The Power of Religious Descriptions


I’ve come across a number of essays that bear on the value of religious descriptions. I’m thinking of two in particular, one from an atheist and one from a progressive theist. The first is Greta Christina’s piece “Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution”. I want to hone in on a quote and unpack it because I think it gets to the gist of the problem in her essay.

“If your god is so non-interventionist that he’s indistinguishable from physical cause and effect what reason do you have to think he exists? The supernatural has never turned out to be the right answer to anything: natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. So why would you think that an invisible god who set the wheels of evolution in motion, in a way that looks exactly like physical cause and effect, is more plausible than simple physical cause and effect?”

This quote only works by separating out God from the natural world. In such a view, God is some extra power, outside of the universe that intervenes from time to time. If that was so, it should in principle be measurable by science since extra energy is being applied in any possible interventions. But there’s no evidence for that. I’m guessing that is what Greta means by supernatural, an extra power which imposes itself on the world, in which case I also reject the belief in the supernatural.

But as a liberal pastor I still speak about the reality of God. So we probably need a working definition of God. Let’s go with the idea that “to be is to do” and that we are, what our actions indicate, and what our character reveals, tells us something of who we are. If so, let’s use the same understanding when talking about God. In that, it would make sense to start with what God is said to do as well what we believe the character of God is. The list, I’ll provide, will not be exhaustive but it could give us a start on getting a handle on the question.

God is said to be the source of salvation, of transformation, and of remaking individuals and societies into something better. God is said to be the source of life, that which creates life but also that which sustains it. And God is understood to be the source of growth and the full development of personality and individuality. God is also a limit point which relativizes our claims and pretensions. God grounds community, our relations, and moves us to other regard. God is the realm of the ideal, imagination, and possibilities and the grounding which actualizes them, even if just partially.

Given that I reject the supernatural, the question, could be asked: what operates in the natural world to accomplish such ends? Certainly other people are needed, institutions, education, an innumerable number of processes in our natural environment, access to the basic goods of life, the sciences, social movements, art, music and literature. One couldn’t make an exhaustive list, only that God would be a general term which encompasses them and more.

But if God is referring to these kinds of realities in our world, then why don’t the sciences use this term? Well, the term doesn’t have any explanatory power in those disciplines. Religious descriptions are evaluative in nature. Both kinds are important but they serve different purposes even as they seek to describe the same world.

To quote myself from another essay if I wanted describe “my grandmother’s couch I could talk about it’s molecular composition. For some forms of scientific inquiry, this could be useful. I could speak of its function, that is to provide a place for folks to sit. That’s useful too! I could talk about the flood of meanings that happen when I remember all the times as a kid that I would sit on the couch. These are all descriptive routes to the same reality. They don’t use the same language because their goals are different but one could not say which descriptive route is truer, we could only ask which description allows us to relate appropriately to the couch given our ends.”

In this understanding, God is a word that describes real activities that happen in the world, in this case, those activities that are worthy. Why use the word God when we have other terms?  Words are indicators that tell us how to respond to such realities. In this case, the word God indicates that we should respond with gratitude, with awe, praise, and reverence. The word indicates what should be most highly prized. One definition of God in Wikipedia is this: God is that in reality which is an appropriate object of devotion and of relating and situating our life towards.

In that, I hear Greta’s proposal as one which would reduce our descriptions that helps us to relate to our world. I can’t but help think that we’d be poorer for that. And given her own background in fiction, the value of descriptions beyond the sciences should be self evident. It should also be self evident for Frank Schaeffer, who has spent a lifetime focusing on the recovery of the arts for faith communities. In the last number of years he’s been challenging the religious right but his most recent essay seems to have given up on religious language all together.

He lists a range of accomplishments in the “secular world”, gains in the sciences to the beauty of a new orchestral piece. It’s telling that in comparing them to the pop world of evangelical Christianity he didn’t bring up Justin Bieber, who is also ostensibly a part of the secular pop world. He compares the best of the secular world versus what is lifted up in some evangelical circles.

Then he declares that these good things, from science to music, is reality while what theology and the church does is simply words describing words in a circular fashion. That is, the words don’t refer to anything in particular while his secular examples do. That would be an indictment of the church, if this is so. If the church is just speaking of things which are a “departure from a grounded reality” then it has is failed to identify God in the world and it has failed to provide appropriate ways of relating to that reality.

Because when I look at his list, I’m more apt to identify the divine with the best in science, in music, in literature, in life in general. Anything short of the best fails to honor the usage of such language. Good theology can and does open up the world to us. I’ve seen it done in progressive churches, so I don’t agree with lumping everything titled religion together as if all where equally good or bad. In real world consequence it matters when churches welcome glbt people or fail to, when churches welcome the insights of the sciences or fight them, and when churches support conversations among different religions or fight anything that is different.

Schaeffer is right that theology is about words. But they are the kind of words that provide a road map to experience as such. They point to some directions we can go, they situate our life and our experiences within a framework. So in this task, theology is all inclusive of life. It’s not done apart from life but it’s also not just one activity among others. It provides for an inclusive description by which our other activities can be understood and related to. Otherwise we’re tempted to treat the events and acts of our life as isolated. And such isolation means robbing them of meaning.

Now some frameworks help us more than others. An easy going relativism will not help us critique or evaluate religions and other frameworks. Some help us get a hold of reality while others help us more readily deny it. Some provide support for things which build up life and love and others appear to block our natural human sympathies. Now frameworks cannot capture reality which is always bigger and outstrips our words. I understand that. But it doesn’t make words less important. Such an insight should remind us to look at the scenery sometimes instead of having our noses in our maps. But I disagree with Schaeffer in thinking that we can throw our maps away.

Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Feature, Philosophy, Religion

2 replies »

  1. While not theistically inclined (in any conventional sense, at least) I do like what you say in the above. There is a general problem of reductionism and emergentism that I’ve recently touched on myself: http://garyherstein.com/2014/07/25/emerging-traffic/ But the short form is that the sciences are unable to come up with a model of nature that even accounts for all that we know to be IN nature, things like consciousness, cognition, and value (Nagel’s list.) One might add to that the very existence of a rational order to reality, as well as it’s creative impulses, and have at hand Whitehead’s god.

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