“God is love. I mean, can’t it be that simple for me? You hear it all the time, “God is love.” God is love. God is… a force of love. God is a force of love… in the universe!”
– Julia Sweeney, Letting Go of God
Last night I was chatting on the Facebook with a friend of mine who is a pastor. Now I’m trying to be cognizant of being the “belligerent atheist” and not attack my friends who have religious belief. That is not a good way to hold onto friends, or make friends; and it’s not how I want people to see me either. Plus, I’m all for people questioning my beliefs and picking them apart. One of the tenets I try to live my life by is holding no belief so sacred that I wouldn’t throw it out immediately if it were contradicted by facts or evidence.
And I’d hope it would be one of my friends proving me wrong. And I’d love them for it.
At one point my pastor friend and I were discussing how there are agnostics and even atheists at his church, and how during prayers these people substitute “Love” for “God,” which smacks of disingenuousness to me. It’s utterly perplexing how an atheist could attend church at all. I can understand valuing the community aspect. That is something that is sorely lacking in my own life, and I could almost entertain the idea of attending a church were it not for the religious aspect of it.
I could never pray to “Love.” Even the idea of it makes me uneasy because I’d know what we really meant was “God,” and I don’t really believe in any “higher power” or “supreme being.” He asked if I believe in “Love” and I said that no, I don’t, not in that way. I believe in a wholly natural universe, and that love is a chemical state within the brain, but that this doesn’t diminish its importance by being animal. Love is a many-splendored thing, but not worthy of divine enthroning in our hearts (though Love and the Divine are equally capable of horrors as they are of wonders). You could really substitute anything for “God” in that case, so I’m flummoxed why we’d bother praying to “Love” at all and instead focus on being loving.
What sprang to mind immediately when I heard this was the above-quoted excerpt from Julia Sweeney’s story, Letting Go of God, in which she talks about being raised Catholic as a teenager during the Vatican II changes:
In my senior year of high school they had us go on a special retreat, called a “Search.” And they took us off to a retreat house and they put these big blankets over the windows so you didn’t know what time it was and they didn’t let you sleep for two days and of course everyone kept breaking down, crying, and saying, “God is love. God is love.” Only we were actually saying, “Fred is love. Fred is love.” Because they asked us to call God “Fred” instead of God, because the name God was too off-putting for a lot of people and Fred felt… friendlier!
In my last entry I started to ponder what might be wrong with recognizing Christianity (especially liberal “progressive” Christianity) as essentially sexed-up humanism.
Liberal Christianity is admirable in many ways. It tries to be a haven for those who have been abused by traditional, conservative and/or fundamentalist Christianity, taking the positive aspects of the faith and institution and rejecting the rigidity and dogmatism of its older sibling. Some movements such as the Emergent Church advocate a return to the original tenets and principles of the early church: living a communal lifestyle, focusing on “being” rather than “doing,” and de-emphasizing traditional evangelism and systematic theology. Some believe in learning from the faiths (“narratives”) of others, and stress authenticity and conversation. They also believe strongly in morality and social justice.
It is essentially Christianity viewed through a post-modernist lens of deconstructionism and any other academic or philosophical idée du jour. It’s a theological smörgåsbord: Take what works, ignore the rest, or explain away what you don’t like. On the surface it seems a huge improvement over the dogmatism of fundamentalism. One of the things that ultimately turned me off to fundamentalist Christianity was how much mental gymnastics had to be done in order to make it work—God’s love vs. God’s wrath; human free will vs. divine omniscience; divine revelation vs. human understanding. We wrestle with questions like, “Why can God be jealous, but people can’t be jealous?” Oh, because God is God, and God is the only perfect being in existence. (If you’d like a real mind-bender, read Jonathan Edwards’ 1749 dissertation, Concerning The End For Which God Created the World, a vigorous critique of the purpose for the entire universe using Enlightenment reasoning.)
However, hasn’t progressive Christianity gone the opposite direction from fundamentalism, so open to internal criticism to the point that one might wonder why they even call themselves Christian. You don’t believe in the virgin birth? The miracles of Christ weren’t literal? The bible isn’t literal? What… do you believe in then? That God is a force of… love in the universe?
Recently I moved into a friend’s house and immediately set about ordering my bedroom. As far as layout and design principles go, I generally prefer to go with feng shui, or at least what makes its way onto the Internet. I placed my bed so that it wouldn’t be parallel with the door; used earth tones in decorating; don’t have a television in there (although with my bedroom there isn’t room!); have an air purifier to circulate air and keep it fresh; have several levels of lighting, including candles; and have images up on the walls of things I want to see happen in my life. Do I do this because I believe in an energy that flows through all things (an élan vital, if you will), or that arbitrary direction should determine which way a room faces? Hardly. I favor feng shui because I recognize the psychological power that aesthetics has on people. A cluttered space is going to make me feel less relaxed and settled. Having fresh air in the room promotes respiratory health. Earth tones are visually soothing. And so on.
Likewise, I haven’t entirely thrown out the Christian principles I was raised with as a child. Things like “Do unto others” and “Don’t worry about things you can’t change” are good principles to live by. What I’ve done away with is, like feng shui energies, the metaphysical and tried to take away what good can be gleaned from the practice. If it works in principle, why reinvent the wheel? But I don’t have to believe that it’s “true” to use it.
In substituting “Love” for “God,” I hear the same intellectual dishonesty displayed in the Intellectual Design movement, which takes out “God” and replaces it with an unknown force that is behind the structuring and creation of the universe – and all life, simple, complex; animal, human. But instead of delving into exploration behind the mysteries of the universe, as science is supposed to do, it elevates mystery and discourages true and vigorous inquiry. Dawkins in Chapter 4 of The God Delusion:
Here is the message that an imaginary ‘intelligent design theorist’ might broadcast to scientists: ‘If you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away. We need those glorious gaps as a last refuge for God.’ St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn’ (quoted in Freeman 2002).
This is a rather simplistic reduction of ID by Dawkins (and rather condescending, in my opinion), but this is the same intellectual pitfall that progressive Christianity falls into. No matter how much questioning Christians do of their faith, how affirming they are of human diversity and towards the GLBT community, or how passionate they are about social justice, there will always come a point where the Christian mind “gives up” and accepts the ineffableness of divine mystery. God is always right; Man is always subject.
More later. I’m all thought-out.