Alfred North Whitehead once wrote about the importance of
"importance," the sense that something matters. Our ideas about
what matters, what matters ultimately, and what matters little
or not at all defines our identity as an individual human being.
At the same time we are always social creatures organically
related to all those biological, social, religious, and cultural
communities that created and nourished us and about which we
care and within which we are cared for. I want to suggest what
matters to me in the way of ideas, principles, and beliefs that
have been important in making me the person I have been and am.
This is a long essay. To make it easier, I have put links to
the various parts of it. You may use them to go to particular
topics if you wish.
Commitment to Truth
On the Boundary
.Modernism: Skepticism, Relativism, Pragmatism
The Experiential Meaning of Doctrine
The Importance of Social Location
The Centrality of Ethics
Bias Toward the Poor and Outcasts
The Relative Unimportance of Formal
No Finality of Thought
Theology as Religious Belief
The Ethics of Belief
And so Forth
In a fashion I recapitulated in my own life major historical strands in the history of American Protestantism the last two centuries. I began at Friendship Baptist Church in Pike County, Georgia, with a form of revivalistic, pietistic, evangelical Protestant religion that developed in 19th century America. The theology taught at Friendship was unconsciously conservative, even fundamentalist, in its theological expression. The people just believed what they believed but were not conscious of having a point of view. I read liberal theologians in college and was deeply influenced by people like Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Shailer Mathews, all Northern Baptists, without losing my identification as a Southern Baptist. At Yale Divinity School I absorbed a form of neo-orthodoxy as represented by H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, Emil Brunner and others. This permitted me to combine the language of sin and grace I learned in my childhood with the sophisticated methods of biblical interpretation and theological reflection I learned in class and from reading books. I gradually began to modify this orientation with a version of process theology I learned from Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and John Cobb. In the 1960's I was interested in the relation of theology and science, ecological theology, and future studies. I was influenced by motifs from liberation theology in the 1970's as represented in its feminist, black, and international varieties. Gradually, I began to move toward a more empirical form of process thought and became dubious of the precise metaphysical claims of Whitehead, though still conceptualizing the world in ways that were recognizably Whiteheadian in their most general features.
It occurred to me somewhere along the line that I was an American and that European, especially Continental, modes of thought just did not speak to me. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger never made much sense to me, although Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx made some telling points. Nevertheless, it was the tradition of William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the "Chicago school" of theology in the 1910's, 20's, and later that turned me on. After about 1985 I moved further toward a distinctly left-wing version of process theology with a strong empirical flavor. My present thought is set within a framework of skepticism, pragmatism, and relativism.
The category of life has been central for me since the mid-1960's and became even more so in my later years. A central theme has been that the universe is in the business of creating life in all its myriad forms and developing its potentials for enjoyment. Biology and theology are closely related in my thinking. I prefer a biological model for theology over the political notion of Creator King in the Bible and the Absolute Monarch of classical orthodoxy. One of my recent books was titled Theological Biology in which life becomes the clue to philosophy, theology, and ethics. As indicated earlier I think of life in Whiteheadian terms as having in all its manifestations a subjective element of experiencing. My views also have a Tillichian flavor in that I define life as the process by which potential is actualized. The category of life connects the universe for me and is the clue to everything from subatomic particles to God, with animals and human beings in the mid-range. God is the Life of the World, and the world is the body of God. My recent book on ethics - The Ethics of Belief - has the subtitle A Bio-historical Approach. I mean that human love has a biological basis in the bonds created by sexual drives that join male and female, as well as same-sex couples, together in erotic union. Natural bonds are also created between parents and children and family members. Here is the biological basis for community in which members are loyal to each other and seek their mutual good. This natural urge toward union with others can be ethically expanded by experience, choice, and commitment. I contend that natural eros (drive toward union and fulfillment) with its self-centered bias is ethicized by Christian agape (ethical love) as the circle of persons with whose good we identify enlarges and becomes more inclusive until ideally it embraces the whole community of life. Christian love is one of many ethical perspectives that have emerged in history to guide life on a moral basis.
I came to think of philosophical, theological, and ethical convictions in terms of beliefs that are convincing to me and to others who share them but that cannot be proven. They function practically as a way of organizing the world and coping with existence on this earth. Theoretically, I am skeptical of any and all claims made that they are correct presentations of an objective order of reality and value and thus universally valid. Some particular vision may be more or less accurately reflect an objectively real order of things, but we can never be sure which one that is. Pragmatically, all my accepted conceptualizations are regarded as beliefs that function for me as if they were true but that cannot be shown to be in correspondence with reality except by the tests that I employ, all of which are relative to my own location in time, space, history, and culture. This does not preclude the possibility that some of my beliefs may mirror in some fashion the objective reality. My beliefs are convincing to me, but I cannot be sure they are a map of the world as it is in itself. I cannot believe otherwise than I do at any given moment, although my convictions may change over time and may even go through revolutionary transformations. I must act on my beliefs in ways appropriate to their importance. But I have no way of knowing whether they accurately represent an objective order or being, meaning, and value. As a friend of mine said, "The map is not the territory." But a map can help us locate ourselves and get where we want to go.
So I am a skeptic, a pragmatist, and a relativist. It took me a long time to get where I am, and I do not expect this way or viewing the world will change much more. I can only recite the history that lead me to these ideas, give the reasons for thinking they are worthy of belief, while recognizing that I see what I see because I stand where I stand in a certain family, regional, religious, historical, social, and cultural trajectory about which only relative and not absolute claims can be made. My beliefs work for me in that they meet my standards of measurement and are satisfactory guides to life. No other alternative is possible at any one moment. So I confess who I am, what I believe, what my moral, political, and philosophical commitments are, remain open to conversation with most others on a basis of mutual respect (though there are some points of view that are so reprehensible to me that I cannot honor them), and expect to change if something more convincing gets me in its grip.
By the time I was twenty years old, I had already gone though one intellectual revolution. No later than that I made a conscious commitment to pursue truth as I could come to know it wherever it led me. This meant a life of questioning and search that has taken me a long way from where I started at Friendship Baptist Church in the 1930's. This was not a deliberate attempt to be a rebel or a heretic but simply a determination that I would not hesitate to take a new line of thought if that is where evidence and conviction took me. It was an effort to be totally honest with myself and others and to avoid defensiveness. In the preface to my Theological Biology I expressed my aim this way: (2)
The faith and the doubt expressed herein are the product of that sometimes agonized quest in which there were no dogmas exempt from testing, no questions that could not be asked, no traditions that could not be scrutinized, no orthodoxy beyond criticism, no reigning theology whose limits could not be probed. I have increasingly sought to determine the down to earth implications for life of every doctrine. At the same time I have demanded correspondence between belief and experience and coherence within the total system -- within the limits of my fallible reason.This approach marks my efforts with a pronounced individualism in that I have never taken any received tradition or the faith of any existing community as a final norm. I stand within a particular trajectory of Christian history and am a Baptist in every way. Nevertheless, all things were open to reconsideration if honesty compelled it, including Christianity itself. Given my individualism, some would insist that I am not a theologian in the strictest sense but a philosopher of religion. That is fine with me, although I have always adhered to what I thought was the highest and best in biblical Christianity. Moreover, I believe that what is convincing in this tradition is not surpassed by any other way of construing the world and rendering the meaning of life. In that sense the Christian vision, or the best of it anyway, has always functioned as the operating norm for me, although only because it is convincing to my reason and experience. It is the stress on my reason and experience that identifies me an individualist. This indicates the persistence in me of a strong 19th century Baptist, perhaps frontier, individualism. I am convinced that whole traditions can be wrong even if centuries old and accepted by millions of people. I am respectful of what other persons and communities have thought though not bound to it. I am equally skeptical of my own beliefs and only insist that they are the best I know up to now from all sources and may well be wrong. Modesty is a prime virtue in theological and philosophical thought. Yet my convictions are genuine and function for me in the way that no alternative available to me does or can.
Paul Tillich defined himself as "a theologian on the boundary." Nothing better describes my orientation to the world than this. I have been on the boundary between church and world, religion and the secular, the pious and the worldly, theology and philosophy, theology and science, revelation and reason, theology and ethics, the theoretical and the empirical, metaphysics and morality, idealism and realism, theory and practice, flights of the unbound conceptual imagination and down to earth everyday, ordinary experience, the speculative and the practical, realism and pragmatism, faith and doubt, affirmation and skepticism, hope and despair, the American North and the American South. As a consequence I often have ambivalent feeling about a lot of things. A "yes" has to be balanced by a "no." Students imitated me with extravagant hand gestures and bodily movements by remembering that in class I often said "On the one hand, . . ." and "On the other hand, . . . " Yet mono-polar elements define me as well. I am a male, heterosexual, white, Baptist, Protestant, Southern, American, human being with a particular life history that marks my uniqueness, unites me with all who are like me, and distinguishes me from those who are not. A boundary separates and makes a clear dividing line yet connects at the same time. From a boundary, you can step from one territory to the other. I have kept all these defining spheres apart; yet I have had a foot in both and have moved easily from one to the other. Most of the time I have been able to unite the two without forgetting the distinctions. I have never been fully at home anywhere or totally at peace with anything but have always had longings that were never fully satisfied anywhere I was, vague yearnings about other possibilities, suspicions that the grass might be greener on the other side. In some ways I am now and always have been a restless soul, never content with any of my identities yet united deeply to all my locations and commitments. I was supremely happy teaching at Mercer but always had a vague longing for something different or better. Wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I did my best and loved it even while dreaming of getting away to something new. From the day I moved North, I thought of moving back South. Ambiguity and complexity have marked every task and place since early adulthood.
Not only have I been on the boundary, but I have crossed a lot of boundaries in the attempt to be inclusive in my thinking. I have been a "big picture" rather than a "just give me the specific facts" guy. I want to know how the particulars fit into a larger whole, the comprehensive context in which the facts occur. In the process I have done a lot of interdisciplinary work. This has involved a lot of "theology and . . ." stuff. I have worked with theology and science, theology and future studies, theology and ecology, and theology and the social sciences - to mention the most prominent efforts. Interdisciplinary studies have to be taken up, as Donald Campbell wrote, "by marginal scholars who are willing to be incompetent in a number of fields at once." (3) I have certainly succeeded in that! In this connection I have been eclectic. It seems to me that "both and" or even "this, that, and the others too" is usually closer to the truth than "either or." I find myself looking for multiple causes or influences that may interact with or limit or affect each other. Nature and nurture are a prominent example of this. We are neither preprogramed genetically or a set of mere possibilities to be actualized by the environment, a "blank slate" (Locke) to be written on by experience and training. I have tried to combine teleological with deontological approaches to ethics, (4) mixed some Pelagianism and some Irenaenism with my Augustinianism, some Paul Tillich and some Teilhard de Chardin and some William James with Alfred North Whitehead, and so on Sometimes this means combining elements that are thought to be incompatible by others.
I usually see some virtue in most points of view and try to include it. I often employed the dialectical method of Reinhold Niebuhr by holding contrary position in tension and balance but unlike Niebuhr and more like Whitehead I sought to find a larger framework in which conflicts became contrasts within a larger frame of reference. I think all this helped to make me a good teacher because I could appreciate a wide variety of points of view and try to see the grain of truth in every outlook. However, it made me an awful decision-maker since it was hard for me finally come down somewhere. The word decision (decidere) means literally a cutting off, i. e., cutting off other options, choosing one thing and excluding all the others. Thinking can be tentative, expansive, and inclusive, incorporating contrasting or conflicting elements in thought whereas action is specific, definitive, and particular. You either mandate parental consent when a teenage girl seeks an abortion or you don't even though you know that either way it will result in good consequences in some cases and bad consequence in others or some mixture thereof. I could never be a fanatic because I see so much that is limited in every point of view that it is hard for me to get overly excited about any of them. I have seldom been a wholehearted supporter of anything. When the limits to growth thesis was a passion with many of my friends, I was sympathetic to the thesis but always had major reservations and questions. My enthusiasm for most every cause was always moderated by a recognition of its limitations and shortcomings. I cannot overemphasize how important ambiguity is in my thinking
It gradually dawned on me sometime around 1985 and after that the focus of attention ought to be on what people actually believe, not what they ought to believe or even on truth. Individuals and communities have a set of convictions that function to orient them to the world and provide a map to guide them. If you ask people where they got their beliefs, why they think they are true, how they test them, what it would take to make them change their minds, and so on, you will get a variety of answers articulated at every level of sophistication imaginable. All the forthcoming answers are interesting and important, but most significant, what really counts, is the fact that people have them, believe them, and that they operate in their lives to give them a picture of the world and to prescribe a course of action. This theory holds for both theology and ethics.
