Dr. James McGrath on "Why I Am a Christian."

He writes about it here....

He says:

I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn't mean I am not a Christian. Christians have always done so. Luke attributes to Paul (in Acts 17:28) a positive quotation from a poem about Zeus (from the Phainomena by Aratos [sometimes spelled Aratus].

Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch.

My question is whether this is a reasonable conclusion to make. I think not. A liberal Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, could say the same things. She could say, I don't agree with the historical underpinnings of my faith, nor the intellectual reasons for my faith, but since I was born into it, I'll stick with it. Sorry to insult Dr. McGrath, but this is nonsense (again, sorry). If one no longer accepts the historical or intellectual underpinnings of her faith she should look for a different one, or none at all.

I have been dealing with Liberal theology beginning here.

To continue reading the next post in this series see here.


GordonBlood said...

Well yeah I think any Christian should have a problem with this sort of view. I think the big problem with this sort of faith is that I myself cant imagine even attempting (and failing regularly) the Christian life presented by Christ if I didnt actually believe that Christ had any more authority then, well, any one of us.

John W. Loftus said...

GB, all Dr. McGrath is doing here is using an acceptable label to describe his beliefs, "Christian." This label is acceptable in our society. It brings upon him little social reprobation or difficulties. I suspect if he lived in a Islamic culture he would call himself a "Muslim," and why not, given his views? At this point these labels mean nothing and are actually disengenuously used.

This is also why liberal theology is so hard to debunk, because you GB, don't accept his views and yet you describe yourself as a liberal too. I cannot follow every liberal down into her foxhole. I can only paint with a broad brush.

WoundedEgo said...

Originally religion was very concrete. Moses espoused that God was a manlike deity who lived in the sky, just out of sight behind the clouds. If the sky opened you could see him, his celestial city and all of his sons. There might be all kinds of goings on in the sky - unseen, but allegedly very real. They were men that breathed air and sat in chairs etc.

Somewhere along the line - after the telescope revealed that there WAS no such sky civilation - a new dualism emerged that is perfectly embodied in McGrath.

Some time prior to the 17th century there was invented the original dualism in the idea of "spirit." This fantasy involved two kinds of matter:

* matter
* spirit

Simply put, matter is subject to the laws of science. "Spirit" was not. God was still in the sky, but they put a big H in "Heaven" and it became a new DIMENSION. So, you could have an immediate knowledge of God without seeing, hearing, tasting or touching anything. These "realms" were irrelevant to one another. One would know God on the principle of "faith." God, because he was spirit, should not be expected to be seeable or in any way perceptible with our telescopes, stethescopes, probes or what have you.

Still, the NT and early Churhc history are filled with argument because despite the fact that discussions of God are based on dogma, they were expected to be consistent, congruent and reasonable. The concept of a truth - albeit measured against unproven dogmas - was assumed to be something reasonable.

The NEW dualism takes this one step further. It says that "truth" is a "spiritual affair." It is not ultimately rooted in dogmas but in the "spiritual realm." Therefore, truth itself is not beholden to the rules of logic. Truth, we are told, is a matter of personal faith in a personal God. We are all entitled to "believe" as we are inclined.

McGrath is so very typical in this regard. As a trained scientist he subjects this world's data to every rigorous scientific cross examination. He expects the government and technology to be beholden to physical and societal laws.

But when he thinks about God, he suspends all such reasonable inquiry and indulges himself in any and every leap, and encourages others to do the same. It is like a child playing with Bionicle toys, inventing a world where men and robots operate with only the rules that the child imposes. There is lots of mimicry of reality but no adherence to its harsh dictates.

One could certainly make a case for the value of play and of fantasy, but to argue that such a realm EXISTS (so to speak) and to speak of it as a "true" thing is the height of folly.

Fantasy has turned deadly on many occaisions. We have heard of unstable young people play role playing games and then acting out some deadly role, and people trusting faith healers, denying their symptoms, refusing medicine or treatment, and then dying. And what of those who believe that Allah would have them explode themselves and their countrymen in hopes of half a gross of virgens?

People who do not indulge in, or abandon, the notion of "spirit" and "faith" and such are called "skeptics" by adherents to relgion, but the view from THIS side is that we are just REASONABLE people who think religion is reckless, irresponsible and ultimately wicked self-delusion. There IS no "spirit realm" and no virtue in believing that there is.

John has echoed my own frustration - that when discussing religion, appeals to the real world are unpersuasive. The brain is in neutral. This is PARTICULARLY true of those who ADMIT that their dogmas are demonstrably contrary to science, etc.

Fundamentalists, while the most invested in dogmas, are actually the most salvagable, because they at least PROFESS to be beholden to evidence and reason. Of course, in practice, this is rarely the case. I recently had a discussion with a fundie who demonstrated yet again that he preferred his religion to truth.

This is not even a problem unique to religionists. Consider homeopathy, astrology and the like.

"A man cannot be reasoned out of that which they were not reasoned into." - Jonathon Swift

Have a great day. Keep you expectations of human mental integrity low or you will be greatly disappointed.

Bill Ross

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

For me, the good Doctor's post was easily dismissed -- or does he actively promote massive migration to "America" (Christianity), and/or global imperialism (through efforts at conversion)?

If Christianity is America, then I am a Northerner: I want to abolish slavery. I would prefer to prevent the Southerners from ceceding, and instead convince them to mend their ways.

Besides, their currency is extremely weak.


James F. McGrath said...

Thank you for sharing this post of mine on your blog and taking the time to thoughtfully interact with it. I probably ought to have said that, on the one hand, I grew up within a form of Christianity, and also had a life-changing experience of coming to a personal faith. So there is more to my own case than just upbringing and tradition.

I not only would agree that, if I had grown up in another religious context, and/or had my experience in that context, I would wear a different label and the metaphors and symbols I use would draw from a different heritage. I find my outlook has more in common with the mystics of other traditions (as well as my own) than with the doctrinally-oriented versions of Christianity.

I don't think, in wearing the label "Christian", I am being disingenuous. To use an example from another comment, one could ask whether Baptists are in favor of or against slavery. Historically, there are instances of both - indeed, that is how the Southern Baptist Convention came into existence. I'm on the American Baptist side. Just because scientists, Americans, Christians, Baptists, philosophers, and people in general in the past held views radically different than our own and were mistaken in various respects doesn't mean we need to keep reinventing the wheel. All of these streams of thought and approaches to life have grown and developed over time and mean different things to different people. My choice is to define how I understand a tradition that nurtured and sustained me (as well as, at times, having other less positive effects) rather than start from scratch.

Dillie-O said...

I read the original post and I feel you have made your emphasis out of context here John,

Consider the paragraph right before your quote:

So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.

The entire post itself seems to be more of a reflection upon a discussion he had with a philosophy club over Bertrand Russel's essay and a reflection up on his own faith, after an exposure to other world religions and the truth he gleaned from them. It is not the post of a man blindly accepting his faith.

Dillie-O said...

Wow, out posted by the author of the topic in question. 8^D Did I understand your original correctly sir?

James F. McGrath said...

I would like to think so! :-)

John W. Loftus said...

