Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Liberal Theology and Its Naturalizing Tendency

Close to a month ago I wrote about Liberal Theology and Its Pantheizing Tendency.  I included this important quotation from J. Gresham Machen's book Christianity and Liberalism:
In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed. In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name “God” is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely great − in the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of “God.” God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God. It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. It has always been with us, to blight the religious life of man. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. (pp 62-63)
This "pantheizing" tendency also results in certain forms of naturalism.  This is borne out by the debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan which is contained in the book Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? edited by Paul Copan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).  Dr. Craig develops his arguments for the resurrection of Jesus in space and time.  For Dr. Crossan the resurrection is a metaphor.  There are no supernatural interventions in the space-time world.  Dr. Crossan articulates his view in this manner:
"In my view the supernatural always (at least till this is disproved for me) operates through the screen of the natural.  The supernatural is like the beating heart of the natural.  It does not come seeping through cracks every now and then, so we can see it.  It is always there--but we seldom see it." (p. 45)
In his concluding statement for the book Dr. Craig notes that this view entails naturalism with its attendant claim that miracles are impossible.
"He at first emphatically declares that he absolutely rejects naturalism.  But then in his rebuttal he takes back with the left hand what the right has given: 'The supernatural always (at least till this is disproved for me) operates through the screen of the natural.'  But that is naturalism.  Naturalism holds that every event in the space-time order has a cause which is also part of the space-time order.  There are no events which are the immediate products of supernatural causes.  Naturalists need not be atheists.  The deists, for example, were theistic natualists: God acts in the world only mediately through natural causes.  Now this is exactly Dr. Crossan's position." (p. 169)
It is important to understand why Dr. Crossan believes this about the natural/supernatural.  For Dr. Crossan, not only is it the case that the resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor, God himself is a mere metaphor.  He does not have any objective existence apart from the human mind.  God is a metaphorical construct.  Consider this exchange between Craig and Crossan:
Craig: During the Jurassic age, when there were no human beings, did God exist?
Crossan: Meaningless question.
Craig: But surely that's not a meaningless question.  It's a factual question.  Was there a being was the Creator and Sustainer of the universe during that period of time when no human beings existed?  It seems to me that in your view you'd have to say no.
Crossan: Well, I would probably prefer to say no because what you're doing is trying to put yourself in the position of God and ask, "How is God apart from revelation?  How is God apart from faith?"  I don't know if you can do that.  You can do it, I suppose, but I don't know if it really has any point. (p. 51) 
In his concluding statement for the book Dr. Craig marks this interchange as the "turning point in the debate":
"The turning point in the debate came, in my opinion, during the dialogue portion, when I pressed Dr. Crossan on whether the theological statement 'God exists' is a statement of fact or a statement of faith (an interpretation).  Reread that section closely.  In affirming that 'God exists' is a statement of faith, Dr. Crossan implies that this is just an interpretation which a believer puts on reality; from a factual point of view, God does not exist.  Dr. Crossan struggles valiantly to elude this implication by stating that is meaningless to ask how God would be if no humans existed.  But this question is grammatically well formed and clearly meaningful, as is his question, 'Would I be annoyed if I hadn't been conceived?'  (That is what my kids call a 'no-duh' question; obviously if you hadn't been conceived, you wouldn't be annoyed, since you wouldn't exist!)
"So did God exist during the Jurassic age?  Was there a Creator and Sustainer of the universe at that time?  Dr. Crossan finally comes clean and says he'd prefer to say no.  Now if God does not exist independently of the human imagination, if God is just a projection of human consciousness, if it is we who create God rather than God who creates us, then how is this any different from what my atheist friends believe?  What this exchange revealed is that on a factual level Dr. Crossan's view is, as I suspected, atheism.  'God' is just an interpretive construct which human beings put on the universe in the same way that 'Christ' is an interpretive construct which Christian believers put on the purely human Jesus.  In this light, it is no surprise at all that Dr. Crossan believes neither in miracles nor in the resurrection of Jesus as events of history.  For, from a factual perspective, there really is no such person or being as God to bring about these events." (pp. 173-174)
Machen is thus vindicated in his insight regarding liberal theology's pantheizing tendency.  For the liberal theologian "God" is so correlated with the world process that all that is left is the evolutionary world process which evolved humans come to call "God."  "God" is simply the linguistic token by which we designate "the ultimate mystery" of existence.  Granting this view of reality there can, of course, be no miracles nor any authoritative revelation from "outside" the world process.  All is in a state of evolving flux.  Liberal theology is simply naturalism that continues to use the traditional language of Christian theism (ex., "God", "Christ", etc.).