Let me make more explicit the general stance associated with this outlook. First of all, I am a modernist. (5) While I find the heart of New Testament Christianity in the love of God toward us and the love of God and neighbor required of us, I stop short of insisting that its essence is to be found in this or in any other formulation. Definitions of essence always reflect the mentality of the interpreter. I am content to speak of what is highest and best in the New Testament as I interpret it. Moreover, the love of God toward us and the love of God and neighbor required of us is normative for me not because it is in the Bible but because I am persuaded of its inherent value as the highest truth about life, a truth rooted in ultimate reality that points the way toward human fulfillment. Granted, I find the biblical vision persuasive because I was reared as a Christian of a particular sort. Religious reasoning is circular in this sense. We find what we had presupposed from the beginning. In agreement with the modernists I maintain that we are in practice the ultimate authorities who determine what is most worthy of belief here and now. I claim to be a Christian because what I regard as the highest and best that reason and experience can discern is also basic to the biblical witness, especially in its New Testament expression and vice versa. This simply means that divine and human love and their implications and presuppositions as found in the Bible are both credible as a description of reality and relevant as a guide to life. Formally put, the norm of religious belief for me is the best that I have discovered from all sources, the Bible being chief among them.
I have already identified myself as a skeptic, a relativist, and a pragmatist. A little more elaboration may be useful. Skepticism means we cannot know for sure whether our beliefs about God or the gods are true. I would give more attention to the ancient Greek thinker Carneades than he usually gets Relativism means that theologies can justify their claims only by making use of the resources available and convincing to the communities and individuals who espouse them. Neither precludes some perspective from being true or more true than some others, but no procedure or set of criteria establishes it with certainty as reflecting the objective order of things. Believing with all ones heart does not make it so, even though the belief may in fact be true. If it did contrary things would be true since fanatics of many persuasions are absolutely sure of the correctness of their doctrines and refute all claims contrary to their own. In any case all statements that are not true are false or relatively so. Therefore, since contradictory doctrines abound, most are false, and at most one is true or relatively so. None may be true. Yet they all serve the purposes of those who affirm them.
Probably no two theologians or philosophers who ever lived believed exactly the same thing as any of the others in every respect. It has always puzzled me that more people do not draw the same skeptical conclusions from this that Carneades and I do. I keep my own modesty in full working order by reminding myself that out of all the theologies, philosophies, and ethical systems constructed by scholars over all the centuries, it would be a miracle of gigantic proportions if it should turn out that mine is the one that finally got it all right! Ah, yes, but the same point holds for everybody else in precisely the same way, including all the great minds from Plato to Whitehead. Yet somebody occasionally wins the huge lottery when there are a hundred million tickets. As the ad for the New York lottery says, "You never know." With theology and philosophy the drawing has not yet been held. Religious faith, in this sense, is a gamble.
Young Palestinian men at this moment in the year 2003 go on suicide missions into Israel with bombs strapped to them. They have been taught that if they die as a martyr for their faith, they will instantly enter paradise and have available a bevy of virgins. Presumably, at their death immediate testing of this belief takes place. Alas, we cannot know the result, and neither can the next set of volunteers who go to their death in this hope. The religious beliefs of us all have exactly the same epistemological status. They function effectively for us, but here and now we have no definitive tests by which we can measure them against what is real and objectively true. The reason is simple: we have no access to reality apart from our experience and interpretation of it. We cannot test our interpretations of reality by comparing it to reality itself independently of the way we came to know it. Reality is available to us only in some experienced and interpreted version of it. I do not mean we have no access to reality but only that such access is always filtered through experience and a framework of interpretation that we bring to the encounter. Even if a fresh encounter leads to a change of interpretation, what we now have is not a version guaranteed to conform to the reality as it is in itself but only a new interpretation of it that will guide any new engagements with what is. I have said jokingly that the reason I became a theologian was that I wanted to go into an enterprise in which you could not be proven wrong until you die.
Skepticism and relativism lead to pragmatism. This means that we use the best resources we have from all sources to discover the truth about ultimate matters. We test them by whatever standards are functionally convincing. We cannot believe what will not meet the tests that we cannot help but employ. We cannot deny the results we obtain with them. If a belief is warranted in these terms, it must be accepted. But this does not mean that it is positively established as being true. It only means that it is unavoidable for us or at least permissible since it meets all the tests we measure it by. Morever, if a belief so established is useful to us in providing a helpful and satisfactory way of relating to what we regard as ultimate and helps us to cope it life, it is legitimate even necessary, to live as it is were true. This is especially the case if no alternative known to us meets the rational, empirical, and pragmatic tests as well. Pragmatism, then, maintains that while we cannot be certain of the objective truth of our beliefs, they can be useful in orienting us to the world and helping us to cope with life in a satisfactory manner. Beliefs that meet all the tests we know to employ, contradict nothing we do not doubt, and are in harmony with everything else we are convinced of can serve us well in practical ways despite our inability to prove them true. What is the alternative? Accept the claims of some other authority - some ancient or contemporary orthodoxy, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Roman Catholic Pope, a paper read at the philosophical conference, a manuscript I find under a rock? Not on your life! I am an existentialist in the sense that it is I as an existing individual who must take ultimate responsibility for what I believe and do. By that I must live and die.
The older I grow the more important it is for me to locate and to articulate the practical implications of religious beliefs. If a theological doctrine has no consequences for everyday life, it may be safely neglected, although it may be significant for some purposes to get as clear an understanding as we can of the matter. The concept of the Trinity is a good example. It is important for the church to be as clear as possible about how it conceives of the relationship of God, Christ, and Spirit in a way that preserves the unity of God while recognizing the distinctiveness of each of the three vital elements of Christian experience. Yet while some may find experiential fruits in Trinitarian teaching that are useful for spiritual purposes, for me it has little import for down-to-earth, ordinary life. Generally, I agree with William James if the differences between two conceptual renderings do not make a difference in practice, in experience, in consequences for life, the argument is hardly worthy pursuing. That there is pleasure for some of us in pure though for its own sake, I agree, and I have done my share of intellectual work about which I would be hard put to show how it matters for living in this complicated, sometimes terrifying, but often joyful world. The point is that where possible theologians ought to make an effort to work out the implications for piety and practice in experiential terms. If there are no such consequences, then these conceptual efforts don't matter much, and theologians may reserve them for their moments of leisure and luxury to contemplate and argue about harmlessly as an end in itself.
As early as my college years I began to see that social and cultural studies were crucial for understanding the beliefs and practices of churches and Christians. Ideas arise out of and reflect the social location of communities and individuals. Denominations are distinguished from each other by their racial, national, ethnic, geographical, and class makeup as well as by differences in doctrinal tenets. Slavery was defended by more Christians in the South than in the North not because the latter loved Jesus more or had more ethical insight but because cotton growing was profitable in South Carolina but not in Massachusetts. The attitudes of church members and pastors toward textile workers and unions during the strike at Gastonia, N. C., in 1929 varied according to class and social status, as Liston Pope showed in Midlands and Preachers. The resistance of white people in the South to racial change during the civil rights movement varied in intensity according to the proportion of black people in the region in which they lived, not according to their religious faith or the depth of it. And in that regard it did not matter much whether the religious believers were Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. There were exceptions to this pattern, of course, but statistically it largely holds. Revolutionary calls for social change most often find a friendly reception in the lower classes and among marginalized peoples, although traitors in the upper classes or some well-off intellectuals may arise to articulate the cause in theoretical and practical terms and develop a strategy for initiating change. In any case, social revolutions have a class basis whether the movement is of a religious or secular nature. Churches whose membership is inclusive and embraces the ruling factions of society are not likely to be fomenters of radical change or receptive to it, unless their own existence or vital interests are at stake. I would not go far as some Marxists and suggest that ideologies are simply the product of economic and social factors, mainly class. I believe that intellectual creativity has some autonomy of its own and is an independent component to some degree, but it is always conditioned by the historical time and cultural place occupied by the thinker. Religious faith is not a mere slave of social factors in ideology or practice. It has initiating agency of its own. Max Weber made a good case in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for the thesis that Calvinistic Protestantism gave impetus to the rise of capitalism. H. Richard Niebuhr in The Kingdom of God in America showed how religious faith both initiated and was reflective of social movements and change. I just insist that you cannot neglect the social realities that shape, condition, limit, and inspire intellectual work and religious commitment. Members of the established classes as a group tend to resist changes that will upset their privileges and benefits, whether they belong to churches or not. Illustrations could be set forth indefinitely, but the point is that what we believe about ethical and social matters is largely a function of our social location as well as of our ideas and theories, although deviants can be found in all groups. The work of Liston Pope, H. Richard Niebuhr, Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and many others has demonstrated this beyond doubt. Their insights may be confirmed by just looking around us. The wag was not entirely wrong who suggested that the Presbyterian Church is the Republican Party at prayer! I sum this up colloquially by suggesting that the best clue to a Christian's social and political outlook is his or her zip code not church membership or religious faith.
A key conviction of mine for a long time has been that the crucial dimension of religion is ethics. I do not mean at all that religion can be reduced to ethics. Religion has many dimensions. The two that have interested me most are that it provides a framework of meaning and a guide to morality. Religion includes a conception of and a relationship to whatever is regarded as Ultimate. Faith means, as H. Richard Niebuhr taught, trust in and loyalty to God. It includes gratitude for the gift of life and its opportunities, its joys, and its potential for enjoyment. Religion, then, provides an ultimate grounding for the meaning of life, and it has implications for morality. According to Jesus the two great commandments are love of God and love of neighbor. Both are essential, and they are dependent on each other. Without love of neighbor, love of God is incomplete and defective. Without love of God, love of neighbor lacks ultimate grounding. I do not imply that atheists cannot act morally in any sense. They may often have higher ideals and live more virtuously than many believers. I only imply that their analysis of the total context of the ethical life is incomplete. In practical terms, how we relate to other human beings, value them, treat them, and include their good in the good that we seek for ourselves is the gist of the matter for me. Religion that does not lead to equal regard for others is fundamentally deficient, no matter how much meaning and satisfaction it may provide for believers themselves. Jesus said, " you will know them by their fruits." When the ethical fruits of religion are wanting, it is usually because the community of those with whom we identify, suffer with, and for whom we are willing to sacrifice is too small, excluding those outside it who may be neglected or opposed, even hated. Growth in love of neighbor occurs when the circle of those whose good is included in the good we seek is expanded. Religion that is inward and vertical may provide purpose, inspiration, joy security, hope, comfort, and happiness for believers as individuals and groups, but if it does not express itself in service of the neighbor inside and outside the religious community itself, it is woefully inadequate and close to being false. The best of the Bible agrees with me on this point.
However, it is a bit more complicated than that. One may love God with all ones heart and diligently seek to love the neighbor, but the understanding of what it means to count the good of others equal to our own may be sadly flawed. Our understanding of justice and love is mediated through our historical, social, and cultural location and is thus limited by that environment. Ethical insight cannot be purified and perfected by religious devotion alone in some ahistorical, transcendent fashion except perhaps in rare and remarkable circumstances. The Baptist Christians I grew up with saw no contradiction between love of neighbor and racial segregation and responded with anger to anyone who suggested the incompatibility. I experienced this when I suggested such an incongruity in a sermon. Yet I would not doubt the reality, the depth, and the sincerity of the religious faith of the best of them. Earnest study of the Bible in most cases merely confirms existing convictions, although transforming breakthroughs do sometimes occur. Moreover, equally dedicated Christians have diverse and contrary notions of what service of the neighbor requires of us, particular with regard to complicated questions of social justice. My point is that depth of religious commitment is no guarantee of moral insight. Intense devotion to God connected to tragically defective moral insight and practice is a fact of the human condition that we have to live with. The problem is that when we have blind spots, we are not aware of them, even when we honestly want to know what is right, just, and best. The only resolution of this tragic condition is found in Psalm 103:8-14 and in the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace though faith and not by righteous behavior.
As far back as I can remember, my special concern has been for the poor and those who have been left out or have been put down my majorities or by tyrants. I mentioned earlier that at age five I wanted to be like Gov. Gene Talmadge of Georgia and do something for the poor. I was soon disillusioned by the aims and competencies of the repugnant demagogue in the red suspenders, but my commitment to the poor persisted. I was among the relatively poor as a child by national standards of the day, but I never suffered deprivation of any of the necessities of life. I think my concern was and is in part a kind of natural compassion toward those who suffer, but it was reinforced by the attitudes and commitments I got from my Mother and Daddy. One day my Dad saw a little boy dressed in ragged clothes and in need of a bath. Dad say to me, "If I had a million dollars, I would buy every little boy like that in the world an ice cream cone." His sensitivity and compassion shaped my own feelings. It was and is not only the poor I care about but all who suffer injustice, anguish, pain, and misery in and all of its myriad forms regardless of their economic status. My consciousness of the unfairness and shame of the racial caste system around me arose early and has remained as a concern of paramount import. Through it all concern for the poor has been constant. I am furious at a social system like ours that despite its vast wealth allows people to go hungry, homeless, without medical insurance, and without funds to provide a decent stand of living. This more than anything else has made me a liberal in politics and a devotee of socialist ideals of equality. This is reflected in the title of one of my books - The Passion for Equality - a passion that I have always had. I was not surprised to find in the autobiography of Harry Emerson Fosdick a conviction that I share, "the ultimate criterion of any civilizations's success of failure is to be found in what happens to the underdog."
