Neither your God nor your non-God are universal.

As usual, I leave some of my best efforts in other blogger’s comment sections.  What follows is adapted from a response to this post, in which the writer criticizes “progressive Christians” for cherry-picking from Christianity only that which we agree with. Ultimately, I take issue with her/his underlying assumptions.


…I don’t know if you read Christopher Hitchens or not, but you and he both seem to be under the same weird notion that in order to be authentically Christian, one must accept everything in the chosen holy books verbatim, and if one doesn’t, her beliefs don’t count. I defy anybody to subject himself to a similarly foolish standard in any other scientific or philosophical field: take all of Plato verbatim, or take none of Plato. Take all of Nietzsche, or none of him. Take all of Sartre, etc. This approach to anything – knowledge, belief, science, etc. – is clearly absurd.

Where did we get this idea that there is no validity to any body of work unless it is all literally true? From Christians? Maybe some of us, sure. But when others of us reject this paradigm, please don’t act as if religion is supposed to operate differently from any other human activity when it comes to how we form our beliefs.

As a progressive Christian, I am a pluralist, which means that one of my foundational beliefs is that God is too big to be fully understood by any humans. Ergo, to quote one of my professors, constructing theology means “groping toward the infinite with the tools of finitude.” Rather than provide a single, unified view of God, I think the Bible’s various narratives and themes instead reflect ongoing traditioning and theological changes and different emphases over a thousand years or more, and such traditioning and changes in interpretation have been ongoing ever since.

I don’t mind anybody calling into question any aspect of faith that is found to be problematic. But I do object to atheists or Christian fundamentalists alike who try to mandate universal definitions to what it means to be Christian, or who God is, or Christ, and so forth, whether for the purpose of rejecting or affirming such dogma. Neither camp is capable of defining the terms and forcing everyone else to adhere to them. So, militant atheists and frothing Christians alike, kindly knock it off already.

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10 Responses to “Neither your God nor your non-God are universal.”

  1. truthmerchant Says:

    Tom

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

    I can understand that the religious person can be ‘pluralist’ about accepting part or all of many different philosopohies, or anything else for that matter, just as non-religious people can.

    But if you don’t believe in: the ressurection, the immaculate conception, heaven and hell; then there’s scarcely any point in calling yourself a Christian in the first place. Deist seems more appropriate.

    If you do believe in any of those things, which you admit are subject to “interpretation” and “traditioning” (sic), then you can at least appreciate that your belief in them is based on faith, not reason.

    If so, you are unreasonable (“faith” is not “reason”). If not, then you are not a Christian.

    In mutual peace
    TM

  2. Tom Ryberg Says:

    TM,

    As you can see, I’ve managed to co-opt your actual argument into a broader narrative about which I’m already irritated. ;) Where my response doesn’t fit with your original intentions, I’m sorry. Thank you for clarifying your central points. I wanted to respond to a couple of them.

    You write:

    …if you don’t believe in: the ressurection, the immaculate conception, heaven and hell; then there’s scarcely any point in calling yourself a Christian in the first place. Deist seems more appropriate.

    I just want to suggest to you here that, in an odd sort of way, you are buying into an argument that started with Christian fundamentalists, namely, that to be a Christian, one must adhere to certain Christian “fundamentals.” Each of these three points you raised (resurrection, immaculate conception, heaven/hell), not to mention a slew of others (biblical inerrancy, salvation, the Fall, etc.) are hotly contested in theological discourse, and have been since basically the week after Christ finally ascended into heaven. Large numbers of Christians disagree wildly on these and other points – yet still affirm themselves to be Christian. It seems to me that your desire to get all the people who believe X into one box, and those who believe Y into another box, is simply woefully unrealistic in practice.

    “If you do believe in any of those things, which you admit are subject to “interpretation” and “traditioning” (sic), then you can at least appreciate that your belief in them is based on faith, not reason.”

    Of course I appreciate that my religious beliefs are ultimately grounded in faith. But that doesn’t mean that reason, science, personal experience, prior knowledge, etc. aren’t also sources. So too, I suspect that at least some of your deeply-seated beliefs and assumptions are at least partially faith-based (perhaps not deity-based). As with above, I’m not sure that we can easily compartmentalize the sources of how we come to know/believe/affirm the things that we believe/know/affirm.

    Simply put, faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. For either of us to deny that we utilize both as it suits us (you too, fella!), would not be adequate to describe the human experience of knowing, learning, and believing.

    Peace,
    Tom

  3. shareefali Says:

    Hello Tom,

    Glad to stumble upon your blog, via FB! I mentioned in a comment on one of your recent status updates, but it bears repeating/paraphrasing: I always appreciate your calm, even-handed tone and spirit of good faith in often ugly debates.

