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Christianity

Liberal Hide And Seek: What’s the Belief?

At the request of both James McGrath and several readers, I’ve spent the last couple of hours reading through Exploring Our Matrix in search of the elusive unequivocal statement of belief I was promised in the comments of this post.  So far, my search has been fruitless.

In case you haven’t been keeping up, here’s the basic series of events which led me to this quest:

  • I wrote a post asking whether it is even possible to glean a good moral message from a figurative or metaphorical reading of scripture.  I proposed that it is essentially impossible.  The elements of the salvation story are what they are… and that is to say they are abhorrent.
  • In a follow-up article I argued that progressive Christianity seems like a smoke-and-mirrors game of hide and seek.  There are no answers being given, only questions.
  • In a brief dialog with James McGrath, I asked him directly for some concise, unequivocal explanation of what he believes.  I was told (as I have often been told by him) to go to his blog and find the answers for myself.

I don’t hold that answer against James.  He’s probably a very busy man.  But having done as he requested, I’ve found myself as ignorant as before I asked the question in the first place.  Granted, I only went about four pages in, but at that point, I’d found almost nothing at all about specific beliefs.  James is clearly very interested in proving to the world that there most certainly was a historical Jesus.  (His vitriol towards mythicists alone is evidence of that.  Comparing them to Creationists?  Really?)*  He also posts quite a few book reviews pertaining to analysis of scriptures, especially in their appropriate cultural context.  Which is all well and good.

But I could find almost nothing about what James believes about the nuts and bolts of the nature of reality.  I still don’t know if he believes that Jesus was the literal son of god, or a prophet, or a metaphor in human form, or what.  I suspect from this little tidbit that he doesn’t believe in eternal punishment for nonbelievers, but I can’t say for sure.  He’s worded the post in a very… um… diplomatic way… which would easily provide an escape hatch should anyone try to pin him to a belief.

In fact, reading that little post got me thinking.  Why wouldn’t liberal Christians create themselves as God in the same way that fundamentalists do?  Whenever I’ve really pushed a liberal Christian, I’ve gotten essentially the same runaround.  Either they spend all their time distancing themselves from fundamentalists but not saying what they do believe or they prattle on for hours about things like “nuance” and “subtlety” in the magical, mysterious search for that which cannot be found without finding it… or some nonsense like that.

And I think that’s what God might be to liberals — a symbol of the elusive but nagging feeling that there must be something, but a complete failure to nail it down to anything clear and epistemologically sound.  There’s an air of haughtiness, especially among “learned theological scholars,” whenever someone calls them on their theological postmodernism.  (Ever tried to argue with a post-modernist?  It typically ends when they declare you too unsophisticated to grasp the un-graspable-ness of it all.)  But I think it’s a dodge.  I think that not only does the emperor have no clothes, there’s no emperor there to begin with.

Lest I be accused of doing the same song and dance as my interlocutors, let me say what I mean in very plain language.  I believe that many or perhaps most liberal Christians have dispensed with the idea of having concrete beliefs about God.  Their belief that there is something is much more important to them than what that something might be. So many liberal theists brag about how introspective they are, and how important their “open, honest dialogs” about religion are, it’s easy not to notice that that’s all there is… questions and dialogs.  No answers.

Oh, I know that there are plenty of non-fundamentalists who can say a few things they specifically believe.  For instance, “I believe there is a God, and that Jesus is an example for us on how to live a good life.”  But that’s not really much of a belief.  In terms of actual information, there’s hardly any there.  What is a god?  Was Jesus real or metaphorical?  What parts of his life should we be emulating?  How am I supposed to interpret his actions in today’s society when the stories written about him clearly weren’t written for post-industrial America?

I believe that liberal Christianity is a trick of the mind.  The great thing about Fundamentalism is that it’s very precise with its claims.  This makes it remarkably easy to refute.  But liberalism is far more difficult to toss aside because it is squirmy and elusive.  Any attempt to force it into a declaration of truth results in a slap on the wrist for being dogmatic.  Ingenious, isn’t it?  So long as it never makes any concrete claims, it can’t be refuted, and any demand for a concrete claim can be met with a boring lecture on the nature of inquiry.