I have spent my professional career as a professor of theology. In that role I devoted a lot of time to creating and discussing theories, often at a rather high level of abstraction. I have written books largely concerned with theological reflection and metaphysical speculation at the deepest level I was capable of. Many pages of these books are incomprehensible to anyone without some degree of theological and philosophical sophistication and background. I am not about to demean or trash those endeavors. I think that concern with theory has an important place. It is good for trained scholars to do their best to give the clearest, deepest, and thorough rendering of Christian thought. They should seek profundity without unnecessary obscurity, since the latter is no guarantee of the former. It is essential that theologians remain in contact with the best that has been thought and to cast Christian doctrine in terms that merit the respect of intellectuals in every field. I do increasingly find a lot of work in philosophy to be so highly technical and concerned with such fine points of analysis as to matter little to anybody in any practical way. Much work in epistemology is of this sort and is largely of interest only to highly trained specialists. Philosophers ought to deal with the big issues of life, I think. Nobody really knows how we know the ordinary objects of everyday life, even though most agree that we do know them in ways that enable communication and useful human action and that we can apply tests that determine the truth or falsity of statements. Nearly all philosophers regardless of their epistemological theories, as well as my young grandchildren, would know how to tell whether the statement "The broom is in the front closet" is true, once the meaning of the terms is clarified. Twenty-five hundred years of speculation have not resolved the simplest issues about how we know, even though we know we know much that matters in everyday life quite well and know how to prove or disprove them for all practical purposes. Meanwhile, controversy continues at a sophisticated level forever ad nauseam and in terms so precise, technical, and refined that most of us lose the thread of the argument pretty quickly. When I try to read them, I find myself saying before long, "What difference does it make that matters in any practical sense anyway?"
In large measure the efforts of scholarly theologians and philosophers float above the world of ordinary experience in the world. Fashions of thought come and go and affect the common life of the masses of people very little. Sometimes I read statements that seem to equate, or nearly so, the history of the world with the history of thought about it. I am skeptical of this assumption. At least I think there are definite limits to it. I don't mean to imply there is no trickle down. Preachers over decades do transmit something of what they learned in seminary to congregations so that it gradually enters the stream of religious thinking and practice. Life at Friendship Church where I grew up continues much as it did when I was a child. They sing the same hymns, say the same prayers, and basically have the same theological outlook as prevailed then. Some change in racial attitudes has occurred and a gradual evolution has doubtless occurred in many areas of congregational life. Yet the great movements in the seminaries from liberalism to neo-orthodoxy to process theology, liberation theologies, and so on have fundamentally passed them by as if they were in another world. The real world that matters finally is the world of the masses of people, what they believe and do and feel. It is not that the work of the scholars has not influenced them. After all the Arminianism they practice is the product of a learned theologian and a tradition of thought that became incorporated into the stream of the common life of my kind of Baptists. Philosophers have provided the conceptual undergirding of revolutions. Karl Marx is an outstanding example. The ideas he worked out in long hours of work in the British Museum have changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and elsewhere. Adam Smith conceptualized the workings of the capitalistic system, and his ideas and those of his university successors shape the thinking of the National Association of Manufacturers and Chambers of Commerce. They are frequently heard in the halls of Congress today or in letters to the editor, often in simplistic or bastardized versions. Philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu developed ideas of freedom, equality, and human rights that led to political revolutions and to the formation of today's constitutional democracies. John Maynard Keynes spoke much truth when he said that ideas and little else rule the world.
Hence, the total situation is complex. Great minds over the centuries have shaped history in fundamental ways. Ideas can spark revolutions when the situation is ripe and ready. Yet it still remains true that the conversations that go in churches, barber shops, beauty parlors, bars, baseball parks, and among taxi drivers, farmers, and factory workers for the most part has little resemblance to the latest articles in theological and philosophical journals and is almost totally unaffected by them. How many people, e. g., have ever heard of Richard Rorty, John Cobb, or David Tracy or care that they haven't? Are they worse off because of this lack? Much of the work of theological and philosophical scholars and of the theoretical ethicists goes from the minds of the thinkers into the text of books and articles that end up collecting dust in libraries after being disseminated to students who quickly forget most of it. Most of it amounts to very little more outside those contexts. Many careers, mine included, are based on just those sorts of activities that affect little beyond the setting in which they occur. I am not forgetting the complementary fact that numerous students have told me that ideas they learned from me have deeply affected their lives in practical ways. Ideas do matter. I just wish theologians and philosophers would pay more attention to those that do and find ways to communicate them to someone other than their peers and students.
Academics, especially the younger ones, typically are enthusiastic about being up to date. They are like the people of Athens as described by the Apostle Paul:
Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. Acts 17:21 (RSV)At professional meetings of religious scholars, you can observe this phenomenon in wondrous display. In numerous sessions the hot topics are avidly discussed by reference to the latest books and articles on the subject at hand. Professional meeting are loaded with papers by up and coming young professor whose eager minds are gorged with the latest jargon with all its polysyllabic technical terms that they use with alacrity. This ardor for the novel is for the most part a harmless habit. It becomes perilous only when of the newest point of view it is maintained that, "At last, we've got it." This is a popular game today, but it stands in an ancient tradition. Martin Luther and John Calvin played it. Walter Rauschenbusch played it with regard to the social gospel conception of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Many (not all, of course) of the neo-orthodox felt confident that in being both orthodox in the essentials and modern in method and historical sophistication they had got it right. I heard a scholar a generation ago claim that basic theological work had been completed in the work of Karl Barth and that it was the job of all of us now to consolidate this achievement and spread it to the masses to the ends of the earth. Even then I thought that was non-sense. But the claims continue. Process theologians thought they had it all with Whitehead as their guide. Liberation theologians believed that the full, true and ancient gospel had at last been set forth, especially when women, blacks, Native Americans, gays, and other oppressed groups were included in the good news of total emancipation. I have read many student papers in which the theme of having discovered or recovered the one and only authentic gospel as Jesus embodied and taught it was exhibited in tone if not in bald assertion. The trump card in many of these claims is that in this new formulation the gospel that Jesus taught and lived has now been rediscovered in its essentials with a modern touch. Alas, I played this game too once upon a time. I wrote a paper in my first year in seminary in which I excoriated the fundamentalists, lambasted the liberals, and more or less asserted that in my favorite flavors of contemporary neo-orthodoxy we had attained a splendid summit of legitimacy. My wise professor gently suggested that while I had made some good points, my hagiographical tendencies regarding the reigning outlook was perhaps premature and excessive.
In my later years I have totally repudiated the tendency to claim that in some ancient tradition rediscovered or more likely in some new version of the gospel just articulated "we've got it at last." The rapid succession of major schools of thought and minor trends in the 20th century should ignite skepticism in all of us about these claims of standing right beside Jesus just as the Apostles did when they heard the Gospel announced and practiced long ago. Each dominant or prominent school of Protestant theology since 1900 has lasted about thirty years in terms of its creativity and reign. This is about the length of the tenure of the major proponents in their universities and seminaries, which should tell us something in itself. In the 1960's trends came and went with dazzling speed. A cartoon showed a theologian being introduced with some equivalent of these words, "This is Professor Hoffmeyer. He dominated German theology for two weeks last February." My Grandfather Harris dismissed the claim that the earth was revolving at nearly a thousand miles an hour with this observation, "If we were moving that fast, you couldn't keep your hat on." During the decade of JFK and MLK it was hard to keep your theological hat on!
We should know by now that there is no finality on thought in the modern world. Conservatives, of course, maintain that the truth is located somewhere in the past in some particular tradition and that our task is simply to rediscover when necessary and otherwise to conserve, preserve, and perpetuate this ancient orthodoxy. Modern theologians suffused with doctrines of relativity know that climates of opinion come and go. Yet they are often tempted to claim more than is warranted for their own preferred frame of reference. The wise ones know that their own formulations will be superceded by later ways of thinking. One of my teachers, H. Richard Niebuhr, said in class that another generation will come along to criticize the existentialist outlook just as he and others denounced the liberal idealism they learned from their intellectual parents. I have told my students the same thing, and those who graduated in the 1960's have already seen the perspective they accepted displaced by newer modes of thought. So I say, "Let it no longer be said in the church and in the academy that 'At last, we've got it.' The search for truth goes on without final statement. This is another reason that I am a skeptic, a relativist, and a pragmatist.
Theologies express the religious beliefs of communities and of their members. Sophisticated, formal theologies that get published in books contain the sentiments of the authors. Belief is a general category that includes any and all sorts of positive affirmations about God and ultimate matters of human concern. A belief is any positive statement assented to that can be expressed in words or symbols, regardless of the methods employed, the content derived from their use, or their alleged truth status. However they are derived and wherever they come from, the accepted dogmas, doctrines, traditions, and creeds are bodies of belief about the supreme reality and the human quest for ultimate meaning and hope. Such beliefs typically tell us how we may be delivered from the most fundamental threats to well-being and how we may achieve ultimate blessedness.
This may seem innocent enough, even obvious in one sense, but the implications I draw are considerable. Religious beliefs carry no guarantees that they correspond to reality. Neither revelation, reason, exceptional experiences, the Bible, historic creeds, scientists, philosophers, or saints can authenticate beliefs as accurate representations of ultimate facts. Hence, a theology may be a valid expression of the faith of a community, but that says nothing about the truth of its doctrines. All beliefs talk of God, but none speak for God, i. e., come with a stamp of divine approval that can be demonstrated with objective certainty. What I mean precisely is that we cannot be sure that our religious beliefs are true in the sense of correctly representing reality. To put it differently, theologies are human constructions that reflect the time, place, and cultural setting of their authors. The Bible is no exception to this claim. It contains, among a lot of other things, the religious convictions of ancient Israel and the early church. The truth of religious propositions simply cannot be unmistakably determined. Absolute confidence that ones beliefs are true is no guarantee that they are. Methods of justifying belief are part of the belief system itself and not a separate factor with independent powers of corroboration. Declarations that the content of belief has the sanction of reason and not simply faith or authority have exactly the same status, since reason itself is relative to context and reflective of a particular time, place, and mode of thought.
What we deal with in practical terms is what people actually believe. The unavoidable fact is that diverse communities of belief exist, and they all must come to terms with each other somehow. Any and all types of relationship among religious groups are permissible that are useful. What is not helpful is to pronounce as a fact that the beliefs of others are in error and only ours are right, true, and trustworthy. We can, of course, say that we believe that they are mistaken and indicate why we think so. Does truth not matter in religion as well as in everything else? Of course, it does. The problem is that nobody knows for sure what the truth about God is. We cannot be certain we are right and others are wrong. All of us can only state what we believe, why we believe it, and how we came to have the beliefs we do. If people want to engage in debate about the relative merits of their claims and seek to convert others to their point of view, let them do so in mutual respect. But when the day is over, let no one condemn anyone else as the certain bearer of falsehood. That serves no useful purpose and is a waste of time. We can in our own hearts presume them to be misguided and act accordingly in all appropriate ways. The advantage of regarding theology in this fashion is that no one is under necessity to argue about who has the truth, but all can proceed in a practical way to witness to their convictions in word and deed. It allows believers of all persuasions in all religion to do all that is necessary to express their vision of reality and to live out their faith in the world. It permits them to do all that is required to be and to perpetuate a community with shared beliefs. They can work out theologies, create rituals and symbols, engage in corporate acts of worship and of private devotion. They can do all that is necessary and desired among themselves, limited only by the laws and customs of the culture that function everywhere under any conception of what theology is. They can under my outlook engage in mission activities, including the effort to convert others and reform the secular society in accordance with their own ideals. Believers can do anything and everything under my thesis that they can do now. What is precluded are exclusive claims to truth and coercive efforts to make others conform. If it makes them feel better to think their beliefs are accurate portrayals of reality, let them do so. Let them try to persuade others of their vision, as long as others are willing to hear their case. Modesty of outlook and humility of stance are encouraged among all as they worship God in accordance with the dictates of conscience. Mutual respect among diverse conceptions of the sacred and of human duty, virtue, and destiny is the rule of public encounter, discourse, and interaction.
While great latitude is appropriate in terms of the witness of communities and individuals to their religious conceptions, realism compels us to say that occasions may arise when it is necessary to resist even with strength and violence practices that are deeply offensive to our own convictions about justice and human dignity. Sometimes force must be employed, despite the terrible risks it entails, in order to establish a common order that honors the freedom, equality and worth of every person and insures to all just access to the means of human fulfillment. Not to include the sad possibility of needing to constrain others violently on some emergency occasions is to deny justice and to condemn the weak and innocent to the evil schemes of the wicked who crush their victims without mercy. Even when we act with coercion, we must do so always in humility and in sorrow. We have to be mindful that we could be wrong even as we act. Whether a deep commitment to a vision of justice and forthright coercive action can be combined with the kind of modesty and respect for others I advocate is, in my view, the greatest challenge this conception of theology as belief. It cannot be done perfectly, but we must do it as well as we can.
