02/29/2016 05:07 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2017

Certainly I Believe in God, But...

From An Opinionated Dictionary of Religion at

Revisionist theology. verb. Redefining ancient terms, dishonestly.

After the critique of Christian theology got underway in earnest--beginning with Voltaire, D'Holbach, Gibbon, Hume, Paine, Collins, Turner, and numerous others in the eighteenth century; continuing with Feuerbach, Shelly, Eliot, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Stanton, Bradlaugh, Ingersoll, Robertson, and many others of the nineteenth century; and following up in the twentieth century with Twain, Freud, Russell, Kaufmann, Martin and numerous others--some very smart (but dishonest) Christian theologians made a decision to dodge atheist critiques by amending theology. This, Sigmund Freud labeled "intellectual misdemeanor."

Here's the very latest tort language regarding the crime:

Perpetrators retain ancient terms while utterly redefining those terms and claiming that new definitions are not radically new versions of the terms but are linearly connected to ancient concepts.

That's now a misdemeanor in any night court in the land, with a $50 fine and 15 hours of community service.

To show how the perps operate, let's look at several ideas, beginning with the topper-most of the popper-most idea, God.

"God? Certainly I believe in God," says the revisionist. "But let me tell you what I mean by that," he quickly adds.

What follows by way of explanation and definition will be something you have never heard before in your life. It might be elegant--and even credible. But it is NOT linked in any linear way to the ancient idea of 'God.' It is really a radical break, a new idea.

"God," the term, is retained but redefined out of all proportion to three thousand years of understanding about the concept of God. God is no longer the great personality of the Bible but is remade so as to escape an atheistic charge of rank anthropomorphism. God is converted into something like the Tao, a formless force that, while being analogous to what we experience as personality in human beings, is not a 'person' at all.

Certainly revisionists believe in God, but the word 'God' means something very different in the revisionist's mouth.

All theological ideas have been so revised by revisionists.

"Resurrection of Jesus? Certainly I believe in the resurrection. But let me tell you what I mean by that. The resurrection is a fictive story physicalizing the continued felt presence of Jesus among the early followers of Christ..."

"Hell? Certainly I believe in hell. But let me tell you what I mean by that. Hell is in no sense tormenting but is the instant annihilation of the souls of very bad people..."

"Virgin birth? Certainly I believe in the Virgin birth. But let me tell you what I mean by that. We're not speaking here of literal hymenal virginity but..."

These perpetrators, often highly educated, are found everywhere, especially in churches, seminaries, university departments of theology, and even departments of religious studies.

When apprehended and charged, part of the perp's mandatory community service has been to ADMIT in public forums that he has proffered new and radical ideas that are NOT connected to ancient definitions of the terms in use.

One exemplary civic confession (a confession that night court judges everywhere have praised) went along these lines:

"I confess, and I am heartily sorry, that I have offered a radically new idea at variance with two thousand years of understanding about the "atonement" of Jesus. I cleverly redefined atonement as "at-one-ment" (i.e., Jesus was at one with humanity in the moment of his death) and utterly discarded the bloody sacrificial component of the original idea of atonement. In my defense, I can only say that my motive was to evade the corrosive and correct criticism of atheists regarding the antique and sub-ethical idea of blood sacrifice. I simply wished to make the atonement of Jesus more believable and palatable to myself and to a modern audience. I concede now that the revisionist project is intellectually dishonest--in refusing to admit incredulity about the old ideas and in refusing to acknowledge that the new ideas are not the old retold but are radically new notions with no connection to two thousand years of prior understanding about those ancient ideas."

Note the admission that the desire to revise old terms springs from the revisionists' own disbelief in the classic, historic understanding of those terms. (It took a great deal of courage for the perp to admit this in herself. But as a young university professor of theology, she recognized a calling to a higher morality, and so she came clean.)

Anyway, things are bound to improve now that we have new laws regarding intellectual misdemeanor on the books.

With rigor in enforcement of the new law, with alert students, with neighborhood watches, and even citizens' arrests, it may be that in our own lifetime we will witness the decay and disappearance of the sophist's line, "Certainly I believe in x, but let me tell you what I mean by that."

The upshot will be a renaissance in intellectual honesty, with former revisionists either embracing ancient understandings OR confessing that ancient formulas are no longer credible. The latter option may eventuate in atheism or agnosticism, or it may lead to radically new forms of religiosity, such as a "post-Christian Christianity."

Most likely, in centuries to come, the self-deceptive theological revisionism of our day will be viewed with mild humor, recognized as an indicator of a long, long process of decline for classical Christian theology.