Hunting of the Snark is here: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carroll/lewis/snark/index.html

David Hart's article is here: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/HartDennet.php

What do you think? Email Pastor Brennen: faithlutheranpastor@gmail.com


Resurrection Forgiveness

As modern Christians, we tend too much to focus on the cross and not the empty tomb. It is a feature of our culture, but unfortunate, because we blind ourselves to the importance of the resurrection. Jeremy Alison, a Roman Catholic theologian wrote a terrific book, The Joy of Being Wrong. It is a theological book, but says some important things, about death and the significance of the resurrection of Jesus. Here is an excerpt.

 “Let me try and unpack this difficult notion a little. If God can raise someone from the dead in the middle of human history, the very fact reveals that death, which up till this point had marked human history as simply something inevitable, part of what it is to be a human being, is not inevitable. That is, that death is itself not a simply biological reality, but a human cultural reality marking all perception, and a human cultural reality that is capable of being altered. This it seems to me is the decisive point at which any pre-Christian notion of sin and the Christian understanding must differ. The drastic nature of sin is revealed as something which has so inflected human culture that death is a human, and not simply a biological reality, one which decisively marks all human culture. This nature of sin as related to death is simultaneously revealed as something which need not be. It is not that God can, of course, forgive all our sins, but then there is also death which is just there. It becomes clear that God is not only capable of forgiving us for such things as we might have done, but the shape of his forgiveness stretches further than that, into what we are: we are humans tied into the human reality of death. We need no longer be.

 “This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the linchpin of any understanding of original sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin, and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.

 “We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to original sin: that the doctrine of original sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding.”

 Saint Paul says that if it were not for the resurrection, “we are of all people most to be pitied.” If there is not resurrection, then nothing has changed. Because of the resurrection everything has changed – not only death, but now life too has been transformed.  

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