Do we in liberal, mainline denominations serve up a kind of worship that fails to convey God as experienceable, present and active in our lives and world? Are we neglecting to treat God as real?
When I served a United Church of Christ congregation in Boston, I puzzled over the large number of Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty and students who attended a burgeoning, evangelically oriented congregation in our neighborhood. How could scientifically trained people be at home in a church with such an anachronistic view of the world? It made me bristle.
Perhaps I didn’t understand that the M.I.T. crowd is seeking a God as real as the phenomena they daily work with in the laboratory. Empirical reality makes their world go ‘round. Why should the God they worship be any less real? In this conservative church and thousands more like it, God’s reality is portrayed in terms respected by the scientist: knowable, predictably present, bringing coherence to all the world’s phenomena with an all-encompassing law, one who makes things happen, is involved in the life of persons. The average American is ipso facto a scientist by virtue of our participation and tacit trust in a rational-functional worldview. Therefore, a “scientific” God—one who “behaves” like other objects we consider real—holds enormous attraction.
At the time, I was unfamiliar with the history of evangelicalism’s romance with science. For over a century, evangelicals and other conservative Christians have attempted to correlate scientifically disclosed realities with the realities portrayed in Scripture. As George Marsden describes it, the 19th-century Common Sense philosophy that was popularly embraced by American evangelicals “was considered to provide a sure base for the rational and scientific confirmation of the truths of the Bible and Christian faith…. In an age that reverenced science, it was essential that this confidence in Scripture not be based on blind faith alone. God’s truth was unified, so it was inevitable that science would confirm Scripture.“1
The hope that scientific inquiry would vindicate Scripture continues to this day among conservative Christians. James Davison Hunter analyzed the “cognitive bargaining” of evangelicals that permits them to participate in a rational-functional world and, at the same time, hold to literal interpretation of Scripture. Hunter observed that many evangelical books and curricula have a quasi-scientific style to them. While not scientific in content, these materials, ranging in topics from Bible studies to human sexuality, are peppered with references to findings and studies. They cite authorities whose names are prefaced by “Doctor,” and often rely on a format of setting out a “law” and then providing “proofs” for it.2 Clearly, this is an attempt to appeal to science as a legitimating authority.
However erroneously executed a correlation between biblical literalism and science might be, there is something of integrity at work. It is an integrity that has eluded me and my liberal colleagues. It is the attempt to portray God as real. Several years ago, Max Stackhouse wrote an article, entitled “Fundamentalism Around the World,” in which he stressed that “every religion is based on certain fundamentals; and fundamentalism arises when these fundamentals are imperiled, obscured, or ignored.”3 The fundamental that has been obscured by the liberal tradition is God’s reality.
When I say “God’s reality,” I mean understanding God as an existent, materially manifested being, whose life belongs to an objective and accessible world. I fear that the liberal understanding so subjectivizes God that, for the contemporary churchgoer in our tradition, God is not real. God is a murky, diaphanous spirit who visits each individual in an entirely different way, so that experiences of God run the gamut from the sacrifice of Jepthah’s daughter to the ministry of Mother Teresa. The preacher in the liberal congregation, mindful of the diversity of subjective experiences of God, refrains from saying anything confidently about God.
A recent sermon at a typical United Church of Christ congregation was on the importance of listening. The preacher drew heavily upon Taylor Caldwell’s novel The Listener, in which a series of people find solutions to their problems by being in the presence of the Listener, an unspeaking but attentive character. Caldwell’s Listener is, of course, to be understood as God, and her 015lesson is that we can find in god’s seeming silence the power and healing we need—if we understand that silence as grace. The preacher, however, failed to draw out this theological point, or any theological point. Although he analyzed the impediments we face in being good listeners, never did God enter into the sermon: not as an element that adds insight to our dilemma inattentiveness, and certainly not as one who might help us overcome our resistance to listening. A good talk, but where was the real God?
The current movement for theological clarity among liberal denominations such as the United Methodist, Presbyterian and the United Church of Christ is welcome. But theological clarity will not come unless a revolution in the reality status of God is allowed to foment. The revolution is needed to usher our largely subjective notion of God into the bright, public light of our contemporary scientific lives. If our notion of God does not address these standards of reality—standards by which we make the critical decisions of society, work and family life—then God comes to be seen as less real and less impinging upon these very decisions.