Dr. McGrath, why not just say "I'm religious," and leave it at that? Isn't identifying yourself as a "Christian" disengenuous since it carries a certain connotation in America?

You say, "My choice is to define how I understand a tradition that nurtured and sustained me (as well as, at times, having other less positive effects) rather than start from scratch."

Fine, but what would you say if I used that word to describe my beliefs? There is no reason why I couldn't, and yet I would be misunderstood, correct? I think using that label brings misunderstanding, and since you know it does, I think it is being disengenuous (sorry). Why not tell people you're a Buddhist? It basically means the same thing to you. No wonder you get shot at from both sides. You're asking for it. ;-)

I do appreciate your thoughts here at DC whenever you get a chance to comment. I have much more in common with you than the evangelicals.

James F. McGrath said...

I may well be asking for it! But I'm persuaded that, historically, Christianity as a religious tradition was not what fundamentalists currently make it out to be. Indeed, if one looks at its expression in theology, philosophy, society, mysticism and politics, it was a wide range of different things. Biblical scholarship and other historical investigation shows that at least a significant diversity was there as early as we can trace.

When someone says they are an atheist but they have room for 'depth', for transcendence, meaning, purpose and so on, I recognize a kindred spirit who might as well say 'I'm spiritual but not religious' as use the label atheist, at least in certain respects. The labels get confusing. Dawkins says pantheism is just 'sexed up atheism' and Deism is just 'watered down theism'. Once again, I think there are more than two positions at the extremes, and want to do justice to the middle ground in a way I don't think Dawkins does.

I am also persuaded that the only way to combat Christian fundamentalism is by advocating/reclaiming another understanding of the Christian tradition. Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment. It is also fundamentally (pun intended) dishonest, since it claims to espouse Biblical literalism. But I have yet to meet any Christian who believes the dome mentioned in Genesis 1 is literal.

If I were to be an atheist, I would be one that kept going on about spirituality and transcendence. If I were to be a Muslim, I'd be one attempting to introduce critical study of the Qur'an. Isn't it better to stay in the tradition I was in when I began my quest and work within it, than to move to another one, when the only result would be that I'd be annoying a different bunch of people? :)

John W. Loftus said...

McGrath said...Isn't it better to stay in the tradition I was in when I began my quest and work within it, than to move to another one, when the only result would be that I'd be annoying a different bunch of people? :)

Good point! Except that by staying within the nomenclature of Christianity you're annoying evangelicals and atheists! So please, go annoy the others, okay? :)

John W. Loftus said...

McGrath said...I am also persuaded that the only way to combat Christian fundamentalism is by advocating/reclaiming another understanding of the Christian tradition. Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment. It is also fundamentally (pun intended) dishonest, since it claims to espouse Biblical literalism. But I have yet to meet any Christian who believes the dome mentioned in Genesis 1 is literal.

Exactly! Okay, let me revise my last comment. Just annoy the Christians, okay?

James F. McGrath said...

Well, let me ask your opinion! Would you prefer that I annoy some atheists if the result is that fundamentalist Christians are being annoyed even more? Or would it be better, in your opinion, to leave my tradition behind and perhaps annoy neither? :-)

John W. Loftus said...

James, I can see the glimmer in your eyes from your picture. What can I say to that? I never thought I would say this, but you've got me. Stay where you are!

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

James F. McGrath: [I]f I had grown up in another religious context, and/or had my experience in that context, I would wear a different label and the metaphors and symbols I use would draw from a different heritage. I find my outlook has more in common with the mystics of other traditions (as well as my own) than with the doctrinally-oriented versions of Christianity.

I don't mean to be rude here, but if you readily admit that you'd wear a different religious nametag if your culture or upbringing were different, and if you equally well admit readily that your "outlook has more in common with the mystics", then why not call yourself a Mystic, or even an Agnostic?

There is no cogency to your claim that you are a "Christian" -- no more so than I can claim that I am a Native American, despite the fact that I was born in America, and that I share a common ancestor with Native Americans (some thousands of years ago), and that we are homo sapiens.

Claiming that I am a Native American, even using the technically true loosest of interpretations, is both disingenuous (as John said), and dishonest. It is deliberately misleading, and it is self-deluding.

You are no more a Christian than I am.

Don't take this as insulting, as that is not my intent, but seriously -- why insist on using a clearly invalid label?

The fact that such a claim is both disingenuous and dishonest is not of immediate concern, and the self-deluding nature is minimal at best. It is the misleading aspect of the claim that is the most abhorrent.

When you describe yourself as a Christian, I highly doubt you explain in the following breath the italicized quote at the beginning of my post. Failure to do so is tantamount to professing to have mainstream Christian beliefs -- which you most assuredly do not.

So please select a more appropriate label, one which actually describes your views in a reasonably concise manner. Despite your intentions (or lack thereof -- I don't believe you're being intentionally misleading), you are being disingenuous and dishonest, and you are misleading all to whom you refer to yourself as merely a "Christian".


Scott Ferguson said...

I hate to go all dogmatic here, but in Dr McGrath's original "witness" there is precious little indication of what he believes. There is plenty of reaction to the way other's act but, aside from a mention of a religious experience, no clarification of which parts of Christianity he accepts as "true" and which he rejects as spurious.

Does Dr McGrath accept that Jesus was a historical figure? That he is a personal savior? That he is God Incarnate? That Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount? That healed lepers?

If Dr M does not accept the major teachings of Gospels then I think his claim to be a Christian is mighty thin. If he does believe these things, then his essay is puckishly?) non-commital.

Richard M said...

I have enjoyed reading this post. I would like to offer another perspective, because I think Dr. McGrath offers a fine reason for why he is a Christian, much better than we usually hear. In fact, maybe the only honest one.

Let me say where Im coming from: I am an atheist, but one with sympathy for liberal religion. So I will offer here a limited defense of liberal religion’s right to be.

I think the problem with the view of many less-sympathetic atheists is that it suffers from a “positivist bias.” I.e., their criticism rests on the assumption that religion must be about metaphysical and historical propositions that are either literally true or false – or else nothing. Since the conclusion is that the claims are false, the religion is dismissed or declared vapid.

But I think that gives away much too much to the fundamentalists; it lets them define the rules of the game. For those are the same questions that they are interested in, they just reach different conclusions. Someone said to me once that they thought Bart Ehrman (whom I love) was a fundamentalist atheist. We’ve all heard this sort of thing before, and it’s a stupid criticism --- *but* it does correctly suggest a similarity of focus. I.e., he is still addressing the historical claims of Christianity.

But my view is that liberal religionists are asking different questions. They are much less concerned with whether it is true or false and much more concerned with what it means, and how it gets you to live your life and be a better person. Liberal religion is not committed to the historicity of Jesus’ alleged resurrection. It’s the ideas embodied in that myth that matter. Liberal Jews could care less whether there was an actual Exodus. Its what the story has come to mean to them. I.e., its about freedom and self-determination and all that. What we need to do is ask the liberals themselves why they do not give up the label?

