The Problem with Pietism: Why Nondual Mystics and Awestruck Atheists Get It Right

So an increasing number of my friends these days are atheists.

I don’t mean that I’m going to Atheist Meetup Groups to make new friends (though that would be fun, I’m sure); I mean that alot of my Christian friends are beginning to conclude that seeing God as an anthropocentric being ‘out there’ is no longer cutting it for them. They’re not (primarily) getting there via Dawkins or Dennett or Harris or Hitchens, though that might be side-reading. They’re getting there more via Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Pete Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal or Insurrection – or Zizek or Badiou or Caputo or…you get the idea.

They’re also getting it from life – a lifetime spent doing the things that good (typically evangelical and charismatic, but also mainline and Catholic) Christians are taught to do. The virtue/prayer formulas taught in Deuteronomy or Proverbs (or even by Jesus) don’t seem to be working. The next thing you know, they start reading Mark’s gospel kinda like this, and Ecclesiastes, and voila! Atheist Christian.

What is an atheist Christian, you ask? Well, perhaps I’ll ask Ted Troxell to write me a guest post, but for now I’ll say this: An atheist Christian is a materialist who sees Jesus‘ (and, in many cases, Paul’s) ideals and programme under some soft of social-utopian lens, languaging a relational order in which all are given dignity. The theistic language that accompanied such visions is a necessary fact of the times in which they lived, but need not signify a core part of their ideology, as many of their other ideas (such as the smashing of idols, or the death of an incarnate God on a cross) are actually critical of and subversive toward overt religious claims.

I think I’d go so far as to say that I have more ‘atheist Christian’ friends these days than I do ‘uncomplicated’ Christian friends. How about you? Apparently this is not just a trend among emergent types, as even evangelical publishing house Tyndale has published The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist addressing this trend, though I’m not sure if  Craig Groeschel‘s prognosis (which seems to be double-down and try more of the same) is really going to cut it with growing numbers of my friends. Atheist Christianity seems here to stay.

In many ways this trend disturbs me – too many of my atheist Christian friends have a nihilistic streak in them a mile wide. If “you shall know them by their fruits” is applied to their deconstruction of faith, well, in many cases their depression, anger, cynicism and disintegrating family life speaks for itself.

On the other hand, you have happy, well-adjusted atheists like Alain de Botton and Carl Sagan. To hear them talk they sound more like mystics, in awe at an interconnected universe. They don’t particularly believe that there’s an underlying, transcendent, conscious intelligence behind said universe, but they’re definitely reverent when it comes to What Is.

Compare this to the pietisms of the world – in Christianity, Pietism has Lutheran, Weslyan/Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical flavors. Puritanism is a close cousin of pietism too. Pietism says that God is a God “out there,” but if you please Him enough (through faith, devotion, good works, discipline, or any number of other requirements), you can feel God in you, transforming you.

Pietism is powerful – a lot of people report feeling God. In the same twentieth century that brought on the Death of God movement, birthed in an Atlanta pub that I’m sure hosts theological conversation to this day, there’s also been an explosion in Pietism as manifested in Pentecostal, charismatic, and indigenous ‘Spirit-filled’ churches throughout the global south and two-third world. Marked by passionate worship, fervent evangelistic preaching, ardent expectations of signs & wonders, (often) prosperity teaching and (usually) the Second Coming of Jesus, these churches are growing by leaps and bounds. It’s estimated that one out of two congregations on earth are one of these types.

I can see why. I grew up in them. There is much to commend about their palpable sense of the reality and goodness and availability of God.

And yet…there is trouble in Pietism.

I began to see this trouble when I started reading mystics when I took off for college, in the late 1990s, and started trying to do what they recommended doing – ie, savoring Scripture slowly in lectio divina, chanting Psalms, or sitting in openness before a God who’s rendered unknown at the very site of revelation. I’ve tried and fumbled at these practices as an individual, as well as in groups, ranging from Quakers to house churchers

Now, at first blush, Christian mysticism is like Pietism on crack. If pop pietism can effuse ‘Jesus is My Boyfriend‘ Top 40-style worship songs, mystics can pen toe-curling erotic poetry to each member of the Trinity. If Pentecostals go to get their Jumpin’ Jehovah & Jesus fix twice a week (Sundays and Wednesday nights!), mystics expect some kind of daily encounter of the availability of God (though many are quick to caution against excessively showy manifestations, which they call ‘consolations’). But there’s a difference: In general, Christian mysticism or the contemplative path is far more subtle than Pietism, with its entire sanctifications, second blessings, and fast-tracks to an explosion of God’s palpable presence. The contemplative programme typically involves a lot of sitting, a lot of awareness, much letting go and a lot of quietly-cultivated love.