The good thing about liberal theism is that it’s much harder to use for ethnic cleansing, repressive legislation, and brainwashing children.  After all, each of these things requires concrete beliefs about the absolute nature of reality.  But even so, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that all the nice, liberal Christians who would never judge me for disagreeing with them are still helping Fundamentalists justify their claims about America as a “Christian Nation.”  Yes, liberals are beginning to distance themselves from extremist quackery, but the label “Christian” is very powerful.  You can prove it to yourself with a little thought experiment.  Imagine meeting a person who claims to be a Christian.  But throughout the course of the conversation, you learn that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, and thinks that there’s truth in all religions.  He believes in evolution, and doesn’t think man is inherently sinful.  Your first question would probably be, “So… what makes you a Christian?”

That’s the whole point.  Being a Christian has real cultural meaning.  It means you believe in a God who came to earth as a man, rose from the dead, and in one way or another, is the only way to get to heaven and avoid eternal punishment.  (No, I’m not telling you that you can’t self identify as a Christian unless you believe those things.  I’m telling you that there are real cultural perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and your personal beliefs can’t alter that part of reality.)

So to any liberal Christians who might be reading this, can you prove me wrong about this?  Can you tell me concisely what you believe relating to the salvation plan, and how you came to those beliefs from reading the Bible?  Because this search for Liberal Christianity is making me feel like my cat chasing the spot from a laser pointer.  Every time I think I’ve caught it, it turns out there was nothing there to grab onto.

****

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* I must add the disclaimer once again.  I am NOT A MYTHICIST.  A mythicist is a historical scholar who believes that Jesus was mythical in a very specific way related to the genre of the gospels.  I am not a historical scholar, nor do I believe anything in particular about the genre or interpretation of the Gospels.  I couldn’t care less.  My belief is that the paucity of evidence suggests that there was no man who would be readily identifiable as the central figure in the gospel accounts.  My discussions with Biblical historians have led me to the belief that a kind of “special pleading” fallacy is the core of all the arguments that a historical Jesus must have existed.  Whenever you have to invent a new methodology to “prove” someone’s existence because traditional methodologies would fail, it sounds fishy to me.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Liberal Hide And Seek: What’s the Belief?

  1. I think you are right that “liberal Christianity is a trick of the mind” — there is nothing specific that the liberal Christian actually believes about reality that other people don’t believe.

    I go further. I say that the same observation applies even to the evangelicals, who seem to at least believe something about something. I think that when you look carefully at people’s religious tenets, they turn out, all of them, to be incoherent. (A coherent statement does not work as part of a religious doctrine. If it is falsifiable, it won’t survive as the memeplex evolves.) This means that they are not really propositions, and therefore cannot be objects of belief.

    Posted by YASHWATA | August 14, 2010, 10:34 pm
  2. Well, that’s tricky territory, since we’re talking about two different concepts. On the one hand, it’s absolutely possible to believe things which are incoherent. People really do believe in ghosts. But they don’t believe in the actual, epistemologically empty conundrum that results from trying to define things like non-corporeal, spirit, and “the other side.” They believe in a functionally coherent conceptualization in their own mind that bypasses the rational mind and goes straight to the cognitive miser.

    In other words, yes, you’re right that the tenets of both liberal and fundamentalist Christianity are equally empty of coherency. But to suggest that people don’t actually believe in some of them is getting a little too far out there for my tastes. The human mind is not a rational thing. It’s riddled with shortcuts, preconceptions, perceptual biases, and leaps of logic. So yeah. We can believe things that are really nutty. When you corner a fundamentalist, for example, you can certainly tie them in ontological knots just by trying to get them to define a “spirit.” But at the end of the discussion, you’ll be met with something like this. “Well, I don’t know the answer to your questions, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It just means you don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about.”

    Posted by hambydammit | August 14, 2010, 11:06 pm
  3. I don’t understand the distinction between your “two different concepts”.

    If people “don’t believe in the actual, epistemologically empty conundrum that results from trying to define things like non-corporeal, spirit, and ‘the other side'”, then what do they mean when they say they “believe in ghosts”?

    Posted by YASHWATA | August 15, 2010, 1:18 am
  4. I agree, Hamby. I really like this post. And just between the two of us, when I really focus on this way of viewing Christianity, I have the really nagging idea to claim that Fred Phelps and his church is a “pure” representation of Christianity. I shy strongly away from actually claiming it because it seems too gratiutous. To easy and damning. And that makes me hesitant to state it because it would just fit my side of the argument so perfectly.