The reason is usually because they relate passionately to the symbol-system, ideals, images, rituals, etc that comprise their religion. It’s a mistake to consider ourselves, implicitly, as many secularists do and I myself tend to do, to be somehow abstract, disembodied rational agents. That’s a holdover from Enlightenment and its not really true. We are emotional human beings in a specific context and historical place, which has shaped us and the things we relate to. Yes, a lot of its arbitrary. But so what? Logically, rationally, I know that there is nothing about my family that is superior or better than any other. But do I really need a reason to prefer my family to others? Is it not enough to love it best just because its mine? Yes, its an accident of fate that I was born there and somewhere else. If I were in another family I would love it best. But that does not change the flesh-and-blood reality that *this*, and not somewhere else, is where I was born, and *these*, and not others, are the symbols that relate me to my ideals. Why do I need any better reason?

Because the truth-claims of Christianity are literally false, says the critic. But, again, so what? Liberal religion is not tied to prepositional claims. Its about what it means to you. So doesn’t that mean you could find equal guidance and inspiration in any number of religions? Well, theologically, yes, but again, at issue is what symbol-system moves you. I could experience the ideal of trying to improve myself ethically through the example of Christ (as depicted in the myths), if I am a Christian, or through Yom Kippur, if I am a Jew. Many have observed that liberal religions have more in common with each other than they do with the conservative members of their own faith. But that does not erase the meaning that my religion has for me, because of accidents of history.

For those interested in this idea I would recommend a book by Eugene Borowitz called Renewing the Covenant. Borowitz is the leading theologian for liberal/reform Judaism. He offers a good analysis of this sort of “embeddedment” and what it means for the symbol systems you relate to. He believes in a liberal God, but there is no reason someone who does not (such as a Reconstructionist Jew) could not also use the very same approach. His book constitutes what he calls a “postmodern” interpretation. Actually, theres very little thats postmodern about it (thank god; I have little use for po-mo anything) other than the emphasis on the historically situated self. I.e., the enlightnment ideal of the “universal” rational agent is, really, a myth itself. We do not experience the “view from nowhere”. Our human/emotional/symbol-responding selves are inevitably situated in our context in the world, which are accidents of course – but, the message is, that’s okay.

I fear I am beginning to ramble, so let me end with an example. I assume many readers here celebrate Thanksgiving (at least the US readers). Well, imagine for the sake of argument that some intrepid young scholar were to prove, to everyone’s satisfaction, that the Mayflower never existed. There were no pilgrims, and hence no first thanksgiving. He came explain how the holiday emerged -- say, gradually over the 19th century from harvest festivals -- but all the actual legends are false.

My question is: would that change anything? Does our celebration of this holiday depend in any way on the history? Does it not depend, rather, on our own individual involvement with it, our experiences with it growing up, the memories, the food, etc, as well as the collective meaning it has for our culture?

Let me push this analogy a bit further: many families celebrate this holiday by talking about what they are thankful for. Analogous, perhaps, if you will, to a bit of “theology”, the meaning of the holiday, apart from the rituals. Some larger meaning that has to do with our-relationship-to-the-world-and-our-life. Of course, in part we read this meaning into the holiday, obviously. We generally feel that it is good to be appreciative for what you have. So we fit it into this holiday. My question is: does that invalidate its meaning? Does the fact that we could create such a holiday, with the same meaning, in any culture somehow suggest its disingenuous to celebrate it?

I think Dr McGrath has the best reason to be a Christian anyone can produce. Of course, its not a reason that has much persuasive power to someone not already inclined to respond to Christians symbols and ideals – but that’s not what its about, I suspect. I imagine he would feel little compulsion to try to convert a liberal Jew or Hindu or secularist.


WoundedEgo said...

>>...If Dr M does not accept the major teachings of Gospels then I think his claim to be a Christian is mighty thin...

Interestingly, Christians will embrace McGrath because he would say that he is a Trinitarian. In this day,

Catholic/Protestant="Believes in the Trinity"

If he "denies" every other dogma but "confesses" assent to that dogma, he's in the club, at least as far as many who bear the moniker "Christian" go.

Of course, that is not a Biblical idea, but no matter - Biblical Christianity went extinct by the fourth century.

McGrath indicates that the sky-ceiling belies all claims to Biblical literalism, and I agree, and whereas he still embraces the Bible as a source of divine knowledge (I think, since he refers to "Christ" but then again I'm not sure), it has been for me invalidated thereby.

I asked some other liberal Christians on another list why they stick with the Christian paradigm even though they know the Bible to be unreliable - I asked with sincere and earnest passion - but I did not receive an explanation. It is as if they are content to live as if they were still in ignorance in the 12th Century or so. It is, to my mind, like a giant role playing game - only for keeps.

Bill Ross

Drew said...

Some seem to be assuming that McGrath's claim that he persists with his particular brand of faith is therefore that which rests itself on fideistic claims. Is it not possible that we all come from particular epistemological constructs that satiate our desire to know? From whence comes the value judgment that rationalism inextricably bound to the sensory apparatus must be of higher value? Is not this valuation of what we properly call "scientific" as much a subjective valuation as someone saying that their faith tradition is to be valued as well? Are there not more dimensions to knowing the structure of reality than what we find through logico-deductive methodology? If not, please do not tell us that love is something real for certainly neither a particle accelerator nor a petri dish will ever suffice to explain to us what love means. Game theory explains rational action necessary for survival in the midst of scarce resources, but hardly does it understand the nature of love was that which surely transcends feeling.

So from whence do you evaluate the synthesis of knowledge or do we just assume those values based on what is most satisfying to our predilections to know the world?

WoundedEgo said...

Richard, while that explains the rationale very well (I presume) there are serious problems with that whole paradigm. Yes, it is delightful to exchange gifts and drink egg nog, but if you tell your children that the gifts came from Santa, and never say "just kidding!" then you have taken the game way too far. (I would never deceive my children more than a few seconds, personally - long enough to make a point).

Again, my role playing game analogy seems to fit quite well. You seem to think we are all playing a role playing so it makes no difference if we adopt a relgious one. But admitting that we are often not dealing with the facts is not the same as intentionally entering La-La-Land and then burning the bridge back to reality.

I think an excellent illustration of the kind of illusion you are describing can be seen in the excellent flick "The Village."

We all know that money has no intrinsic value, but since we all play along, it does have value. Ie: we fabricate huge facets of our own reality in that regard. But when you postulate or embrace the divine right of kings because of Romans 13 you have imposed tyranny. There is a huge difference.

Bill Ross

speedwell said...

On a bit lighter note, perhaps... You can be anything by "tradition."

Just today I was humming something absentmindedly, and a gal I work near asked me what it was. I thought for a moment (I had to; I often hum without realizing it) and answered that it was from the Brahms German Requiem. She asked if I had sung it in church choir, and I said, yes, when I was in college. Was she in church choir? Yes, she was, in a Lutheran church nearby, and she invited me to expand their meager alto section for the Christmas music "if your present church doesn't mind."

I told her that I didn't go to church since becoming an atheist a few years ago, but I'd be happy to help out. She malprocessed this for a few minutes, and faltered out a few words to the effect that she thought that would be OK (thhe wish to save the lost evidently winning out over the wish to avoid proximity to someone suffering from the godless disease).