    Two thoughts:

    1) while many rational, truth-seeking minds may accept some ideas from Marx, Wendell Berry, or M. Scott Peck and reject others, is the Bible not categorically different in that it’s sole authority is derived from the universal yet wholly unverifiable claim that it’s the true word of God, as opposed to fallible human beings?

    2) If it’s not belief in the most important accounts of the New Testament, what makes a Christian a Christian? And why call it that, other than to associate with a powerful institution/cultural legacy?

    Best,

    Shareef

    • Tom Ryberg Says:

      Hello Shareef,

      It’s great to hear from you. Thank you for ‘stopping by,’ and I’m really touched by your kind words. I do try to be “even-handed” and to show a “spirit of good faith,” and this causes no small amount of anxiety on how to proceed from time to time. For example, I don’t know if you saw it, but this time last year, I wrote a couple of notes here and on FB urging people not to scapegoat the Mormons in the wake of Prop. 8… had to stick up for my Mormon friends, but man… I still feel I may have inadvertently victimized queer folks in the process of trying to be “even-handed,” which I feel is the big risk, especially for one who is as across-the-board privileged as I am. Anyway, your affirmation is one which truly speaks to the heart of my intentions and as such is very validating. So thank you kindly.

      I have lots of thoughts, but few answers regarding your two questions. Your first is a great point – the “word of God” interpretation of the Bible is absolutely essential to understanding its ritual use in worship, even today. Even in progressive churches that eschew claims of “biblical inerrancy” and concede that the “word of God” is not literally God’s written words, still often interpret the Bible as a central source for the living Word of God. Moreover, even if Christians simply stopped believing in the Bible at all today, it has one hell of a three thousand year legacy that has profoundly shaped our very world, and this reality must be reckoned with by all of us, especially those who would affirm it for ritual use.

      The thing is, the “word of God” nature of the Bible does not require that one interpret the Bible literally nor believe that every word was written/spoken/breathed by God Herself. While it is true that the Bible has been historically interpreted as the Word of God, it is not true that this has been equated with biblical literalism in Christian interpretation until recent centuries. Reworking our understanding of the text in order to use it meaningfully in today’s context is not, it turns out, some radical new process that destroys the Bible’s integrity, but is rather a process which occurs within the Bible itself, in a number of instances. (For example, the King David narrative found in the books of Samuel is dramatically reworked by the authors of the Chronicles books. Quite literally, the storyline is flat-out changed, presumably in order to reflect more current traditioning.)

      And so, even believing that the Bible is a source for the Word of God (as I do) does not compel one to believe in the literal truth of every word within. Christian (and atheist) calls to the contrary are very new to the scene, historically speaking, and, as previously noted, I am suspicious of both.

      Your second question asks the logical follow-up: “what makes a Christian a Christian?” And for me, that does have a lot to do with belief in Christ as revealed in the important accounts of the NT, as well as other sources (church community, theological discourse over the past two thousand years, etc.). The thing I want to do to the label “Christian” is liberate it from fundamentalist definitions which declare anything more specific than: in order for one to be Christian, one must believe in Christ. [EDIT: For what it’s worth, I would now put this as “in order for one to be Christian, one ought to find their salvation in Jesus Christ.” 12/29/09] Beyond this, everything else is up for interpretation. Efforts to nail it down beyond that are the role of the individuals who come together in Christian community – see all the various denominations, for example. But to try and unify everybody into a set of core points of agreement feels almost like trying to agree on a definition of what constitutes art. ;)

      I want to honor your point that by associating oneself with Christianity, one is indeed adapting a powerful institution/cultural legacy. And true, part of my self-association with this crowd is rooted in my anger at how the notion of what it means to be Christian has been co-opted by Christian extremists. I don’t think we should relinquish the term to the louder ones, at least not yet. But at the end of the day, it’s simply the best name for my very Jesus-centered faith view.

      So here’s why I count myself among the Christians. I believe that Jesus Christ lived more or less according to how he is described to have lived in the gospels in the Bible. I interpret Christ’s teachings, beliefs and actions as what God would have me do as I move through this world. I believe that historical Jesus at least has come to represent the entity who certainly is God Incarnate, or (‘God with us,’ Emanuel). His life, death and resurrection bear witness to God’s presence and alignment with those who suffer and are oppressed. As a Christian, I believe Jesus calls me personally into discipleship, which has big social implications for how I ought to live.