The notion that theology is religious belief is intended both as a description of all efforts to articulate a conception of God in relation to the supreme ends of life and as a confession of how I regard my own conceptual efforts. I believe the thesis can be sustained as a theory, and it can be defended as having merit in practice. What, then, does it amount to in terms of consequences, since it seems that under my conception communities and individuals can do almost anything they presently do? In the end two things are crucial. One consequence is theoretical, the other is practical.
The theoretical point has to do with epistemology. I have insisted that religious claims cannot be established with certainty. The statement "God loves us" is simply not in the same category with "The broom is in the hall closet" when it comes to verification. No decisive tests of the former are available. All attempts at justification of religious belief are relative to the time, place, and outlook of the interpreters. They have only the resources available to them given their social, historical, and cultural location. The means of justification are part of the total belief system and not an independent source of verification. Epistemology and ontology form a seamless unity. While some set of justifying procedures may indeed put their users in touch with reality in definitive fashion, there is no guarantee that they do and hence no certainty for them or others who might consider them as possible options. Religious convictions are a matter of belief not of knowledge. Theologies are matters of faith. Faith here means epistemological perspective. In the immediate context faith is the conceptual perspective of a community or individual.
The practical point is simply that religious communities and their members will not engage in fruitless arguments about who has the objective truth that is universally valid. They will confess their faith and go about the internal business of being what they are. They will carry on external activities of mission with enthusiasm and vigor but without dogmatic proclamations that others are in error. This has more to do with the spirit of these engagements rather than the substance and does not rule out disputations, conflicts, and efforts to convert others. As I indicated earlier controversy and conflict will continue, no matter what points of view one holds. Some moderation, however, would be helpful, and any diminution of mean-spiritedness would be welcome.
In like manner, I speak of the ethics of belief. All that I have said about theology applies to ethics as well. No method of moral inquiry can guide us infallibly to the truth. Ethics as a form of intellectual investigation does not provide answers to moral questions. People with moral beliefs about right and wrong do. Philosophers and theologians engaging in the formal discipline of ethics can develop principles of moral obligation, take positions regarding the grounding and justification of moral belief, and indicate their convictions about specific moral questions. They can analyze, systematize, and classify theories of ethics into types and schools of thought, and write histories of ethical thought. What they cannot do is tell us with absolute confidence the truth of the matter. They can only report the conclusions they reach when doing ethics. Ethics as such has no infallible rules, methods, sources, or definitive ways to ground and justify ethical belief. Ethics as such draws no conclusions about right and wrong about abortion, homosexuality, war, or virtue. Ethics tell us only what the philosophers and theologians who engage in ethical inquiry think and believe about morality. People have moral beliefs and sometimes live in accordance with them, and sometimes they do not. They do some things because they believe they are right with out necessary reference to consequences and do other things because they believe they will accomplish more good than alternative courses of action. In other words, they act for deontological and teleological reasons, but most have never heard of those words and have little sophistication about ethical theory as it is practiced by the specialists. People act on the beliefs they have acquired over a lifetime. Philosophers and theologians become technical experts in the history, language, and methods of ethics as a formal discipline with its many schools of thought. But they are still people who, equipped with the tools of the trade, work out their own systems of thought and make pronouncements about right and wrong. They incarnate their own thought into the formal schemes they adopt. Ethics, however, does not tell them what is virtuous, just, and good. Ethicists specify that in the formal theories they appropriate or create as experts who know how to give precision and systematic expression to their judgments.
When the technical specialists in ethics confront baffling problems full of complexity and ambiguity in their own lives, they agonize over them and struggle to discover what is right and best with sweat and tears like everybody else. I know because I am an expert in ethical theory, and I have wrestled painfully with some moral issues in the wee hours of the night when I was confronted with a decision I had to make but did not know how to make it even though I desperately wanted to do what was right. My decision to seek a divorce is only the most grievous example. My knowledge of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Niebuhr, Rawls, and others helped very little in the midst of the crisis. Finally, I had to make an existential decision in fear and trembling in the presence of objective certainty, ambiguity, and complexity.
In short, communities and their members have beliefs about right and wrong. Practically in the real world this is what we deal with. How are we to relate to those whose convictions differ from ours? That is the issue we need to concentrate on. The ethics of belief forbids nothing that is essential to the moral life. Communities and individuals can still engage in conversation with each other. We and others can present our own views in the most favorable light, elucidate the reasons for holding them, narrate the history out of which they come, and provide whatever else the listener desires to hear. This should be done as a confession of convictions honestly held to be worthy of belief. Vigorous debate about the merit of competing outlooks is by no means ruled out as long as each is presenting the content of belief and the basis for believing some things and rejecting others. Wherever possible dialogue should be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, even when the views that are presented are regarded by the hearer as abhorrent. However, some moral positions may be so loathsome that this is impossible. No one should be expected to hear with appreciation what is regarded as contemptible. In these unfortunate circumstances the best course may be simply to break off conversation in favor of whatever forms of opposition in practice may be appropriate or unavoidable.
Three aims of conversation may be noted that for theology and for ethics: 1. to locate areas of agreement and disagreement, 2. to engage in mutual critique, and 3. to convert others to our point of view. There are no rules for dialogue other than the ones we can get others to agree to. What is not profitably done is to argue about which outlook best represents the objective moral order or corresponds to reality. This is nearly always useless. Each community or individual can deal with what is believed to be the objective moral order only in terms of its own internal standards for acquiring and testing moral truth. Interperspectival debate about truth and reality usually gets us nowhere and can without loss of anything important be abandoned. In short, to put it bluntly, I am suggesting that in conversation with each other we forget about truth and reality. They can be discussed only in terms of our differing beliefs about them. We have no way to determine whose views are true to reality except by using our own measuring devices. We have no way to be sure they are accurate. Uninterpreted truth and reality are not available so that we can test our interpretations by them. We should instead concentrate on getting agreement with others where possible and opposing them when necessary. The same procedures I would use to get someone to agree with me are the same ones I would use to prove that I have the truth that corresponds with reality. Hence, there is no point in polluting and complicating dialogue with irrelevant considerations.
In addition to conversation with others, we can also form alliances. We will want to join with others who agree with us on particular matters to promote them and to fight against those who hold contrary positions. In so doing we will employ every suitable resource and engage in every legitimate practice that is effective. This might include forming organizations, seeking legislation, and a variety of other efforts to explain, defend, enact, and otherwise foster adoption and practice of moral views believed to be essential to human well-being. In extreme cases this may include the use of force to combat beliefs and ways of living that are some destructive that no other form of opposition would be fitting or effective.
So where does this leave us? In most respects we are where we have always been. The only thing that is different on the premises I have laid out is that we will quite claiming that our views of right and wrong correspond with reality, reflect the objective moral order, incorporate the will of God, represent correctly what the Bible requires, what Jesus would do or have us do, or whatever other designation one would care to add to the list. We will give witness to what we cannot deny, affirm what we are compelled to in the light of the best we know from all sources and based on what experience teaches us about what happens in real life when certain theories and practices prevail. When we have given the best reasons for believing as we do and rejecting the alternatives, we will leave it at that. The only thing we will not do is get into fruitless arguments about who is right. Except for that reservation, all else remains as before. (6)
I have written much about the Bible, mostly in articles. Here I want to suggest a few of the thoughts I have had in the last few years that will convey my point of view. I grew up being told the Bible was the Word of God. Yet I could not see that Christians who claimed to be obedient to Scripture held views and engaged in practices that were markedly different from the culture in which they lived on the important issues. I have not be able to discern that making use of Scripture as an authority is a guarantee of anything good or worthy of acceptance. I conclude that there is no necessary positive correlation between the claim that a view has Scriptural warrant and its inherent worth.
I readily acknowledge that many times, if not mostly, Scripture is quoted in favor of a moral position or a conception of life that is quite commendable. But when this is the case the item in question could be justified just as well by an appeal to reason and experience seeking the highest ethical vision and is given no special merit merely by being in the Bible. Christians have quoted the Bible for and against nearly every evil you can name in the last 2000 years. The real source of the beliefs affirmed may or may not be the Bible. Frequently what passes for biblical truth is a commendable or despicable moral view absorbed from the surrounding culture or representative of the worst rather than the best of Scripture. The Bible is used to buttress an opinion that invokes assent because it seems true to them on other grounds. I do not imply dishonesty or deliberate intent to deceive. It is just natural for us to find that what the Bible teaches, when properly understood, is what we just happen to believe. Fundamentalists, moderates, and liberals all operate in the same fashion in this regard. Without exception they find a congruence between what they believe and what the Bible - properly interpreted, of course, i. e, they way they interpret it - really and truly does teach, with Jesus concurring in every case, and usually as the chief exponent.
Slaveholders and abolitionists both quoted the Bible to justify their views. The Bible provided both parties a support for beliefs believed to be true on other grounds. The Bible was secondary to the real source of their outlook. The Bible was relevant only in the fact that both sides quoted it. I do not deny, of course, that the Bible says things relevant to the controversy over slavery. The point is that it says a lot of things not all of which are compatible with others. This means that the interpreter must decide which texts are relevant and how they are to be viewed in the light of other texts. Hence, when the result is delivered, something biblical is obviously present. But the decisive element is the role of the interpreter in determining what in the complex witness of a big book is finally authoritative for us today. Consequently, both slaveholders and abolitionists could legitimately claim biblical warrant for their views.
My experience has been - with some notable exceptions - that the higher the authority attributed to the Bible, the more perverse the ethical views associated with it. That is overstated, but it reflects my pain and disappointment over many years in hearing people quote the Bible in favor of moral views that I find abhorrent. With all the high and noble morality taught in the Bible urging love for neighbor, compassion for the poor, and demanding justice for all, it is a mystery to me why so many who claim to be obedient to the Word focus on the parts of Scripture that are used and misused to oppress women, children, and racial and sexual minorities. Seldom do I hear in sermons the radical demands for the reordering of society that will bring the powerful down and exalt the poor and helpless. That would be far more biblical in the deepest sense than crusades against homosexuals, the suppression of the ambitions for women for a full and equal place in church and society, and resistance to the just aspirations of people of color.
The current crop of Protestant preachers on the cable network channel seem to have adopted the "Jesus makes us feel good" message of Norman Vincent Peale (that dates me). The Gospel for them seems mainly to be a means of making life better for believers, especially in healing disease, solving our problems, or leading us to prosperity - the prospects for which appear to be improved the more one gives to God by way of the preachers and communities who are bearing this message. This self-centered Good News is seldom accompanied by the demand that we ought to be doing something to help those who are less well-off than we. Justice is a word prominent by its near-total absence, although some mention is made occasionally of projects to feed the hungry and heal the sick, for which I commend them. This is one of the few redeeming features I can find. Like Calvin Coolidge's preacher, they are against sin, but this term seems to refer primarily to the superficial aspects of worldliness and the usual list of personal vices, including the ones associated with sex and reproduction and non-heterosexual, non-marital activities. An emotional piety is celebrated and cultivated and, especially after September 11, 2001, combined uncritically with a syrupy patriotism that does little to assist justice to "roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." (Amos 5:24 RSV)
The notion that the Bible itself defines a consistent body of theological and ethical doctrines that is really there for us to discover by the proper hermeneutical rules is just plain wrong. The image of a human face hidden deeply in a block of granite waiting for the skilled artisan to chisel it out is the model for most interpreters, even when they acknowledge that interpretation always involves an interaction between text and exegete. Whatever they come out with in terms of authoritative doctrine defining the authentic Gospel is usually held by the authors deep in their secret heart of hearts to be just a little or a lot more right than the alternatives sponsored by others. Or such is the impression I get reading most of them.
In the 19th century preachers, scholars, and theologians defended the subordination of women on Scriptural grounds. Some still do. Most Christians today believe that women should be allowed to vote. A lot of Christians a hundred and fifty years ago did not. The Bible has not changed. Cultural consciousness has changed and with it what Christians find to be authoritative in the Bible. In my youth Baptists - to identify only that persuasion with which I happily identify, although most any other denomination could be included without loss of truth - in my native state believed they could reconcile segregation with the precepts of their faith. A few years ago Southern Baptists in official action repented of this union and acknowledged that they had been wrong. Then and now Scripture was thought to support what was believed. I think the cultural consciousness changed. Involving the Bible was fundamentally irrelevant in both cases. The real source of the belief was the culture that once sanctioned legal segregation and now does not. Note that this change of heart came when it was safe to do so and did not threaten the budgets and building programs of churches, not to mention loss of membership. Christians change their minds and, lo and behold, they discover that the Bible has always taught what they newly believe. How could they have missed it!
Christian segregationists said they loved Jesus. Christian integrationists also claimed to be following Jesus. One wonders if Jesus had much to do it in either cases apart from the fact that both invoked his name. I don't doubt that both parties sincerely loved Jesus and wanted to follow him. One just wonders whether Jesus is the decisive factor in their espousing that specific set of beliefs.
I was a pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Georgia when the Supreme Court decision of 1954 came out outlawing segregation in the public schools. I got into trouble by writing some letters to the Atlanta papers and preaching a sermon offensive to most of the brothers and sisters. They almost threw me out.
