Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


August 2012

Certainty: the difference between emergents and fundamentalists

In chapter 7 of Predicament of Belief, Philip Clayton introduces a 6 tiered scale of epistemic certainty. Things that are nearly universally agreed upon (by the ‘community of experts’) are at a level 1. Issues like ‘Ultimate Reality’ that can not be verified but can deduced in relative certainty are at a level 2. Matters of specific religions might be a level 3. Issues particular to branches within a religion would be level 4.

Clayton has pointed out in his podcast appearances how important this type of scale is. In decades past, there seemed to be a collective ability to recognize nuance and to acknowledge differentiation between ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ matters.

In the current climate of polarized animosity, we seem to have lost the ability to distinguish. Now everything is core.

The other way to say it is that instead of ranking issues in importance on a scale of 1-10 or holding to beliefs and theories at different levels of epistemic certainty, now everything is held at level 10.

Merold Westphal said the same type of thing in his podcast visit. Belief in the resurrection should not be held at the same level theories about the rapture (for instance).

The Reformers made an important distinction about matters of adiaphora and those essential to faith. Centuries later, I think we should at least start but reclaiming that distinction (at a minimum) and probably need to adopt something similar to Clayton’s scale to reflect the complexity of religious and inter-religious issues.

I was explaining this epistemic certainty thing to a friend a while ago. I said that I held Clayton’s real presence resurrection at like a 7 or 8 (out of 10). Process at a 8 or 9. Linbeck’s post-liberalism at a 5 or 6. Pannenberg’s eschatology at a 3 or 4. The virgin birth at like a 1. That the virgin birth provides a literary function in Matthew and Luke I hold at a 9 or 10.

My friend was shocked. He said “You are not a 10 on everything? I assumed that you held everything at a 10. When I knew you as an Evangelist, you sounded certain of everything. I just assumed that you were equally certain now.”

Now, he can be forgiven at several levels.

  1. We are both from a background where everything is a 10 and if you believe it, it is core. Nuance is not a part of the game.
  2. My voice is mostly the same as it was 10 years ago, so unless I specifically clarify or qualify the statement – it probably sounds identical.
  3. If you haven’t read Predicament of Belief or been exposed to a sliding scale of epistemic certainty or something similar … you may just assume matters of faith are held at a 10.

This, to me is the second biggest difference between say an emergent type and a fundamentalist. The first is willingness to engage scholarship and advancements in science.  The second is this ability to distinguish appropriate levels of certainty about things.

I think that it would be fun to add to all my future blogs an EC rating – “epistemic certainty” on a scale of 1-10. That way if I was talking about eschatology, folks would know to read it at a 2 (for instance). When we talk about Jesus walking on the water – a 4. The dipolar nature of the Process God – a 7.

This is a game-changer for many. As I get to talk to more and more people are migrating, emerging, adapting, and awakening to the multiplicity of possibilities within Christian theology,  just knowing that not everything needs to be held at a 10 is freeing and energizing.

 * I would go back and retrofit my recent posts with an EC rating – but my posts on pluralism and homosexuality have already caused such a stir, I would hate to mess with folk’s heads at this point.


People Do Change Their Minds

Recently I was reading an article by Richard A. Muller called “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic” in the NY Times. Muller is a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of “Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines.” Muller begins by saying:

Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

Muller ends by saying:

 Science is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted. I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered. I hope that the Berkeley Earth analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes. Then comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.

This made my think back to an article that I had read a month ago by Kevin DeYoung entitled “Why No Denomination Will Survive the Homosexuality Crisis”. DeYoung basically says that we are all talking past each other and that there is no way that conservatives, liberals and those want a compromise can ever get along or agree.

His conclusion is:

 “My plea is for these denominations to make a definitive stand. Make it right, left, or center, but make one and make it clearly. Insist that member churches and pastors hold to this position. And then graciously open a big door for any pastor or church who cannot live in this theological space to exit with their dignity, their time, and their property. Because sometimes the best way to preserve unity is to admit that we don’t have it.”

 I feel for DeYoung. He is in a tough ecclesiastic place. But … I have to respectfully disagree. After all, people do change their minds. 

Here is the odd part of this conversation: Things are not static. People are not givens, and views are not set in stone. Things change.

Now there is a caveat.

What I would want to bring to attention is that in both the issue of climate change and homosexuality (and I would add emergent evolution) the migration is not symmetrical. The movement is predominately one way traffic.

