The Predicament of believing Philip Clayton

This is a difficult era for those who find themselves committed to the values of scientific rationality and yet moved by the claims of a religious tradition.

That is how the preface to Philip Clayton’s new book The Predicament of Belief  begins.

I am always a little jealous of people who have a scientific background or who have a comprehension of philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I read books like Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Green and dabble in Tillich or Moltmann. I love reading that stuff and get a lot out of it … but it is never comfortable or familiar. I was raised as a Billy Graham evangelical and have a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical Studies. I have a Masters in Theology and in 20 years of ministry  I have preached over 1,000 sermons. I am a pastor. I adore the church. I think in community. It is both how I am built and how I have been groomed. This is part of why I wrote my thesis in Contextual Theology and am now pursuing a degree in Practical Theology.  I am obsessed with the church. 

“… It is hard to decide what parts of one’s tradition it makes sense to reject or retain.”

Here is the thing:

But can I go with Philip’s brand of Adoptionism (in Christology)?

But can I go with him when he talks about the 5 layers of the Resurrection?

[Keep in mind that I said in a post last week that I could never imagine saying 3 things:  A) Paul didn’t write that book B) Jesus probably didn’t say that sentence and C) the Bible is wrong about that ]

It is interesting to me that Philip comes from much the same background as I do. It was because of his work that Claremont School of Theology first came onto my radar. I love his vision as the new Dean for the school and have gone on to read several of his books. His conversation with Tony Jones at an Emergent Theological cohort gathering is something I still reference monthly. I get what Philip is saying and I am down with what Philip is up to. Clayton speaks to me. I quote him often in sermons and coffee-shop conversations.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no affection for tradition-for-tradition’s-sake and I don’t even have one conservative bone in my body. I have no affinity for ceremony, ritual, sacrament, or obligation apart from their narrative value. But as I read Clayton’s newest book, I am confronted on nearly every page with the question “do you know what this would mean?”  This is edgy stuff. His work is innovative and daring and would be well over the line for those that I report to for ordination and accreditation.

 So I am left with two questions:

  • How does one preach this stuff?
  • What would it look like to let go and fall all the way down the rabbit hole of this kind of thinking?

 I am saved from too much torment by two entirely different convictions.

  • The world is changing.
  • As people of truth, we need to deal in what is true.

 The first reminds me that the world has always changed – which is good and healthy and necessary. Some say that the only difference is that we have moved,in human civilization,  from incremental change to a period of exponential change.

The second reminds me that we can say things like “You shall know that truth…” or “All truth is God’s truth” and then act like they had it right in the 3rd century. No, if we are to be people of truth, then we need to pursue truth – wherever it leads.

Pursuing truth may lead us to conclusions that are different than our traditions have expressed. It may lead to us revisiting some things that we have held dear.  But what is the alternative?  To hang on to outdated and outmoded sentimentalities that have little to do with reality and the world as-it-is? Or to continue to play word games in our ecclesiastical silos that have little bearing on the real way people live outside our theological conclaves?

No. We need this. We must to do this. We have to take seriously the landscape that is in front of us and navigate the actual terrain that we occupy. Otherwise we risk living in the conceptual map and never walking on the land as it really is.

That is the predicament of believing Philip Clayton.

you can also check out this earlier post & video (and podcast)  for a great discussion 

 

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19 comments
Cameron
Cameron

Philip: Is this book the definitive statement of your six-level typology of rational understanding? I think it will be a useful framework for some work I'm doing and there aren't citations, so I'm assuming that chapter seven is the most appropriate place for me to cite. Let me generally say that whilst I am still one brief sitting from completing the book, I have appreciated it. I'm still working through the points touching on the traditionally orthodox points of Christian theology---specifically the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the pre-existence of Jesus and so on (I like those doctrines, and in all honesty it must be said that moving away from them would also mean moving away from my employment!). I was very comfortable with the earlier metaphysical material. I think it is a more than reasonable and perhaps even a sufficient response to the theodicial problems that beset theism. I also appreciated the very clear and organised manner of the book. It has obviously been through many drafts and it's refreshing to read something that has been released when it was complete, not when the publisher insisted. All up, I've got a bit to chew on.

John
John

What is the thinking behind the term "Ultimate Realtiy". Any thought given to using "Total Reality" or just plain "Reality" I was also disturbed by the characterization of "personal experience" as an immunization strategy. While I am sure that it could and has been used in that way, either rhetorically or as part of one's own denial, since my own personal faith experiences and what I consider the testimony of personal experiences in Scriptures of such important figures as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, & Paul, I am hoping that my own personal religious experiences have been more than an immunization strategy.

dmf
dmf

@PClayton, I'm not sure that the stakes can be predetermined (just as there is no necessity to the slippery-slope argument that the modernist stairs to hell cartoon illustrates) either by logic ,intentions, or socialization, of course this is as true with efforts to conserve as to reform so we are all taking leaps of faith and better to do so consciously and yes we should therefore focus on the doing (the "how") and the results to try and head off the tyranny of the means.