I couldn't resist leaning foward confidentally and saying, "Even worse, I'm Presbyterian." Further encouraged by one of my friends behind her stifling a laugh, I added, "And Jewish." I'm not sure how long it took my co-worker to unblock her brain after that.

All of which is true, given that I'm a Jew (from Mom's family) brought up in the PCUSA by my dad--they still have me on their books somewhere as a member of a Georgia church. Both of those "heritages" formed me and are obviously still part of my cultural makeup. But I can't see myself ever legitimately identifying culturally as anything specific, let alone "Christian."

WoundedEgo said...

>>...So from whence do you evaluate the synthesis of knowledge or do we just assume those values based on what is most satisfying to our predilections to know the world?

Drew, like Richard, you seem to be arguing that ultimate truth cannot presently be reliably known so isn't it all just a free for all of guess work? If so, you seem to argue, then how is science any more valid, except by preference, than any superstion? Knowledge, by this pessimistic epistemology, is just a crap shoot. "All knowledge is delusion."

Ultimately, if you are a philosopher content to dismiss, upon this principle, any knowledge, then navigation through life can be conducted by any choice or lack there of for all is absurd. This is, in fact, a philosophy in evidence in some kinds of art and music, and in the rantings in insane asylums.

On a more practical note, I ask you to consider:

* most religions, however existential they might be, do make falsifiable claims. For example, the Bible claims that the sky is a solid structure with waters above it, stars embedded in it, and the gods just beyond it. Since this is now (it wasn't when it was written) a falsifiable claim, we can, with profound, meaningful certainty show that it is false

* Jesus (as represented in the Bible) links the credibility of non-falsifiable assertions to the validity of falsifiable ones:

Joh 3:12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

In other words, how will you accept the truth of what I say about things in the sky, which you can't verify, if you don't accept what I say about things on the land, which you can verify (or, more importantly, falsify).

I find this a compelling line of reasoning. Why believe the Bible when he tells us about unprovable things when it is so blatantly wrong about things we can falsify?

Jas 3:11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

If we understand the "tree" to be the Bible...

Mt 7:17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
Mt 7:18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Science stands head and shoulders above religious epistemology. In relation to "ultimate reality" our advances in knowledge may one day seem as trivial and backward as religion, granted, but on a practical and measurable scale, science is trafficking stuff that works, that advances knowledge and that is congruent with the data around us while religion and other superstitions have an observably problematic and undependable foundation.

The inverse of Pascal's Wager is... why bet on a horse that just eats and shits?

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this! I particularly like the way Richard M summarized where I'm coming from. Thanks Richard!

If you ask whether I'm a Christian according to traditional orthodoxy, then the answer is probably 'no', but that is no less true of me than most Christians, the only difference being that I've studied enough theology to understand the issues, while many others are simply 'naive heretics'.

But who is to say that a particular definition of orthodoxy must be normative? I doubt anyone who understands the history behind, say, the Council of Nicaea, would do so. Constantine convened the council, and he was baptized by an 'Arian'; the key word used to unite people against the 'Arian' position had been declared heretical in an earlier Church council. Worst of all, is belief that Jesus is a pre-existent divine person walking around in the flesh is the definition of what it means to be a Christian, then the author of Luke-Acts is just one of many early Christians who, paradoxically, wasn't a Christian by this standard.

A lot of this discussion seems to assume that the only way to be a Christian is to be one uncritically - to believe everything the Bible says, even (as Ned Flanders put it on the Simpsons) "the stuff that contradicts the other stuff"). But if one reads the Biblical literature critically, one realizes that later authors regularly rethink and rewrite what earlier ones did, and so I would argue that in being willing to rethink things in light of all the additional evidence we have today, I'm being more faithful to the Bible - I'm not just repeating their words, but trying to emulate their approach.

In the end, the arguments that persuade Sam Harris to be an atheist are the same reasons I cannot be a fundamentalist. But when I ask myself "Why not be an atheist?", I come back to a number of things. The power of an experience that really did change my life. The teaching attributed to Jesus that we do to others what we want them to do to us. The inspiring paradigm (which may owe as much to the author of Matthew's Gospel as to the historical figure of Jesus) that there is a third way of resisting injustice that avoids either passivity or taking up arms.

So what if he was wrong about when the world would end? Has any great thinker in any field been right about everything? Why should the things the Bible gets wrong be a reason for tossing out the whole thing, as opposed to an opportunity to use our rational and moral capacities to assess each teaching on its own merits?

WoundedEgo said...

>>>....So what if he was wrong about when the world would end?

A prediction is falsifiable. This prophet witness is not credible.

De 18:22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

>>>Has any great thinker in any field been right about everything?

I have been right about everything. Except about the Internet. I didn't think it would be popular. Also, about the Beatles. I thought they would not be popular. Also, I thought no one in their right mind would eat Sushi, buy pet rocks, collect "Beanie Babies" or fly planes into office buildings.

But the Bible isn't about a great thinker, but the accounts of people allegedly "in touch with God." If we are discussing the joys of delving into the Bible and extracting jewels as we might from Shakespeare then I think you would find hordes of partners among agnostics and atheists. In fact, I have a book on that subject in the back of my mind. But when you assign it credulity and authority despite its patent falsity, rational people have good reason to object.

>>>Why should the things the Bible gets wrong be a reason for tossing out the whole thing, as opposed to an opportunity to use our rational and moral capacities to assess each teaching on its own merits?

I certainly don't object to that approach. It is your use of terminology that is normally reserved for superstition that raises the red flags. You refer to "faith." Most of us take this to mean you "believe in" the factual nature of the Bible. You refer to yourself as a "Christian" which seems to imply a belief in a carpenter as a supernatural or even divine person.

I'm thinking that it would really help un-muddy the waters to set forth what are the propositional ideas that you hold true.

For example, do you believe the Adam and Eve accounting of the origin of the human race to be factual? Or profitable myth?


Bill Ross

Quixie said...

woundedego said:
"For example, do you believe the Adam and Eve accounting of the origin of the human race to be factual? Or profitable myth? "

Sorry, but this made me laugh.
It also makes me doubt that you've been paying attention to the discussion.
- - - - - - - -

Richard M: That was a fantastic comment. I empathize with the need for a self-identification consumerate with the zeitgeist in which we live. Since we seem to be hard-wired for exploration of the numinous, we might as well (as per Dr McG's reason) utilize those symbols which are close at hand to navigate this mythical landscape we're drawn to.

I wouldn't call myself a "Christian," but I would not find the title offensive and I understand why someone would want to hold on to the symbols of their heritage without gullibly having to accept teachings that are demonstrably just accretions to a basic simple exhortation to love and justice.

Like Hillel said, "All else is commentary." "Go and learn it," he said.

I always respect those who "go and learn it."

Truth be told, I relate more to that kind of honest Christian than I do to the militant atheists who think all myth and ritual is just silly, useless, harmful or delusional superstition.

Richard M said...

Joseph Campbell said somewhere that fundamentalists say religious stories are the truth, atheists say they are a lie, and liberals say they are metaphor. Im probably paraphrasing rather loosely, but you get the drift.

