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Friday, August 11, 2006

Notes on "Christianity Without God"

I’ve recently completed reading the book Christianity Without God, by Lloyd Geering. Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. I gave a review of this book followed by discussion at for my local Humanist group a few days ago.

The very notion of non-theistic Christianity may seem ludicrous to many modern conservative Christians. It probably sounds like “democracy without voting” or “football without a ball” or perhaps “chocolate milk without milk”. This is because of an interesting fact about most conservative Christians: they don’t know much about Christianity or their own Bible.

Geering’s book is a light and easy read, and is structured like one long argument; a series of premises culminating in its conclusion. For purposes of scholarship and review, I’ll point out some of the gems from its ten chapters (partially quoted and partially paraphrased), which are as follows...


• While modern science has changed our understanding of the world, we once understood it through the eyes of the Bible. The Bible was elevated in its authority as a means for the Protestants to defend their actions against the authority of the Catholic church. In their ‘Reformed Confessions on Faith’ trust in the Bible became the first article, and God is mentioned in the second. This had the little-appreciated effect of demoting God and made the Bible into an idol (see my post on Bibliolatry).

• The act of discarding outworn beliefs may not be a ‘lack of faith’ but rather the opposite. It may open the door for genuine faith to operate again. “The assertion that one needs to believe in a particular creed or set of doctrines in order to have faith is an invitation, not to faith, but to credulity.” Doubt is the enemy of false beliefs - as such doubt is not the enemy of faith but its ally.

• From Zoroastrianism and Hellenism to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, these are all streams flowing into various branches, transforming as they go. The modern secular world, with all of its faults and problems, represents a new but legitimate stage in the Judeo-Christian cultural stream. Just as Gentile Christianity, Medieval Christendom, and Protestantism were new phases in their eras – thus, the global secular world is not the end of the Christian stream, but its next phase.

• Don Cupitt, in his 1981 book, Taking Leave of God, said that, whereas the realist traditional view of God imagines him as an objective being, the non-realist treats all God-talk as symbolic language which, though originating in ancient mythology, may still be useful in order to refer to the highest ideals, values, and aspirations to which we feel obliged to give our allegiance.

• Christians are not actually theists, but rather trinitarians. Most Christians who try to defend theism unconsciously focus on the Father Creator third and identify him alone as God.

• Tertullian, who lived from 160-200 CE, wrote the earliest reference to the trinity, although the seeds were present before then. But it wasn’t until a full two centuries after him that the trinity concept received full authorization.

• Both James and Peter viewed Jesus with Jewish eyes – as Messiah but as a full human being just as themselves. They were rejected by Jews for declaring a Messiah and given a “cold shoulder” by the Gentile Christians for not accepting Jesus as divine. We hear nothing more of them after the 5th Century.

• To fill the vacuum left by the failure of a quick second coming, early Christians engaged in a mental construction of an unseen supernatural world over the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. While the Jewish prophesy referred to a literal and physical ‘Heaven & Earth’ which had failed to arrive, it was replaced in this new supernatural scheme as a non-physical ‘Heaven & Hell’.

• One Baptist minister who Geering spoke to said, “There are three books of the Old Testament for which I have no respect at all... The book of Esther never mentions “God” at all, the Song of Songs is a collection of erotic love songs, and Ecclesiastes was written by an agnostic.”

• The humanist tradition of Hebrew Wisdom did not look to Yahweh to deliver people by miraculous interventions in either nature or human history. It taught people to pursue the way of Wisdom and it relegated God to the role of an impersonal creative force which had shaped the world to be as it was.

• Christianity’s focus shifted from its original roots – from the message to the messenger.

• Jesus stood in the Wisdom tradition more than anything else. It has led Robert Funk to say, not only that “Jesus is one of the great sages in history” but that “Jesus is also a secular sage. His parables and aphorisms all but obliterate the boundaries separating the sacred from the secular.”

• However, the Wisdom stream became completely overshadowed by the Pauline Gospel of the savior Christ, crucified, risen, and glorified.

• Protestants sought freedom from the bondage of the Catholic Church. But that freedom soon developed into another form of bondage – enslavement to the written word of the Bible. This has reached its most rigid form in modern fundamentalism.

• What is important to understand is simply this: the modern secular, humanist, post-Christian world not only flowed out of traditional Christianity but manifests the continuing development of elements intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian tradition. For this reason the modern secular and humanist world can legitimately be called ‘Christianity without God’.

• In ‘Christianity without God’ there is no place for the traditional figure of Christ as the divine Savior. Yet there is certainly a place for Jesus the teacher.

As we discussed at the gathering, Christianity (indeed many religions) has the interesting habit of changing to adapt to its time and circumstances, and often these changes would be downright heretical to previous generations of their same faith – even their same denomination. What’s most interesting is not so much the evolution of the faith, but the practice of covering their tracks. Each generation is taught “this is the way it has always been” and imagine that if they were to meet Jesus, all parties would all be on the same page. Even in cases where the evolution of their beliefs is acknowledged, the rationalization is often that previous incarnations were a distortion and the current one is in line with the true beliefs according to Jesus. But as Geering points out, nothing of the sort is true. To the contrary, the beliefs of modern mainstream conservative Christianity would be completely alien to the historical Jesus.

