My Contemporary Theologizing

Perhaps I owe the readers of these e-mails (which are also Realistic Living blog posts) some information on who I am as a Christian theologizer. I am certainly not a great scholastic— a theologian in the company of Rudolf Bultmann, whom I consider to be the most important Christian biblical scholar and theologian of the last two centuries. I also include Paul Tillich, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoefer in my smallest circle of great recent Christian theologians. All four of these scholarly luminaries lean strongly toward what Tillich calls the “Protestant principle”—by which he means the perpetual critique of all religious and cultural assertions. These four theologians are also “catholic” thinkers in the sense of fully honoring the whole history of Christian expression. I am especially indebted to Paul Tillich and H. R. Niebuhr for my love of history and my perspective on church history.

But I am more of a preacher than a scholar. I am still leaning to write after a lifetime of preaching. I am also a proponent of every Christian becoming a theologian at the very strongest level of their experience. And I believe that each of us have the authority of our own experience— from which experience we are entitled to critique even the scholarly luminaries we deeply respect. The four men mentioned above lived several decades ago, and we still living 21st Century Christians have experienced life challenges that they did not live to see. And they are all four men. We need to learn from the experience of women. The four men named above did not live to see the full flowering of feminism, ecology, or interreligious dialogue and interreligious cooperation in social action. Technology, economics, and politics have also not stood still. The perpetual revolution in Christian thought that was emphasized in Tillich’s “Protestant principle” has continued. I have attempted to keep up with this historical flow. All this experience entitles me and you to say more, not less, than the above four mid-20th Century luminaries were privileged to say.

Thomas Altizer, like me, has claimed to be a preacher more than a scholastic theologian. I am a critic of Altizer, but not of his excellence in obliterating people’s obsolete views of God. I am, however, a critic of his substitute set of religious assertions that, from my perspective, result in a religion that is alien to the New Testament revelation. Of Karl Barth I have a different kind of critique; he, from my perspective, clings too firmly to the old forms of Christian expression that have become obsolete in terms of the most lucid philosophies of religion that now drive what I view as “edge theological creativity.”

In addition to being an amateur Christian theologizer, I am also an amateur philosopher of religion, but a very passionate one. I have written a whole book on this topic entitled The Enigma of Consciousness: A Philosophy of Profound Humanness and Religion. For popular consumption, this book may be one of the best things going on this topic. I certainly recommend it, even though such an unknown as myself will be read by few scholarly philosophers who discuss this topic.

I am mentioning my philosophy of religion in this spin, because I want to share with you how important it is for me to do Christian theologizing within the context of a philosophy of religion that honors all religions. My philosophizing includes carefully defining the very word “religion,” so as to distinguish religious superstition from the essential social process called “religion” that is part of every society, along with education and sewage disposal. A good philosophy of religion disposes of the superstitious “sewage” that the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, and others have managed to dream up.

All religion is “dreamed up” by the human species. No religion has dropped down from a top-story realm of supposed absolute truth. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as good religion as opposed to superstition. Good religion points beyond itself—beyond its rational assertions, beyond its rituals, icons, and myths, beyond its communal life organizations—to the Eternal, Everlasting, Mysterious, Empowering Every-thing-ness and No-thing-ness that is experienced to be simply THERE judging every human creation as either helpful or crazy.

When Hinduism points to a Brahman Otherness that promotes an Atman inwardness, and when Christianity points to an Almightiness in the flow of unstoppable time that promotes an inward Holiness of Spirit, we are seeing two very different religions point to the same overall experience of a primal realism that all humans face. To talk meaningfully about religion we must honor this pointing-beyond quality of any religion that is doing its job as good religion. This pointing-beyond quality is the secret to experiencing an actual “Word of God” for Christians or an actual “Enlightenment” for Buddhists.

If there is no beyond-the-temporal for a religion to point to, then there is no validity to any religion. In that case all religions are superstition—merely opium for people who have lost their courage for a quest for truth or for an obedience to social responsibility.

And it requires an extreme carefulness of thought to distinguish a truly objective philosophy of religion from a subtle universalizing of my own religious inventions that I then foist upon others who practice a religion other than my own. But unless such an objective philosophy of religion is possible, no religious critique of my own religion is possible, and no honoring of a religion other than my own is possible.

And what do I mean by “my own religion”? As a Christian I have what H. Richard Niebuhr calls a religious “point of view.” For example, I follow the Old Testament point of view that views an Eternal Presence in the flow of time with which we in my community of devotion are in dialogue—Thou-we-Thou-we-Thou-we-Thou. I also follow the New Testament point of view that views the “character” of this Eternal “Thou” in the flow of time being revealed in a specific event, including the life, teachings, deeds, and death of one Jesus. This Christian point of view needs to be further spelled out, but it basically means accepting the job of religious creativity that flows from accepting that this one event of Jesus, seen as Messiah, reveals the meaning of what is happening to us in every event of our personal lives and of every event in our social history. However preposterous this enduring paradox may remain for most of us, this is my Christian point of view by which the validity of any past or further development of the Christian religion is being judged by me. My religious point of view is not shared by Buddhist theorititions who do their creative thinking from another point of view.

I will not attempt in this brief spin to spell out what I view as the best of Buddhist thinking and how it overlaps and differs from my Christian theologizing, but this can be done. These two contrasting points of view can be viewed from the perspective of a philosophy of religion that honors both the point of view of Buddhism and the point of view of Christianity without universalizing or dishonoring either point of view. Doing an objective philosophy of religion includes giving up every religious point of view as universal. Each religious point of view is relative, not absolute—a temporal creation by part of the human species. In other cryptic words, the Eternal can be revealed in the temporal without the temporal becoming Eternal.

The existence of such an objective approach to the philosophy of religion can be very important in our current world in which Christian bigotry, Islamic bigotry, Jewish bigotry, Hindu bigotry, Buddhist bigotry, etc. are serious enemies of a viable future for humanity along with racism, sexism, nationalism, nativism, and yes even humanism of a dogmatic quality.

If you have not done so already, take a look at my book on these matters:

The Enigma of Consciousness:
A Philosophy of Profound Humanness and Religion

Also, if my elaboration of the Christian point of view is of interest to you, take a look at my book on that topic, which you can see on this same web site page.

The Love of History and the Future of Christianity
Toward a Manifesto for a Next Christianity