It was not too long ago that the “New Atheists” ruled the discourse of religion in the public sphere. The agitations of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris rocked the bookshelves and journals for some time. This was the popularization and revalorization of certain criticisms of the Christian faith that have been with us for some time. Put simply, the God of Christians cannot be good or even believable according to our current understanding of science and morality. Religion must submit to the strictures of the empirical and the parameters of the scientific method. Not doing so is to capitulate to irrationality and incoherence. Unfortunately, religion as we know it, especially the Christian one, is irrational, immoral, and incoherent. Religion, according to these critics, is something that does not net a positive good for us and should therefore be permanently shelved.
While the “New Atheists” do not now dominate the headlines, the challenge they represent is an ever present one. This challenge is reflected in the 2nd theme of the The Hartford Appeal.
Theme 2: Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.
The capitulation to the alleged primacy of modern thought takes two forms: one is the subordination of religious statements to the canons of scientific rationality; the other, equating reason with scientific rationality, would remove religious statements from the realm of reasonable discourse altogether. A religion of pure subjectivity and nonrationality results in treating faith statements as being, at best, statements about the believer. We repudiate both forms of capitulation.
The “alleged primacy of modern thought” is an allusion to the first theme of the Appeal.1 What was addressed in a broad sense in the first theme, namely that modern thought is superior to all previous thinking and should therefore set the parameters for discourse for Christians, is now more specific. Religion is not welcome to speak unless it speaks the language of the hard sciences. If it wishes to speak it is only able to speak privately and from the depths of opinion. The catch here is that in either instance historic Christianity is muzzled.
The rise of science brought forth many undeniably good fruits. In truth the scientific method not only increased our knowledge but also our control of the world. That control in turn produced the goods which drove the Industrial Revolution and other engines of “Progress”. We could now measure, weigh, gauge and therefore plan and organize our societies. No longer do we depend upon the philosophical webs of Aristotle which dominated the Middle Ages and distracted us from reality. Now we engage directly with reality and therefore is far superior.2 At the same time as the goods were being won through this approach to the world the scientific method and the empiricist bent of mind began to push out all other forms of reasoning. What became acceptable knowledge had to be rooted in the empirical and confirmed by the application of the scientific method. No other knowledge could be counted as truly “knowledge” because it was not rigorous enough or “real” enough.
This pressure was especially felt in Christianity. On one hand, Christians began to try to push Christianity through the sieve of the modern scientific method. A product of this attempt is the discourse of modern apologetics which we have with us to this day. This is where Christianity attempted to square off with the new approaches. In its worst form this created a rationalistic, moralistic, and extremely stunted Christianity. I say stunted because the sieve of scientific rationality reorganized the beliefs of Christianity. Jesus Christ was not the son of God but rather a good teacher of good morals. He taught the brotherhood of mankind, tolerance, and the tenets of classic liberalism. Wondering what this looks like? Take a look at the Gospel of Thomas Jefferson which edits out the miraculous.3
On the other hand, Christians began to lose the fact that Christianity is fundamentally based in Jesus Christ who is the Logos, the key, or reason, for the entire cosmos. The emphasis I want to place in this last sentence on the word “entire”. This means that Christianity is coherent and has reasonable things to say and make claims about beyond just the inner thoughts of feelings of a believer. This turn inward meant a retreat from public discourse into the depths of human feelings and imagination. “Heart religion” becomes the focus. Christianity without doctrine, ecclesial form, or even morals in some instances. A truly “Choose Your Own Adventure” with Jesus and one’s self as the main protagonists. And, let’s be honest, this typically leads to one’s self as the main protagonist. The rise of the primacy of emotions in worship, the language of worship as an “experience”, the continued trajectory of non-denominational fellowships which eschew doctrine for the sake of feelings, and numerous other examples are all evidence of this trajectory. The epitome of this I see in the final lines of the chorus from the hymn, “I serve a risen Savior”. The congregation belts out: “You ask me how I know He lives?” And the answer? “He lives within my heart.”
Orthodoxy and Reasonable Discourse
The challenge of reasonable discourse in the public sphere is something with which Orthodoxy is in many ways still grappling with. And by grappling I mean mostly not addressing. We have some folks working out issues of science, reason, and theology. But on the whole, if one were to attempt to articulate where Orthodox fall between the two poles of reacting to the modern challenges of reason as warped by the scientific method, we fall very hard on to the side of subjectivity and the “inward turn”.
Fr. Georges Florovsky captures the current state of things very well in an editorial which was published over 50 years ago.
It is persistently asserted by various writers that Russians learn Christianity not from the Gospel but from the Lives of the Saints. It is also asserted that for the Orthodox in general, Christianity not “Doctrine” but “Life.” The Orthodox are concerned not with “dogmatic systems” but with “living.” They comprehend the truth not through the mediation of intellectual understanding, but through the mediation of “the heart” and in aesthetical manner. One should look for Orthodox teaching not in systems but in images, rites and ikons…What is embarrassing in the statements which we have just quoted is their exclusiveness, their emphasis on not — but… There is too much concern with “the vessels” and too little concern with the Treasure, which alone makes the vessel precious. Symbols and rites are vehicles of the truth, and if they fail to convey that truth, they simply cease to function.4
The core of the issue, as Fr Georges points out, is the exclusiveness. The emphasis on “not”.
The challenge of this theme from the Hartford Appeal still stands for Orthodox Christians. While we may not struggle as much with attempting to please the canons of scientific rationality, we do struggle quite a bit with how to articulate the reasonable and coherent message of the Christian faith in our contemporary context. The answer cannot be a retreat into pure subjectivity. Nor can it be an overly simplistic opposition between “doctrine” and “life” or “intellect” and “heart”.
As we come to a close with this particular post, I want to point out where I intend to go with our next post. The recently published posthumous volume of Fr. Matthew Baker’s work shines a bright light on this gap in recent Orthodox theological reflection. Drawing upon some of his essays I hope to at least propose the beginning steps towards a way out of these two opposing poles. The Christian faith does not need to be held to the myopic canons of scientific rationality but it also cannot falter and faint by retreating from the cosmic and coherent vision of the incarnate Logos as revealed in Scripture and upheld and taught by the Fathers of the Church.
- Which we discussed in our previous post.
- For a quick overview of the basic differences take a look at this chart outlining the differences between Aristotelian and Modern Science’s approach to reality
- “Why Thomas Jefferson Rewrote the Bible Without Jesus’ Miracles and Resurrection.”
- Republished as “A Criticism of the Lack of Concern for Doctrine Amongst Russian Orthodox Believers” in Florovsky, Georges, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach. Vol. XIII of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky.