When I was seeking instead of avoiding a spiritual community 20 years ago I believed there was some value to scripture and to calling for some other worldly powers. I read Michael Lerner’s The Politics of Meaning, a book by a rabbi that applied some very traditional values from Judaism to modern problems in a very politically liberal fashion. I still like that book, but it was the high point of my searching. Every other modern scriptural interpretation has been a dead end that looked a lot like fundamentalism.
John Shelby Spong, Dominic Crossan, C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantiga, Tony Jones, Nadia Bolz Weber, Jonathan Sacks, Phyllis Tickle and pastors at churches that I attended, all have failed rather spectacularly. They may do great things, but their reasons make no sense. Their connection from what they say are decent values to the precepts of Christianity are tangential at best. I’ve never really stopped looking, and I occasionally find someone making a bold statement about non-belief in miracles or the possible non-existence of Moses or that writings of Paul were forged, but never a coherent, positive use of scripture and the stories of the Bible that inspires anything that couldn’t be arrived at easier and better using rational, natural means.
There are some former pastors, like Dan Barker, who can describe how they built community and counseled people in need, but they are former pastors because they got tired of making excuses for parts of the Bible they knew were not true, or worse, promoted bad behavior. Ryan Bell is a recent addition to that list. After being fired from his ministry work for “theological differences”, he took a year to decide if belief in God was right for him. It wasn’t. He recently tried to explain where he is at today by using the term “human flourishing”.
In a recent discussion with Michael Shermer about Michael’s book The Moral Arc, Ryan brought up how Miroslav Volf used this term. I did a little research. Volf seems like a nice guy. He is respected, he went to Fuller Seminary, his published works are highly regarded. I found this essay and that’s where I’ll probably stop. This is how it usually goes. Someone gives you a few words that sound nice, but when you look at their source, the whole story, it’s no different than a tent revival with Billy Graham.
I’ll give Volf some credit for pointing to some flaws in Christianity and religion in general, but those credits have no value when he solves the problems by telling us we must believe in Jesus. This is typical of liberal Christian teachings and sermons. They start out with an analysis of the outdated system and how it doesn’t work for us anymore. We know that, that’s why we’re listening to the new guy. Then it says something about modern philosophy or The Enlightenment and how it reacted to the old system, and makes the case that it failed too.
At this point a transitional theologian like Spinoza or Maimonides might be brought in to sharpen the comparison to Hume or Freud. And the magic moment, back to a common quote from Jesus or some wisdom from the 4th century. Volf wraps up his essay by telling us we must relate God to current ethical issues, make him plausible by showing he is good for us, and we must believe God is fundamental to human flourishing. I’ll go into more of the detail, but once you’ve heard that, do you need to know any more? He’s shown the problems with belief in God, then offered the solution of really, really believing in God.
He starts out talking about hope. He says hope is expecting something good that doesn’t come along every day. For Christians, hope comes from “outside”, not just an extrapolation of what could be based on what we have seen. It is the gift of God’s love. Then he asks, how this is related to human flourishing.
To answer that, he needs to look at the contemporary Western view of human flourishing. He says this is mostly about satisfaction. In the West, this is more strongly pronounced as “feeling happy” in the moment rather than a more stoic sense of having done well in the long run. Volf contrasts this with Augustine who said “human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.” Augustine says it’s okay to want things, but only if you want “nothing wrongly”. That is, want it in accordance with the Creator.
Well, okay, that was 360 AD or so. That’s how they talked then. Let’s see what happens when he starts applying this to modern times.
Skipping quickly over 1,500 years of history, Volf talks of the “anthropocentric shift” from God to humanism that doesn’t reference higher powers. The moral obligations were retained. Tribalism was transcended, at least in theory. And skipping to the 20th century Volf finds flourishing defined increasingly in terms of the self. He sums up this movement from love of God and neighbor to universal beneficence to experiential satisfaction paralleling it to the diminishing of hope, saying, if hope is love stretching itself into the future of the beloved object, when love shrinks to self-interest, and self-interest devolves into the experience of satisfaction, hope disappears as well.
That’s kinda beautiful. I can get that, because I have some sense of what hope and love are. He’s right, if we center our love only on ourselves, where is our hope? We can hope for a better car, but that’s not very satisfying.