Woundedego, when you mentioned mining the Bible as one would Shakespeare, that is precisely what I had in mind. I think that is indeed how most liberals approach it. Imagine a family of people who really love Shakespeare whose family tradition is to gather round and read Hamlet on, whatever, Denmark's independence day.

Seen in that light, griping because Hamlet isnt factually correct rather misses the point. Protesting that you cant cherry pick Hamlet to elevate some lines for their potential wisdom ("to thine own self be true") is also misplaced criticism. Why couldnt you so cherry-pick? Hamlet is not intended to be factually correct and inerrant, whole cloth. Its intended -- well, to do a lot of things, but not impart history. SHow us our nobility, show us our foibles, entertain us, make us think. And if Hamlet moves them more than, say, Hemmingway, then whats the objection?

I am not saying that "ultimate truth" is not possible [though I should mention that the best philosophical thinking about science does not consider science to be "ultimate truth", either -- theories are understood to be tools, handles on the world. And I should also point out that it is unseemly to be so indiscriminate in your criticism of all religion, one the one hand, and then import their dualistic terminology.] Anyway, what I am saying (re: liberalism) is not that truth is possible, nor that truth is not possible. I am saying liberals are not talking about truth, they are talking about meaing and value.

The reason I defend liberal religionists here is that I think they are far and away more like us than not, and that positivist bias I mentioned above sometimes seems to make that hard to see. They share, I believe, the secular/humanist/atheist's basic value orientation, which is essentially enlightnement values -- i.e., the centrality and universality of reason, rejection of authority qua authority, individual autonomy, etc. And this makes all the difference.

At the risk of turning this discussion political (I find the theological much more interesting!), this is my main objection with the views if folks like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Much as I respect them otherwise, I think they err grievously when they lump liberal religionists with conservative ones. Atheists and secular humanists will find no better friends in the world than reform jews, unitarians, and the like -- they will be the ones who join atheists to vote for atheist candidates, push to keep ID out of schools, promote critical thinking and science education, support liberal social causes, welcome Hindu prayers in congress, support physician-assisted suicide, support same-sex marriage, ban coercive prayer from public schools, and jump at the chance to send Pat Robertson a one-way ticket to Sheol.

If I were a liberal Christian, I would say something like this: "Maybe Jesus didnt think he was the messiah, and maybe there is no God, and there are no miracles. So what? I still find the stories in the Bible salutary and inspiring and thought-provoking. I find the concept of imago Dei, ennobling, even (perhaps especially) if God is just the projection of human ideals. Adam and Eve are a wonderful myth about the way all humans are of a family. The stories, rituals, and community make my life richer and inspire me to make the world better."

James F. McGrath said...

I like the way John Dominic Crossan put it. Often the dialogue betwee fundamentalists and skeptics is like the following debate about Aesop's Fables:

Fundamentalist: "These stories from ancient Greece prove that back then, animals could talk"

Skeptics: "No, what those stories prove is that back then the Greeks were stupid enough to believe animals could talk"

The Liberal is suggesting that the debate is missing a third possibility: that these are a different sort of story altogether.

For my view of the Adam and Eve stories specifically, take a look at any of my posts on the subject on my blog (that seems better than posting those things again here).

WoundedEgo said...

>>>>....Sorry, but this made me laugh. It also makes me doubt that you've been paying attention to the discussion...

Here is a better question:

Does "liberal Christianity" or McGrath's "faith," "religion" or "mysticism" include any supernatural elements?

I do not think I am alone in having the impression that the answer to this question is obscured by vaguery and mixed signals.

If the answer is yes, there are supernatural elements, then can they please be identified?

And if not, then I find the terms employed to describe this exercise extremely confusing. It would, to my mind, be akin to a faith healer referring to their craft as "practicing medicine" or an erotic masseusse referring to their profession as "sports medicine."

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

If by supernatural you mean immaterial entities that account for life (e.g. the elan vital) or mind (e.g. the soul) or miracles (e.g. a big person who micromanages our life and does little else than give jobs to those who pray and give Selma Hayek larger breasts, then no. But just because I don't think of God in this outmoded way doesn't mean I'm not exploring the Christian tradition, any more than the fact that Newton's understanding has been superceded means that physicists today aren't doing physics but something completely different.

Within the mystical traditions of various religions there is a way of thinking about God that nowadays bears the label 'panentheism'. It can think of God as the 'higher order of organization' of the universe, perhaps even as an emergent property thereof. It is the mainstream view of God among theologians in many denominations.

But even if I find this sort of symbolism more meaningful than that of traditional theism, I am not in any way suggesting that it is something other than symbolism.

There are things that seem "miraculous" to me (not in the sense of inexplicable, but in the sense of wondrous). That energy gives rise to matter, which gives rise to life, which gives rise to mind, which gives rise to bloggers (among other things) causes me to stand in awe at the mystery of existence. Not to claim to have understood it, not to attribute it to a very large person whose existence supposedly doesn't cry out for explanation the way the universe's seems to. I simply respomd with awe and wonder, and my experience leads me to the intuition that perhaps I am part of something greater than myself.

Before someone objects that this insight is not unique to the Christian tradition, I wholeheartedly agree. But that is not news to anyone (except perhaps, again, to fundamentalists).

St. Augustine liked the phrase "Si comprehendis, non est Deus" - if you understand it, it isn't God. If only more Christians actually read the Bible, or the writings of the classic Christian theologians, doing so critically, fundamentalism would be much less widespread. Fundamentalism can only exist where people claim to believe their Scriptures literally in their entirety, and never study them in detail so that they realize they aren't actually doing so.

Scott Ferguson said...

Thank you, James, for clarifying your outlook on Christianity.

When Stephen J Gould proposed Non-Overlapping Magisteria as a way of separating science and religion in to the How and Why camps, I thought to myself, "Who really believes this?" I often look to my wife as a "typical" Christian. She believes that God is an entity that intervenes (performs miracles) in the world today. A God who meddles in the natural order or is a force driving evolution or what-have-you is not simply a "Why" guy. He is a potentially detectable agent who leaves his mark on events. This is what Christianity means today to the vast majority of professing believers, even non-Fundamentalists like my spouse. One can define Christianity any way one wants for yourself but can not impose this as the True Religion. Atheists have their own, BIG, problems in this area!

That said, there has been room for mysticism in every religion in spite of the efforts of self-proclaimed gate keepers. I don't mean to deny anyone's right to pursue Truth in whatever manner they see fit. I am, however, uncomfortable when terminology is used in a manner that conflicts with it's widespread usage.

I have personally struggled with the whole label thing. Am I an atheist? An agnostic? A former-Christian? A nominal Methodist ( I attend a Methodist church with my family)? I can't quite buy into the Humanists. And yet I still feel the need to identify myself. Ged from The Wizard of EarthSea comes to mind. Maybe I need the label, "Scott"?

Whatever you call yourself, James, I will continue to look forward to reading your blog every morning.

WoundedEgo said...

Well, thanks for the clarification.

From my viewpoint, your use of religious jargon is a misuse of terms. For example, you speak of your "faith in God" yet you do not seem to not believe in a God at all. You seem to use the term "God" as a nebulous, abstract way of referring to the natural order of the universe. How do you intend these terms?:

* God
* faith

If you have a meaning in mind other than that which a common dictionary and an established usage, I think honesty and common sense demand that you use other terms or do not use the terms without some kind of gloss provided.