    I’m conditioned to think their is no black and white to any sides. Just various shades of grey. And Fred Phelps is so pitch black in how wrong they are it’s not even fair to mention in an argument.

    …but they are. They are the least unhypocritical example of Christianity in existence that I know of. But it’s hitting below the belt. Some things cause an argument to be lost by default. Like mentioning Hitler for Phelps.

    Posted by Watcher | August 15, 2010, 2:14 pm
  5. And I really need to edit that comment. Sheesh, never text while driving and never post comments while talking to a six year old.

    Feel free to fix my obvious errors in wording and word usage.

    Posted by Watcher | August 15, 2010, 2:19 pm
  6. Seriously, what do you reckon it means when people say that?

    Posted by YASHWATA | August 16, 2010, 3:07 am
  7. If people “don’t believe in the actual, epistemologically empty conundrum that results from trying to define things like non-corporeal, spirit, and ‘the other side’”, then what do they mean when they say they “believe in ghosts”?

    Well, they believe in something. The important word in that sentence is “believe.” That is, they really do have a belief in something they identify as a ghost. I can’t very well say what they believe in because I can’t get into their heads. That doesn’t matter. The point is that they have something in a “box” in their brain that they call a ghost. And they believe it exists.

    Think of the difference between belief and knowledge. If ghosts do not exist in reality, then nobody can have knowledge of ghosts. But it’s no problem having a belief in them. Knowledge requires existential reality. Belief does not. When someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” he may or may not have a ready definition of what a ghost is. He might say, “Ghosts are the spirits of the departed trapped in this dimension.” It doesn’t matter that “dimension” doesn’t work that way in physics, or that “spirit” is an incoherent term, anymore than it didn’t matter that there were not humours in reality, and that balancing non-existent things has no effect on health.

    If you think about it, it’s kind of absurd to say that people can only believe in things which are coherent. Lots of things are really incoherent, but people think they’re coherent. That’s all that matters.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 16, 2010, 4:01 pm
  8. LOL Ryan. No worries. I know you’re grammatically competent. And yeah, it’s sometimes difficult for me to resist the urge to play a trump card like that. But I think you’re right. Fundamentalists are by far the most honest Christians out there. The more you water the Bible down, pick and choose, and creatively interpret, the more you’re open to accusations of… well… watering down, cherry picking, and creatively interpreting. Duh. The Fundies take it at its word, and kudos to them. There’s nothing in the Bible — not one word — suggesting that it ought to be “interpreted.” On the contrary, there are places where it’s overtly claimed to be inerrant and perfect in every word, and that messing with the text in any way is heresy.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 16, 2010, 4:19 pm
  9. Well said. Thanks for thinking about this. Here’s my response.

    1. “they have something in a ‘box’ in their brain that they call a ghost. And they believe it exists.”

    Even if this is a good model, no two people will have the same stuff in their ‘box’. So when people say to each another, “I believe in ghosts, don’t you?” they are not in agreement. They believe in different things. This is especially relevant in the case of “God”, which is much harder to pin down than “ghost”.

    But instead of this ‘box’ it might be more accurate to say that people have a mishmash of words in their brain. And they might reckon (if they ever thought about it) that the mishmash adds up one or more meaningful propositions; but in the case of “ghosts”, it does not. And since the mishmash is not meaningful, it can’t be meant (or believed), it can only be said. Saying it is not the same thing as meaning (or believing) it.

    2. “If you think about it, it’s kind of absurd to say that people can only believe in things which are coherent.”

    I have thought about it, and I find it absurd to say that a person could *believe* something that is not a proposition.

    If someone tells you that he “believes” that QWERTYUIOP, will you take him at his word? Does that sound like a statement of belief to you?

    3. “Lots of things are really incoherent, but people think they’re coherent.”

    No, they don’t have such an opinion, because they have not considered the question. But maybe we could say that people “assume” that what they’re thinking is coherent. In the case of religious tenets, this “assumption” is incorrect. The tenets are incoherent – so they can’t be the subject of anyone’s belief.

    Posted by YASHWATA | August 16, 2010, 5:24 pm
  10. Even if this is a good model, no two people will have the same stuff in their ‘box’. So when people say to each another, “I believe in ghosts, don’t you?” they are not in agreement.

