Tuesday, April 28, 2009

James McGrath on the Faith of Ex-Christians

Ex-Christian like John Loftus, Hector Avalos, even guys like Zach Moore and Dawson Bethrick, apparently, are the truly faithful. The whole "DC" crew, all the "Ex-Christian.net" folks, and any others who gave up their faith are actually the most faithful.

Well, they are if James McGrath's little proverb has any merit:

Whoever clings to his or her faith shall lose it,
and whoever lets go of his or her faith shall keep it.
I'll sit back and watch the debate between the two groups develop. But you have to admit, it's funny to think of the above men as, well, how would Dawkins put it: Faithheads.

24 comments:

  1. One is led to wonder who exactly "holding" on to their faith. It seems to me that James is trying to hold onto a faith that he finds to be outmoded. He actually argues that transhumanism may be a fulfillment of the Resurrection! I really do not have anything to say. I believe that James actually goes beyond Rudolph Bultmann. Oh well.

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  2. No, I wouldn't equate rejection of faith with maturity - that isn't what I wrote. But questioning authority and doubting what we were told often is a step on the way to maturity - that is what I pointed out.

    Just to clarify (in relation to the comment), I don't think transhumanism is the fulfillment of the resurrection. I merely mentioned the fact that the subject of the afterlife and technology came up in the most recent episode of Dollhouse in a recent blog post.

    I'm happy to have my views related to those of Bultmann - thanks for that!

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  3. James, was anything you said in response to my post? If so, I don't understand. Are you denying that those who let go their faith become the faithful? I'm not sure I understand. And what do you mean by "maturity?" That wasn't in your proverb. Neither was anything about "stepping."

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  4. Sorry, I realize that the 'proverb', taken out of the context of the discussions on my blog, could be misunderstood. My point was about how trying to hold on at all costs to faith, treating it as something fragile and easily destroyed, can in fact lead to the loss of faith, while being willing to let it go, in the sense of questioning it and critically examining it, trusting (as the old saying goes) that if it is real and really yours it will return to you, is more likely to lead you to end up with faith.

    It was an allusion to something Jesus said about life, as I'm sure you are aware: cling to life, you will lose it; stop clinging and, paradoxically, you keep it. I was merely suggesting that something similar seems to apply in the case of faith - and thus my point was about how to end up with faith, not that abandoning faith is "the new fidelity" or something like that.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding!

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  5. James,

    Yeah, I don't keep up with all the stuff on your blog. I read the diuscussions in the post from where I took your proverb and only saw talk of birds.

    I'm not sure how you're defining 'faith.' That may help, perhaps you've defined it on your blog, though.

    Anyway, I still don't get it. On the other hand, you have all the atheists pleading with Christians to "critically examine" their faith. These men sincerely believe, pace you, that it is not "more likely to lead you to end up with faith."

    You may be on to a good refutation of new atheist claims. They are pleading with people to "seriously question" their faith, and they whole-heartedly believe that this will be the "end" of faith.

    So, it still seems like you're arguing that what those men claim is flat-out wrong.

    I also wonder what is meant by "questioning and critically examining" your faith actually leaving you with faith. What does the empirical evidence suggest? Probably some of this rests on how you're defining a lot of the things you're talking about.

    I have the hunch that once you do, your claims will either wind up false or uninteresting.

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  6. Well, if a lot of people get stuck in a pre-adolescent outlook that simply accepts what they've been taught, others get stuck in an adolescent rejection of authority. But whether we're talking about psychologists and our emotional development, theologians and our faith development, or hermeneutics and our reading of texts, there seems to be a lot of agreement that it is possible to go further, to return and appreciate some of the things one rejected in adolescence in a new way as an adult. I'm not guaranteeing that everyone will do that. But there is a lot of research which suggests that, on the journey to maturity, rejection of beliefs one held to in child need not be the end of the journey.

    I do think, however, that the approach to faith that regards it as something to be sheltered from critical examination often leads to its rejection. Many if not all of the sort of atheists you have in mind were once believers of this sort, and when enough difficult questions got through, they lost their faith. And I'm not certain that they are at the end of their spiritual journeys. But I think that the "all or nothing" approach that they encountered when they were younger, an approach that said "if anyone comes up with a valid argument against any of these fundamentals, then you should toss the Bible and the whole edifice in the trash", encourages them to believe that, in abandoning their faith, they've now "arrived".