That is, if you truly want to be understood. If, on the other hand, you hope to be misunderstood, then you are doing an excellent job.

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...


You seem to be working from the assumption that those who think of God as a large invisible person who interferes in our lives is the 'obvious' usage of the language and anything else is in danger of misunderstanding. But the use of 'God' that you described is certainly typical of Einstein, Spinoza and others, if not more widely.

Both the Christian fundamentalists and Richard Dawkins want to reduce everything to theism and atheism with very narrow definitions, and everything else as a dubious departure from those two camps. I agree with John A. T. Robinson that, in the present age, we need to think differently about the idea of 'God', but not necessarily jettison the terminology altogether. Drawing on some ideas and imagery present in my own tradition and others, I want to both hold on to what is good and useful, and redefine and rethink what needs to be revised. Religious believers have always done that. If you think this is not the case, then you have presumably taken the affirmations of fundamentalists at face value, when these in fact need to be critically analysed. When one does that, it turns out that many of their claims, whether about the Bible in the present or the beliefs of Christians down the ages, turn out to be inaccurate.

WoundedEgo said...

>>>...but not necessarily jettison the terminology altogether...

"Confusion" is where two different things are confounded - or thought to be the same, or the other. When you use familiar terms with a high probability that your hearers will reasonably be expected to understand them as you are using them, you are being derelict in your communication. You WILL be understood differently than your own word meanings with significant regularity. You should know that. You should take that into account when you address the public, as you often do. You should recognize and uphold your responsibility to clarify terms that you use which are likely to be understood differently. Otherwise, the honest of your attempt to be understood is called into question.

For example, suppose I said to you that I was an "atheist" but what I did NOT tell you is that by that I meant only that I do not believe in Quetzlcoatl. Would you not feel deceived when later you found out that I believed in Yehovah?

Perhaps you would consider that illustration as extreme, but I can assure you that there are enough people who will be confused by your usage of terms like "Christian" and "faith" and "God" and such that it is incumbent on you to make clear what you really mean, if you sincerely want to be understood. Call me cynical, but I suspect that ambiguity on this matter is something you find useful. You seem too skilled an orator to unsuspectingly be so disingenious.

But now that the cards are on the table, I must confess that from my perspective, this approach to "religion" is as relevant to me as one of those Civil War re-enactments. It is an exercise in "pretend."

And I doubt strongly that it is compatible with genuine mental health.

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

Presumably, if I follow your line of reasoning, scientists should stop talking about the 'theory of evolution', since in popular understanding a theory is just a hunch, and evolution is progress.

How do we decide when to surrender hijacked terminology and when to fight to reclaim it and change what people misunderstand it to mean?

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Dr. McGrath:
Let me start my coment by being fussily pedantic about the word "Christian." (If you've come across my previous comments, you know I'm usually being fussily pedantic about something.)

Isn't the term, at a minimum, an acknowledgement that 'Jesus' (i.e., Joshua or Yeshu'a bar-Joseph) is, in fact, 'the Christ,' the 'anointed' (or 'chrismed') one? That is why I have attempted never to use the term 'Christ' in discussing him and what he is reported to have said and done.
I don't believe, from your comments here, that you do accept that Jesus was either 'divine' or 'the Messiah' -- though I expect to spend a good part of the day reading and possibly commenting on recent entries on your blog, which will give me a better idea of exactly your position.

I realize that there are definite praqctical advantages in continuing to call yourself a Christian. It enables you to hold a position that you might not otherwise be accepted in, a position in which you can be better heard in your criticism of the more obnoxious and dangerous forms of fundamentalist Christianity, and it enables you to be heard by Christians whose ears have been trained to automatically seal themselves at the words of an atheist.

But in fact, wouldn't it be more accuyrate to describe yourself as a 'spiritual humanist' as I would describe myself as a 'secular humanist'?

More later, here after on your blog, after I have read further.

Richard M said...

"And I doubt strongly that it is compatible with genuine mental health."

Careful, my friend. There’s no need for utterly unsubstantiated rhetorical excess. I know something about mental health and will gently suggest you examine some evidence before promoting these sorts of sweeping generalizations.

You've made it clear you don’t like liberal religion. Fine, you're allowed. But does not this question ultimately reduce to a pragmatic one? Liberal religionists say their way of life works for them. Why isn’t that good enough? Maybe you think it’s silly and immature. And maybe they think your presumably ritual-less and myth-less life impoverished. But if you say how you do things works for you, then who am I to complain? More to the point, who am I (or anyone) to tell you what is valuable to you?

This is where atheism can cross the line into a kind of ugly ideological purity. It’s a position we need to strenuously avoid.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is incumbent upon liberals to make their meanings clear. I’m not sure the dangers of not doing so are quite as bad as you seem to fear, because I think it will be obvious in many ways that liberals, despite God-talk, are not fundies. Fundies themselves certainly seem to have little difficulty picking them out.

McGrath is certainly correct in noting that religion has always seen its terms and ideas evolve. Surely we, as atheists, aware of religious history, know this as well as anyone. Mordecai Kaplan, whom I mentioned in another post, was a Jewish theologian who developed a "theology" with no supernatural elements whatsoever. He gave explicit definitions of what he meant by things like God. But he also noted that religious ideas had always evolved, usually over many years and therefore unconsciously in the community. I.e., it is the most natural thing in the world. He called that process “transvaluation”. He proposed that for modern religionists, who find their religion valuable but cannot accept orthodoxy, this is no longer possible, mainly because they are aware of the process. So he suggested the term “revaluation” -- the conscious altering of meanings and definitions to "reconstruct" the religion. This is what folks like McGrath are doing -- doing consciously what has always happened unconsciously.

This is obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. Some will see the better path to simply abandon institutional religion altogether. This is perfectly fine. It just doesn’t feel adequate for everyone. I think atheists, as believers in religious tolerance, have it incumbent upon them make their own internal peace with whatever negative assessment he or she might have of religion in general, and make common cause with liberals, because it is the fundies who are the real danger.

Richard M said...

I’d like to quickly address Prup’s question of what it means to be Christian. I have had personal motivations to think about this. When I deconverted from fundyism to liberal Christianity, on my way to atheism, my family (who remains evangelical) denies that that is Christianity. This caused me no end of consternation, so I had to think it through. Here’s what I came up with.

Wittgenstein exhorted us to abandon the search for a essential meaning of the words we use, “out there” as it were, a la Platonism. His example: there is no single definition of the word “game” that encompasses all and only instantiations of what we consider to be games. No single set of criteria unites football, chess, tag, World of Warcraft, peek-a-boo, military wargames, and solitaire. His point: look to the use, not the meaning. Our language is not a mirror of nature, it is a tool for accessing nature. Games are not “carved-out” by nature, they are carved out by our use of the word “game.” In his terms, they share a family resemblance, not an inner essence.

The implications here for Christianity are obvious. Even more so since, as we atheists believe, there is no God for it to be in the mind of. Therefore, there is only this Christianity, and that Christianity, not “Christianity” in the abstract. There is no “Form of the Christian.”