    Well, yes and no. Perhaps no two people will have precisely the same stuff in their box, but most will have a lot of commonality. In fact, we could even group people by theses similarities. This group believes ghosts are disembodied spirits of dead humans trapped in this dimension. That group believes ghosts are demons sent by the Devil to deceive true believers. This other group believes they are quantum disturbances in the fabric of the dimensional continuum. And for each of these qualities, we can say the same thing — nobody thinks of them precisely the same. But they do think of them in a “close enough” way so that they can communicate effectively about them.

    Furthermore, your objection holds true even for things which are objectively real. When you read the words “New York Mets,” you don’t think of precisely the same thing as me. Nobody does. My conceptualization of the New York Mets is unique to my brain. So singling out things which are not objectively real by means of the uniqueness of their conceptualization is a dead end.

    But instead of this ‘box’ it might be more accurate to say that people have a mishmash of words in their brain.

    No, it wouldn’t. We don’t have words in our brain, except as representations of conceptualizations. That is, a word can only exist in our brain as one of two things — a symbol for something we already have a box for, or a mystery symbol waiting for such a conceptualization. When I say “Think of a cow,” you don’t think of the word “cow.” You think of a large animal with hooves and maybe black and white spots. You think of the sound a cow makes, not the letters “moo.” If I say, “think of the word ‘cow,’ you might conceptualize the letters C-O-W, but you do this because these letters are real things in themselves, and have boxes of their own.

    You seem to be confusing a mish-mash of words with whatever conceptualizations the mish-mash brings to mind. For instance, earlier I typed the words “quantum disturbances in the fabric of the dimensional continuum”. These words do not have any coherent meaning as they are presented. However, when I read those words, a mental “image” pops into my brain. (By image, I mean something more complex than a visual image, of course. We don’t really “see” anything in our brain. But that’s another topic entirely. Just take it as read please that I’m talking about whatever we mean when we say we “see” things in our mind.) That image is real. When I say “Invisible Pink Unicorn,” something pops into your head. That’s what those words represent to you. No, invisible pink unicorns don’t exist, but the words really do refer to something.

    I find it absurd to say that a person could *believe* something that is not a proposition.

    If someone tells you that he “believes” that QWERTYUIOP, will you take him at his word? Does that sound like a statement of belief to you?

    QWERTYUIOP is different from an invisible pink unicorn. Each word in “Invisible Pink Unicorn” refers to something for which I have a mental image. (Yes, I have a mental image for “invisible,” and so do you.) My brain unconsciously puts these words — together with their associated imagery — into as coherent a representation of something as it can. That something may or may not represent something coherent in a strictly epistemological way, but if my mind can twist it into something coherent, then it is coherent to me. That, I think, is what you’re missing. We can believe things which are externally, objectively incoherent. But internally, subjectively, we find them coherent. To put it as simply as possible, we’re mistaken.

    QWERTYUIOP is just gibberish with no internal referent. It is not any part of language, and so elicits no automatic attempt by the subconscious to enforce coherency. On the other hand, when I talk about the sublime transcendence of the Id into the ascendancy of second tier consciousness, I am using words which all have meaning to you. Your mind might ultimately reject this statement as incoherent gibberish, but it might not.

    3. “Lots of things are really incoherent, but people think they’re coherent.”

    No, they don’t have such an opinion, because they have not considered the question.

    But many of them have considered the question. I’ve spent days debating Christians who have thought long and hard on the coherency of words like “supernatural,” and they firmly believe them to be coherent. You don’t seem to be allowing for the incredibly commonplace — reasoning incorrectly. People have considered the question of the supernatural for lifetimes, and have reasoned (incorrectly) that it is coherent and exists in reality.

    Once again, I must call your attention to the difference between external and internal coherency. External is objective. Internal is not.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 16, 2010, 7:47 pm
  11. I really appreciate this exchange, HD. You’ve really got me thinking.

    Perhaps no two people will have precisely the same stuff in their box, but most will have a lot of commonality. … Furthermore, your objection holds true even for things which are objectively real. When you read the words “New York Mets,” you don’t think of precisely the same thing as me.