    Anyway, there was a discussion of James Fowler's notion of "stages of faith" that preceded, and provided the context for, the "proverb".

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  7. Okay James,

    So, let me ask something (as I'm just trying to narrow your position down).

    I take it that a lot of people in, say, America, were taught certain things by their parents. For example, some might be:

    1. Sharing is good.

    2. Do not steal.

    3. Respect adults.

    4. Harming children is wrong (so tell mom and dad if someone touches you).

    Are you of the opinion that Americans, en masse, should "critically examine" these beliefs with the comfort that "rejection of beliefs one held to in child need not be the end of the journey"?

    For example, maybe take the writings of NAMBLA seriously. Put on a serious face, view it as a live option, and make for the real possibility that having sex with little boys is, contrary to what you've been taught, quite both fine and dandy.

    In other words, do you endorse this proverb:

    Whoever clings to his or her ethical views shall lose it,
    and whoever lets go of his or her ethical views shall keep it.

    ?

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  8. It is hard to imagine someone who passed through adolescence without questioning the assumption that parents should always be respected.

    My point was that psychology research suggests that the development of mature faith passes through similar stages to the development of our moral judgment. And my point was that, just as most people as adultes, after having questioned authority in their teens, come to appreciate (at least many of) those rules their parents and other authority figures set down, so too those who go through a healthy period of questioning and come through the other side find something similar to be true of their faith.

    At any rate, some people do get stuck in the stage of questioning and rebelling, and that isn't healthy for either them or those around them. But it seems that it is precisely those schools of thought and social contexts that suggest that there are no gray areas, everything is black or white, while they manage to keep some from other questioning, often also cause those who eventually do begin to question to spend longer, or perhaps the rest of their lives, in the rebellion stage.

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  9. Paul,

    I'm going to be speaking to the college group at my church next Thursday, on the reliability of the NT (with respect to transmission). And I've been planning to start with something that may be similar to what James is saying.

    Namely, I'm going to start with the question, "What kind of faith are we called to?" And from another angle, is Christianity first and foremost helpful to us, or is it first and foremost true?

    1.) If we believe in a comforting helpful lie, then it's something that has to be sheltered. Protected. Coddled. We have to avoid challenges, to keep the house of cards from collapsing.
    2.) If true faith is "a blind leap", then the less we have good reasons to believe, the more faith we have. So having reasons to believe is actually hostile to faith.

    I plan to say that the faith to which we're called is confidence & trust in the promises of God--which only grows when we have more foundation for affirming the reliability of Scripture & the Christian worldview. I'm not saying it's defined by "I have irrefutable proof", or that it's not faith unless we have strong evidence. (God may bring someone to faith before they've heard any arguments!) But the Bible speaks about reasons "for the hope that is within us", and "many convincing proofs". And the more that our faith is an examined faith, the stronger it is.

    From another angle, if we love God rightly, then we are lovers of truth. I don't want to say that our love of truth is "higher" than our belief in God--but I want to share Paul's attitude in 1 Cor. 15:14-19. If God were not real, if the Bible were false, then I wouldn't be interested in Christianity.

    And I do think that people who grow up in the church should ask, "Am I a Christian simply because it's what my parents taught me? Am I a Christian by conviction, or just a Christian by default?"


    That said:
    1.) I wouldn't use the terminology "question authority". I would say, "examine our faith". ("Question authority" has its own issues to unpack.)
    2.) There's also more to be unpacked about presuppositions in all this. Does examining our faith mean "setting aside" presuppositions? Or just looking at them? Is there a bad sense of "setting aside our Christian presuppositions"? I don't know... I don't have this part worked out.

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  10. James,

    I'm not sure you really answered my question. I do not doubt people have questioned whether they should respect adults. I gave examples of beliefs we've learned from our parents. I also believes that there are shades of grey.

    Getting back to my question, what does this "questioning" and "critically examining" of faith look like? Are you suggesting, for example, that Americans today who hold that child molestation is wrong start to seriously question that view? Perhaps dabble in it a bit? Critically examine whether it is wrong to do it? Take the justifications of child molesters as serious contenders for dialogue, possibly being right for all we know.