Volf quotes Andrew Delbanco when he talks of what happens when we decouple pleasure from the love of God or hope for a common future. In Delbanco’s words, we are left “with no way of organizing desire into a structure of meaning.” We are “meaning-making animals” says Volf, so this must leave us unsatisfied.
We are only at the beginning of p. 10 of a 24 page essay, and he’s already lost me. I followed the historical movement from God to self, but he never offers anything about meaning coming from anything except God. He left a glimmer of that in the 18th century with a sense of community, but it’s gone as far as he is concerned by the 1960’s. Can he build a way out of this abyss? Let’s see.
He states this with no debate, “The most robust alternative visions of human flourishing are embodied in the great faith traditions.” Although in a moment of honesty, or maybe comic relief, he says, “True, you cannot always tell that from the way faiths are practiced. When surveying their history, it seems on occasion as if their goal were simply to dispatch people out of this world and into the next.” But he sees no alternative, he must look to thinkers from those great faith traditions.
He quotes Al-Ghazali and Maimonides, two major players, one from Islam, one from Judaism. He talks of how these traditions taught that we must know where we fit in with the ultimate reality. I don’t argue with that as a pursuit, even though many people get by perfectly well without even understanding what the equinox is or where babies come from. For these great religious thinkers, there is no escaping God. When quoting Maimonides, to have knowledge, is to know God, perfection consists “in the acquisition of the rational virtues—I refer to the conception of intelligibles, which teach true opinions concerning divine things.” So, knowledge leads to God.
Volf gives a little ground to non-theological intellectuals of the past, but immediately laments that an education formerly included a pursuit of life’s meaning. I think Volf misses that education today is specialized and we can’t acquire the breadth of knowledge that people used to have because there is so much more knowledge to be known. Where it was once normal to understand all that was known about literature, the cosmos and math, by sheer volume, that is no longer possible.
Also, this idea, that we can find our place in the universe by understanding it is an idea that didn’t die because we became more concerned with personal satisfaction, it died because we found out the universe is 13.7 billion years old and much larger than anyone could have imagined. What Volf fails to mention is that we also found out that the particles that were cooked in the first generation of stars are now part of us. We never found the connection he is looking for, but he ignores the one we did find.
The problem is not that science ruined the quest for a connection to the universe by finding we are just a little planet on the edge of just one of many galaxies, the problem was always with the looking for that connection out there. That connection is right here in the faces of people we care about. I make that connection, as Frank Schaeffer puts it, by getting my wife a cup of tea and then going on to the next mundane, simple act of kindness.
Volf only mentions Darwin in terms of the negative influence of the “survival of the fittest”. But Darwin wrote extensively of cooperation in Origin of the Species. In Darwin we find an explanation for how we climbed down from the trees and worked together so intelligence and skill could survive against larger and stronger predators. We found we could look to nature to learn where we came from. Nature wasn’t a frightening and brutish place that we were separated from after all, it was where we belonged. It wasn’t given to us by God, we evolved with it and we are here now because our ancestors had the traits that matched their ever evolving environment. One of those traits was hope for the future. Volf is right, hope is love extended beyond the horizon. Each of us was loved by many people long before we were born. If you care enough to leave this planet in better shape than you found it, then you are part of that chain.
Volf doesn’t mention anything like that. He does give a nod to secular versions of philosophers trying to find a fit for humans within the larger reality we find ourselves. He does this to compare these secular visions to the religious tradition of seeking where we fit in reality. He doesn’t use the word “utilitarian”, but he alludes to the more utilitarian forms of morality that were discussed in the years of the enlightenment, and I have no problem pointing out the problems with that. You can’t simply add up the happiness in a society to decide what is right. If you do that, you miss Martin Luther King Jr’s words that if there is injustice anywhere it is a threat to justice everywhere. But unlike Volf, I don’t have to justify the words of 17th century philosophers like John Locke or anyone from an earlier century. I can evaluate their words and provide reasons for discarding them or building upon them based on everything known today.
Volf instead covers Seneca’s “Cosmic Reason” and Nietzsche’s “higher humans”. Then he returns to his theme about the modern sense of how we fit into culture, saying, “Satisfaction is a form of experience, and experiences are generally deemed to be matters of individual preference.” I don’t think that’s true for everyone but here Volf goes somewhere I didn’t expect. He applies this to his fellow believers.