The end result of a life lived from this transfigured point of reference: A sense that God is everywhere even if God isn’t terribly overt; a weak God who looks like Jesus (strength made perfect in weakness) who is, nonetheless, All in all. A God in whom we live, move, and have our being – a ubiquitous God who defies description, even descriptors like ‘presence’ or ‘existence.’ It’s a deep ‘down and in’ consciousness of divinity, in which Spirit shows up disguised as your life.

Here’s where an extended quote from Jewish lawyer, activist, and spiritual teacher Jay Michaelson – author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism – is going to be awesome: Because I’m thinking is that deep-rooted nondual mysticism and awe-filled atheism are practically the same – at the end of the day, a God who is nowhere and a God who is everywhere might be merely a difference in semantics – a joy-filled word-play that we can each have fun with, riding the dialectic to a happier and more connected life. So here’s Jay:

To many people, spirituality is about having certain feelings, and spiritual practices are those actions which bring the feelings about. Light the candles, and feel “connected.” Pray, and become inspired. One does these practices in order to have certain feelings, or mindstates, to which one may attribute a range of mythic or psychological meaning. Conversely, if a practice isn’t working for you – that is, if you don’t get the desired feeling – drop it.

Secular critics of this type of spirituality (which often is derided as “New Age”) complain that it is narcissistic. Essentially, it’s just another thrill – and one which is then overlaid with delusion. At best, these pleasant delusions are rather pathetic balms. But they may also be deeply counterproductive, as the happy spiritual practitioner blissfully ignores her own problems, and those of the world. At worst, if the spiritual practitioner actually believes Allah, or Jesus, or whoever, is speaking to him, the delusions of the New Age are little different from the fundamentalisms of our era.

Within religious circles, surprisingly similar criticisms are leveled against ‘New Age’ spirituality. First, religious critics argue that New Age spirituality puts the individual before God. Some argue that it improperly values experience over authority, or over ethics – it is immodest, indulgent, and perhapsjust too much fun.

A less common critique comes from within the world of spiritual practitioners itself. Here, the complaint is neither impudence nor egotism but theological error. From a nondual perspective, spiritual practice is not about having a particular feeling, but about waking up to the shocking reality that your conventional self only exists as an appearance, a mirage. Like the Big Dipper, it is “there” in some sense, but not in the deepest sense; it’s not a structure of reality, but merely a way reality appears when looked at from a certain way. Spiritual and contemplative practice, in the nondual view, exist to wake us up from that “certain way,” which also happens to bring about all kinds of suffering, selfishness, and violence.

To do so, nondual spiritual practice must be all-pervasive. If you suppose that God is only present in the pleasant stuff – on a summer’s day but not in a cancer ward, when you’re feeling relaxed but not when you’re tense – then you’ve still making the same dualist error: God is here, but not there. In fact, the best spiritual practice might be one that neither provides the allure of the present nor the expiation of the difficult – but one which is utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available. (Much more here!)

Michaelson is one of the most fascinating spiritual/religious thinkers, practitioners, and teachers today, precisely because he’s asking how the Western monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might be potentially just as nondual as eastern traditions of Taoism or Advaita Vedanta. Now, for my more traditionally-minded Jesus-following readers who might feel like I’ve completely jumped the shark, don’t worry – I’ll get to my lens and my caveats in a moment. But first, let’s come back to Michaelson, in another article, this one on Prayer and Nonduality:

Nonduality may be understood in at least two ways. First, and traditionally, it proceeds from the theological tenet that God is infinite (Ein Sof in the Kabbalistic locution). Logically, if God is infinite, then every thing is God. “Do not look at a stone and say, ‘that is a stone and not God,'” wrote the sixteenth-century rabbi Moses Cordovero, one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, “for you have dualized — God forbid. Instead, know that the stone is a thing pervaded by Divinity.”