We can easily sympathize with reasons why, in the liberal tradition, God came to be construed as primarily subjectively real. We have learned too much in the 20th century —or, rather, we have learned we know too little—to pop off easily about how God “is this why” or how God “wills you to do that.” We now recognize the political agendas embedded in the very composition of parts of scripture. We have come to see the oppressive implications of Bible passages once held dear. We realize that our “one, true faith” is a syncretistic grab bag of everything from Canaanite agrarianism to chamber of commerce boosterism. The Darwinian revolution forever shamed smarter Christians from going head-to-head against the findings of science for the sake of defending the facticity of the Bible’s etiological tales.
The liberal community’s response to the traumas wrought by the Darwinian revolution and the growing influence of the historical-critical analysis of Scripture has been to shift its focus from God to the experience of the believer. Since it was apparent that it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of God with intellectual certainty, the liberal community has focused instead on what it could grasp: itself. With the philosophical subjectivism of Schleiermacher and the religious individualism of Kierkegaard, the faith of the believer and not the nature of God became the focus of the church’s energy. This priority continues to this day and is exemplified in the enormous popularity of faith development studies, the existentially oriented writings of Tillich and the successors, the liberation theology movement and the feminist reappraisal of the Bible as the “victor’s” side of the story in an ancient series of religious struggles.4
These solutions to the shifting reality status of God, while providing a means to move forward intellectually on important fronts such as the psychology of faith and the history of religions, are in danger of unwittingly diverting the liberal congregation from its very reason for being. I fear that such intellectual endeavors will exhaust the religious vitality of our congregations if they divert us from thinking about God. How long can we be satisfied with sermons and classes that skirt the issue of who God is and how God acts in our lives? People come to church searching for God—searching for the help and guidance they instinctively sense God can give them. Having faced the limitations of the power and wisdom of their own human resources, they turn toward the unlimited power and wisdom of God. While it is illuminating to learn of the diversity of others’ religious experiences, ultimately one must ask: Is there any single reality toward which these experiences point? Is there a God who informs these experiences, or are they simply the unconscious repetition of patterns from our human relationships? What criteria may we use to discern how God might be real, how God might intend us to act? In short, it is time for theology.
Conservative churches have flourished because they have never stopped speaking about God—about God’s immanent reality, about God’s availability to help the individual and community, about God’s inexorable will for the world. These churches never stopped talking about God because they stubbornly maintained a naive understanding of Scripture as unmediated “pictures” of God-in-action. One had only to cite the pictures of God provided by the Bible.
But in the conservative’s reality status of God, there is curious epistemological glitch. God’s reality status has never been doubted. God is as real as the phenomena of the laboratory. Yet, the “laboratory” that discloses to the conservative the “dimensions” of this real God is a dusty place with archaic equipment. The few scientists allowed into this sequestered space share the same agenda: to defend the Bible from the fact of its human origins and its hermeneutical (interpretational) history. For these people, the Bible contains one perfect picture of God, a picture upon which all subsequent models of divinity, morals and destiny must be based. For a tradition so rightly concerned to keep God real, conservatives certainly push hard against the laboratory door, straining to keep out the very reality that would help them accomplish the critical aim.
Both conservative and liberal approaches to theology are hobbled when it comes to presenting a God that is real and comprehensible to the contemporary person. The God of liberals is never seen as independent of the apprehension of the believer’s sensory calculus. The God of the conservatives demands that every advance in knowledge and social justice cohere with pictures gathered between the 12th century B.C.E.a and the second century C.E. (or, perhaps, congealed in the 17th or 19th centuries), resulting in a God privatized by the parochial, special pleading for the factual accuracy of every jot and title of the Bible. Neither of these will do.
Do we in liberal, mainline denominations serve up a kind of worship that fails to convey God as experienceable, present and active in our lives and world? Are we neglecting to treat God as real? When I served a United Church of Christ congregation in Boston, I puzzled over the large number of Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty and students who attended a burgeoning, evangelically oriented congregation in our neighborhood. How could scientifically trained people be at home in a church with such an anachronistic view of the world? It made me bristle. Perhaps I didn’t understand that the […]