      It is hard to explain why, but I need Jesus. This has to do with “salvation.” I interpret the Fall differently from many, but I absolutely do believe in inherited sin – white privilege is certainly an example of this. As such, Jesus’ words (as recorded in the Bible) are a ringing indictment: “for mortals [entering the kingdom of heaven] is impossible, but for God, nothing is impossible.” In other words, I need God, who promises to be present in all of the struggles with which I am engaged, and empowers me along the way. As long as I choose to accept God’s grace and presence, here it is.

      All of this and more is why I’m a Christian. You’ll note that I’m blurry at best on several of the key “fundamentals.” Many would declare me not to be a Christian on that basis. To them I say, “I know what the voice of God sounds like, and yours is not it.”

      Peace,
      Tom

      • shareefali Says:

        Tom,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. If more religious people had your attitude I might feel less dubious about the state of faith today.

        I was interested in hearing more about what you said about the changes to the King David story throughout history? This coming from someone with relatively little knowledge of the history of the book and its authorship. Although, I must remark frankly that consideration of the fact that the text has been reworked/reinterpreted throughout history to better suit that society’s needs does little to persuade me of its infallibility.

        I do, however, deeply appreciate your unwillingness to surrender the institution/tradition of Christianity to its ugliest elements. I find that a very valid and defensible position, much the way I feel about this country, especially during the Bush years when lots of people liked to talk shit about moving to Canada or some other foolishness.

        (yeah, I’m all about throwing in the casual swear among otherwise decorous language)

        Your comparison of the notion of sin to legacies of oppression was quite striking to me; it’s a thought I’ve had myself, but my logic flowed in the other direction. As a youth who felt very assured of my own righteousness, the notion that sin was inevitable/inherent in my existence was utterly odious to me, and certainly helped cement my self-identification as an atheist. When I started doing anti-oppression education, I was actually given to a moment of doubt when I realized that a parallel might be drawn between the insistence on recognizing one’s own complicity in oppression regardless of personal values and behavior and sin. I ultimately reconciled this by realizing that while anti-oppression work calls for all responsible folks to be solemn and dutiful in acknowledging and not exercising privilege, guilt need not and should not be a factor (perhaps you could comment about what you perceive the relationship to be between sin and feelings of personal guilt in Christian tradition and practice?)

        That’s all for now,

        Shareef

  4. shareefali Says:

    P.S. I’ve added you to my blogroll.

  5. Tom Ryberg Says:

    Shareef,

    The changing David narrative is but one of several instances in which competing/conflicting narratives show up in the Bible. Sometimes it happens among different texts (i.e. David according to Samuel vs. David according to Chronicles; or discrepancies among the various gospels); sometimes it happens within the same text (such as the two creation narratives in Genesis: 1:1-2:4, 2:5-25; which were most likely written by two different sources altogether).

    Anyway, as a Christian, the main thing I take away from this reality is that reinterpreting the word of God on behalf of our particular communities, even when that means negating biblical literalism – is itself a biblical tradition. Far from being intellectual cherry-picking, this is simply an honest way to deal with the text (and, btw, it happens in our very Bible too, as the aforementioned examples and more illustrate).

    You mentioned being unconvinced of scriptural “infallibility.” Sure. So am I, insofar as “infallibility” is typically interpreted to mean that everything in the Bible ought to be literally implemented in our lives. The problem being, of course, that nobody really means this. They just say they do.

    I have other writings about the Bible here and here, if you’re so interested.

    I was very struck by your words about sin and privilege. I wanted to respond to certain aspects of it:

    As a youth who felt very assured of my own righteousness, the notion that sin was inevitable/inherent in my existence was utterly odious to me, and certainly helped cement my self-identification as an atheist.

    This same suspicion arises in various theological traditions, notably queer theology. It is suspicion that I share as well. For example, one of my greatest problems with the “we’re all sinners” paradigm is that it lets oppressors off the hook – if “we’re all sinners,” then that sort of levels out the playing field, doesn’t it? For example, my sins as a CEO, or dare I say US president, actively harm countless others. But hey – if “we’re all sinners,” then my choices and actions are really no worse than anybody else, are they? Furthermore, nobody else’s are any better than mine. All I need do is make sure I say the right words about Jesus before I die and all my sins won’t matter any more – at least they won’t for me and my soul. It’s a very personal – and selfish – view of sin and salvation.

    Yet, I think I need it. On FB, you raised the question: what do we need to be saved from? It’s a good question. I don’t think the answer is “hell” or “eternal damnation,” or even “the wrath/judgment of God.” I do believe, though, that “the Fall” is in effect for me, and I suspect, many, many other Americans.

    The Fall: Like it or not, most of us (all of us? Not my place to say for sure.) participate in sin – on an individual, communal, even inherited basis. For example, apart from our whatever oppression we might perpetuate directly, personally, even buying jeans participates in the indirect oppression of others, thanks to our evil economic system. It is, effectively, impossible to choose our way out of this system, to choose to lead “moral” lives, or at least lives which do not at least indirectly harm others. This, to me, is the Fall.