I don’t think that the issue of LGBT rights is as much of a forgone conclusion as some others. I do not think that it as inevitable as I often hear. I think that there is a lot of hard work ahead to educate, to protect and to actually legislate.

But here is why I am hopeful. Having a friend who is gay is how so many young people report changing their minds on the issue. It’s amazing – knowing someone who is gay, being a friend is a powerful influence. That element paired with advancements in science bringing greater explanation are major reasons for hope.

People who grow up in Bible believing churches, have a gay friend and figure out the need to read the Bible different on that issue. But rarely does the migration happen the other way. Somebody is ok with their gay friends, then reads the Bible and says “hey I think that this 3,000 year old understanding of sexuality is more accurate than what scientist, sociologist, and psychologist are telling us today.”

That is why I am hopeful. Not because it is inevitable. Not because ‘gay is the new black’. No – I am hopeful because the movement is almost exclusively one way traffic and because having a friend can be such a powerful influence.

In both climate change and evolution – people do change their minds. Mostly based on science. But in the realm of human relationship, there is nothing like a friend.*

So I would like speak against Mr. DeYoung’s proposal and put forward a counter-proposal:

I make a motion that we give it time. That was don’t initiate a parting of the ways. That we live in the uncomfortable tension and let God sort it out as God’s Spirit works within us, among us, and all around us. That we acknowledge the plurality of perspectives and we don’t make this a terminal issue to the relationship. 

Can I get a second? 


*p.s. I know that somebody is going to come on and post that there is someone at their church who ‘wants out of the gay life style’ and that reinforced their previously held view.  The thing is that within the construct of a church culture where one is told to ‘pray away the gay’ (to use a common phrase) is it the same kind of friendship I am talking about. If you are the ‘healthy’ or normal one and you are wanting to change them … it’s not exactly a symmetrical mutuality.  When someone is under shame from the institutional frameworks of the church, they are not free to be the kind of friend who is most likely to change one’s mind.

Stop Comparing Religions

I had the chance to teach adult Sunday School this past weekend as we worked our way through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. We are up to Question 9 “the Pluralism Question”. I had looked forward to this all Summer.

Now unfortunately I did not have the time to cover some classics on the subject like:

What I was able to do is to build on the thought of folks like  John Hick. In his famous works ,such as An Interpretation of Religions, Hick provides tour-de-force in the realm of comparative religion. He is not, however, simply reporting on religions – he is putting forward a theory about religions.

Many of Hick’s fans and critics alike end up saying the same two things when talking about him. The first is about the analogy of the mountain.  The metaphor about many paths leading up the same mountain is a pluralistic classic. The second is about the blind men and the elephant. This is of course based on a Kantian dualism between the numenal and the phenomenological.

Religions are like blind men, each with their hand on a different part of the elephant and thus describing different aspects of the same reality. One has the trunk, one the ear and one the leg. They each talk as if they have grasped the whole but in reality, they have not. Though it may appear as if they are talking about very different things (a Christian from a Muslim or Hindu) they are actually all touching the same entity.

Then there a critics of Hick.  Both Mark Heim in Salvations and Stephen Prothero in God Is Not One are post-Hickian.

Critics of Hick seem to have two main critiques (I am being very general here):

The first is that analogy of ‘paths up the mountain’ is flawed. Religions are like different paths up different mountains. The mountains may all be in a range together – in that they have some similarities and are in proximity to each other – but essentially they are not all leading to the same place. Being a good Hindu, which may have some ethic overlap with say the Christian sermon on the mount, is still not the ultimately after the same thing. Religions do not all lead to the same place and so just walking on road for long enough does not guarantee arriving at the same destination.

The second concern is about the Kantian blind men and elephant. When one takes on this enlightened view, one is placed in an elevated position above the religious traditions. They think that have a grasp on the whole but in reality it is only a part (ear, trunk, leg). The Katian-Hickian at that point is in the real seat of truth. The question then, is why would anyone ever participate in any particular religion?  Why even be a Christian – for example – and only grasp the part? Why not be a generic ‘God-ian’ and recognize the whole? In this way, studying religion is a way to not actually participate in any actual religion! Ironic isn’t it?

 Here was my main point on Sunday: the problem is comparative religion itself. The very discipline that we end up being unsatisfied with contains within it (from the very beginning) the inherent problem that we end up being frustrated with.

