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If atheism is an enemy, who needs friends?

In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.

With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.

A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.

Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.

However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).

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The Speech and Practice of Christianity

Confession: I enjoying reading theology and am particularly persuaded by many of its profound arguments. On multiple occasions, however, I have sworn to myself that I’m going to go in other directions that would be more financially rewarding and less burdening but, try as I might, I have continued the dialogue. On the other hand, I consider myself quite the hypocrite when I attend church because, back in my study, I love theology but I abhor its incarnation. It’s not so much that I take myself to be inhabiting a contradiction but more that the speech and practice of Christianity do not align. I cannot admit that this is any original reflection, but even if the hypocritical pattern is universal its particular substantiation in any given time and place is unique. For me, specifically, I hoped in the promise that the church is an anticipation of an eschatological kingdom of perfect community; harmonizing and integrating the differences between individuals and society. As such, the church should be an alternative community in-itself and a witness to the surrounding society of what politics, economics, society could be. In this manner theology would out-narrate secular social theory and the church would out-perform neo-liberal society. But alas, it took a year of travel and withdrawal from intellectual pressure to admit that my own experience did not match how I had been trained to think.

Julia Kristeva makes a similar note on this form of discrepancy in the church’s history. While grace for sinners might be its motto, in practice the situation is much different. The de jure and de facto realities are reversals of each other. It is rare that confession in church will be answered with the glorious counterweight of grace. Grace seems to be in name only.

Little by little, acts of atonement, of contrition, of paying one’s debt to a pitiless, judging God, are eclipsed by the sole act of speech….Acknowledgment and absolution count for everything, sin has no need for actions in order to be remitted….not by virtue of merit….felix culpa is merely a phenomenon of enunciation. The whole black history of the Church shows that condemnation, the fiercest censorship, and punishment are nonetheless the common reality of this practice (Powers of Horror, p. 131)

This comment is apropos of the wisdom shared in recent book put out by ‘The Other Journal’: “God Is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.  Merold Westphal, one of the many contributing authors, notes that it is actually believers who are most responsible for the unbelief of non-Christians. His point is not so much that theologians don’t have good rational arguments for Christianity but that believers present “an unflattering presentation of God and [exhibit] actions that run contrary to the very God they affirm.” This is true of the church body just as much as it is of individual Christians.