Read an Excerpt
God Under FireModern Scholarship Reinvents God
ZondervanCopyright © 2002 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShouLd the God of Historic Christianity Be Replaced?
Eric L. Johnson and Douglas S. Huffman
* * *
If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated. Voltaire
For much of the twentieth century, the very notion of God was under fire. Belief in God was regarded by most Western intellectuals as a vestige of our premodern heritage, to be shed with all other superstition. The God of the Bible (and of the premodern era) was considered too powerful, too primitive, and too irritable for modern tastes and was let go.
But times have changed. Surveying developments of the past decade, one might think we are in the midst of a postmodern revival. Time and Newsweek are regularly carrying religious cover stories. For years Touched by an Angel has been touching millions in prime time, while by day Oprah was promoting a similar kind of warm and fuzzy spirituality. For more intellectual viewers, public television-long home to series like Carl Sagan's Cosmos (a universe devoid of God but populated with aliens) or Leo Buscaglia's gospel of self-love-has been airing Bible studies on the book of Genesis. In the 1990s, best-selling books included Conversations with God, God: A Biography, and The History of God, and a singer famously asked, "What if God was one of us?" A number of movies of loving angels and a heaven for all good people currently compete in the video stores with less spiritual fare. We might not be as surprised that politicians, regardless of political persuasion or personal morality, make repeated reference to God. But when cultural leaders and pop icons throughout America call us to God after a national tragedy like 9/11, it is clear that God has been raised from the dead to which he was consigned in the 1960s. God is back and is being welcomed with open arms.
The careful observer will note, however, that God has come back from cultural exile quite different. This newer version is a kinder, gentler God-less threatening, more congenial, and more affirming. No longer the almighty, all-glorious center of the universe, this God seems to be more centered on us, less interested in obedience, and more concerned with our happiness. This God is actually quite harmless, supportive of all religion, and on everyone's side. Since no one is alienated from this deity, no one needs salvation from sin; on the contrary, God seems to think quite a lot of us. Certain behaviors that used to bother God don't trouble this God anymore. Hell seems to have been largely done away with; if it exists at all, it is reserved only for the absolutely worst among us, a Hitler or Osama bin Laden.
One wonders if this deity underwent psychotherapy while gone and came back more open and relaxed, having worked through whatever was bothering "him" back in those premodern days (that is another new feature: This God is gender-neutral, or possibly female, but is never to be referred to with the male pronoun). By most reckonings, God is much more acceptable than before being exiled. God seems to have learned some important lessons in how to relate to humans-and it worked. God is more popular than ever.
Not! Upon close inspection, it becomes obvious that this new, improved deity is not the same God as was vanquished earlier in the twentieth century. This God is an imposter. While he bears a superficial resemblance to the historic Judeo-Christian God in some important respects, other features are distorted, and still others are absent. In actual fact, the God of the Bible is no more popular than forty years ago; that God is still under fire and is not wanted back. The legitimacy of this covert substitution must be questioned. The purpose of this book is to draw attention to this changing of the divine guard in Western culture and to call instead for a reembracing of the transcendent and relational God of historic Christianity in this present, postmodern age, with the prayer that that God, the true and living God, will return in reviving power and love.
2. Contemporary Alternative Christian Theologies
While one can describe in broad outline what this imposter-deity is like in popular culture, individual theologians and schools of theology have developed more sophisticated versions of this friendlier, anthropocentric God. One would expect alternative deities to arise from outside Christianity. (In fact, New Age and some Eastern thought appear to be quite compatible with this religious revival; consider the current popularity of the Dalai Lama.) However, many of those most critical of the historic Christian view of God claim allegiance, in varying degrees, to Christianity. This group of authors and thinkers has alleged that historic Christianity has misrepresented God, and so they have devised a number of similar, but distinct, alternative representations of God to revise Christianity's description of God in ways that are more compatible with contemporary sensibilities. These alternative Christian theologies can be broadly grouped into two different (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) camps, which we will call "Constructivist" and "Developmentalist" models. Let us examine each of them.
2.1 Constructivist Theologies: The God of Historic Christianity Should Be Rejected Because God Is in the Mind of the Beholder
Constructivism is a skeptical theological stance that questions the human ability to know much about God with any confidence. Rather than being primarily a theological position per se (concerned with God as an object of understanding), it is actually more an epistemological position (concerned with the human subject and its ability to know, an orientation that has significant implications for theology). Flowing fairly directly out of the Enlightenment skepticism of Immanuel Kant, Constructivism regards the theological enterprise as intrinsically compromised by humanity's inability to grasp things as they are in themselves, particularly things that lie beyond the empirical universe, which the natural sciences can describe.
As a result, much of modern theology since Kant has doubted whether it had much to say about God positively. Kant himself believed humans had no cognitive access to God; humans could "perceive" God solely through their moral awareness (or practical reason). Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology, assumed a good deal of Kant's agenda but sought to locate the source of religion in neither belief nor morality, but in the religious experience of absolute dependence. However, he remained thoroughly Kantian in his skeptical presupposition that particular cognitive-linguistic expressions of religious experience were necessarily fundamentally deficient in describing our experience of God.