    I'm not really seeing what you're talking about.

    Likewise, should children, say, 5 yr. olds, "seriously question and critically examine" their parents claims that:

    5. Don't drink the bleach under the sink.

    6. Don't get in a car with a stranger.

    7. Don't pull that cat's hair out.

    I may agree with you I may not. It depends on how rigorously you can start spelling things out. As it stands, I'm unsure if you're recommending that I go tell my neighbor to dabble in kiddie porn.

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  11. Jugulum,

    I'm not sure that you're going to be doing anything like what James is suggesting, namely because I don't know what James is suggesting and how he proposes what he is suggesting looks like. So we might as well wait to see what James means before we start claiming that we're doing anything like James.

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  12. As is obvious, Jugulum, I have no problem dealing with "challenges," so it is unclear that you are disagreeing with me and agreeing with James.

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  13. P.S. Another "flip-side" to keep in mind:
    3.) It's one thing to talk about examining our faith. But another question is, "What should our attitude be toward unanswered questions? When does an unanswered question about X mean I should stop believing X?"

    There's a difference between examining our faith, and finding excuses to disbelieve.

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  14. I'm not telling anyone to dabble in kiddie porn. And I'm not saying that telling 5 year olds to not drink bleach "because I said so" is inappropriate. My whole point was about growing to maturity being a process. When one gets to one's teens, "because I said so" ceases to be regarded as a sufficient reason for not doing something. All I'm suggesting is that that is normal and healthy. Would you agree that the process of moving away from accepting things on authority, and investigating things for oneself, is an essential part of growing up, and of coming to one's own personal faith?

    Since you asked about expecting a five year old to exercise moral discernment of which they are not psychologically capable at that age, I really wonder what angle you are coming at this from. Do you deny that people pass through identifiable (if not hermetically sealed) stages in their emotional and spiritual development? Are you suggesting that if an answer is good for a 5 year old, it should be just as good for a 50 year old? Are you suggesting that I'm presenting adult questions to people who are the spiritual equivalent of 5-year-olds? I'm having trouble figuring out what your questions have to do with things I've been writing on my blog lately.

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  15. "Just to clarify (in relation to the comment), I don't think transhumanism is the fulfillment of the resurrection. I merely mentioned the fact that the subject of the afterlife and technology came up in the most recent episode of Dollhouse in a recent blog post. "

    Sorry about that James. There have been a few posts where it seems that you come close to the transhumanism/resurrection view. At least that is the way it came off to me.

    I do have a question for you though. It often seems that you find the process of the historical development of faith to be where we should formulate doctrine. If that is the case, then why couldn't transhumanism be the "fulfillment" of the resurrection? I think this is where I got the idea that you thought that transhu was the fulfillment of the resurrection.

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  16. Paul,

    That's why I said, "may be similar to what James is saying". I'm not sure whether James means the same thing--but I was saying that there's a Christian sense of "examining our faith".

    I wasn't thinking that I was disagreeing with you and agreeing with him. I was thinking, "If James means this, then Paul probably agrees--at least mostly."

    I wrestle to articulate the details of the right way to "examine our faith", so I wouldn't be surprised if you could improve on how I said it. But I thought I would say it here, and let James comment on whether he's talking about the same thing.

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  17. James,

    I'm still trying to see how all this cashes out, you said:

    "I'm not telling anyone to dabble in kiddie porn".

    Why? Why should I, as a Christian, dabble in "Avalos" and not "kiddie porn?" I'm not saying I agree or disagree, I want to see the distinctions you draw.

    "And I'm not saying that telling 5 year olds to not drink bleach "because I said so" is inappropriate".

    Yet, "Thus sayeth" is inappropriate to ground beliefs and actions?

    "My whole point was about growing to maturity being a process. When one gets to one's teens, "because I said so" ceases to be regarded as a sufficient reason for not doing something".