Even religious people can use their religious experience for personal satisfaction! Not surprising to me, but surprising to hear it from a theologian. By doing this, he says, they transform the “Creator and Master of the Universe” to “Divine Butler” and “Cosmic Therapist”. Volf now brings in the much more liberal Terry Eagleton, who blames this malfunction of religion on the “post-Nietzschean spirit” of the culture. Neither of them ever consider that the religious narrative has failed and can never again provide the type of transcendent experience it once did to those who had no idea what was above the clouds. He just keeps blaming some general decline of culture, and post-modern relativism caused by all these philosophers.
But again, he makes a statement that I completely agree with, “It is a mistake—a major mistake—not to worry about how well our notion of flourishing fits the nature of reality. If we live against the grain of reality, we cannot experience lasting satisfaction, let alone be able to live fulfilled lives.” This is in perfect agreement with The Amazing James Randi, who says, “wouldn’t you rather live in the real world?” Then Volf immediately returns to looking to religion for the solution, to find this “grain of reality”. It seems to never to occur to him that we now know how what we buy in the grocery store affects the farmer in Ethiopia. We know so much more about this “grain of reality” than any time in history. What is sad is he has the resources to meet a farmer from Ethiopia who sees these connections much clearer than I.
This is classic liberal sermon stuff right here. First, talk about the religion of your grandparents and say that’s not the right way. Then throw in some philosophers and show how they failed. Then bring in modern theologian/philosophers and start working your way back to a new way. At this point, I used to be on the edge of my seat, thinking all my time wasted singing hymns and washing dishes for the fundraisers was about to pay off. But as we’ll see, in the end, you walk off wondering if you’ve missed something. At least I did. I was a slow learner. Eventually I figured out there’s nothing there to be missed. What I was missing was the poetry of the cosmos and the beauty of the cycles of nature. And more important that there was a system for discovering the truth about that nature, things that my ministers weren’t integrating into our spiritual education.
Next Volf again tells us something we shouldn’t do, another malfunction of religion. We shouldn’t start with our preferred account of human flourishing and then construct an image of God to go with it, as if we are measuring ourselves for a pair of slacks. Volf knows that this is what Nietzsche says Christianity already did. He disagrees with Nietzsche who said they started out with perverse values and built a structure that supported them, but he agrees that even if you begin with decent, healthy values, it is still the wrong approach to God. He says “[this] divests faith of its own integrity and makes it simply an instrument of our own interests and purposes.”
Of course it does. That’s what people see churches doing and that’s why they are leaving. These are words Richard Dawkins could have said.
This is the point in any modern liberal theology that completely baffles me. He has so thoroughly and eloquently analyzed two major problems with religion. And he’s done it with minimal shaming of anyone in the present. He’s shown how we got here and how the invention of these traditions was a natural process driven by historical dynamics. But his very next sentence, on page 20, is the one where my heart sank. He says, “Let’s return once more to Augustine”. Let’s roll back 1,700 years of progress.
To Augustine, God is not impersonal, it is loving. And to be human is to chose to love. To live well we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with God. That’s how we flourish. He applies these ideas back to the earlier mentioned philosophies and shows how they just can’t work without God. That “tranquil self-sufficiency” of the Stoics or Nietzsche “noble morality” just won’t cut it. He even throws in Augustine’s comment on Epicurus, instead of “Let us eat and drink”, it should be “Let us give and pray.”
I should at this point offer some alternative. The language of morality and flourishing is difficult, and it’s unfair and too easy to simply bash the weaknesses of theology. I’ll give Volf and Jesus some credit for including “the least of these” in their philosophy. Most moral theories don’t talk much about the value of charity and the long term satisfaction of a life of sacrifice. If Christians actually embodied those notions and spent more time doing them rather than conquering land in the name of Christ or torturing those who wouldn’t profess his name, maybe the whole endeavor would have worked out for them.