To borrow from relativity: just as you don’t mean anything by terms like simultaneity unless you specify a reference frame, so too in religious identification you don’t mean anything unless you specify a reference group.

Who is a Christian? Doesn’t the answer have to depend on who you ask? Church of Christers don’t think Catholics are Christian. Catholics return the favor. Neither of them think John Spong would be a Christian. They all disagree about the definition. But how could we ever resolve this definitional dispute? I could give you my opinion, and rock-out argument… thereby join my voice to the dispute, not settle it. It is obvious that there is no higher authority to appeal to, no empirical test to run, to settle the question as to which definition is “correct.”

So, since you cant get to the “bottom”, because there is no bottom, you must specify a reference group when asking who is a Christian. There is no bigger or better or more solid answer than that. Is McGrath a Christian? According to who? To Baptists, probably not. To the early “Christians”, no, probably not. To his own congregation? Most surely.

It doesn’t get any better than that. So if you have a reference group that claims you, and you self-identify as a Christian, then you are a Christian.

At least, according to me.

WoundedEgo said...

As I said, WHENEVER you use a term in a situation where you are likely to be understood to be saying something different from your usage of the terms, the responsible thing to do is to identify your usage of the terms.

Among scientists, the term theory is understood. In textbooks and now, in popular literature, the particular scientific meaning is expounded because people are prone to misunderstand it. To the degree that the term is used without such clarification, people DO misunderstand what is being said, and that is a correctible situation.

Consider the liability of companies that do not forsee and head off misunderstandings about their products, and the great lengths that they go to to provide instructions with their products. "Do not use this product in a Microwave oven." If you think some people would misconstrue the product and use it in a microwave, the responsible thing to do is to explicitly explain its intended usage. Failure to do so will be culpable in a court of law.

I am incrdulous that you think your usage of the terms "God" and "faith" and "Christianity" are obvious to your hearers and how little responsibility you feel and what little effort you expend to avoid confusion, even when you are addressing as wide an audience as you do.

Suppose you received a brochure in the mail emblazoned with Christian symbols on every page, peppered with references to "Christ" and "faith" and "God" but after reading the fine print you came to realize that it was an invitation to an IMAX film on the wonders of evolution at the ocean floor. Would you not be confused? Might you not feel that you were being misled? I feel pretty certain that many would consider that a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Honesty is not just about what one says, but also about what one allows to be misunderstood. "Mom, I'm going to John's house" (and, unsaid, then on to Mary's party). The cards need to all be on the table and every effort made to be seen as one is.

I don't think I speak only for myself when I urge this kind of clarity.

Bill Ross

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Mr. Ross:
You exemplify the worst elements of this blog. You want to (a) impose a definition of Christianity on James; then (b) tell him, based on said definition, that he's foolish to be a Christian.

I have two words for you: "straw man".

Richard, on the other hand, exemplifies the best elements of this blog. One can set out to debunk Christianity, and yet be unafraid to acknowledge when someone else has made a legitimate point. Even if you continue to disagree with him or her.

James F. McGrath said...

I haven't made any brochures lately, but I do have a blog. Is where I am coming from and what I am talking about really that unclear?

When I am teaching, I certainly don't always say everything I think, or everything I think I know, but that has more to do with pedagogy and the fact that learning occurs in stages, as well as the fact that I don't assume that I'm right just because I happen to believe certain things very strongly. One reason I started blogging was precisely so that I could be on record about my own personal opinions, while still trying to maintain a reasonably impartial setting for discussion in the classroom.

For what it's worth, I do put disclaimers at the ends of my syllabi precisely for the sake of those who might misuse them...

WoundedEgo said...

Ok, Richard, let's try an experiment. You "revaluate" the terms "thanks", "library" and "dog" without explaining the new meaning, then use them repeatedly in a post here and let's see if anyone knows what the hell you are talking about. Then we can re-examine the compatiblility of this practice with mental health in light of the findings.

My children have a game where they declare a given day as "Opposite Day." On these days, "up" means "down" and "in" means "out." They are endlessly fascinated by this game.

Woody Allen said:

"My rabbi was Reformed. In fact, he was VERY Reformed - he was a Nazi!"

The joke, of course, is that "Reformed Jew" denotes someone who's Judaism has undergone a change - but when you become the antithesis, the term becomes inappropriate - even absurd. So also when someone says "I believe in God" but what they mean is "I don't believe in a personal God, just the universe itself" I think you have repeated Allen's joke - but with a straight face!

I watched the McGrath-Hitchens debate. In light of today's revelation, why was there a debate? All McGrath had to do was say "I don't believe in God, I believe in the natural order but choose to refer to it as God in order to exploit religious tradition and symbolism." This would have led to his being understood, as he was understood today. Instead, religious jargon abounded and Hitchens left the protracted discussion with no more understanding of McGrath's true position than before the debate. I doubt that the audience had any more clue either - I know I didn't - though I did note that he did not make any clear assertions.

As usual, I've probably worn out my welcome, so I'll "withdraw my foot" lest my neighbor "becomes weary of me and so hates me" - to quote the proverb.

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

I think that, in spite of one's best attempts to be clear, there can still be misunderstanding. For instance, is it possible that you have combined or confused James McGrath, who is the subject of this discussion and currently writing to you, with Alister McGrath who is neither of the aforementioned things? :)

WoundedEgo said...

Aaggh... apparently I have.

Well, I'll be on the other side of town, then, if anybody needs me.

Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

Next time I'll define more clearly the sense in which I am using McGrath, and not merely the sense in which I use the term Christian. :)

Richard M said...

Maybe this got lost in my post, but let me re-iterate. I totally, wholeheartedly, unreservedly agree with you that liberals or any other revaluators are duty-bound to make themselves clear and explain what they mean, and what they do not mean. Kaplan himself did just this and in fact wrote a book called "The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion." No one, and I mean no one, who is familiar with reconstructionist judaism is unclear about what he thought nor what he meant by "god", because he didnt want them to be.

So yes yes yes, we have no quarrel on this issue. Liberals need to be clear. Catholics, baptists, mormons and even atheists need to be clear. You should probably specify (when appropriate) what sort of atheist you are. Hard/soft/etc. Clarity is the essence of communication, or at least this kind of declarative communication.

Our dispute is rather about, *once you have been clear about the meaning of your terms* (and by now, we all know what McGrath means), whether it is somehow illegitimate or incoherent to use them that way. I have tried to show that it is not.

As I said, "Christian" is not a Form in the mind of God. It is not a "natural kind", like the periodic table, wherei nature itself tells us where the joints are. Its a human designation and you thus will always have to specify a reference class. Deviation from majority use certainly makes this even more important, but it does not make it invalid.

WoundedEgo said...

What I would like to see and have asked for is a simple glossary of what the following terms mean to McGrath:

* God
* faith
* Christian

Is that possible to obtain?


Bill Ross

James F. McGrath said...

Sorry, I have to ask before responding...

Which McGrath are you asking about?

WoundedEgo said...

Ah, I know I deserved that, but it doesn't mean I have to like it!

