Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Unthinking God

While on vacation recently, I read a book entitled Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola. It is a study of unbelieving clergy and their intellectual and emotional journey of deconversion.

In other words it is about ministers who “lost their faith.” The book is based on interviews with these ordained men and women. Many of them are still in ministry living double lives, preaching from the pulpit what they no longer believe.

As a fellow clergyman, it was heart-wrenching to read about the pain my colleagues endure as they found their belief in God slipping away. But I was particularly struck by how everyone in the book was caught up in the realm of ideas.

This is true of the authors as much as the clergy. Religion is understood exclusively as a belief system to be intellectually accepted “on faith.” When evidence contrary to belief is encountered, faith crumples.

My faith is not a set of beliefs. I have ideas about God, but they are not the substance of my faith. Faith is not believing things without evidence. When ideas are the foundation of religion, the religion is threatened when contradictory evidence is uncovered. That is what happened to the ministers in this book.

My spirituality is not primarily a set of ideas or beliefs. For me faith transcends ideas. Ideas are imaginary things. They exist only in our heads. They are not real. We in the West are under the illusion that ideas are real.

We can thank Plato for this; for him the realm of Ideas was more real than the physical world. Platonic thought shaped Christianity via Aristotle and Aquinas, which is why Christians can be so dogmatic. It is why a Western philosopher like Daniel Dennett does not even think to question this presupposition in the book.

As a preacher I utilize ideas. Ideas are useful in preaching and teaching, but I do not mistake them for Truth. Augustine said, “If you can think it, it is not God.”  Ideas are mental descriptions of what we perceive to be reality. They are not reality in themselves. When ideas are translated into words, it adds another degree of separation from reality. When words petrify into dogma, they become a substitute for Truth

Faith is not believing in unverifiable ideas. Faith is not acceptance of inherited doctrines. It is not even “belief in the existence of a supernatural being.” Such a god is an idea, a figment of our imagination. Faith is trust in the One who is not an idea. Faith is trust in the One who transcends beliefs. Faith is direct self-authenticating apprehension of God.

The book, Caught in The Pulpit, opened my eyes to the fact that many clergy (as well as non-clergy) do not share my understanding of faith. In my opinion - to use the oft-quoted saying - they mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. They believe in religious ideas rather than what the ideas point to. They are shocked to discover that their ideas about God are not true, and then they conclude there is no God!

God is beyond the realm of ideas. To see beyond, all we have to do is look a little higher.

Art by Hugo Espinoza, color illustration of man with a long, "Pinocchio" nose and crossed fingers behind his back. Chicago Tribune 2008.

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