Nonduality may also be understood from the bottom up (from our own experience), as well as from the top down (from the perspective of theology). The bottom-up inquiry proceeds not from a theological tenet but from a very close observation of our perceptions. Where, for example, is the “essence” (Platonic or otherwise) of the chair on which you are sitting? Take it apart mentally: is it in the wood? The legs? Its property of holding you up — which, if you inquire more closely, has nothing to do with the “chair” and everything to do with molecular properties, strong and weak nuclear forces, and all sorts of other things you and I do not understand? Really, “chair,” and everything else, is an emergent property that usefully describes reality as we experience it, but doesn’t really describe its actual truth. As Joseph Goldstein likes to say, it’s like the Big Dipper — it describes something about how things look from a particular perspective, but we all know there is no Big Dipper really, right?

It’s possible, if the mind is quieted and slowed by meditation, to notice how thoughts pop in and out, how they are all conditioned by other things, and how the idea of the “self” in which all of us are so invested is, like the Big Dipper, just a useful label that describes how things seem from a particular perspective — not how they are. In actuality, to speak of chairs, selves, and other things as existing in their own right is useful but not entirely accurate.

But if there’s no self, what is there?

That question is where pantheism and atheism shake hands, where nonduality in its specifically religious forms becomes quite interesting. God, we might say, is what is left when the self is subtracted from everything else. A Buddhist would say everything is an empty play of conditions: your decision whether or not to keep reading is due not to some homunculus inside your brain but to a myriad of causes, including genetics, what else you have to do today, how well I’m writing, learned behaviors, and so on. A nondual Jew or Christian uses the word “God” to refer to those conditions. (emphasis mine)

If God is All there Is, we can stop looking for the miracle – life is the miracle. We can also stop trying to explain away truly extraordinary, unusual happenings like the spontaneous healings and spot-on ‘words of knowledge’ and bizarre manifestations I’ve witnessed – because everything is God. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement, or that genuine evil and atrocity do not ‘exist’. Indeed, as Ram Dass said, “The world is perfect as it is – including my desire to change it.”

Or as Ken Wilber said (and as we recounted right here on the blog last month),

If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.

But it’s not always fun.

Well, yes and no. The manifest world is a world of opposites—of pleasure versus pain, up versus down, good versus evil, subject versus object, light versus shadow. But if you are going to play the great cosmic Game, that is what you yourself set into motion. How else can you do it? If there are no parts and no players and no suffering and no Many, then you simply remain as the One and Only, Alone and Aloof. But it’s no fun having dinner alone. (The whole piece is well-worth reading if you haven’t already)

Now – there’s only one piece of this that doesn’t work for me as a relatively ‘orthodox’ Christian. It’s not God being all-pervasive, which I think is compelling, nor is it the difficulty this entails with ‘the problem of evil,’ which I think all cosmologies share – no, it actually shows up in the subtle-but-huge difference between Wilber and Michaelson’s depictions of nonduality: For Michaelson, ‘God’ often seems like a descriptor we give to the All – ‘God’ is a figure of speech. Eastern paths – and Western paths that tend to be over-accommodating to them – tend to elevate the impersonal over the personal as the highest insight possible. But for Wilber – in this piece at least – God has agency, and personality.

For me – and perhaps this is a weakness of mine, or perhaps this renders my nonduality and atheist-friendliness to be the thinnest of artifices – God must be personal. And God must be ultimately good – or, love – in the ways in which our deepest intuitions imagine goodness and love to be. Which is why I’m so taken by Jesus, and the imaging of God he depicts – ‘the exact representation of the Father’s being.’ Owning that yes, of course ‘Father’ and even ‘Person’ are projections and anthromorphisms, I can affirm that whatever ‘God’ is,

God must be more than personal – but I can’t agree that God is less than personal.

How can I get all of this to hang, cosmologically? Well I’m not sure, but let me throw a sketch out there, that my most theologically-astute friends can hopefully help me or rebut me on: You know how in Walter Wink’s theology, there’s a ‘spirituality of institutions’? How he posits (in The Powers that Be and everywhere) that “the Angel at the Church of Sardis,” et al, is referring to the collective identity of a particular congregation, which has a kind of suprapersonality that includes but transcends the sum of its parts? And you know how Wink proposes that ‘the demonic’ is similarly institutionally personal – an ‘Angel’ who has turned against its reason for being? So that everything from the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex to Coca-Cola to the Church of Peter, Paul, and Mary and #Occupy is a principality and a power – either angelic or demonic, for good or for ill? (If you aren’t familiar with this way of thinking about the biblical witness concerning ‘the powers,’ read Wink‘s books! They’re borne out of both personal experience with the demonic in helping end South African apartheid, as well as careful scholarship. They’re life-changers.) A corporation or a congregation or a popular mass movement seems to exert actions or behaviors that sometimes override the wills of individual members within it – even those who supposedly occupy influential or top-ranking positions within them. It’s as though the sum total of these groups have a will of their own, in a way that projects an aura of personality that transcends the organizational life of the collective.

