On the Illusion of Orthodoxy

I’m no theologian, but Ben over at F&T has written a theological blog post entitled “On the virgin birth: or, why it’s better to say the creed than to criticize it” that is worthy of critique. In this post, Ben defends a belief in the virgin birth for multiple reasons. First off, I should say that I don’t care about the virgin birth theologically or personally, and I agree with Pannenberg that it’s historically questionable and I think it’s certainly dispensable (a la Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers).

Ben’s argument is that acts of revelation are singular and are “not part of the normal historical sequence”. Hence, although these events actually happened, they cannot be verified through the historical method. This position is as old as sin, and it smacks of the fideism that makes Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics (which I read for reasons I’m still trying to figure out) frustrating. Barth certainly bewildered his liberal theological professors with his dismissal of the historicism of classic liberal theology. Furthermore, from Ben’s perspective, these events are immune from criticism and must be accepted on the grounds that they are ‘divine’ and beyond reproach. I’ve always respected Pannenberg’s methodology because of his firm belief that theology has to be historical. Thankfully, Pannenberg is willing to reject certain theological doctrines if they do not stand up to the historical method, a method that Ben finds irrelevant.

Another problem I have with Ben’s post is the ethos of humility. Ben makes the typical orthodox theologian move by asking the question “[w]ho do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke?” From this perspective, faithful humility makes the theologian deeply gracious and respectful of the tradition. Presumably, anyone who questions the creed must be an arrogant, cynical maverick who believes they can flippantly dismiss creedal statements. Of course, Ben’s mature and respectful position only serves to alienate those believers who struggle with Christian doctrine. It should go without saying that one can legitimately question from a position of epistemological humility, and we all know many Christians who embrace the tradition in very arrogant and exclusionary ways. Side note, it never ceases to amaze me how orthodox theologians dismiss atheists and heretics as petulant children who are rebelling against the Big Other. This was evident in a post Ben wrote a year or two ago about how only orthodox Christians are patient and hold onto faith in God in the midst of suffering, whereas atheists lack the maturity of the wise believer and reject God. Atheists cannot endure suffering without rejecting faith, whereas believers possess the psychological and spiritual maturity to rise to the heavens as the atheists throw up their hands in impatient, childish despair. Although I identify as Christian, it’s obvious to me that this position is self-congratulatory bullshit.

Next, Ben writes, “[i]t’s a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.” This statement strikes me as wrong on multiple levels. Doesn’t this reduce faith to be simply therapeutic for folks who are trying to make sense of this world? Or, to put in Freudian terms, this type of faith is merely an illusion or wish fulfillment. It provides the individual a way to escape the existential anxiety of life by offering a coherent narrative that diminishes the stress of having to make decisions and take responsibility for his/her desires.

Finally Ben writes, “[i]f you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.” This is a typical sentimental, romantic theological statement we often get from orthodox theologians. The only real adventure is orthodoxy; the only real revolutionary is the conservative; and the only truly radical ideology is…Christianity? That almost makes sense. These types of paradoxical statements sound cute and certainly make the believer feel good about himself, as if surprises are only afforded to the good Christian who accepts everything without struggle. But how can Ben reconcile his previous statement that faith is good because it prevents folks from “wondering about” and that this faith is also “full of surprises too”? Wasn’t the whole point of the previous statement that faith is good because it helps to mitigate anxiety about the unknown by providing a grounding, indubitable framework? Obviously, orthodox Christians can be surprised and struggle with doubts, but it seems wrong to assume that a faith that is better “to believe than to criticize” is somehow full of surprises, considering that everything is already decided for the believer in advance.

The Fall

Since the advent of modern evolutionary theory, it’s become increasingly clear that the initial condition of “paradise” cannot have existed. The biggest problem is that death supposedly only entered into the world through sin, yet obviously evolution proceeds over successive generations of a struggle for survival, etc. Within this perspective, humanity as it currently exists isn’t the fallen version of a perfect antecedent humanity — this just is what humanity is like, for better or for worse. Pannenberg claims that because we can no longer believe in the original perfect state, we need to ditch the whole idea of the fall, even a modern “formalized” version of the fall that still logically presupposes that original state.

I disagree with Pannenberg. Read the rest of this entry »

Structuring a Seminar

It strikes me that a good way to structure a seminar is to choose one important book and, along with it, read essentially everything the author cites. This method would obviously work mainly with modern texts, but it could work equally in theology and continental philosophy (the disciplines between which I am “interdisciplined”). In discussion with our very own JD, I once proposed a multi-semester seminar based on Pannenberg’s Anthropology in Theological Perspective, after which everyone involved would be tied for the most educated person alive. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory would also allow for a similar expansiveness and would allow the students to gauge his polemic. In continental philosophy, Agamben would be an especially valuable target for such treatment, not only because he is reading such fascinating texts most of the time (what would be better than a course based on The Open?), but also because you would get a sense of how rushed his readings of many figures, including those most important to him*, can be.

The Agamben and Milbank examples would also serve a kind of meta-pedagogical purpose beyond simply providing a broad reading list and a detailed example of how to go about assessing a major work — it would attract the kind of student who follows the “cool” contemporary stuff and tends toward a kind of presentism (i.e., the kind of student I was and in many ways still am), but for the purpose of disillusioning them a bit and broadening their horizon.

[*Random free dissertation topic: Agamben and Heidegger on Aristotle.]

Ontology as Morality

Radical Orthodoxy is the most intellectually sophisticated version of postmodern Christianity — a class that for me includes Hauerwasianism, the Emergent Church, the evangelical development of “worldviews,” and creationism, to name just a few examples. The postmodern versions of Christianity are all helpful in understanding what postmodernism was all along: a moralizing discourse that approves or rejects various ontologies based on their putative moral effects. Modern subjectivity? Immoral — it caused the holocaust, environmental degradation, etc. The disseminatory play of difference? Moral — it helps us to be open toward the other. Though postmodern Christianity does sometimes deploy what purport to be factual critiques of its target ontologies, the emotional charge is ultimately on the moral effects: evolutionary theory, for instance, is immoral because it undercuts belief in God and in human dignity.

In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, a particular version of Neoplatonism is put forward as the only “robust” ontology, the only ontology that can ground a peaceful, presumably socialist polity. Such an ontology is supposed to have prevailed during the High Middle Ages. There are occasional gestures toward demonstrating how much better things were back then, but it all takes place on a very formal level — and when push comes to shove, it is claimed that the goal is to rejoin an alternate future (because apparently “progress” occurs in this ontology).

More generally, in clear defiance of the etymology of “ontology,” there is very little serious effort to base their robust ontology on how things actually are. Analytic philosophers studying brain sciences presumably have the “metaphysics of a serial killer”: alright, but does Radical Orthodoxy have a better way to account for the results of brain science? I suspect that any such attempt would amount to yet another reassertion of the ontology that they know is true because, in some imagined alternate future, it produces beneficial moral effects.

The only credible way forward for a genuinely robust ontology — i.e., one that would be persuasive to those for whom actual reality is a more decisive factor than purported moral consequences — is Pannenberg’s. In my view, his method in Anthropology in Theological Perspective charts the course for any attempt to hold speculative thought — and here I would count non-vuglar-materialist philosophy and psychoanalytic theory along with theology — accountable to empirical evidence.
Read the rest of this entry »

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