Recently after nearly half a century I attended services there. The new pastor preaching his first sermon said things on race far stronger than anything I uttered from that very same pulpit. There was not even a murmur and even a few heads nodding in agreement. I was delighted at this sign of progress. But what was going on here? The Bible had not changed, but something had. I think cultural consciousness changed. Now they see what they did not see before. But if the Word of God as advertised is sharper than a two-edged sword, why did it not slice through the evil of segregationist sentiment in 1955?
Amos is a powerful trumpet blast for justice. Amos 5:1-24 is one of the high points of the Bible. Yet one wonders whether those who quote it against some perceived wrong do so because they already love justice, not because the Bible inspired them to change their minds. Is the Bible the cause of just sentiments or the warrant for views already held? This question is prompted because those who are complacent about the issue in question know about Amos but are not moved by it with reference to the issue at hand. Segregationists read Amos and praised the passion for justice found there mightily but never saw the connection between the passage and the oppression of African Americans in their midst.
What really accounts for the fact that some changed their mind on the race issue? I was beginning to change my mind on the race issue as a child, and I attributed this to Scripture passages taught me by segregationist Sunday School teachers who died in their old age without ever changing their minds. I think I was correct in finding a biblical mandate for opposing segregation. But was that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Was the Bible the real cause of my change of heart, or was it that my experience and reason led me to see the suffering and injustice caused by segregation? Simultaneously, I concluded that the Bible taught something else, which it did. But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Both were causes, and both were effects in my current opinion. Intuition united what experience was teaching me about the cruelty of the racial practices around me and what I was at the same time coming to believe the Bible taught and required.
Today the question of homosexuality is tearing the churches apart. Those who find the practice repugnant, unnatural, and contrary to the will of God and those are willing to bless faithful, monogamous same-sex love all find that the Bible supports them. Do you know Christians who hold personal views of this subject that is different from what they believe the Bible - rightly interpreted - teaches when functioning as the authoritative Word of God for today? Find out what Christians believe, and you will know what they think the Bible teaches. The question is why they believe it. The notion that believers search the Scriptures and then believe whatever they think it really and truly teaches has a grain of truth, of course. But it is not by any means the whole story. To think that it is is naive and silly. Male traditionalists and feminist theologians invoke Scripture and Jesus as the foundation of their views. Is it the Scripture itself that determines these contrary outcomes, or is it the interpreter who is speaking?
The latest feminist movement began in church and society in the 1960's and 70's. Did feminist theologians read the Bible once more and finally or suddenly saw that if you get to the heart of Scripture, it condemns its own sexism? Or was it that the feminist liberation movement in culture and society opened eyes to what the Bible ought to say on the subject leading to new readings that discover, lo and behold, it actually does contain teach liberating doctrine? Most likely a new cultural consciousness and new hermeneutical operations were occurring in mutual interaction. They go together. But note that it is the culture that had changed and continues to change, while the Bible has remained the same for all these centuries. So where is the real dynamic? But, we say, after all the Bible is a powerful component of Western culture, so part of the energy and impetus leading to the revised standard version of truth actually comes from the Bible after all. I can buy that. But that is not quite the same thing as saying that a simple discovery of biblical truth was made in 1970 or thereabouts that had been there all along.
If it had been there all along, why did it take so long for so many to catch on? Can we escape the fact that factors and ferment in the Bible-influenced culture itself were the decisive factors, granted that Scripture and Christian reason are part of the whole mix? Moreover, what is there all along is always a function of somebody judging it to be the case. Centuries of reading the Bible by the great minds had not come upon what was really there all along. What they thought was there all along comported nicely with the oppressive practices prevailing for nearly 2000 years in church and society and even longer in Israel. Could we not say that the new doctrine of women's liberation was always there just like the law of gravitation of was operational before Newton came along and caught on to it? Yes, we could, but the analogy is not exact. The better analogy is the Constitution of the United States, which is the basic law of the land. Once separate and equal was the rule with regard to the public schools (Plessy v. Ferguson), but in 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregation was inherently incompatible with Constitutional principles (Brown v. Board of Education). Fortunately, the Constitution can be amended to bring it more in line new conditions or new insights. Amending the Bible is a temptation that many have not been able to resist. From Marcion in the early centuries, who wanted to get rid of the Old Testament, to Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the ethical teachings of Jesus without miracles, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Women's Bible, to demands for new translations that get rid of sexist language, etc. from all these and more come the urge to bowdlerize and rewrite the Bible. Generally, these revisions do not and ought not to catch on. Most of them have little lasting impact. Better to let the text stand as is as received and deal with what it is than pretend it says something different from what it does. Besides, who is to be trusted with determining what goes in and what stays out of the new version?
Let me state clearly that whether a belief or value is rooted in or comes from the culture is in itself not the decisive point. The crucial issue is whether the belief and value in question warrants acceptance in the light of the highest and best that Scripture, reason, and experience teach us and can be supported by arguments and evidence that do no violate the canons of right thinking. What one is compelled to affirm and act upon on these grounds, of course, is always the judgment of some community of interpreters or some individual or smaller group within the larger body.
The problem behind all these problems is the absolute authority attributed to a book that has fundamental marks of historical relativity. It reflects the culture of the time in which it was written. So we are bequeathed the troublesome problem of finding some universal standards in a time-bound document. Protestant orthodoxy of the 17th century and present-day fundamentalists are burdened by the notion that the Bible teaches one system of pure doctrine from cover to cover. This doctrine works only with the aid of hermeneutical gymnastics that are a wonder to behold. Consider how a variety of them would deal with the cruel parental practices of Deuteronomy 21: 18-21, which demands stoning to death of disobedient boys. Tell me how an infallible Book containing an absolute ethics valid for all time can justify the selling of one's daughter into slavery as in Exodus 21:7. The creativity of the answers that are forthcoming is wonderful to behold. Liberals recognize that the Bible is a human document with a world view far different from what we believe. So they have to distinguish between what is relative and a product of culture and what is absolute that transcends all cultural perspectives. But what is regarded as the essence that transcends all cultures reflects the time, place, and outlook of the interpreters. Yes, it is always good to love our neighbors and to seek justice for all. But once we begin down to specifics about what in detail love and justice mandate in our time, the marks of relativity become evident. I know that fundamentalism and liberalism cover a multitude of perspectives that a two-fold division will not accommodate, but you get the general idea.
Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century, knew his Bible well. He could write 100 pages on the first chapter of Genesis, prompting one commentator to observe that it seemed that Prof. Barth really did not know what to make of the passage! Barth's views on the place of women were based on New Testament exegesis, but, lo and behold, they reflect the views of a traditional Swiss man of his generation. Of course, he found many passages in harmony with his outlook, some of them probably implying worse than he himself finally came out with. But still it was he who decided what authority was to be granted to those passages he found teaching us what God believed on the subject. My view is that some of what the New Testament and Karl Barth held about women ought to be abandoned.
Am I the only one who is both amused and pained by the fact that people holding totally contrary views with a straight face and in utter sincerity believe they are merely discovering what the Bible and Jesus teach on the subjects in question? What is going on here? I claim the interpreter is the final functional authority, no matter how much Scripture they quote. Most folks deal with this troubling problem summarily by just assuming that they, of course, and those who think like them have the truth. Fundamentalists and liberals are each just as bad as the other on this point as far as I can tell. Liberals are a little more cautious and embarrassed about doing so and don't say so right out loud. But in their heart of hearts and in the presence of each other, even without winking, they assume that they are closer to the mind of Jesus than those blind and foolish fundamentalists. The country folks I grew up with in rural Georgia used to say, "You can prove anything by the Bible." There is more wisdom in that saying, rightly interpreted, than in most of the weighty tomes on hermeneutics that issue from the leading intellectual centers of the world Some of the books on biblical interpretation are so obscure as to call to mind what Dorothy Parker said about a particular novel. It is not, she wrote, " to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
Most of the time the Bible functions as a mirror in which we find our own beliefs and values reflected back to us. Most Christians, however, seem to think that what they see in the reflection is actually taught authoritatively in the Bible itself. Now and then it may actually be a searchlight for somebody that exposes their error and requires them to revise former opinions in the direction of a more humane view with healthy implications for a more just and happy world. Some years ago I wrote as follows: (7)
Christians employ many methods of biblical interpretation and make use of a variety of procedures to relate biblical truth to what is otherwise known or believed. When all is done and said, however, only two hermeneutical principles have fundamental status:
PRINCIPLE 1: No Christian allows the Bible to teach as the authoritative Word of God what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.
PRINCIPLE 2: Every Christian finds what the Bible teaches as the authoritative Word of God to be identical or congruent with what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be true and right.
I have found no reason to change that opinion. I just continue to be impressed with my insight. I invite you to check it out and see if those two principles describe what really happens when people read the Bible in search of the Word of God for today. In the same book I said something else that still amuses me: (8)
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth
the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no
shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone
wants to believe. I suggest a theological version that I will
call the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability. This law
states that the Bible can be interpreted so as to make it
compatible with nearly every conceivable doctrine. The
greatest proof of the operation of this Law is that
irreconcilable positions on nearly every theological and
ethical question are extant, all of which claim to have the
sanction of Scripture. The sublime form of the Law indicates
that reasons can always be given to demonstrate that Jesus
himself would have approved of the conclusions reached by a
given individual or community. When the Law of Infinite
Hermeneutical Adaptability is in operation, it is nearly
always accompanied by the Phenomenon of Total Surprise. I
prefer the description of this Phenomenon in its "Lo and
Behold" form: When individuals and groups find the Word of God
in the Bible, the results, lo and behold, turn out to be
identical with what they themselves believe!
Still in a humorous mood, I have often thought it would be great if, when someone comes up with an exposition of Scripture that is offensive to mercy, compassion, justice, love, and all that is decent, the passage under consideration would flash with an error message: "This hermeneutical program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." Better still: "Heavenly Windows has detected a fatal error in module Leviticus 20:13 or . . . (add your own favorite)." Blue screen of death! All freezes!
The Bible contains some of the best and some of the worst morality one can find anywhere. The story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is irredeemable. If it were not in the Bible, we would not even try. All strategies are futile, whether viewing it in historical context as a protest against child sacrifice, noting that in the end Isaac was saved, or in Kierkegaardian fashion seeing it as the epitome of faith, or whatever down a long list. The fact remains that God is pictured as commanding a father to kill his son in a religious ritual, that itself is void of value, as far as I can see. This is a damned spot that cannot be outed. In the end whatever rationalizations are made, this God is revealed to be a deceiver who did not really mean it. The prank is not funny nor can it serve any justifiable religious purpose. A God who would require that kind of absolute and uncritical obedience to test faith is not worthy of worship. If God is really that way, OK, but do not tell me that a God who would do this is the exemplar of perfect love. The best way to deal with this story is to give it to Bob Newhart or Bill Cosby and have them do a comic sketch of the conversation between God and Abraham when this plan is revealed. It might begin something like this:
God: Hi Abraham, this is God. Howya' doing today?
Abraham: Hello, I'm doing very well. What do you want this time? You're not going to ask me to move again, are you?
God: Not at all. This time I have something else in mind.
Abraham: Yeah, what?
God: I want you to sacrifice your son Isaac, whom you love, as a burnt offering.
Abraham: Would you mind repeating that. There must be some interference between earth and heaven, you know, with all the cell phones these days. It sounded like you said you wanted me to sacrifice my son Isaac. I know you wouldn't do that. Ha, ha!
God: No, Abe, you heard me right.
Abraham: You've got to be kidding, right? That's a good one - a God perfect in love, mercy, and compassion asking a father to kill his son, to stick a knife through his heart and set him aflame, on some silly stone altar.
God: No, I am not kidding. That's really what I want you to do. It's a test.
Abraham: Some test! You know I'd do a lot for you. After all because you asked me to, I left a good home to come to this God-forsaken place . Oops, sorry! Let me rephrase that. What if I flunk this test?
God: I'd really rather not get into that. Well, are you going to do it or not?
Abraham: I'm thinking it over.
I have spent much of my time as a theologian working on the doctrine of God. A concept of God can begin at many places. I begin with a search for ultimate origins. Two complementary approaches can be taken: The personal: Where did I come from? The cosmic: Where did the evolving, life-producing world come from?
Personal: A quest for God appropriately begins with a two-fold basic experience. The first is the amazement that we are. Out of this shock and astonishment arises the question of the factually ultimate Source of this coming to be and passing away. The formal answer to this question is God. To speak of God is to refer to the primordial, objective ground of our personal being. I experience my life as a gift from beyond myself from an Ultimate Source that I call God. The second deep experience is the awareness that it is good to be. Life with its promise of happiness and joy is a gift to us from some Ultimate Mystery. The delight and ecstasy of life at its best point toward a Loving Giver of what comes to us a pure unmerited favor, grace.
