The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 6--Christian Realism

After going through five previous ideas ("Experiental Priority," "Contextual Theology," "Rejecting the Salvation Industrial Complex," "Franciscan Hermaneutics," and "Christ versus Empire") we come to the last one, "Christian Realism."  "Christian Realism" is, to the best of my knowledge, a term that I made up.  But it reflects an idea that is fundamental, if often unspoken, to the way you approach everything you might encounter when talking about religion, and in particular the way that theology interacts with the rest of the world (which, basically, is everything).  In its simplest terms, makes the claim that the physical world is (1) intelligible; (2) real [as opposed to the product of our imaginations]; and (3) ultimately the creation of God.  The theological touchstone for Christian Realism is a well-known quote by the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas--"all that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origins in the Spirit."

The trick here is that, presented like that, almost everyone would agree with these principles.  Except, in truth, they really don't--when confronted with the consequences of Christian Realism, large chunks of the Christian world lose their nerve and abandon one or more of those ideas.  Whereas Christian Realism insists that you must hold to those principles always and forever, come what may.  In other words, Christian Realism says "no, we really mean it; the world is real and intelligible and all from God, and we take seriously and welcome the consequences that flow from that."

Here's a great example of the conflict between Christian Realism and its opponents.  Pete Enns, who I have mentioned before, is a biblical scholar, formerly teaching in an evangelical context.  I say "formerly" because Enns was voted off the evangelical island as a result of his scholarship, in particular for his willingness to integrate the conclusions of mainstream, non-sectarian Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern scholarship into his work.  As an example of this project, he wrote a book called The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, which engaged with the fact that evolutionary biology is pretty certain that human beings did not arise from a single pair of progenitors, as Genesis would have you believe.

In this post, Enns engages with a critical review of The Evolution of Adam.  The reviewer, Hans Madueme of Covenant College, lays his cards on the table at the end (quoting Enns's quote, emphasis Enns's):

I recognize the force of the mainstream evolutionary consensus, and I know that it raises tough questions for the viability of a historical Adam and the doctrine of the fall. But I am constrained by Scripture, tradition, and weighty theological considerations. I am a son of Adam. That is why I am a sinner. And it is why I need Christ.

In other words, whatever evidence one might have regarding human evolution, such evidence must be put aside in favor of the ex ante conclusions stemming from our theological system.  Or, here's how Enns puts it when talking about where the rubber meets the road with regard to human evolution--the Fall and Original Sin:

Madueme is correct that an Augustinian notion of the fall is lost if there is no historical Adam. And once we lose the fall, Madueme contends that we are left with no adequate explanation for why people sin. I understand the point, but retaining a historical Adam because it is needed to maintain a theological position is a non-argument that Madueme has posed before, and it is not the the kind of argument we would tolerate from someone protecting another religious system. “If you’re right, then I am wrong so you must be wrong” is not an argument.

We would do better to acknowledge the implications of evolution for Augustinian theology and try to work through it collaboratively. I attempted to do this, as others have, by suggesting that an Orthodox view of the Adam story (Adam’s failure to follow the path of wisdom) is worth considering for evangelicals. Madueme, however, feels that Irenaeus (whom I mention in this regard) will not help, since he believed in an historical Adam. Yes, of course he did, but that is not the point. The point is that Irenaeus, unlike Augustine, did not think that Adam’s transgression was somehow downloaded onto all posterity. If an Orthodox view is adopted, Madueme’s concerns about the fall are undercut.

Between Enns and Madueme, we see the outlines of two basic methods.  Madueme's method begins with the notion that the theology we have (however that theology comes to be in our particular account) is correct, and from that starting point we then proceed to figure out how the facts around us fit into that story--or, if they cannot fit, we assume they are not really facts at all.  Enns's method takes facts around us that we have confidence as true, and then looks for theological resources to help us understand those facts in the context of faith.  To use the specific example here, Madueme begins with Paul and Augustine's account of the Adam and the Fall, and uses that as the basis for rejecting the proposition that human beings evolved from a non-singular ancestors in Africa 100k to 200k years ago; Enns begins with the essentially universal scientific consensus that human beings evolved from a non-singular ancestors in Africa 100k to 200k years ago and uses that as a basis for questioning Augustine's theological account of Original Sin.

Here's more from Enns along those lines:

When theology is only to be defended, and never examined, counter-evidence are either molded to fit the theory or ignored altogether. And so true discussion—an exchange of ideas—never really gets off the ground. The issues at stake are bound up with ideological self-preservation. When fear of losing one’s “all-encompassing narrative” is at stake, reasonable assessment of contrary evidence is an early casualty, which leaves us with “explanations” like “apparent age.”

Lurking in the background of these sorts of discussions is the claim that Christians need to be advocating for and defending "God's truth" over and against other sorts of truth that one might encounter.  Thus, Madueme finds it necessary to "contend for" the truth of Original Sin over and against the claims that Adam and Eve are not historical people.  But the Aquinas quote reflects the core conviction of Christian Realism that this is a false dichotomy, as there is no such thing as truth that is not from God.  The framing is not, and should not be, between "God's truth" and something else, but among multiple strands of God's truth.  If it is the case that our ancestors evolved over time in the Olduvai Gorge, then that's God's truth, too.  It's just as much God's truth as something that is said in the Bible.

