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.