Well, what if God is like that, relative to the Universe? If the universe is greater than the sum of its parts, the Personality thus generated is God. This could be a very specific God, revealed in one of the great world religions or philosophies, or perhaps fragments revealed in all of them – including atheism. (Sociologist Rodney Stark explores this possibility in Discovering God). This God could exhibit traits intelligible to humans, and could decide to manifest in one or more of any number of ways.

There are, as I see it, epistemological difficulties with this A-Personal-God-is-a-Projection-of-the-Universe idea. Namely the charge that this is simply pantheism writ large – God IS Reality, albeit personal (whereas most pantheists, like most deists, conceive God as most philosophers to – non-personal). Therefore, the pre-existence and transcendence of God is toast in this view. This need not be the inevitable conclusion, however. Because if time, as I understand Einstein, is a byproduct or  co-extensive effect of space, then a God who transcends and includes the sum of the Universe’s parts need not be constrained by all of its strictures. Put another way, words like ‘eternity’ are themselves human creations, and we tend to associate ‘time’ with them when ‘depth’ is closer to their original meaning. Given all that we don’t really understand about quarks, super-strings, and holographic physics, we live in a strange and wonderful Universe that could bear or be borne by a strange and wonderful God.

This is not a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, relying on some sloppy appeal to ‘mystery’ and ‘what we don’t yet know’ to substantiate it. Ultimately, I’m deeply okay if God = The Universe (pantheism), or if God, even while being the personality generated by the Universe, turns out to be in some way outside its strictures and thus ‘transcendent’ over/beyond it (panentheism). Either way, God is All in All, as my Christian Scripture attests in its brightest moments. And either way, a God who emptied Godself in kenosis, and who died rather than seek revenge, who is resurrected nonviolently – this is a God whose ‘weak force’ is strength in a way where ubiquity might as well be non-existence, as ‘existence’ is a category too paltry to contain the Beloved. Instead, we have a Way who empties himself of easy certainty, a pathless path that is co-extensive with life itself. The realization of union with God (which need not come with bells and whistles – only the simple, trusting/experimental acknowledgment) yields a way of seeing in which God is everywhere, and manifest in everything – which might be the true meaning of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity,’ a path that is “utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available.”

Pietism, then, is a frustrating half-measure – a God who is neither everything nor nothing, and is thus a bridge to nowhere – a dead-end of unmet religious longing leading to dangerous fundamentalism on the one hand and impotent liberalism on the other hand. Could it be that the God revealed in Jesus is a God willing to be broken and poured out , and in Pyrrhic resurrection negate into ubiquity, becoming tastable and handle-able by each of us, power distributed to the whole of us rather than a Power-Narrative all too easily abused by the strongest of us?

I can hope. Or at least, wonder.

Recommended Reading:

Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by Brian McLaren
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler-Bass
Integral Christianity:  The Spirit’s Call to Evolve by Paul Smith

Not conincidentally, all three of these authors will be sharing at a most unique gathering: Co-Creation 2012: The Great Emergence & The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, hosted by the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina! They’ll be joined by world-class artists and musicians, as well as participants from across the country; come on out and see us this April 12-15th! Register here.

Other good reading on this includes The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics by Bruce Sanguin, and Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd.


Other Posts of Potential Interest:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’


The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery 

40 Responses to The Problem with Pietism: Why Nondual Mystics and Awestruck Atheists Get It Right

  1. Ted February 29, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    Thanks for the tag. Let me say from the outset that I don’t disagree on the whole — the idea that the “awestruck atheist” and the mystic are not far apart is one that resonates. Your use of Wink to ponder God is badass. I like it. And I think you zero in on something important when you insist that God be personal. It’s precisely there that my own belief capacitor gets stuck, and why I identify as an atheist, however I might want to qualify that designator. In a Christian and/or post-Christian milieu, a nonpersonal God seems superfluous, like we’re calling “God” something that could be known to us by another name. Robert Jensen (another “awestruck atheist,” who tells his story in All My Bones Shake) says that God is the name we give to mystery itself — but is thereby not something we can worship, per se (Jensen would rather see us commit ourselves to sustainable communities).