    This seems to assume as we grow older the gap between us and God decreases. (Again, I may agree with you, depending on how you end up spelling all of this out.) So, why, exactly, does "Because I said so," become an "insufficient reason for doing something"? Is this universal? Are there no instances where "because I said so" is a sufficient reason for doing something? If there are such instances, which i think is fairly common sensical that there are, what is the principled distinction between when it is and isn't a sufficient reason?

    "All I'm suggesting is that that is normal and healthy".

    Well, but not for the 5 yr. old. So, maybe not for us with God? Maybe you are suggesting something unnormal and unhealthy. But, maybe not. That all depends on whether you starts spelling this out in a rigorous way.

    So, again, are you recommending that Americans, en masse, start to seriously question, view as open, and believe that whether a man should molest children may possibly be right?

    What does it look like when you "question" and "critically examine" and "let go of" your faith? Is it like Jugulum suggested above? Well, then that just seems uninteresting. Hardly anything to serve as a platform from which to defeat orthodox Christianity.

    However, if you are unable to spell out all of this clearly, rigorously, and cogently, that's fine. We don't need to progress.

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  18. Jugulum,

    I had your program in mind when I said James' views, once he carefully spells them out, might turn out to be "uninteresting." I don't have a problem with what you were getting at in your post. If that's all James means, however, I struggle to find the relevance it has to the direction he's headed in.

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  19. Well, I just came over here to clarify what I said, not to write a book on a subject not in my own scholarly area of specialization, so I'll defer to Fowler and Piaget for those who want more information. I don't think I was saying anything particularly "interesting", much less shocking, and I certainly have no interest in "defeating orthodox Christianity", nor the expectation that those who mature in their faith will as a result share my opinions and views.

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  20. James,

    Where do you suggest I go? Who else has the words of eternal life?

    Or,

    "I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden." — Augustine of Hippo


    So, I am trying to find out if you recommend something harmful.

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  21. James,

    "Well, I just came over here to clarify what I said, not to write a book on a subject not in my own scholarly area of specialization,".

    Right. It's not clear. And it can hardly be said that I'm requesting that you write a book. Do you have a flair for the dramatic?

    "so I'll defer to Fowler and Piaget for those who want more information".

    Ah, I see, because they said so, I'm sure.

    "I don't think I was saying anything particularly "interesting", much less shocking, and I certainly have no interest in "defeating orthodox Christianity", nor the expectation that those who mature in their faith will as a result share my opinions and views".

    That's not the way it appeared on your blog. Seems to me that you're using it for a pre-text to actually doubt Christian beliefs. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that there's some special pleading going on. If not, though, I ask you to "seriously question" and "critically examine" and "let go" your belief that "if you seriously question and examine your faith, then you will keep it," along with your belief that "this is a good and healthy way to proceed." Or, are those beliefs priviledged?

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  22. James,

    Something interesting caught my eye when I re-examined your blog post.

    You tagged the post I was responding to with a tag that reads, "losing my religion," and "loss of faith" yet above you claimed that,

    "I don't think I was saying anything particularly "interesting", much less shocking, and I certainly have no interest in "defeating orthodox Christianity", nor the expectation that those who mature in their faith will as a result share my opinions and views".

    It seems clear that you initially thought more was going on in your post than you now suggest for it.

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  23. McGrath: "Well, I just came over here to clarify what I said, not to write a book on a subject not in my own scholarly area of specialization, so I'll defer to Fowler and Piaget for those who want more information."

    McGrath to Rhology here regarding the Parable of the Good Samaritan: "Anyone who is reading this interaction is welcome to take a look at any decent academic commentary on Luke, no matter whether it is by a conservative, Evangelical or Liberal scholar, and to read the section on the Good Samaritan. I'm quite confident that the understanding of the story that I'm offering is grounded in the best New Testament scholarship, and our understanding of the Jewish context of the time."

    Piaget, Fowler, academic, best New Testament scholarship, ... these terms and the concepts and ideas they represent are fine in and of themselves, but one gets the impression from the repeated use and pattern of your writings that you hold "academia" as a higher authority than Scripture.

    Would you agree with that James McGrath?

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  24. Like most of his ilk, James' statements make most sense if considered as expressions of convenience. There seems little trace of any other rational principle uniting them. And, of course, hatred of Christianity.

    Note the attempt to give his *religious* views the endorsement of scholarship.

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