Philip Clayton
Philip Clayton

Bo, thanks for your great comments and "teaser" for "Predicament of Belief". Let me write what you'd never expect an author to write: what if the stakes for faith are lower than you say? Steve Knapp and I identify six different ways that you can interpret your own faith. We come out at 3 or 4 on most issues. But look: the apologist is a level 2, and the full-on liberal is a level 6. But we may all be using some of the same sentences to describe our faith! The affirmation of the resurrection, for example, may be found at each of the six levels. Of course, *how* you affirm the resurrection matters. That's where the hard work lies in the book, and thinking Christians need to go there. But let's not paint it as an either/or -- neither from the liberal nor from the conservative side. -- Philip

dmf
dmf

@DH sorry if I wasn't clear but I wasn't making any claim of equivalence my point was in response to the original post about what is at stake in believing an author-ity and how we are limited beings making judgments in a world of complexity and emergence (factors which in and of themselves don't point to a Mind at work that we can decipher and or get in line with) which exceed our grasp, which is why Heidegger was bothered by the idea of a 'scientific' approach to fields like history and the rise of field like cybernetics which give us an illusion of mastery when in fact we are only manipulating/simplifying things for our use (see Whitehead on misplaced concreteness) One need not read Heidegger but only look at our recent financial debacle and the role of engineering and faith there, or think about how one decides how to vote on complex subjects like wars or budgets, or even about folks like Sam Harris who fail to understand the is/ought distinction. see the works of theologian Mark C. Taylor if your really interested in these kinds of dilemmas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_C._Taylor

joshua m. walters
joshua m. walters

It's not Clayton's conclusions that get me wound up; it's the question, "How'd he get there?" Because, after all, I want to evolve toward a deeper understanding of the world too. The breakdown for me occurs when brilliant minds cannot articulate how they ended up at such complex conclusions. Hence, this is truly a matter of practicality and preaching (i.e. sometimes preaching has to be less about the telos and more about the process of discovery). I can't wait to read this new one.

Steve Horwatt
Steve Horwatt

Garret, I guess I draw the same sort of distinction between "knowing" and "believing." I get a little annoyed when I get drawn into discussions about whether I "believe" in evolution, because science is not a faith; it's a system for investigating the universe. Evolution is an intellectual proposition that seems to fit things we can measure. It can (at least in some ways) be tested, and can serve as a basis for making further proposals about the nature of the universe that can also be tested. When aspects of the proposition are shown to be flawed, they can be modified and the modifications can be tested. Evolution is kind of a messy example, because some of the hypotheses are difficult to test effectively. But I think a hallmark of the scientific process is that if you could do the proper experiments and control everything properly, you could always get to a final answer or some kind of conclusive proof. Belief, on the other hand, comes from our internal thought processes, intuitions, and (if one believes in God) inspiration. There's really no way for me to say with certainty whether my own inspirations are truly divine, much less another person's. I have had what I believe are direct experiences of the presence of God, but people I have described these experiences to have often interpreted them very differently and I see no way to prove or disprove these different interpretations if one accepts the possibility of a God that can act outside of time and the physical laws that constrain humans. It's just not a problem that seems amenable to scientific proof (although some aspects of it perhaps can be analyzed). I agree that science assumes that the universe is rational (otherwise scientists are wasting their time). What do you mean when you say science assumes the universe is "contingent"? I usually think of that as more of a theological assumption (i.e., the universe is contingent in the sense that it exists because God created it and it exists in the form it does because God chose to create it this way, rather than some other way). Looked at it that way, I think contingency is kind of an open question in science, and one that it mostly leaves alone, but perhaps you mean something different when you say science assumes the universe is contingent.

Garret Menges
Garret Menges

@doughagler, You draw a pretty hard line between what we "know" by means of science and what we "believe" by means of faith. This framework fails to take into account the unquestioned assumptions that lie at the heart of most of the scientific process (i.e., the universe is rational and contingent). These are assumptions that cannot be proven. That being said, it's not bad to have assumptions. In fact, it's inevitable if one desires to construct a coherent framework for understanding reality. All knowledge must begin with presuppositions that are accepted a-critically. Even knowledge that comes to us by means of science.