The problem is this – comparative religion is a product of a Western approach (with its intrinsic dualism) that first imports and them imposes it categorization upon other traditions and then looks within that compartmentalization for points of similarity and contrast. This will never work.

What I ended up doing was pointing folks toward an innovative concept called ‘Comparative Theology: deep learning across religions borders’ developed by Clooney in the book “Comparative Theology”.

His point is that each tradition tells its own story – in its own words. The art then is not in compartmentalization but in humble listening. Each learning to hear each tradition-religion bring forward its own stories, teachings, practices and values we remove ourselves from being ‘over’ the religion as a judge/reporter and humbly place ourselves at the feet as a learner/listener or at the table as friend/partner.

 I love Clooney’s approach. I find the epistemology and posture refreshing. I also think that in the inter-connected, trans-national, multi-religious 21st century it is going to be ever more critical to distance our selves from approaches of centuries past.

I have written before that I don’t want to apologize for being a Christian (I truly love it) but the time for apologetics is passing into the night of history. It’s a new day and a new approach is needed for the plurality and multiplicity that we increasingly live in. Many conservative christians hide behind exclusivism to guard against the threat of relativism.  What I love about Clooney’s approach is that they are not asked to give up their internal belief as christians but are challenged to adjust their external posture toward those of other traditions.

Diana Butler Bass and those non-human animals

Earlier this month I got to sit down with Diana Butler Bass and ask her about everything from her new book’s title Christianity After Religion to the Methodist tradition and why Evangelical young people are 30 years behind.

It was a blast! [you can hear the audio here]

At the end of the hour, the last question was put forward by Darcy who asked about something Diana had alluded to in the Methodist question. Butler Bass had said that the early Methodist had historically A) ministered to the fringes and B) gone to the frontiers.

It was the fringes and the frontiers that Darcy wanted to know about. Only, she was not asking about the past. She wanted to know about the present.

 Who are on the fringes today and where is the frontier for us?

This is possibly the best question I have heard asked at one of our live events. 

Diana didn’t flinch. She outlined three such scenarios that would qualify:

The first was in the realm of sexuality.
The second was in the realm of pluralism.
The third dealt with our environment.

  •  In sexuality she articulated issues related to the transgendered community. This did not surprise me. In the LGBT formulation, T (transgendered) is the the one the raises eyebrows. Now, because I am came to this conversation through a friend who was doing Queer theology, I had initially taken the LGBTQ as a 5-part alliance. I did not realize how difficult the T can be (not to mention the Q) until I starting asking question and listening to stories. I quickly became aware of the complexities and complications involved.

In the two weeks since Diana’s answer I have had several conversation about her take and I have realized how much conversation has yet to be had. May God give us grace as we learn from each other.

  •  In religion she mentioned learning from Hindu friends. As a student at Claremont School of Theology I am very invested in and more than on board with the idea of inter-religious learning. Yesterday was my day off and so I (as Christian) headed to a Jewish bakery to  sit and listen to an audio recording I had about diversity within Islam.

I am always shocked at how much I don’t know and how much beauty there is within each tradition. May God give us grace as we learn from each other.

  •  In issues of environment and ecology, I like to think of myself as up to speed. This is a subject I have really investigated and as someone mentored by Randy Woodley (his new book Shalom and the Kingdom of Creation was just released and he will be on the podcast next week) I was tracking with her when she talked about non-human animals [I often allude to Nipples & Belly Buttons in this regard].

It should not have been surprising to me that with the release of the video of our conversation that she came under some suspicion by a group called IRB  (Institute on Religion and Democracy) as well as others for  her views on non-human animals.

From the blog Juicy Ecumenism here is the end of Diana’s answer and their commentary:

“Non-human animals and their experience of our environment of the divine are a place that human animals need to listen in order to create more full understanding of God’s creation. […] They don’t have voices like humans do, but isn’t that part of my prejudice?”

I don’t like to bring up the slippery slope, but the mud’s looking pretty slick from here.

What IS surprising to me is that – of her three answers about the fringes and frontiers – that seemed to be the least inflammatory of the three answers!

In my humble opinion, her pluralism answer and her sexuality answer were FAR more daring – and challenging! The only thing that I can figure is that some Christians have so bought into the Cartesian dualism regarding humans that both Transgendered and Hindu folks are completely off their radar screen … but don’t you DARE say what you said about listening to non-human animals.