Cosmic: Science tells us that our present world has evolved over billions of years from a "big bang." The universe appears to have a life-producing, life-fulfilling, and life-reproducing urge and capacity. Moreover, new forms of life have emerged over long periods of time hinting at a tendency toward novel complexity aimed at increasing the range and depth of possible experiences. All this indicates a purposive element at work in the cosmos that requires explanation. I think the reductionist and mechanist conclusions of some scientists who find only apparent but not genuine purpose in the evolutionary process are simply wrong. They see only what scientific method allows them to see, but as Whitehead argues, this leaves something out that science as science can never discover. If there were purpose in the process, science could never find it by their methods. This kind of science becomes wrong only when it presupposes that what cannot be known by science cannot be known at all and therefore is not real.
I believe that the fact of evolving life and its experienced quality of goodness can plausibly be explained by reference to a trinity of factors incorporated into a di-polar version of naturalistic panentheism. Let us postulate that God has a dual nature: the Uncreated and the Created. The view I find most satisfactory is that the Uncreated factors are Eros, Possibility, and The Good. Eros (Love, Desire) is the powerful, active urge to actualize Possibility in quest of The Good. Possibility refers to whatever can be or become. The Good is ideal possibility or what normatively fulfills or satisfies Eros. In part The Good provides the kind of structure without which there could not be a stable, organized world whose processes are compossible (possible together). Eros unites with Possibility that is driven and drawn to The Good to generate the most primitive sequence of actualities that could arise ex nihilo. The primordial union of Eros, Possibility, and The Good provokes a creative process that functions at the border of structure and surprise, order and chaos, stable pattern and adventurous novelty to unfold the spectacle of cosmic evolution and the historical emergence of life and humankind. In some sequence the possible begins to become actual under the lure of the good. Hence, there emerges the space-time/matter-energy continuum and with it the evolving cosmic process that has brought the presently actual world into being. Somewhere in this process occurs the "big bang" that scientists describe as the beginning of our cosmic era. This emergent process (the world) is what I call The Created. God includes both the Uncreated and the Created.
I conclude, then, that the cosmos exhibits patterns of meaning and purpose that suggest that at the base of all things is a Creativity (the union of Eros, Possibility and The Good) that has the character of goodness, best described as love. As a Christian, I believe this to be the heart of the biblical witness. Life is a gift of God, to whom we owe gratitude, praise, and cooperation in actualizing the goodness that is potential in the gift of life. The universe is in the business of producing life and bringing it to fulfillment. Life is the process of actualizing potential in quest of the good that produces enjoyment in living beings. I follow Alfred North Whitehead in supposing that all actual entities at whatever level of existence right down to the most primitive have a life-like quality, i. e., that they are experiencing subjects at least at some elementary level. He maintains that "the key notion from which cosmology should start is that the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life." (9)
God is the Uncreated Life who creates life and directs it toward fulfillment. Created life is within God and may be thought of metaphorically as the body of God. Ethics is the theory of the good life intended by God and sought by all creatures. God is continually active in the world seeking to actualize the ideal possibilities in all life. Whitehead said that all living beings are driven by a three-fold urge: "to live, to live well, and to live better." (10) This urge is eros, the hunger for the good. God works in and through this urge, this drive in life toward fulfillment. Good achieved or being achieved is experienced as enjoyment. God's purpose is to create life and to bring it to the highest possible fulfillment. Life is driven by eros toward the good, toward what satisfies. The good attracts eros with a promise of fulfillment, enjoyment, and satisfaction.
One further dimension must be added. While potentially and essentially good, life is actually and existentially ambiguous. Life is a mixture of good and evil. Over every moment hangs the threat of meaninglessness, disruption, suffering, and death. Moreover, the evolutionary process is also marked with ambiguity. Species have emerged in what appears to be a blind, groping manner and not in a fashion that points to an omnipotent purpose with a definite plan. Moreover, the dysteleological aspects are appalling, even calling into question the goodness of God. Many observers have noted the happenstance, contingency, waste, cruelty, death, and horror of the proceedings and the apparent indifference of the process to the weak and helpless, allowing the strong to flourish and the unadapted to perish. The recognition of the ambiguity at the human and cosmic levels leads me to a doctrine of a God perfect in goodness and intention but limited in power and competence. God works opportunistically in and through human freedom and the law-abiding processes of nature to achieve the best that is possible under given circumstances. The purposive aims of God are manifest in the eros in all of life that drives toward actualization of the potential for being and goodness.
Life is an adventure full of promise but also full of peril. Good and evil are both part of our experience. Evil is the frustration or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in living beings (human and animal). It is experienced as suffering. Evil arises when sentient actualities (1) fail to achieve or lose organized stability and/or maximum actualization of their potential for enjoyment for internal reasons or (2) undergo destructive conflicts with entities external to them. Evil, then, in the most comprehensive sense is the disruption or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in sentient beings, especially animals and humans. Hence, evil is not primordial but emergent and occurs when a possibility for good is frustrated or destroyed. Given the nature of finitude and the complexity of organization that enjoyment in organisms requires, evil can and will most probably occur. Sentient beings are vulnerable to destruction because of internal failure and external conflict.
Such, in brief, is how I arrive at the conception of God so fragmentarily hinted at here. It sustains itself in my thinking to the extent that it can organize the totality of my experience and provide a way of coping with life in a satisfactory way. Does it describe reality correctly? Probably not, but not other option fits the evidence in my view as well. It is the alternative that is most compelling, and I have considered and rejected many other possibilities as honestly as I could given my meager intellectual power and limited experience. And, believe me, no lack existed of persons who were eager to show me what the real truth of the matter is. In the end I prefer my beliefs to theirs for the reasons cited.
The problem of suffering in human beings and animals has been a life-long concern. It has raised the most serious questions for me about the existence and character of God. Forget that nice little piety about there not being any atheists in foxholes. Perhaps foxholes have made believers out of some, but they have made atheists out of others as a result of the hell of war they have known first-hand. Coming to terms with massive suffering and evil in this world has let me not to atheism but to abandon Christian orthodoxy and to accept a view of God as limited in power though perfect in goodness. Centuries ago skeptics raised the fundamental issues. The difficulties can be put under two headings: the moral issue and the philosophical issue. The moral issue is that in this life it often happens that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. The philosophical issue is that a benevolent God would want to prevent or overcome as much evil and suffering as possible. An all-powerful God would be able to overcome evil and suffering. But since there is a lot of evil and suffering in the world, it would appear that either God cannot or will not prevent it or overcome it. If God cannot, that impugns omnipotence. If God will not, that impugns divine love. I reluctantly, with resistance that involved kicking and screaming, have come to believe that the power of God must be limited to save the divine love. The critic immediately pounces on the adverse consequences of this drastic move. A limited, persuasive, non-coercive God has no power to overcome evil decisively and with certainty. Such a weak deity not only has no truck with biblical or traditional thinking but surely is not worthy of worship. My response to the objection that my God is a weakling not up to the job has always been as follows: Look, my feeble, puny God is getting as much done in the world by way of overcoming suffering, rooting out injustice, and in general making things better as your Almighty Deity. After all, we live on the same planet. There are no more congenitally deformed babies, no more holocausts, no more cruelty, tyranny, torture and murder of innocents, homeless refugees, starving children, no more misery, suffering, and torment in my world presided over by my Suffering, Limited, Persuasive God than in your world ruled over by an Omnipotent God. My God can't, and your God won't prevent or overcome more of the world's ills. Which one of us has a God less worthy of worship?
At that point, my opponent may play the eschatology card. "OK, we live in the same world now, but bye and bye, my omnipotent God will straighten things out, perfect the world, eliminate all suffering, obliterate injustice, and make heaven real. Your God offers no certainty of an eventual and total victory of good over evil." That prompts another question: If heaven is possible, why not now? One possible answer to that question that might work is the one provided by John Hick in Evil and the God of Love. Hick argues that heaven cannot be made real now for a good and simple reason. God's purpose is to create free, rational beings and bring them to moral perfection in an arrangement whereby people all love God and each other. The only way this can happen is for the world to be a "laboratory of soul-making." This means that we must have some uncertainty about ultimate matters. It means that we learn to fight evil and love each other in a setting in which there are challenges and genuine options that can be freely chosen. We have to grow over time toward perfection. In other words, sin, evil, and suffering are deliberately built into the design of the world or permitted so that we can learn through choice, defeat, struggle, and in mortal combat with evil and suffering to love God and neighbor. In my words, the only possible road to heaven runs straight through the middle of of the hottest portion of hell. Once again eschatology is the saving feature. God will keep working with us until all are redeemed, are brought to spiritual perfection by freely choosing God and a life of neighborly love in the present of challenges where alternatives are available. Looking back from that Great Day at the End, he says, all the miseries of this life will fade into insignificance. We will recognize how wise and good God was to set up this horrible classroom filled with terror and torment where we could learn to be good. To keep the record straight, I would put the aim of God in creation a little differently. The purpose of God is to actualize those potentialities that maximize enjoyment in all creatures not just human beings. Moral virtue or perfection is a concomitant and prerequisite of the most joyful, happy life but not its direct aim as such. Hick is too focused on human beings rather than the general aim that pervades all life.
My first reaction to Hick's proposal is visceral. I reject it with feeling. Let us have less character and more fun! Upon reflection I still reject it. The notion is abhorrent to me. I cannot believe that a God as smart and competent as Hick's God could not figure out a better way to run a world. Surely there must be a road to heaven that detours to some extent around some of the hellish elements of earthly existence. I am at a loss to come up with an alternate overall plan, although I tried once. I do believe that Hick rejects too easily the notion that God could make free, rational beings who would always choose the good, in so far as they knew which choices were best. Or at least they would be gifted with greater powers to do so than we presently are. The extreme of this would be pre-programed, very clever robots who automatically functioned in a certain way. But maybe there is something between a directionless, sheer undetermined being, and an automaton. Maybe inclinations, instincts, drives, an initial genetic makeup, whatever could be built in that tilt us more toward cooperative, non-violent approaches to life - a kind of natural predisposition to enter into harmonious relationships that could be developed in a less harsh environment. To get back to my question, Hick says heaven is possible, but we cannot have it now, since the essential requirement of there being a heaven worth waiting and working for is this very "laboratory of soul-making" in which we presently live with all its horrors. Thank you, God! Hick has the best possible answer to my question, but I am still not convinced that his God and the God of Christian tradition could not come up with a better plan.
I conclude, then, that the only way to save the initial premises of omnipotence, goodness, and evil is to limit divine power. Numerous considerations short of that, however, help us understand how evil and suffering are perfectly compatible with a God of power and love. The main points of reference are freedom and finitude. God has given us freedom, which can be misused to do harm and cause misery. Freedom accounts for moral evil, i. e., suffering to the extent that it involves human irresponsibility. Freedom does not account for natural evil, i. e., suffering that arises out of the nature of things and does not involve any human irresponsibility. Cancer, other disease, hydrocephalic babies. tornadoes, earthquakes, and the like are examples. For this we need to appeal to finitude. Finitude refers to the fact that we are vulnerable to disruption and destruction. Human bodies are made up of systems of organs and activities that must all work together harmoniously to sustain life and health. In such a complicated arrangement, something can easily go wrong in two ways. Something external can collide with our bodies, e. g., a falling stone, a tornado, a speeding car, a virus that gets in the blood stream, and the like. All these things and others can damage or kill us. Or something internal to our bodies can start malfunctioning for all sorts of reasons and make us sick or cause death, e. g., cancer and other diseases. All our suffering can be traced finally either to freedom or to finitude or to some combination of the two, and , of course, finitude is the necessary presupposition of the suffering caused by freedom. Since we, not God, are responsible for our bad choices that cause suffering, an omnipotent, loving God is not to blame. So far so good. Appeal to freedom can account for moral evil. It cannot account for natural evil. Finitude is a little more complicated. The world is made up of a multitude of finite beings involving multiple, interacting chains of causation that, as Whitehead says, "constantly thwart each other." Evil and suffering are highly probable, even inevitable, in such a universe because of the collision of things with each other or because something for some reason goes wrong in our bodies that hurts us, makes us sick, or kills us. If we alter or begin to mess around with either of these arrangements, would we have a world less good that ours?
So don't we really like this world the way it is even thought both moral and natural evil can occur? It would appear that the very features of the world that make it possible for evil and suffering to occur are the very same ones that make possible all that is good. It would seem that we cannot have one without the other. So an all-powerful, loving God who is very, very smart might decide to create a world just like ours even though a lot of suffering and evil will occur or probably will. But if this is so, why do I contend for a God limited in power. I do so because there is one more question that has to be raised. Could an omnipotent, loving God have created a better world than this one that would still have all the desirable features - a lot of interacting vulnerable beings in a universe operating in accordance with laws and processes that make it work properly and containing free, rational beings like us - but that would produce on the whole a better ratio of good to evil than this one? In other words, is this world, in principle and structure, equal in excellence or superior to any possible world? My question, however, is whether there a pattern, a design, a blueprint for a possible world that would on the whole be more likely to produce more good and less evil than this one? The justification for my belief in a limited but loving God hinges on my answer. I believe it would be possible for there to be a world more excellent in principle and structure than this one, i. e., one that would produce on the whole more good and less evil than this one. Therefore, since I believe God is loving and that a loving God would have created this better world if God had the ability to do so, I conclude that God is limited in power. Power here implies and includes the notion of ability to do anything possible.