    You describe something similar: When I started doing anti-oppression education, I was actually given to a moment of doubt when I realized that a parallel might be drawn between the insistence on recognizing one’s own complicity in oppression regardless of personal values and behavior and sin. Exactly. And again, I would add, it’s effectively impossible to escape this complicity.

    In a word, this reality, spiritually and otherwise, sucks. I think this is a bad place to be spiritually, though on a temporal, rather than eternal basis. However, even if I didn’t believe in a God who compels me toward liberation, I suspect I’d feel some combination of anger, sadness, and guilt (as I do) over my oppression of others, some of which I can do something about, some of which I cannot help but must engage in anyway. I think “the fall” is in effect all around me, among people who do and do not have any particular religious paradigm. If I may deign to speak for other people like me, I think the effects of being an oppressor are felt in various ways, and that different people respond to them very differently – denial, depression, workaholism, self-medication, addiction, escape, abuse of others, etc. For me, my drug of choice is the Internet. This fallen condition, and that which results from it – e.g. the continued oppression of others and ourselves – is that from which we must be saved.

    You continue: I ultimately reconciled this by realizing that while anti-oppression work calls for all responsible folks to be solemn and dutiful in acknowledging and not exercising privilege, guilt need not and should not be a factor (perhaps you could comment about what you perceive the relationship to be between sin and feelings of personal guilt in Christian tradition and practice?)

    First, I’m not sure if you perhaps have a different founding assumption than I do about privilege, but I don’t believe it is something one may choose not to exercise. One may certainly act to minimize its effects, to various degrees of success, but I don’t think it’s possible to, say, give up one’s white privilege completely. Or heterosexual privilege. Or male privilege (unless one is able to avoid being perceived as male). And so on. One’s obligation to act to mitigate one’s privilege does not, in fact, ever quite result in the mitigation of said privilege. (I’m not gonna lie – thinking about this in these terms has not been an uplifting exercise. I sometimes feel as though I’m carving out a new form of Christian Nihilism.)

    As to your final point, I do agree with you in theory: that “guilt need not and should not be a factor” in determining how to move forward. In practice, however, it certainly often is present. While I deny that guilt is essential for personal transformation or Christian salvation or what have you, I do believe it can at least serve as a check to one’s conscience, if not be a useful motivator. But at the end of the day, no, it’s not essential. Rather, it is one of several stifling and controlling powers from which we are able to be liberated if we are able to embrace the reality of the paradox of our salvation: we are already accepted and loved, just as we are, despite that which makes us fallen.

    Not that you asked, but since this is my work for the month: salvation is when we accept God’s love and acceptance, in the midst of our vain inability to overcome our failings on our own. In accepting our acceptance, we are transformed – not into perfect beings, but into beings who are empowered to work toward liberation of self and/via others. And we are forever discontent to be complacent, or to accept anything less than our highest call anymore!

    It is God’s acceptance of my self (not mine! – I’m still pretty dissatisfied) that transforms me and empowers me to truly change my being, and words, and deeds, so that I may output love in a holistic, all-encompassing way, in all directions, always.

    At least, that’s what I got for now. :)

    Peace, friend,
    Tom

  6. Tom Ryberg Says:

    PS – what’s your blog??

  7. Shareef Ali Says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’m about out of new thoughts, but here are a few addenda:

    1. My blog is shareefali.wordpress.com. No guarantees on how often it gets updated.

    2. We are in agreement about privilege being something that cannot be given up, but that we can work to minimize its effects.

    3. So awhile ago I read Sam Harris’ “The End Of Faith”, and while I had some definite problems with it (the chapter on Islam was especially problematic), I agreed with the basic notion that religion has a net negative effect on the world. However, I was dissatisfied with his apparent strategy for improvement, which seemed to be simply to ‘abolish faith’–to me, about as well-reasoned an objective as ‘ending terrorism’, ‘abstinence-only education’, ‘eradicating evil’, etc. My notion is that the best someone in my position can do is empower believers like yourself–people who embrace plurality and prioritize justice and alleviation of suffering over dogma–hopefully to transform these institutions and traditions. So yeah.

    Lastly, here’s this great (atheist) blog that I stumbled upon today and spent several hours reading: http://gretachristina.typepad.com

    Bestest,

    Shareef

  8. Atheism: Part One of Many « No Gods Before Music Says:

    […] are less oppressive, divisive, exclusionary and/or destructive. My progressive Christian friend Tom Ryberg argued quite persuasively that he didn’t feel that his ilk should concede the entirety of […]


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