Since Schleiermacher's time, Constructivism has maintained its emphasis on the human subject rather than the divine object and has become a major force in Western theology and philosophy. Perhaps the greatest Constructivist of the twentieth century was Paul Tillich. Contemporary Constructivists include the so-called "revisionists" (David Tracy, Edward Farley, and Gordon Kaufman) as well as people like James Gustafson, Peter C. Hodgson, and Hans Küng. Feminist theologians like Elizabeth A. Johnson, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Sallie McFague, and Rosemary Radford Ruether have also developed Constructivist models, as have pluralists like John Hick and Paul F. Knitter. Liberation and other ideologically based theologies are likewise expressive of the Constructivist approach in that they see the particular social context, not transcultural and normative revelation, as the basis by which to formulate theology. (However, liberation theology is also a version of Developmental theology.
These authors and approaches have in common, to various degrees, a reticence to describe the nature of God with much confidence, and all of them believe that we are largely left to ourselves (currently, the community of human subjects)to come up with the best, most plausible understanding of God in light of the historical religions (like Christianity, but also others) and contemporary thought in philosophy and science. As a result of this orientation, the God of the Constructivists cannot be described infallibly; on the contrary, what truth claims they make about God are inevitably vague generalizations that seek to transcend the particularities of any historical religion, typically far removed from the personal God of Christian theism. A number of them consider the task of theology to be one of "imaginative construction." According to this approach, imagination is at least as important as rationality in theological activity; theology is believed to stand somewhere between poetry and philosophy. Postmodernism has not radically altered Constructivism; it has just changed the locus of ultimate authority from the self and its reason to the community and its perspective. Neither modernists nor postmodernists, in undiluted form, believe they can make valid claims about God's nature with much confidence.
In contrast, historic Christianity has always maintained a realist theological epistemology. It has always assumed that because of God's revelation of himself in nature, humanity (particularly in Christ), and especially Scripture, humans can genuinely know God, including a good number of specifics about his nature. Historic Christianity has at the same time always maintained that God transcends our ability to know everything about him, but it has affirmed that we can certainly know enough to distinguish the true God from the false gods of non-Christian religions. This extra measure of confidence in revelation is inevitably ridiculed by Constructivists as being naïve, dogmatic, and hopelessly outmoded, a trusting in the "house of authority." Constructivists must admit that theological realism has been the historic position of the Christian church but nonetheless believe it is paramount that humans construct a new Christian God more appropriate for contemporary culture.
2.1.1 A Representative Constructivist Theologian. Gordon Kaufman is one of the most important, recent Constructivist theologians. He wishes to take seriously all human discourse (Christian, Buddhist, atheist, the natural and social sciences, poetry, etc.) but refuses to regard anything specifically Christian (such as the New Testament)as having a superior role in revealing the nature of God. Kaufman understands our notions of "God" to be nothing more than a symbol, a "product of the human imagination," standing for something we really have no ability to comprehend. Yet, he argues that the "God symbol" can be a significant construct that helps us function in life and orients us to important values.
Kaufman powerfully (and perversely) argues that one of the most important functions of this symbol is to nullify and relativize all human attempts to assume any privileged epistemological position. "God" points beyond all our relative understandings and so calls us to humility and a recognition of our own inadequacy to establish what the truth "really is." Any attempt at such dogmatism, Kaufman argues, is simply idolatry, a worship of our understanding rather than "God." "To mistake our own imaginative constructs for that mystery is to fall into self-idolatry." Amazingly, Kaufman claims that to say we can truly know God is the greatest of sins. Even biblical authority competes with "God's" authority over us, since the idea that God is a literal person who can speak to us exemplifies "some of the most anthropomorphic features of the tradition" and is "unthinkable."
Kaufman's God is shrouded in such mystery that we can make out little beyond the idea that human thought is inadequate to grasp God and that God is "the eternal process" drawing us to that which is good. In the end, Kaufman's "God" seems much closer to the "One" of Plotinus or the Brahman of Hinduism than it does to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Christ. Tragically, what Kaufman offers us, with an estranged brilliance, is a lonely universe where humans are essentially forced to be their own meaning-detectives, trying to make sense of their existence on their own and working toward the gradual improvement of human life, but where an impersonal "God" cannot act to genuinely guide us or relate with us. One is forced to conclude that Kaufman is extrapolating his theology from his own solitary experience, far removed from the relational God of historic Christian theism.
2.1.2 Religious Pluralism. A common theological Constructivist model is that of religious pluralism. Some kinds of pluralism are desirable-for example, an appreciation for nonmoral cultural and ethnic differences and a genuine respect for all persons (regardless of their choices, lifestyles, or religious views, even where there is vigorous disagreement with those choices, etc.). The kind of pluralism under consideration here, however, is a radicalization of this more benign respect. Modern and postmodern religious pluralism rightly values humility in making truth claims and rightly recognizes that humans and their knowledge are shaped by culture. But their religious pluralism goes much further than this by virtually denying objective truth altogether (at least in religion).
The major thesis of religious pluralism can be summarized as follows: No individual religious system can claim absolute superiority over any other religious system. Different religions are expressions of the various cultures from which they originate, and they describe the human condition and transcendent experience in differing, but important, ways. This, of course, goes beyond the claim that all religious systems contain some truth or reflect some valid insights into reality. Many exclusive religions (those claiming to be the only true religion) will acknowledge that alternative religious systems have gotten some things right (we are, after all, all made in God's image and have the universe in common). But religious pluralism claims that all religious systems-in one way or another-have gotten most things right, that they all represent and express religious truth with virtually equal validity. Stated negatively, religious pluralism declares necessarily false the claim of one religion to be exclusively true or to be superior over all others.
Excerpted from God Under Fire Copyright © 2002 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.