Doug Hagler
Doug Hagler

@dmf: I don't think we can say that trusting scientific consensus and putting faith in a theological claim are equivalent - I don't think they are. Anyone with enough time, training and the right instruments can say how old the universe is - or at least approximate it. But if I don't share a religion with someone making a theological claim, I have far less reason to buy into it. That is, the "faith" I put in medicine, when I go to the doctor, is not at all the same thing as the "faith" I express in worship. One of those kinds of "faith" is actually based on a ton of evidence and overwhelming consensus among smart people. The other kind of faith is based on much more experiential evidence and the consensus of a community in which I was raised (that is, Protestant Christianity). If I was raised in Indonesia, I would almost certainly put that "faith" in Islam, but I would still view medicine the same way. As for a standard of evidence, I am usually quite comfortable taking the consensus of the community of smart people who study something. So if, say, 95% of climate scientists agree in anthropogenic global warming, or 95% of biologists agree on evolution, I see that as 'case closed' as much as anything can be, for the same reason I don't question when my doctor prescribes an antibiotic. If there really was a 'controversy' among scientists around evolution, for example, that would be another thing, but there just isn't. The 'controversy' there is among people of faith, some of whom, like John, were raised in an environment that makes it very difficult to accept claims based in physical evidence and decades of careful study when they contradict a particular reading of certain Bible passages. For me, it's still weird that we can accept microwaves and computers and germ theory and the Moon landing, all of which are rooted in science and not at all in scripture, but then we suddenly question science when it comes up with a conclusion we don't like. I guess it shouldn't be surprising, but it is to me.

Steve Horwatt
Steve Horwatt

Because I operate more on the principle set out by Julian of Norwich: "...God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted."

Steve Horwatt
Steve Horwatt

As an engineer and a scientist and a kid who also watched "Inherit the Wind" on tv when he was about eight and was forever changed by it, I have often felt outnumbered and assaulted by old earth creationists. I was fortunate that in my youth my church was very poor and therefore was assigned a series of pastors who were still in seminary, and thus generally young and more liberal than the congregation of my church. So in my formative years I had safe spaces to explore these ideas. Now that I hold them, for some reason I increasingly find myself encountering people who tell me I'm wrong, but by now I am confident enough to deal with them (hopefully graciously, but probably not always). I was actually working on my PhD when I first encountered the idea that God deliberately created the earth to "appear old" to test our faith (interestingly, this opinion was advanced to me by a guy who was working on a PhD in physics, which made me wonder why he was bothering). And my honest reaction to that was, "Wouldn't that make God kind of a douchebag? I don't think God's a douchebag." Obviously, my friend was not really thrilled by that reaction.

dmf
dmf

@doughagler, this problem is that most people who "believe" in science (or in say global warming), know little to nothing about what scientists do and so are acting out of faith commitments of the kind that have little to nothing to do with truth/reality-testing except as relates to their socialization/community. More to the point at hand what would does mean to say that Clayton (or any author-ity) is right? what would count as evidence, and how much would we need to know about say evolution or cosmology or even his own psychology? We are always in the position of making ethical/truth calls without enough evidence and increasingly with more knowledge about our many biases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases) which is why Caputo calls for a hermeneutics of not-knowing, which might be a species of faith...

Doug Hagler
Doug Hagler

This is always interesting to watch from the outside, as I've said before, as someone who was raised by liberal mainliners for whom science was never a problem with regard to religious belief or practice. To me, it's crazy to even talk about whether people should 'believe in science' in the first place, and it's frankly a little scary to know that there are millions of people out there practicing a kind of Christianity that is incompatible with what we know, with the highest level of certainty possible, to be true. For me, any system of religious belief and practice which requires that we ignore science and reason is a loser's bet. Of course we have to be concerned with what is true. Doesn't everyone? And how can we hold onto a tradition that teaches us not to be concerned with what is true, but merely with what happened to be taught 100 generations ago, and with what whoever it is that is higher up than us on our religious totem-pole decides is acceptable? I think that a tradition that is anti-truth is also anti-Christ.

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

What's funny Bo is that this type of critically engaged theology that keeps science, metaphysics, philosophy and such on the table (unlike our post-liberal friends and such) is how I have managed to stay a Christian. It took stuff like Philip, CObb and Pannenberg (along with the realization a good Christian is a Leftist lol) for me to own my faith.

John
John

It is a great book. I encourage everyone to read it.

Craig L. Adams
Craig L. Adams

I agree that the kind of thinking that Philip Clayton is doing is important and should not be ignored. But, he has gone in some directions I don't feel I want to go. I may change my mind. I may not. But, hearing what he has to say is valuable nonetheless.

Mark Farmer
Mark Farmer

Bo, you sure know how to sell a book. Thank you for this strong word from your heart and your head.

John
John

@doughagler, I came from a tradition that taught the Bible as science. I was taught that Genesis is literally true, the earth is 6,000 years old, scientists are atheists, and the evidence that science found that supports an old earth and evolution were created by God in a way to "make the earth appear to be old". Raised in such an environment makes it very hard to break free. But for my own sanity, I had to seek a better understanding. Books such as Clayton's has helped me immensely.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

thanks Mark! I'll be honest- this book is easy to sell. It is so good. I am loving it. but it is challenging... certainly not just re-affirming the status quo -Bo