As a Humanist, this book left me wondering, ‘Why all the bath water?’ but this book wasn’t designed to approach pure Humanists in an attempt to convince them to become Christians. Rather, it seems to be aimed at Christians in order to show that that they need not give up their Christian cultural heritage in order to follow a more sensible, realistic, and convincing system of thought. More importantly, that system of thought is naturally derived from Christian history and recalls its roots in all the ways that matter most.

In his review of this book in The Humanist, Joseph S. Silverman, M.D. said:

“Humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Christianity. It may be quite a wait until Humanistic Islam. We should all live so long.”

6 Comments:

Blogger George Jelliss said...

"In ‘Christianity without God’ there is no place for the traditional figure of Christ as the divine Savior. Yet there is certainly a place for Jesus the teacher."

But the word "Christ" means "the Messiah", "the Anointed One", so how can belief in Jesus as a teacher be "Christianity"? Surely it should be called "Jesus-ism" or somesuch.

The other bit in this article that grates on me is claiming secular humanism as a continuation of the "Judaeo-Christian" stream. This is a phrase beloved of Christian apologists. To me the pagan Greek contribution is far more important than the Judean. Secular humanism belongs to the "Graeco-Roman" culture stream.

11:53 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Hi George - thanks for the comments!

As a Humanist myself, I understand your reaction, and share much of it. I too wondered about the word 'Christianity' as opposed to 'Jesus-ism', given the inclusion of the word 'Christ'. All I can say here is that (1) Geering states that the original Jewish version of 'the Messiah' was of him as a human being, not the version most trinitarian Christians think of the Messiah as. 'The Messiah' was simply a role intended for a descendent of King David. Also, (2) I think he'd prefer to keep the term just because of its traditional use.

Secular Humanism, as a philosophy does obviously share a lot with the Graeco-Roman cultural stream and takes a lot from it. However, I think Geering's point is that it was Christians in a Christian Europe who reached back and dusted off those philosophies (after earlier burrying them) to bring the enlightenment. As a result, what we have is not a pure lineage as if the pagan Roman Empire had continued, but rather an altered Christian lineage - Greaco-Roman thought with Christian fingerprints and perspective all over it. From this enlightenment came SH. As I noted, Geering points out that culturally, even atheists in the West can be called 'Christian atheists'. I think, when you look at our influences, dress, behavior, norms of conscience, etc. there is definitely a lot of messy mixing going on. A U.S. atheist is culturally very different from a Chinese or African atheist and the influence of Christianity on his culture seems emmense.

Mainly though, I don't worry so much about the integrity of Humanism. It is its own thing and I don't see a danger of co-option. But if there's anything that can influence a religion to become more 'humanistic', reasonable, and enlightened, then I'm generally inclined to let them carry on without quibbling too much over who the rightful owners of SH are. :)

7:35 AM  
Blogger George Jelliss said...

I've been thinking about this a bit more, and it seems to me that the idea of a single "stream" is misleading. The way to look at it is backwards in time from where we are now. In that way it is possible to trace influences back to their sources, and the result is a branching system of streams, some wider and stronger than others, some pure and others polluted! For instance we can trace numbers and algebra back to the Arabs and beyond them to India. What do we get from the Judaean tradition, ideas of law? I'm not sure. By far the widest and clearest stream is that emanating from ancient Greece, of logic, geometry, atomism, philosophy, etc. The renaissance and enlightenment was not just a rediscovery of the ancients, it was also the springing out of a new stream, that of empiricism, experiment, natural philosophy. Sorry if I've gone on a bit!

11:57 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Yes I think you're definitely right in thinking of it as a more complex interaction of streams. But regardless of the relative wideness of various streams, I think we may be riding the main stream of Humanism in our rafts, and off from the right here comes Geering in his raft, from an ajoining stream. From his point of view, it's one continuous trip and if he wants to say HE was on the main stream... well... at least we're riding within sight of each other now :)

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some thoughts...

"Don Cupitt, in his 1981 book, Taking Leave of God, said that, whereas the realist traditional view of God imagines him as an objective being, the non-realist treats all God-talk as symbolic language which, though originating in ancient mythology, may still be useful in order to refer to the highest ideals, values, and aspirations to which we feel obliged to give our allegiance."

Perhaps it's reading too much into the matter, but one possible literalist translation of Exodus 3:14 (typically rendered "I am that I am") is "I will be what I will be"...hence the kabbalistic idea of God being a process/becoming (ex. the popular modern kabbalistic book "God is a Verb")

I've noted that in differing mystical traditions, it is commonly asserted that the "personal God" is ultimately a very subjective, human phenomenon; a situation where one's "Lord" is really as broad and as sublime as their imagination is capable of, or as lofty as the individual's noble sentiments are capable. Unless I'm totally misunderstanding them, the Islamic Sufi traditions have a similar idea - the personal "Raab" or "Master".

