Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at HomebrewedChristianity.com, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

atheismIn the podcast, Shults characterizes religion or traditional theism as basically any belief in an infinite, disembodied agent or intentional force that authorizes an in-group. So for him there is an intimate and intrinsic relationship between “God” and “my tribe.” I think this is generally true, and sociology of religion seems to confirm it.

Because of this, for Shults, religion, or belief in God, frequently serves to reinforce prejudices of various kinds, and so should be rejected as inherently problematic or even antithetical to the advance of anything like the common good for society — or at least that’s how I interpret him. (Admittedly, I have read some of Shults’ earlier work, but here I am drawing only on the recorded conversation, and not from his books, which is probably a little unfair.) Shults does not preclude the possibility that religion can by contrast at times promote the common good, but he seems to suggest that when it does this — whether intellectually, activistically or mystically — the ianti-monotheism1nfinite, disembodied agent or intentional force-dimension to religion remains only superfluous if not an impediment. We can strive for justice, peace, the good, etc., without any transcendent referent, he would say. So Shults encourages us to “go all the way” with our criticism and not stop short at the boundary of “orthodoxy,” “theism,” or whatever. And this is the main part of his position that I want to question.

First of all though, while it was only a brief summary in the podcast, I think Shults conflates Christian mysticism with another kind of Christian intellectualism that simply appeals to mystery when it hits an intellectual wall. That is not Christian mysticism. Shults probably knows this, but this characterization makes sense given how much Shults has studied Pannenberg, who was hardly a mystic. A theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, for instance, who constructs his epistemology primarily on the basis of aesthetics and narrative, rather than on modern, foundationalist grounds, does not have this problem (Callid’s interview with Cecilia Gonzales-Andrieu highlights this difference well). That is, for Christians like Balthasar, the truthfulness of Christ’s beauty and goodness neither depends on nor contradicts empirical verification. And with regard to Christian mysticism — not unlike mysticism in other religions — it is about non-dual thinking and union with the divine through transformation of the mind into a less egocentric consciousness. Such a life vision is not some new idea that can be tried on for size until one becomes “post-mystical.” It takes months and years of practicing spiritual disciplines to see any fruit.

Secondly though, as one who tends to fall more into the activistic or liberationist camp in my own thinking, my counter-claim to Shults, or any other atheistic theology, is this: what stands in the way of the common good for society is not humanity’s belief in an infinite or transcendent, disembodied intentional agent. What stands in the way are people in general who want authorization of their in-group in the first place.

Most human beings live with and derive meaning from transcendent or absolute horizons. Pannenberg says as much in his anthropology. This may be too universalistic of a statement, but there’s pretty good evidence for it. The key question then isn’t whether, but what kind of transcendent horizon we are talking about. This insight is not original of course. Tillich and others have essentially said the same thing. Religion is merely the byproduct of the fundamental human tendency to make some-thing an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.

The Free Market, for example, is one such transcendent horizon or ultimate good. The difference is, it’s a transcendent horizon claiming a total immanence that nothing else can transcend. This was Tripp’s point in the discussion. So Hardt and Negri make their infamous case in Empire about the triumph of global capitalism, whose “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance of the nation-state subtly but no less powerfully reigns now in place of modern, national sovereigns. If Karl Schmidt’s Political Theology deified the sovereignty of the state, today we’ve done the same with the Market.

In their book Beyond the Spirit of Empire, Rieger, Miguez and Sung actually argue that the ideology of the Free Market is not transcendent enough. It is in fact atheistic. Its utopia is too weak, and so it closes off other options that might imagine a world where sacrificing the well-being of major segments of the population for the benefit of a few isn’t tolerated. For these authors — two of whom are bringing non-Western and post-colonial perspectives to the fore — to renounce transcendence, even in the name of good things, is to be left with no standpoint for a radical critique of history.

Christians confess that Jesus is somehow the immanence and the human embodiment of the Transcendent. Based on what Christians believe Jesus reveals about God, then, the danger is not, I submit, belief about the existence, intention or agency of God, so much as the disembodiment of these beliefs. I’m reminded here of this great Pete Rollins’ bit on denying the resurrection (– by not practicing it!). Because if Jesus is the full embodiment of this infinite agent’s intention, then the manner of his embodiment is always contrary to the “authorization of in-groups.” In fact, it should always un-authorize in-groups. The only thing more potentially empowering than eradicating a transcendent referent is to say that the Transcendent identifies with the excluded and oppressed peoples of the earth. I know this is a bold faith move that sometimes feels like wishful thinking, but unlike imperialistic depictions of God, it has the unique advantage of not being very convenient for the dominant and leisure classes of the world. Furthermore, if Jesus’ way isn’t ontologically authorized, from whence does resistance to in-group thinking come? Preference? Intuition? Reason? Buddhism?

LeRon Shults has obviously thought about his position very carefully and over a long period of time, so I’m not accusing him of reactionary thinking. And again, maybe it all comes back to science for him. I just have a hard time understanding how science makes the idea of an infinite, disembodied, intentional force so necessarily problematic, unless a scientific discourse is either confused with or unduly privileged over a metaphysical one. More importantly, I fail to see why atheism, full immanence, etc., is any more compelling than a transcendent theology that challenges prejudices and calls for an embodied abolition of insider-outsider ideology. This is exactly what a “Jesus religion” should do — abolish insider-outsider ideologies. And we don’t have to stop praying and reading the Bible, or believing in God to do it.

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