I was prepared to defend Diana Butler Bass after our show – she said some daring things –  I just didn’t think that it would be on the issue of creation-care over sexuality and pluralism.

This contemporary religious environment will never cease to surprise me.

Starting in the middle never works: Romney, Israel & Palestine

Republican (presumptive) nominee  Mitt Romney got in some hot water recently in a visit to Israel. He  told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the “hand of providence.” He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.

There has been a lot of analysis about Palestinian ‘culture’ as well as economic, military, and other realities that have contributed to discrepancy that is so evident between Israel and Palestine.

I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of the story. Mitt Romney started in the middle and you just can’t do that. In a previous post entitled “Bullies, Bananas and the Bible” I stated:

You can’t verbalize the way things are – which is a result of the way things have been – as proof that this is how it should always be. 

Creation ‘expert’ Ray Comfort famously made a fool of himself by producing a video with Kirk Cameron where he praised the glories of the (modern) banana as evidence of God’s grand design and love for human beings. You can watch the video here – it is a hoot. There is only one problem. Comfort was highlighting many of the adaptations and ‘improvements’ that were results of human modification through deliberate cultivation.

This the problem starting in the middle. You can’t just walk into the way things are, assume the status quo and then make a case for it. *

This is not an isolated school of thought. I was camping in a national park with a long time friend who lives in and loves his ‘red’ state. We were hiking out and enjoying the beauty when he began to tell me about how ridiculous the environmentalists are and how stupid it is to put all these regulations on industry – we are handcuffing these innovators who create jobs for people. His evidence was to point to the trees around us and say “look at all of this amazing space – what are they so worried about? I don’t see why we need to have all these regulations and get so upset at industry.”

I pointed out that if somebody 100 years earlier had not had the foresight to preserve this land, the timber industry would own all this land and would have harvested all these trees. It would look nothing like it did and we would not be walking or hiking there. He had literally never thought about that.

It would be like walking into a grocery store, seeing a steak wrapped in saran wrap on a Styrofoam platter and beginning to articulate how perfectly the  steak was designed for your grill – how the saran wrap crumples in your hand for ease of disposal in the waste basket – how the steak is the same dimensions in thickness from side to side for consistent grilling. Clearly God designed this steak to go on your grill and for your enjoyment!!

This is the danger of starting in the middle.

John Piper’s conservative view of God is the same as Comforts view of the banana and my buddy’s view of the national park: completely ignorant and disconnected from the narrative & trajectory that lead to it.

Which leads us back to Romney: this is a consequence of privilege. I would love to ascribe it to some classicist view of god or an a-historical understanding of theology. It might be from those two things as well, but it is a consequence of privilege and the blind spot that results from it.

If you don’t account for socialization in things like gender – and instead argue for original design … if you don’t give validity to things like constructions and conditioning then you look at how society has been you will mis-attribute it to some other factor. We do it with everything from sexuality and gender  to culture and race.

If one ignores systemic oppression and historic injustice and starts in the middle, then one can conclude that it is this group’s culture or collective disposition that gives them the advantage resulting in the conditions that we see today.


That damned Second Sentence

I have always been suspicious of that second sentence. Usually it is the obvious second sentence that is preceded by the unstated first sentence.

“We hold these truth to be self-evident”  is a great second sentence.  The problem is that it is often put forward as a first sentence. People just start with “We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are created equal.”   It is a wonderful sentence. The problem is that there is something unstated that goes before it. The first sentence there is “After we killed the original inhabitants, stole their land and imported free labor from Africa …. We hold these truths to be self evident…”

 So often what appears to be a first sentence is really a second sentence and the first sentence goes unstated. 

Last week Peter Rollins showed up in LA and talked about why ‘Its not the size of the wand that matters … its the magic that is in it.’  In that talk he pointed out the danger of of a different kind: not understanding the (assumed) second sentence. This is particularly relevant to fundamentalist thinking.

The sentence is ‘We trust God’. The implied second sentence is ‘but we still lock up the church building when we leave and arm the security system.’

Or ‘I trust God’. The second implied sentence is ‘still lock your car doors’.

‘I pray for the headache to go away’ is followed by the implied ‘I take the aspirin to help’

Rollins says (around minute 26) that what is tragic is when somebody believes the first sentence too much and doesn’t pick up on the implied second sentence. Like when a child is sick and the community prays for them to be healed, the dad takes the kid home and doesn’t take them to the hospital or give them medicine and the kid dies.

