THE BLOG
02/27/2014 02:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

Holy Doubt

Comparing dogmatic atheism to religious fundamentalism proved to be more inflammatory than I expected. It's easy to see from the responses to my last blog, "Atheists: The New Fundamentalists?" how heretics got burned not so long ago. I felt disturbingly akin to them as I was pilloried for suggesting that:

a. Closed-minded people exist in all flavors, including post-Enlightenment scientism, and
b. Anyone who claims to know exactly how 'it' is, who believes in a fixed, finite universe knowable in three dimensions (despite physicists' claims that the universe contains as many as twelve, a great portion of it invisible to us), whether through the revelation of a single book compiled some fifteen hundred years ago, or through our very human and often flawed logic, and believes in it with either scientific or Biblical literalism, is a sort of fundamentalist, putting conclusions ahead of process and evidence.

There was an uncivil and not particularly well-reasoned tone to much of the debate. I was attacked for being narrow-minded (for attempting an open dialogue hoping to find common ground); I was accused of lumping all atheists together and even of inviting my guest to lunch with the hidden nefarious agenda of conversion (Sorry, not part of my religion). It gave me a queasy feeling thinking that if some of the new atheists got hold of the papacy I might be in real danger. Still I'm glad the subject's on the table.

For that matter I'm kind of glad for the rise of atheism. It was probably the fastest way to kill off the God-of-Religion, a God so small people thought they could box "him" into our neat little categories and rules. That God has been used to justify judging who has value and who does not, despite Gospel lessons to the contrary. Some people try to control the universe according to their own will by praying his name. That was the same version of God that Jesus was trying to get people to see beyond more than 2000 years ago. Check it out! He kept saying again and again, "Hey numbskulls, it's bigger than that. You can't box it in. The children of God are not necessarily just who you think." The rise of atheism shows that people are no longer swallowing what they're told without critical examination. Hooray!

Doubt is holy when it cares enough to inquire instead of merely ingesting. It could be the first step toward a faith that runs deeper than doctrine. It's courageous to let go of comforting beliefs and see what's left, or as Irish pyro-theologian Peter Rollins puts it, to burn away our false ideas of God, church, and self to uncover radical truth. He suggests the truth we find might be, "not what remains after the fire has died that is true, but rather the fire itself."

The first step is to kill off the old God, just as the early Christians and Jews had to kill off the gods of the Romans. Those gods were used by the empire to defend the emperor's divine right oppress the people. See the Ptolemaic steles at the Temple of Isis at Philae, showing the divine birth of Caesar suckling at the breast of the goddess. That iconographic "scripture" was all the proof he needed to justify his so-called divine right to rule. Religion and the certainty that God is on our side have been used to justify greed and power from the time of the Akadian invasion of Sumer, when the myths changed to reflect the power grab from the indigenous gods to the invaders' gods. That same religious arrogance has continued to show itself in the current unholy wars in the Arab world. Likewise the God of the Christians has been used to justify killing indigenous people, Muslims, Jews, Hussites, burning witches and heretics, not to mention fleecing untold peasants. See those same Roman carvings in the stone defaced by the Christian invaders during the crusades, so sure they were right, so sure others were wrong.

Many theologians have suggested the need to kill the God-of-Religion so we can mature spiritually. Such maturing is a coming of age when we attain adulthood and no longer blame our parents for our ills. Instead we admit we are responsible as self-determined beings for the consequences of our actions. "This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism." Tillich was speaking of the old angry, controlling, punishing Judeo-Christian God who was foisted on so many for so long.

That God is at least moribund. He was pronounced dead early in the 1960s, when Gabriel Vahanian wrote the "essentially mythological world view of Christianity has been succeeded by a scientific view of reality." It's been all downhill since then.

Except ... the scientific view of reality keeps changing, and scientific materialism also seems to be on its way out.

Recent discoveries in physics, research into near death experiences, neuroscience, and consciousness are coming uncomfortably close to many of the same insights that have come down to us through mystics of all traditions. These insights reveal a living, mutable, changing universe infused with some sort of order and consciousness, which seems to be bound up with our own consciousness. Moreover, there are many phenomena that while science can observe, it cannot yet explain, leaving room for discovery, speculation and wonder.

"We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations." -- Albert Einstein

Einstein's statement reminds me of my first theology professor at the Graduate Theological Union. He likened the theological project to having a billion-piece puzzle with no picture on the box. You try as you can to connect the pieces where they fit together, speculating as to what they might mean or represent. What at one moment appears to be a white cloud in a blue sky upon further investigation and assembly may show up as something altogether different. Perhaps it represents a large eye with a blue pupil, or a garden full of spring flowers, or a stormy ocean full of whitecaps. We can't be sure.

We sow the seeds of fundamentalism whenever we pretend our representations are real. It is a mistake of logic to apply literalism to something that can only be apprehended symbolically. It is hubris to think we can know absolutely the nature of the unfolding universe, and insane to believe our little tin models encompass all that is the Great Mystery. Whether we are speaking of scientific materialism or Bibliolatry, asserting the map is the territory is the core of fundamentalism, be that map scientific materialism or biblical literalism.

All we can do is to inquire, investigate, and represent reality with as open a mind as possible toward our conclusions, humbly ready to amend them. The great 18th Century scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg said "We cannot know the truth, but only the appearance of truth." That applies whether we are looking through the lens of science or theology.

Next post: The End of Belief and the Growth of Spirituality