What would this better world be like? I cannot give a full description, and I may be utterly wrong, But I do have a few suggestions. If all suffering and evil can be traced back ultimately to freedom and finitude, then we have to deal with them both. I have already argued for a conception of free (self-determining) beings who could be created with a greater instinct or inclination toward doing good than the current crop of human beings. They would do good as an expression of their nature. This means they could grow and develop and become better or even worse, but I believe with a better genetic design from the start we could have a better outcome. It is possible, I believe, to conceive of a better model with greater potential for love and justice than the beings actually produced by the contingencies and complexities of the evolutionary process. Had the evolutionary process worked differently for all sorts of reasons, we might have inherited a better nature than we did and could more easily have learned to be good people, better people than our present genetic makeup produces. In short, people could have been designed better so that they would have been more likely to be more kind to each other love each other than they are. The critic will surely rejoin that this suggestion implies a limitation on freedom that changes its very nature. I reply that genetics already predisposes us to act in some ways, however nurture and choice may complete the final product. I am only talking about a more pronounced drive toward cooperative and harmonious interactions. Besides, if we got a better, potentially more loving humanity in the process of altering freedom as I propose, would that not be a price worth paying? I am not describing a robot predetermined to be nice but a free creature constructed so that we would be better equipped to make good choices.
The big philosophical question here, of course, is the relation of freedom to our biological nature. If freedom completely transcends nature and is in no way conditioned or shaped by it, then my point is not valid. Here is where Reinhold Niebuhr and I disagree. He says we exist at the junction of nature and spirit, finitude and freedom. He affirms that we are embedded in nature and subject to its laws. But by virtue of the capacity for self-transcendence (spirit), we are free to choose between good and evil. Sin originates in spirit (freedom) and not in nature. Niebuhr is a true Augustinian for whom the locus of sin is in the will itself, and this emphasis is undiluted by our natural, biological, and genetic makeup. Niebuhr rejects those Pelagian tendencies that find the inclination toward evil not in the human will but in "some sloth of nature" inherited from "the brute creation." For Niebuhr the only significance of our connection with nature is that we are are finite, subject to its laws and necessities, and inevitably made anxious and thus tempted to sin. Finite freedom is experienced as anxiety. Anxiety is not sin. It is the precondition of sin. Anxiety constitutes temptation. Nevertheless, freedom is such that we could still choose to do good. If we chose to, we could resolve our anxiety by trust in God. Sin is neither sheer perversity since we are tempted as a result of anxiety. But neither is it an unavoidable outcome of our situation, since ideally we could do otherwise. We sin inevitably but not necessarily. Inevitability and responsibility are both matters of the spirit, of freedom that transcends nature. So believes Niebuhr. I beg to differ somewhat.
I believe that our freedom - our souls, our spirits, whatever - are profoundly shaped, molded, conditioned, limited, etc. by the genetic makeup that evolved over billions of years. Our spirits are embedded in bodies. We are unitary selves with mental and physical dimension, not a dualism of body and soul. Our genes predispose us to act in certain ways. When confronted with some socio-biologists, I am prone to think they make the opposite mistake and underestimate the extent to which freedom transcends nature. But that is another story. Here I am arguing with most people who think we have a greater range of freedom or a different kind of freedom than we do and that we are less shaped by our biological makeup that I think we are. Is there a defensible position on freedom and nature that is between and beyond the extreme socio-biologists, on the one hand, and Niebuhr, on the other hand? On that possibility my case rests. We are also profoundly shaped by our culture with its long history, by our own personal life history, by our social location, family background, and so on. We could argue that ultimately families and cultures are the product of freedom. Yes, but our freedom is shaped by historical circumstances and genetic factors and always was from the very beginning of the human species. Freedom transcends nature but is embedded in it. Freedom transcends culture but is profoundly conditioned by it. I just think nature and culture shape us more profoundly than apparently Niebuhr does.
To take one example, how do we account for the fact that the violence in this world is committed more by males than by females? Is the explanatory factor nature or nurture, genes or culture, biological conditioning or social molding? Something more seems to be present than a transcendent, unconditioned freedom that can choose whatever it wants by just choosing. Whatever the determinants, freedom does seem to function differently in one sex than another in some respects. It may very well involve a genetic component. Murders occur more frequently and persistently in some zip codes than others and is usually perpetrated by males. A recent report noted that 80% of the murders in Rochester, New York, occur in 27% of the area. Most of them are committed by males between 15 and 45. It does not just happen that people, usually males, in certain locations within a certain age range simply choose to murder by merely deciding to murder more than females or people living in other parts of town do. Apparently their freedom has been tilted differently in statistically important ways by something. I suspect that both biological and social factors are at work. Differing murder rates in different zip codes do not just happen any more than it just happens that heavy smokers contract lung cancer more frequently than non-smokers. Reference to a transcendent, unconditioned free spirit alone is not sufficient to account for the complexity of human choice and destiny. For Reinhold Niebuhr the anxiety that tempts us toward selfishness is a concomitant of spirit not of nature, although the free spirit is anxious because it is aware of its finitude.
I am presupposing that human nature as it came to be in homo sapiens involved contingencies and accidental features that emerged over the billions of years that it took evolution to produce it. Had evolution took a slightly different turn at some point, as it might well have depending on a lot of chance elements, we would be different creatures from the ones we are anyway. To put it differently, I do not believe that human beings as they presently exist are the outcome of a specific divine plan proceeding from a predetermined blueprint that existed from the beginning. People emerged over a long period of time in a process that involved both law and chance, necessity and contingency, pattern and luck, structure and accident. A divine purpose was in it all but working opportunistically within given circumstances at every stage to produce the best outcome possible. God's general aim in the evolutionary process is to produce life and to evolve it in a way that increased the range and depth of experience. The greater the range and depth of experience the greater the possibility for richer enjoyment and qualitatively superior satisfaction. On planet earth the acme of evolutionary achievement was reached in human beings with greater capacities for both enjoyment and suffering than any other creature we know about. People have a greater range of freedom, intelligence, and rational creativity than less evolved species. They are capable of great happiness and deep sorrow, ecstasy and agony, joy and grief.
Freedom is self-determination, and the self is determined by our moral character, and our character is the product of nature and nurture, our life experiences, and our choices over a lifetime. So what we choose at any given moment is an expression of what we are, what we have become as a result of all the causal and conditioning factors that produced us. In many contexts we cannot choose differently from what we do in any given moment. Kind people do kind things repeatedly. They cannot by mere unprovoked force of will in a flash be mean to everybody. Pedophiles repeatedly molest children. Both kindness and a habit of molestation express a formed character structure. We cannot at any given moment choose to love what we hate or hate what we love. We love and hate because of who and what we are at some point of decision. We do not have the power to choose anything we want to choose by just choosing to choose it. We also, however, have a power of creative self-transcendence that comes into play that enables us to imagine alternatives and, under certain circumstances, to choose them. Usually we change when something becomes unsatisfactory for any number of reasons, including a change in circumstances, and a more attractive option is available in imagination and in fact. Growth, change, development, and even radical conversion can occur under these conditions. The relationship between self-determination by our formed character and our power of creative self-transcendence defines the crucial issue. I make no pretense of having it figured it all out. I apparently do put more emphasis of choice as the expression of nature and culture-formed character than do most people.
Hence, I believe that an omnicompetent God could have designed a better human model who would have been more capable and more likely to create a better culture. This better specimen would have made less of a mess and done a lot more good than the species that actually came about through the accidents, vagaries, contingencies, and chance elements involved in the evolutionary process. We are not talking about pre-programmed human machines. We are talking about real life flesh and blood creatures who can make choices for good and evil, who can grow and learn, who can do bad things, and so on. We are just talking about a better initial design that would make it easier and more likely that we would do better than our current species with less likelihood of fouling things up so awfully as we currently do. All cars can be crashed and destroyed, but some are designed so that they are safer than others. I am arguing that all creatures we would care about being would have the possibility of making a mess of things. They would just be less likely than we are to go wrong and more likely to do right. Likewise, I think an omnicompetent God could have designed the order of nature (finitude) better, i. e., so that it would have less pain and more pleasure, more health and less disease, more stability and less chaos. Let us start by eliminating a lots of viruses that cause sickness and death - smallpox, AIDS, and a lot of other harmful little entities that the world could do without and be a lot better off. A very smart God could do this with a little thought, I am sure. Weather is a realm where a lot of improvement in design would be possible. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods could be better harnessed so that we could have an orderly world without so damn many of them. The body could certainly be designed to be less susceptible to sickness, damage, and death than the ones we have now. Every little bit would help, and there is a long way to go before we would be in Hume's hedonic paradise that Hick wants to avoid. His fear that we cannot start down the road of improving the world structure without sliding all the way down the slippery slope is just unfounded. Wouldn't his all-wise God know when conditions were just right to produce the optimum character-building environment with enough suffering to do the job but with considerably less than we have to put up with now? As the little kid wrote in a letter to God, "I hurt myself and had to have three stitches. Why did you make it so we come apart so easily?" Good question.
We are not talking about a perfect world with no pain, one that is all happiness and pleasure with no risks and no possibility of failure or damage. We are just talking about a better world model than this one that would have more pleasure, happiness, and justice than this one. We could have a better design for the natural world order and a better blueprint for human beings that would lessen the evil and suffering that flow from finitude and freedom. Finitude and freedom would still be real but within an overall design than was productive of a better ratio of good to evil than the one we now enjoy and suffer in. Hick disposes altogether too easily of this type of argument. I think he is simply wrong in claiming that we need the excessive suffering he admits is present to do the job of "soul-making." He does not come to terms with the realities of the evolutionary process. Evolution could have taken all sorts of other directions that could have produced other types of intelligent, creative beings whose inclinations would have made it easier to become saints. I claim that an Infinite, Benevolent, Omnipotent Intelligence would not have brought about the present world by using the kind of evolutionary process that actually occurred. This process is full of chance, accident, waste, misery, and suffering. Human beings like us were eventually produced, but we well might not have been if any one of millions of different things had occurred somewhere over the billions of years the process took. I cannot imagine an omnipotent, infinitely intelligent, loving God as the Author of the evolutionary process that actually occurred. Remember that old distinction between the optimist and the pessimist? The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist believes that the optimist is right! Possibility and necessity exact a high price indeed if no better world than this one is possible.
Therefore, I conclude that there is a Divine Creativity at the heart of things that is good in intent and character but limited in power and ability. Only a finite God of the type I imagine could be responsible for bringing into being the current world with all the horrors, waste, chance, and suffering present in the evolutionary process that is in our human background. Nature shows on TV are mainly about animals eating each other or engaging in reproductive behavior. The sex is nice (except where one partner devours the other when it is all over!), but the process in which life devours life and has to to survive suggests that nature has a split within itself, an inner contradiction. That is my final reason for thinking of God as I do. The present world structure is not the product of a rational design in the mind of the of an Infinitely Intelligent, Benevolent Creator that just appeared by divine fiat or that worked itself out in time in every detail according to the plan. The cosmos and human beings as we know them came by about by a long process of natural evolution that has a purposive element in it but that includes lots of chance, accident, and happenstance such that things could have come out a lot differently than they did. It involves purpose and chance, structure and surprise, law and contingency, causal determination and random happenings. Since we don't have the nicer world that an omnicompetent Goodness would have created, then I think God must be limited in power. I have given reasons in some detail in other places why I think we have to attributed goodness to God so I will be brief here. I sense a Loving Creativity at the base of things that aims at producing a good world but is limited in the ability to bring it about in the best possible way. God is loving but limited. That makes better sense than any alternative known to me. The orthodox Christian one does not fit my experience of the world. I believe what I do because I cannot believe otherwise. We affirm what we cannot deny, and we deny what we cannot affirm. In the end it is as simple as that - a confession of faith that seeks understanding.
In the late 1960's I gave sustained attention to working out a view of the person and work of Christ. The results were published as a chapter in my Science, Secularization and God. The conclusions I reached then have not changed much, and I have not engaged the problem in a serious way since that time. The crucial problem for Christology is to specify how Jesus can be of normative significance for all people now and everywhere. The New Testament witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of his life is the testimony that the Power which undergirds the whole cosmos is suffering and triumphant love. The cross is the disclosure that God is in the world with us and for us as the companion who knows and loves and cares for every creature. God who is the gracious creator of life is also the gracious redeemer of life who does not destroy human beings when they rebel and sin against their neighbors. Rather, God bears their guilt in the divine suffering heart and offers them free pardon. Moreover, God is the companion who suffers with us and with all creatures in their pain and feels every sorrow the world knows. This abiding love is the undergirding reality of the whole cosmos which struggles in all times and places for the fulfillment of every being. The resurrection means that this love does not only suffer; it also struggles to triumph over whatever seeks to defeat it. This conquest is not complete in human history and probably is complete nowhere in the cosmos, but there are real victories. God acts to preserve the good that is accomplished and strives toward that consummation when all evil shall be put down.