    You and I can jointly verify numerous attributes of the entity referred to by the words ‘New York Mets’. We can agree on their office location, team members, coaching staff, League standing, annual budget and so on. All these things can be empirically verified, and that’s why we would agree on them. This is not true of ghosts. There is no specific claim about the physics, biology, history or behavior of ghosts that you or I could ever check.
    Why is this? It’s not because ghosts are so very elusive. It’s because the propositions that describe them are incoherent. A ghost is essentially a non-physical person, and this is an obvious contradiction in terms. Therefore ghosts do not exist, by definition.
    The “Wittgenstein’s beetle” problem does not apply to the New York Mets, because that discussion is grounded in experience. It does apply to the idea of ghosts. So, I repeat. When two people report that they “believe in ghosts” they are using the word ‘ghost’ for two different things – if, I hasten to add, they are talking about anything at all.

    We don’t have words in our brain, [because yadda yadda yadda – I didn’t understand this paragraph. Maybe there is a disconnect in terminology].

    I’m in a bookstore. I see a book. It says on the front in big letters, THE GOD DELUSION. The words stick in my mind. They become part of the machinery. Even if I have literally no idea what they mean, I may still rehearse them (as Susan Blackmore puts it in The Meme Machine) for some period of time. I may have no commitment to their truth-value or significance. In this case they exist in my mind more as sounds than as ideas (though they have attributes of both). Someone could ask me, “What was the book that caught your eye?” and I could answer promptly, “The God Delusion“. I’ve remembered the phrase, whether or not it meant anything to me at all. That’s what I meant by “people have a mishmash of words in their brain.” You can remember a slogan, even if you don’t know what it means – and even if it demonstrably means nothing at all.

    You seem to be confusing a mish-mash of words with whatever conceptualizations the mish-mash brings to mind.

    No, I think that’s you. :~) You can have a slogan in your mind. And you can remember it, and rehearse it, and say it, without even thinking about it – to say nothing of understanding it. You can say loudly and proudly, “I believe in salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ,” without noticing either that you don’t know what it means, or that it is nonsense. As you say the words, you believe them. That is, you believe that you believe in salvation through etc. But this can’t be true. How can you believe something that, for you, is not even a proposition? That would be a misuse of the word ‘belief’.

    Earlier I typed the words “quantum disturbances in the fabric of the dimensional continuum”. These words do not have any coherent meaning as they are presented. However, when I read those words, a mental “image” pops into my brain.

    I’ll take your word for it, but an image is not a belief.

    When I say “Invisible Pink Unicorn,” something pops into your head. That’s what those words represent to you. No, invisible pink unicorns don’t exist, but the words really do refer to something.

    The words ‘invisible pink unicorns’ don’t refer to actual invisible pink unicorns, because actual ones don’t exist. On this we agree. So, to what do those words refer? You say they refer to an “image” that the words evoke. There are a few problems with this.
    First, there doesn’t have to be any such image. I might, as in the bookstore example above, take in just the words.
    Second, even if the words do evoke an image (or idea, or whatever), it is not based on any information (on account of the non-existence of invisible pink unicorns), so we have “Wittgenstein’s beetle” again.
    Third, an image is not a belief.

    That something may or may not represent something coherent in a strictly epistemological way, but if my mind can twist it into something coherent, then it is coherent to me.

    No. Saying it’s coherent to me is like saying it’s truthful to me. The proposition really is coherent, or it really isn’t.

    We can believe things which are externally, objectively incoherent. But internally, subjectively, we find them coherent. To put it as simply as possible, we’re mistaken.

    Yes, we’re mistaken about the content of our “belief”. And consequently, we’re mistaken in regarding it as a belief. By definition, a belief is a commitment to the veracity of a proposition, but all we have is a pseudo-proposition (or possibly the “image” you’ve described). You can’t believe a pseudo-proposition (or an image). “Salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ” (for example) is a slogan, not a belief.

    You don’t seem to be allowing for the incredibly commonplace — reasoning incorrectly.

    But I totally agree. People are reasoning incorrectly about these matters.

    Once again, I must call your attention to the difference between external and internal coherency. External is objective. Internal is not.

    Now you’ve lost me. I thought we were agreeing that people are mistaken; that the internal coherency is apparent, not objective. I don’t see how it can matter if someone thinks that his mental image is a coherent proposition. either it is, or it’s not; so either he really has a belief, or he really doesn’t.

    Posted by YASHWATA | August 18, 2010, 2:36 am

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