I recently had another bout of confusion with a pair of D'Souzas. I really need to start checking IDs.

But I'm not completely senile, though I am endlessly amused by just one joke.

Ideally, all three McGraths, but the one closest will work. James, was it? Yes, that's it. I'm almost sure of it.


Bill Ross

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

The Wrath of McGrath
Is wond'rous to see
"Why can't people see
That I'm in fact me?"

He pulls out an arrow
And carefully aims
At all who don't know
That he is named James

"I'm really quite hurt
It just isn't fair
When people don't know
I ain't Alistair."

A little 'catterel' for what'sname. (Sprout, Kittenz and Captain Puddles won't let me call it 'doggerel'

James F. McGrath said...

Since it is my definitions you want, it is my definitions you will get. Any similarity to the views of other McGraths living or deceased is purely coincidental...

God: I'm pretty happy with Tillich's definition, taken up by John A. T. Robinson and others, of God as 'Being itself' and not simply 'a being' among others in the universe. God means that reality which is all-encompassing, or in other words, reality itself. As the Sufi tradition puts it, interpreting the shahada (the first pillar of Islam) in their own distinctive way, "nothing but God exists." Since I'm talking about reality, the key question is not 'does God exist?' but 'What is the nature of reality?' Does it have depth? Does it have higher orders of organization that transcend us?

An analogy I like to use is of two cells in the human body talking to one another. One says "I look around and all I see are cells. We're born, we die, and that's it". The other says "You know, sometimes I think we're all part of one big cell." The latter is being 'cellulomorphic' (as opposed to anthropomorphic), and has no idea what this transcendant reality it is part of is really like, but hasn't it nevertheless intuited something important and true that the other cell has missed?

Faith: Tillich again - 'ultimate concern'. Being centered around an ultimate reality outside and greater than oneself. Surrender of control. Trust, awe and humility. I definitely don't mean believing dubious propositions on the basis of inadequate evidence.

I'm not sure I want to try to define 'Christian' in any more specific a way than 'connected with the Christian tradition' (which, since the definition has 'Christian' in it, becomes meaningless anyway). But it clearly must be connected with the stories about Jesus and the teachings attributed to him. But there is no reason why the focus would have to be on the Jesus of the Gospels as opposed to the historical Jesus, or why, on the other hand, the focus cannot be on the inspiring and challenging teachings about self-sacrificial love even if one cannot determine that those specific teachings originated with Jesus as opposed to his later followers.

All of the evidence suggests that Jesus himself pointed to God rather than himself as the focus of his actions and teaching. Presumably anyone convinced that the God they have encountered is ultimately the same one Jesus was pointing to can legitimately call themselves a Christian.

John W. Loftus said...

James, I think soft-agnoticism ("I don't know") is the default religious position. Anyone leaving the default position must offer arguments in doing so. That's why both you and I argue that moving from that initial position to a full-blown fundamentalist Christianity is as hard to do as flying a plane to the moon.

Yours is a very small step off that initial position. You affirm little. Since the smaller the claim is, the easier it is to defend, yours is a more reasonable position than fundamentalism, and harder to debunk. I too make a small move off the default position, but in the opposite direction. However, your claim offers you nothing...no hope...no morality...no propositional content...no solid evidence. A distant God like you have is no different than none at all. Once I grasped this I became an atheist, for even if there is a God, it makes no difference to believe he exists.

I see you struggling with why you aren't an atheist. I stuggle with why I don't affirm Tillich's religious view, and maybe I do, since even John Hick claims it's rational to interpret life as an atheist, as an ultimate concern.

I think all attempts to figure this existence out end in absurdities. Some people, I suppose you, embrace those absurdities and punt to mysticism and mystery as pointers to the ultimate. Existentialists do so. Pantheists simply claim all is maya, an illusion.

But when I reflect on what best explains this absurd existence then I offer a meta-explanation. Since no explanation is rational, I offer a meta-explanation for why this is so. It's because chance events, by their very nature, cannot be figured out. Our number came up in a Monte Carlo game. the universe is a brute fact, and this best explains why we cannot figure out why we exist.

WoundedEgo said...

Thanks, James.

Now, do you think that these glosses would appear in any extant dictionary? If what you mean is "ultimate concern" then why in the world would you use the Enlish word "faith?" Why not say "ultimate concern?":

Main Entry: 1faith
Pronunciation: \ˈfāth\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural faiths \ˈfāths, sometimes ˈfāthz\
Etymology: Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust — more at bide
Date: 13th century
1 a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one's promises (2): sincerity of intentions
2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust
3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs _the Protestant faith_
synonyms see belief
— on faith : without question _took everything he said on faith_

You say that you are using the word despite the **fundie commandeering of the word**, but I submit to you that you are the one doing violence to the term, and that the fundies have it right. It is absurd to expect anyone to understand this sentence:

"I have faith in God"

To mean this:

"My ultimate concern is reality."

Again, I'm cynical enough to believe that this is not a lapse of appreciation of the conventions of language but is actually a dishonest attempt to simultaneously gut a religion while ostensibly embracing it.

Ok, that won't be the nicest thing you'll hear today, but it is the most honest.

If indeed your ultimate concern is with reality, (as mine is), then by golly get real. Be a straight shooter. Lose the facade of a religion you evidently reject. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Sure it costs, but it is very freeing.

If, by some chance, I am incorrect about your motives, then I still urge you to wise up in your choice of words because the words you use DO NOT have those meanings to any but the tiniest of minorities - possibly only yourself and Paul Tillich.

"Eschew obfuscation!"


Bill Ross
"The perfect example of the worst type of blogger, unlike Richard"
"What I lack in youth, I make up for in immaturity!"

Richard M said...

Bill Ross-
Im honored to make it into your signature line!---

"The blogger who is definitely better than Bill"


WoundedEgo said...

Yes, Richard, John just keeps me on to make everyone else look good!

Bill Ross - "the man with no friends"

James F. McGrath said...

Do you prefer to be called 'Bill' or 'Wounded'?

I would have thought that my declaring my faith as my allegiance to to ultimate, all-encompassing reality (= God) would be understood to be more in keeping with the root meaning of faith than 'believing dubious propositions on the basis of little evidence'. It is, in the end, about trust and faithfulness, rather (or at least more) than propositional beliefs.

WoundedEgo said...

I hate responding so promptly on a Saturday because it signals loud and clear that I have no life!

I think "Ego" is how I'm known around here (for obvious reasons) and it avoids confusion when there are two or more bills (like around the beginning of the month). Just don't call me Alistair, and I won't call you Alistair (anymore)!

I've probably opined more than I needed to on the subject of the appropriateness of your use of the terms in question so I won't comment further.

I didn't confuse you with this Mc but I highly recommend giving him a listen:


Bill Ross

GordonBlood said...

Ive never described myself as a liberal, so frankly thats just a mis-characterization. You may be able to follow us into our foxholes John, but whether or not you ever actually engage seriously with the fox is another question entirely.

Luzid said...

What the hell - there is no evidence for an "historical figure of Jesus".

How can he be so dishonest (with us, or with himself)?

Josephus was a forgery. There is no evidence.