These affirmations assume a view of God as the Ground of the cosmic process who includes the evolving world within the totality of the divine being. God is the Life of the World whose own fulfillment is identical with the completion of the creation. God struggles against evil with limited power, so that is creative process is ambiguous. The suffering of God is an aspect divine passivity, i. e., the capacity to be affected by events in the world. The suffering experienced by the creatures of the cosmic process may be spoken of as the wounds of God. The evils springing from finite freedom and the evils springing from the destructive but unwilled interactions of relatively independent chains of causation disrupt the harmony of God's own being. Divine suffering indicates specifically that God experiences these damages to the divine body in such a way as to qualify the total situation within which God's purpose is henceforth carried on. This is the cosmic-metaphysical meaning of the cross - God absorbing the evil of the world into the divine self. The appropriation of the evil that springs from freedom (sin) into God's being is an aspect of the divine love by which God not only passively incorporates the destructive consequences of deliberately willed acts but also allows the perpetrator to go free, except as the self-negating tendencies of evil administer the divine justice. The assumption here is that a process of judgment does occur in history, but it is never exact. The course of human events is morally ambiguous in that sometimes the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. There is unrequited evil. The meaning of the cross is that God takes the full weight of sin upon God's own self, that for which there has been retribution and also that for which there has been none. Here we find the objective basis for forgiveness. This is the moral-religious meaning of divine suffering.
The resurrection is the revelation that there is triumph, despite loss, in the divine struggle to create and fulfill finite creatures. Resurrection is the reversal of reversal, the renewal of the divinely grounded drive toward fulfillment in terms of the total situation as qualified by the organic disruptions of evil. The creative process continues in perpetual struggle against the impediments that block the fullest possible realization of the potentialities of the creatures and their enjoyment of the fact of being. Evil qualifies but does not destroy life, the process by which the possible becomes actual under the lure of the good. This is the metaphysical meaning of resurrection - the healing of cosmic wounds. The resurrection is also the revelation that the crucified Jesus is the living, universal Christ - that is, the authentic mediator between God and humanity. The exaltation of the risen Lord points to his freedom from the limits of localized time and space to be universally present as the meaning and content of the Gospel. This is the existential meaning of the resurrection - the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth experienced as the living Christ. Put otherwise, the experience of the resurrection is identical with being grasped by the possibility and actuality of recovery despite loss; of moral healing from inflicted wounds; of being reconciled to humanity, society, and the cosmos, and of being freed from one's guilt.
Cross and resurrection, then, are parables or examples that clarify the interlude, due to loss inflicted by evil, between creation and redemption. Redemption consists in the redirection of organic processes in nature and history toward possible achievement in a situation qualified by the disruption of the original creative drive. Cross and resurrection illumine the way that obstacles to fulfillment are dealt with in the divine economy. They symbolize the essence of the good news that there is a creative power, whose character is love, at the base of all things, directing the whole cosmic process and all its constitutive creatures toward fullness of life, despite the threat of evil.
So viewed, the biblical symbols have their locus of meaning in this world. It would be presumptuous to assert that there will be no consummation beyond earthly history in a life after death. However, the whole weight of evidence provided by modern science against supernaturalistic explanations of human origins tends to create doubts about a destiny of humanity which transcends the bounds of terrestrial life. The major point here, of course, involves the obvious dependence of human consciousness upon evolved bodily mechanisms. Given the unity of humanity with the animal world, it is certainly audacious to suppose that the human spirit somehow continues to exist while the psychic life of other creatures does not. Moreover, the mythological character of biblical eschatology raises equally potent questions about the persistence of conscious personality beyond the dissolution of the body. To demythologize is to desupernaturalize, and this leads to a focusing of the interpretation of human destiny upon the present and future possibilities of life within this cosmic epoch. Hence, while one cannot put any prior limits on the new possibilities which the divinely grounded creative advance may bring into being, Christians should not forget the lesson learned from the crucifixion of Jesus. The future is open, pregnant with promise, though ever threatened by new peril. The hope of humanity is in the travail of God, struggling and suffering with us as he triumphs over the impediments to the fullness of life's potentialities. We may cherish the goal of a final victory beyond all ambiguity as we live in the confidence that for every cross there is the possibility of resurrection. Beyond us lies a future lost in mystery, but illuminated by the vision of a creating, loving God whose most astounding victories may not yet have been won. (11)
It is not surprising that I have written very little about doctrine of the church. I am a Baptist on that score through and through, so I saw no need of rehearsing that view of the Christian community. I have thought and written a lot about the role of the church in society, since that is what interested me most. The church has played an important part in my life. I grew up in a church-going family, joined the church at age eight, and responded to a call to ministry when I was seventeen. I taught for forty-one years in a theological seminary devoted to the training of ministers. Yet I have had an ambivalent attitude toward churches nearly all my life. This is mainly because of my disappointment in its function in affecting the larger society. Ideally, the church is a transforming agent in increasing justice and human well-being in the social order. Actually, it most often reflects the values of its own members as they represent the prevailing cultural values according to their social location and own self-interest. I will grant that many church members have a higher standard of virtue in caring for their neighbors inside and outside the church that many non-church goers. In that sense the church does represent the best of prevailing social values. It is also true that many who have nothing to do with the church are better advocates of justice and more concerned with the welfare of the poor, oppressed minorities, and the marginalized generally than the average church member. My own three children are examples of this. Neither participates in a church community, but all have commendable personal and social values that I would be ecstatic to see as the prevailing outlook of most churches I know. All of these things contribute to my ambivalence about the church.
Churches have the potential for playing an important role in the process of training virtuous persons and extending the bonds and boundaries of community. Denominations and congregations vary so much in every respect that no generalization about what they actually do is fully accurate. At their best they exemplify in their own life what a good community is. Most of them are quite good at this in times of personal and family crisis when members and ministers gather around to meet needs and comfort. These ministries to each other occur in significant ways in widely varying circumstances. This despite the fact that in many urban churches members see each other only on Sunday and in other congregational meetings so that the ties of intimacy and mutual assistance are limited. Churches train children in the virtues of kindness and helpfulness. Nearly all also engage in ministries of mercy beyond themselves through money and services rendered in voluntary organizations in feeding the hungry and meeting other needs of the body and soul. Some are prophetic and challenge prevailing patterns of injustice in society as a whole.
Churches are generally not as successful in breaking down walls of prejudice and hostility among outsiders unlike them. Most simply reflect the cultural values of their members and the ideologies associated with their class and social location. Denominations whose majority membership is made up of the successful and well-off cannot be expected to be pioneers of radical social transformation. Churches of the marginalized may offer hope of a blessed life beyond, while adjusting as best they can to the harsh realities of this one that cause them to suffer. Or they may seek to exemplify radical ideals of community in their own internal life and either count that as their contribution to society or use their own base as the launching pad of a revolutionary movement to remake society. Churches with broadly distributed membership can be counted on to preserve and defend the best of achieved social values and to be proponents of moderate and gradual changes that benefit those on the margins and at the bottom. Churches tend to reflect the larger divisions of society within their own rank, mirroring worldly hierarchies of race, class, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.
To their shame they have blessed nearly evil and injustice we can name and often lag behind secular society in moral progress. They should be the first and sometimes are but may be the last to turn a sensitive ear to the cries of the poor and oppressed. In the American Civil War and in two World Wars in the 20th century Christians killed each other on fields of battle and dropped bombs on enemy cities containing many who loved Jesus as much as they. For centuries Christians persecuted Jews, and many churches supported Hitler or at least did not seriously object to his nefarious schemes. After being treated violently themselves for the first few centuries, Christians in turn used the power of the sword to exterminate heretics. The Christian past in many ways is an ugly picture. Churches are as ambiguous in their values, practices, and influence as are other institutions large and small. Frequently disciples of Jesus obstruct the extension of love toward wider circles of inclusion and mutual service. Most churches are a hindrance rather than a help to the full acceptance of gays and lesbians, usually marking them out for special notice as sinners.
Nevertheless, they have an important role to play in creating persons of excellent virtue, forming mature moral character, and extending the bonds of love to the strangers and wayfarers of the land. They are already to some extent and can become more effective instruments of serving the neighbor who is in need of bread, justice, and warm embrace. They do and could do better in ministering to the weak, the oppressed, and the wretched of the earth. They have by their nature and purpose the potential of breaking down walls of hostility and extending the boundaries of community within which all are devoted to the common good and the good of each. The church is one of the few institutions, paralleled only by those of other ethically-based religious faiths, whose central purpose is to increase the love of God and love of neighbor. In that foundation is great potential for developing virtuous persons of mature moral character who care for each and all in a community of mutual service. The task is to develop that potential by delivering actual churches from their many idolatries and limited loves.
As important as the role of churches may be, however, they are not the only channels through which increase in goodness occurs. Secular processes may change the cultural consciousness for the better over periods of time. Churches may lead but often follow and sometimes resist these trends. The ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for all expressed in the founding documents of this country marked an admirable advance over the past. The Jewish-Christian tradition was one source of these principles, but they also were developed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment who were in part rebels against it. The extension of these ideals leading to the overthrow of slavery, the emancipation of women, and now to greater acceptance of gays and lesbians has been the work of pioneers inside and outside the churches.
God works through the eros that drives all of life toward its highest fulfillment. The moralizing and perfection of this drive is a process that can occur anywhere on earth. It takes place whenever human compassion and imagination lead to ideals and actions that reach out to include the good of others as part of the good we seek for ourselves. One place this tendency developed with peculiar efficacy and consequence on this planet was in the history of Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth. The demands for justice found in the prophets of the Old Testament has had influence far beyond the biblical tradition. It expressed itself in the wrath of that atheist Jew Karl Marx, who was outraged at the oppression of working people in the exploding capitalistic economy. The move to include the good of others previously excluded takes place outside and in opposition to churches. Nevertheless, the agape of God expounded in the New Testament that leads to a responsive reproduction of agape in our relations to others is a powerful force in history, and continues to expresses itself in the message and ministry of churches. (12)
Much could be added from the seventeen books I have published between 1962 and 2003. But I must stop here. It should be clear from this brief exposition that two concerns have persisted more than any others. The first is an effort to understand the nature, character, purpose, and activity of God in relationship to all that happens in the world. My special curiosity has been about what Whitehead called "the secular functions of God." While I have not neglected the traditional notions of salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the like, my focus has been on the relation of God to everyday events in our ordinary lives, in nature, and in the grand scheme of history. In this I follow Archbishop William Temple who said, "It is a heresy to believe that God is only interested in religion." In that spirit I have done much thinking about God with special reference to human and animal suffering. Theodicy has been a central focus. Suffering is the fundamental human problem, not sin. Sin is important because it causes suffering. Sometimes the massiveness of the world's pain, misery, injustice, poverty, violence, and hate almost overwhelms me and threatens me with despair. Suffering is the fundamental impediment to the good and happy life.
The second is that I have sought to explore the implications of love and justice for individual morality and social policy with a special bias for the poor. I have written as much or more on ethics than I have on theology more narrowly defined. My special interest has been on social ethics rather than strictly personal morality. In these endeavors my attention has been about equally divided between theory and practice. I have written two books that dealt with theoretical ethics with a good deal of attention to the philosophical dimensions of the subject. In addition, I have laid out positions on a variety of specific issues ranging from abortion, homosexuality, and prostitution to morality with respect to the political and economic spheres. Love and justice have been central to my work as an ethicist. They are the fundamental moral precepts. I have endeavored to discover what it would mean for our society if there were more of both. The good person living the good life in a good society - individual happiness and social justice. That is what as an ethicist I have tried to understand and find a way to achieve.
It would not be
far from the truth, then, to say that my basic life-long
concerns have been to explore the relationship of God to
suffering and to discover the meaning of love and justice in
relation to individual and community life. If I had it to do
over again, I cannot imagine that I would do other than engage
in these or similar inquiries once more. What could be more
important than the good and happy life in a just and good
society? The beliefs that have arisen out of this search will
not let me go, and I don't want them to.
1.The Living of These Days (Harper and Row, 1956), Chapter X .
2. Theological Biology: The Case for a New Modernism (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), vi.
3. Quoted by Michael Ruse in Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), xiii.4. A teleological approach judges the rightness of an act solely by its consequences, meaning that we should do what will produce or is intended to produce the greatest good. Deontological approaches assume that rightness is mandated by whatever is morally authoritative - custom or conscience or law or the Bible, etc., meaning that right is not made right necessarily or only or not at all by consequences.
5.I have defined this term in numerous places, beginning with my distinction between evangelical liberals and modernistic liberals in The Impact of American Religious Liberalism. See also, Theological Biology: The Case for a New Modernism(Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991).
6.A fuller expansion of this way of viewing ethics can be found my The Ethics of Belief, 2 vols. (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 1992) The discussion here is heavily dependent on what I said there.
7.Kenneth Cauthen, Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 45, 47.
9.Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought ( New York: Capricon Books.1938), 231-2.
10.Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1929), 8.
11. The original version of this section on Christology appeared in Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 210-21.
12.Some of what I say here about the church is taken from my The Ethics of Belief: A Bio-Historical Approach (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., 2001), vol. 1, 177-180.