With this in mind, it could be argued that Jesus was, if nothing else, proposing (on a popular level) a loftier notion of Deity than would have been common amongst the masses. Looking at the the canonical gospels critically, I'm persuaded to believe the teaching found in the synoptics that God lets light and rain fall upon both the just and the unjust man is genuine - it certainly fits within an ideal in which the "highest and greatest" ceases to be viewed as a particular (and very human, and passionately so) mediteranian despot in the sky. This of course falls into line with the best of the hellenic tradition (ex. Stoicism) - namely that "God" is not a score-keeper, but in a sense is benevolently indifferent to such things. If there is "punishment" to be had, it will be consequential to our thoughts and deeds...part of the dynamic we are all portions of, the logos/rationale of the cosmos.

"Christians are not actually theists, but rather trinitarians. Most Christians who try to defend theism unconsciously focus on the Father Creator third and identify him alone as God."

I heartily agree with this observation. "Trinitarianism" is, IMHO, a dumbing down of ideas expressed in the "orthodox" pre-Nicene Church Fathers. But then again, it could be argued that much of what people think of "Trinitarianism" today in the confessional Christian communities is itself a dumbing down of what the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople agreed upon in creedal form. It's pretty clear in the creed, that the Son/Logos is understood to be "God" in a derivative way. It's my own observation that the extant Eastern Churches (Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches) have been much better at maintaining that understanding - though interestly enough, it is they who are probably the most bright and exhuberant in lauding Jesus as "Christ our God" and such titles.

From my own reading, I've re-constructed what I think to be the "evolutionary chart" of the "Jesus as God" and "Trinitarian" dogmas. My perspective is quite at odds with a lot of the modern "Jesus scholarship" in that I do believe that Jesus did identify himself with the Deity - I don't think such ideas were, on the whole, pious fabrications totally unrepresentative of his teaching. However, I also think it was probably along the lines of similar sentiments held by other mystics from other traditions. Just as Jesus ran afoul of the priests and rabbis of his day for such self-identification with the Absolute, so too did later Jewish mystics, not to mention Sufi masters who expressed similar ideas. Where this drastically differs from what became "orthodox Christianity", however, is that such a mystic insight (in it's original form) would not have been arbitrarily limited to any one person. In truth, we're all part of the same Oness which Jesus identified himself with, yet so few understand this, either intellectually/theoretically or (unfathomably more importantly) in a heartfelt/intuitive manner, with conviction.

You are probably well aware, of course, that such insight was not at all controversial in other cultural/religious climates - Vedic civilization being a glowing example of this (the affirmation that all is "Brahman" - the rocks, the birds, men, and even the personal forms of deity, the loftiest like Shiva or Vishnu included). The same can be said of our beloved Stoics as well, though I think the cultural temprament of Greco-Roman civilization was less inclined to produce floral, open, and personal affirmations of such self identification (though to be fair, there is a great deal that is lost to us in this regard - mystery schools, dressed in pagan mythos, were quite popular amongst these same men, though generally what one gained from this was to be kept in sworn secrecy.)

"Both James and Peter viewed Jesus with Jewish eyes – as Messiah but as a full human being just as themselves. They were rejected by Jews for declaring a Messiah and given a “cold shoulder” by the Gentile Christians for not accepting Jesus as divine. We hear nothing more of them after the 5th Century."

I'm not sure if I can accept this, especially with regard to the inclusion of Peter. From what we can known (even examining the relevent texts critically), Peter was eventually reconciled to the followers of Paul, and there was actually a great deal of overlap between the two. From what I can see, the big bone of contention between the two of them involved observance of Jewish laws/rituals, most especially amongst gentile prostylites to "the good news". Peter seems to have eventually settled into a moderate view of this (basically, its good for Jews, but gentiles need not be obliged - which really isn't too ground breaking, since Pharisaic Judaism at the time held a similar view with regard to "righteous gentiles" - those gentiles who worshipped the God of the Hebrews, but had not been circumcized and ritually converted to Judaism). Paul, on the other hand, believed such observances had totally passed by the wayside. Additionally, it would not be at all surprising if even Peter's view of the importance of observing Jewish ritual (esp. as it had been codified at that point by the Pharisees/Rabbis) was quite liberal, since this was common amongst the peasant Jewry of Palestine at the time (Galilee being very much the "bumpkin hill country" of the Jews at that time). In fact, this seems to have been something Jesus touched on a great deal - criticizing an oppressive, legalistic imposition of ritual strictures upon those (the poor and the simple) who could least afford to have their consciences burdened by such things, most especially when such legalism itself starts being used as an excuse to ignore weightier and more universal principles such as justice and mercy.

There is more I could say, but alas, time is wanting. :-)

Timothy

8:13 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks for your comments Timothy, those are fascinating observations. I can't speak for the author, but seeing his response would be interesting. You seem well-read on the subject. :)

8:25 AM  

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