And I know Christians hate it when we mention the worst aspects as if they are the norm. But when were they at their best? From the 5th to the 14th century they ruled Europe. What advances in democracy happened in those years? Science advanced for a while not in Christian Central Europe but in Baghdad and Muslim Spain because a few Caliphates listened to the few lines in the Koran that talked about acquiring knowledge. What great Christian literature came out of that time? When Erasmus wrote what are considered the earliest humanist writings, he wasn’t praised, he was suppressed. When Jan Hus tried to take it further, he was burned at the stake. When Galileo tried to teach what he observed, he was given a tour of the dungeon in the Vatican. So, why was there a dungeon in the Vatican? Sorry, it’s hard to get any distance from those worst aspects.
And how did we come out of those dark ages? We created nations that had religious freedoms instead of Kingdoms anointed by Popes. We created constitutions with words that can be directly traced to enlightenment philosophers and just barely mention a deist type of creator. We abolished slavery, which is too much to cover here, but there were and still are religious arguments for both sides of that issue. We created systems where you have a right to say that you have a special friend who is telling you something is true, but I have the right to say I think something else is true.
Those are the alternatives I have to offer. Words like “right” and “love” are the highest words we have. Poets have tried to help us express these words forever. You kinda just have to get them when you're young, not just understand them but let them become part of you. If you don’t, you just don’t quite fit. We have enough trouble trying to figure out what is right for a few dozen people in a room, figuring out a caring system for 7 billion is going to involve some arguments. So the question is not “what is the answer”, the question is “how do we deal with the questions”?
I think we can start with simple principles, like don’t step on my toe. If you are on my toe, you need to get off. There is no cultural reason for you to remain on my toe. If you have a toe stepping obsession, you need to work that out, and you need to get off of my toe. From there, we can build to determining which chemicals should be used where and how much, or who gets a bigger slice of the pie and why.
Volf instead, returns to the prophetic tradition, the fundamental movement of ascent to God to receive a message and the return to the world to bring the message to this mundane reality. He offers 3 aspects: 1, We must relate God to current ethical issues. 2, Make God plausible, by showing he is good for us. And 3, Believe God is fundamental to flourishing. And he puts that in italics, you have to “really mean” that God is our hope. That’s it.
This closing message, after all the history and philosophy and admitting the failures, is the same message of Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren, Torquemada, and Oprah Winfrey. It’s your worst High School coach. I know part of any difficult task is to have faith but at some point you have to say, coach, maybe we need a strategy, maybe we should have practiced more instead of listening to that Knute Rockne speech over and over. But if you say that, you become the problem, you’ve shown your lack of faith, so you are now the cause. So you just play along.
Even his first two suggestions seem so transparent, they are about the outward appearance, not the underlying structure that makes a system work. He says to apply this belief in God to current issues. But the Bible is not even a good source for ending slavery, let alone determining what we should do about anthropogenic climate change. I can easily use the Bible to make a case FOR laws against homosexuality. I wouldn’t do that by the way, I’m just saying it’s easy. Making the case for something like living with our Islamic neighbors, that’s not so easy.
When discussing the idea of making it plausible that the love of God is key to human flourishing, Volf shows a strong awareness of non-believer arguments. We non-believers have “railed against God’s nature”, which means “against theistic accounts of how humans ought to live”. He notes that we don’t believe God is good for us. He could be talking about a strident atheist, or someone just complaining about Sunday’s sermon. He notes that this idea that God is good is contested, but says it’s because Christians haven’t done a good enough job of showing God’s goodness. But isn’t that what every organization or philosophy tries to do? To produce results? That’s how you grow an idea, if it appears to be working, people will notice, then some will look into how you’re doing it and you build the next generation of leaders.
What Volf doesn’t address is the 99% of people in human history who were told God made them serfs and servants and soldiers and that’s just the way it is. That’s not a system that can survive outside pressure. It’s not a system that can progress. Of course people have contested these ideas. Through most of history they just had no power to do anything about it. Now that we have that power (and mean everyone, believers and non-believers), people like Volf are struggling to find other ways to get it back.
Volf never suggests that modern systems of listening to voices that traditionally were marginalized have anything to do with how the world is today. He never says that teaching more people math, reading, biology, history and ALL the philosophies has made the world more complicated but also has made it better. He never admits that we just don’t know how best to love our neighbor. We, like Christians since the earliest days, are still arguing about who exactly is our neighbor. He believes this one idea that has been tried a thousand times will finally work, if we just believe. He never considers we might be better off letting thousands of ideas be heard in the hopes that we find more ideas that have merit.