People are always shocked and horrified that the parent took it too far. Yes, we pray for healing. Yes, we have faith. The implied second sentence is that we also partner with modern medicine – and I would add – even thanking God for the advances is technology and unlocking the potential (often of plants) for medicines.

 The tragedy is when someone doesn’t pick up on the implied second sentence and takes the first sentence way too seriously. It’s that damned second sentence that will get you in trouble.

Part of what I love about Rollins’ project is that he helps expose the invisible or unstated second sentence so that we, as communities of faith, are not assuming something that should not be assumed and then stating it appropriately so that everyone is on the same page and it is not invisible or hidden.

Admittedly, the danger is that it might take some of the magic out of it. I acknowledge that. The tradeoff, however,  is that we can be honest about what is really going on and move forward A) together and B) with integrity. I think that the tradeoff is worth the risk even if we do lose some  of the magic.

– Bo Sanders 

God Never Changes … or does She?

I got an email from a friend asking me:

“ … there’s just one thing that I’m still not sure about: the idea that God changes over time. And the reason this bugs me is because, to me, that means we can never know who/what God is. How do we know that God really is love? What if God really use to be as violent as He/She/It was back in the Old Testament?”

I thought it would be good to post part of my response here and compare notes (theology, after all, is dialogical).

 There are 3 things that we need to flesh out (pun intended) about this question:

1. While God may not change, how humans view and speak of that God evolves. There is little doubt that over the centuries how we conceptualize and even construct our language about God (or Gods) has changed, adapted, morphed, absorbed and modified.  There is no reason to shy away from that. It is a healthy response to growing awareness and – I will even say – progressing revelation.

God is at work in our midst and God has also given us Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us. We say that God is infinite, but as I have heard it said “then no matter how much we know about God – there is infinitely more to know.”

The only objection to this seem to be a ‘you think that your better than them?’ defense of the ancients. Seriously – that is the only real defense I hear of conserving antiquated notions of God. Don’t you dare going moving stuff and changing what they set down! 

That is silly. We must acknowledge as Merold Westphal told us in his visit to the podcast that all our knowledge is situated or what we call perspectival. This is where Elizabeth Johnson’s book “She Who Is” becomes so valuable. I wrote about this in ‘She Who Is Not’ and ‘Horse Gods’.

2. Many groups and thinkers would challenge the notion that God doesn’t change. As Keith Ward points out in God: a guide for the perplexed 

 “ it is important the see how different the classical view is from the popular view. Whatever the Trinity is, it cannot consist of three distinct ‘parts’ in God, who has no parts. Whatever is meant by ‘God becoming man’ is cannot mean that God changes by taking on human flesh. Whatever is meant by the Holy Spirit working to sanctify the hearts of man and women, it cannot mean that God is actually changing by acting like a finite being in history. All statements about God changing and acting, wether they are in the Bible of not, must be metaphors, All changes are in finite things, and not in God, who is changeless.”

Ya see – the old Platonic conception of changeless ideals means that there could not have really been an incarnation. The stories in the Old Testament about God ‘changing his mind’ must be anthropomorphism. You run into to real problems really quick if you say that God never changes.

Now, having said that – we can say, as a matter of faith, that the character and nature of God never changes. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when we say that God never changes, what we are commenting on is God’s loving nature. You want to know why I can say that so confidently as a Christian …. it’s because I believe that the highest  revelation that we have of God in this world is in Jesus.

 3. Process thinkers have an especially helpful take on this.  Built into a Process theology is a dipolar nature of God.  They distinguish between the Primordial nature or God and the Consequential Nature  (some get even more advanced and add a Superjective nature … but that is for another time.)   The Primordial nature sets out all the possibilities  – the Consequential nature is the perfection of the divine experience. Therefor the Primordial nature of God, what God desires, is preserved and can be said to ‘never change’ while God is fully participatory and even impacted by what happens.

 What are your thoughts?  Is there anything I could add to make this stronger? 

It’s moving day

The past month has been a wild one for me personally.  Starting tomorrow, my computer will be out of my hands for 5 days.
I thought this was the perfect opportunity to move over some blogs from Homebrewed and then I can respond to any comments via my phone!

So I am going to load it up today – and then over the next week, I would love to chat with anyone who wants to dialogue about any of it.

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