If what we are talking about here is multiple sources of God's truth, then all of the sudden the shape of these discussions changes radically.  No longer are we talking about competing, mutually exclusive truth systems, but how do we harmonize the multiple, ultimately complementary strands of truth that we possess.  In that context, Enns's proposal, which can be distilled down ultimately to "hey, maybe we are reading the Bible wrong," becomes far less threatening.  That may, and likely does, require us to rework and rethink some of the theological superstructure we have built up over time, so Christian Realism does go head-long into those who insist that their theology is timeless and unchanging and non-contextual.  But at a baseline level, it doesn't require us to pit science against theology in a dualistic way.

None of this means we have to be naive or uncritical about things presented to us as facts or truth.  Things that seem to be rock-solid scientific facts can turn out to be illusions.  As Enns points out, Madueme makes no attempt to engage with the evidence for human evolution--only the assertion that it cannot be true because it conflicts with his theological commitments.   But let's suppose Madueme had engaged with that body of knowledge, and offered reasons why he was unconvinced that human beings evolved from multiple ancestors.  We might reject his arguments as bad arguments, but he would still be operating within the universe of Christian Realism, because he would be taking seriously the notion that truth out in the world is in fact truth, and we would be having an argument about whether some particular asserted truth is in fact truth.  Challenges to scientific orthodoxy, if offered in good faith, are not only allowable but necessary.

This is particularly true when scientific orthodoxy drifts into areas beyond its competence.  The "Christian" part of "Christian Realism" rejects the ideological assertion that all human knowledge is, and must be, expressed in terms of science--a view often referred to as "scientism."  While this critique of "scientism" can itself be demagogued, checking back on scientism is important and necessary, as scientists can be every bit as narrow and dogmatic and exclusive in their world view as the most conservative theologian.  The narrow and reductionist materialism of the Richard Dawkins's and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's of the world is the functional equivalent of Madueme's exclusive prism of Christian theology--when all you have, and all you believe exists, is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.  Both of these narrow binaries need to be rejected, in favor of the expansive notion of Aquinas that truth comes to us in many vehicles and our job is to find a way to make them work together.

But, why bother with all of this?  Isn't it easier just to focus on our theology and let the rest take care of itself?  I can think of three reasons why Christian Realism is necessary.  The first one is a pragmatic reason.  If Christians are serious about reaching out to a broader world that is skeptical of Christian claims, Christian history, and Christian practices, telling them that rejecting modern science is part of the package is to ensure failure from the jump.  "Turn off your brain, everything you learn/learned in school, and the core basis of the way in which you interact with people outside of this tribe" is a message of that will result in the death of any evangelical outreach program.  Rod Dreher and I agree on one thing---conservative Christianity will become increasingly tribal and self-referential as time goes on, if for no other reason than the only people who will be willing to engage with its claims are the already-converted.  A Christianity that does not engage with the world of ideas outside of its own tribe has no future outside the confines of an insular community that must police its boundaries zealously.

Second, and related to the first, is Morgan Guyton's observation that a Christianity that does not engage with the world as it is becomes increasingly ideological, and as it becomes increasingly ideological it becomes increasingly toxic.  Being grounded in the world as it is acts like a mooring line that keeps the boat from floating away into dangerous waters.  This is what James Alison calls the "Second Temple Judaism" problem in Christianity--free of any external grounding your only point of reference becomes your own internal rules, and so you have to double down again and again on those rules and the enforcement of those rules.  You end up stewing in your own juices, which Richard Beck calls "purity collapse."  The evidence for the danger of purity collapse as a result of unmooring the boat of Christianity from the land of objective facts is all around us, in this world of "fake news" and Trump and all the rest.  Maybe it's time to try another way.

The last, and I think the most important argument for Christian Realism has to do with the inherent truth claim of Christianity itself.  If you believe in God, and you believe that God created the world, and you believe in the message of Christianity, it must be the case that on some level what you see in the world can be harmonized with Christianity.  That harmonization may be difficult, it may even be understood to be never complete on this side of heaven, but it must be conceptually possible.  Because, if it is not conceptually possible, then Occam's Razor suggests that the problem is Christianity, not the facts out there in the universe.  If Madueme believes that Christianity (defined as requiring an insistence on singular human progenitors) cannot be squared with the fossil record, then the most reasonable conclusion is that Christianity is nonsense.  If Christianity is not true, then what are we doing here?

Contrary to the claims of his critics, it seems to me that it is Peter Enns and his Christian Realist approach that reflects real faith in the Christian message.  Enns's confidence in the Christian message is such that he insists that it ultimately can be harmonized with the world around us.  Enns is not afraid of what science and learning have to say--we can take it as it comes, and find a way to integrate it in what we have, since it all comes from the same place and goes back to the same Source.  We don't need to white-knuckle our way through this; we can just get on the train and see where it takes us.

Christian Realism takes real faith.  A faith that appears to be in short supply in its critics.


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