    But it’s the personal, agentic bit — the part that makes God worth calling “God” imo — that I can’t abide. It’s not there for me. And the mystic stuff, to which I’m sympathetic and in which I’ve dabbled, scratches an itch I don’t seem to have anymore. (These are, I think, connected.)

    The interesting thing here is that you’re close, in some ways, to Radical Orthodoxy’s participatory/analogical ontology. God is not a thing, a being, but Being itself — God is not something that exists but the reason anything exists at all, and not just as “prime mover” but as the very condition of being. Everything else participates in God to one degree or another. (Milbank’s The Suspended Middle is probably the best read for this). It might be something to tap into, especially if orthodoxy is a concern.

    Now, some pushback: I don’t identify as a “Christian Atheist” because I’m not sure what that would mean. I happen to remain connected to the Christian world (even a member of a church!) and I happen to not believe in God. To claim to be a Christian in a meaningful way that would make sense to other Christians, I’d want to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob without feeling like I’m trying to say that something I might believe in on other terms really is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (which is guilty of both essentialism and a rhetorically violent re-representation). I’m not going to do that.

    To the extent that you’re identifying me as a Christian atheist (or maybe you’re not?), I’m not sure it’s fair to say that I — or they — am interested in “some sort of social-utopian lens.” I think there’s a difference between Paul’s apocalypticism and conventional utopianism (though they are obviously connected) and I think there’s a difference between being interested in the social vision of certain kinds of Christianity and being a utopian. Hell, Žižek’s too humanist for me…

    • Julie February 29, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      Ted, I resonated with so much of what you commented here. Thanks for articulating it well (and I go to church too!).

      I, too, struggle with the idea of attaching the word “personal” to God (to mystery, Being, Nothing, All). Once we introduce “person” to God, we begin to project person-like expectations onto that “Being.” How can we not? That’s what our direct person experiences teach us to do.

      When someone claims God as personal after deconstructing how God can’t fulfill those personal qualities that would make God relatable, I stop knowing what the term means.

      But Bonhoeffer would say: “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…! For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (Letters 360).

      And: “Belief in the resurrection is not the solution to the problem of death. God’s ‘beyond’ is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties… God is the beyond in the midst of our lives” (Letters 282).

      And: “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we continually stand. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters 360).

      My take—There’s a deep absence that we must accept and not paper over with personhood, in my estimation. But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate caring about Christianity or engaging with it as a dialog partner to shape our values and how we go out into the world.

      • Ted February 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

        Thanks, Julie. 🙂

  2. Darrell Grizzle February 29, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Mike. There are no easy answers here. My own faith flashes in and out of existence like a quark. I’ve learned to be OK with that. :o)

  3. Bill Colburn February 29, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Mike, I really appreciate what you have presented. It taps into where I’ve been ‘traveling’ for a season. I resonated with Sarah Sentilles’ recent book, “Breaking Up With God”. I also was in love with ‘god’. I miss that ‘personal’ god. Yet, ‘it’ was a ‘god’ that didn’t make any sense – except to make me feel good. ‘God’ as Person was helpful in motivating me to pursue many ‘good’ things in life, yet was also troublesome in that it distracted me from dealing honestly with reality. In a sense I’m an atheist Christian in that I continue to pursue Christianity as a religion without accepting that a personal being, God, exists. I defect in place within Christianity because that has been my life’s passion, yet continue within it simply because it remains a commonly acceptable metaphor that can be usefully leverage for good within our world.

  4. Scot Miller February 29, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Fantastic post. Two observations:

    1) Georges Bataille is an interesting precursor to atheistic mysticsm (eroticism as mysticism). Your post makes me want to re-read his “Inner Experience”.

    2) You claim that God must be personal, which is why you can’t buy entirely into nonduality or “Christian atheism.” I’m reminded of the Heideggerian distinction between what is ontic and what is ontological. There are features in our experience which seem to be personal, but are not any thing in particular (e.g., the stock market is often described as being like a person with emotions, fears, etc., when it’s really just “public body in which a free network of economic transactions occurs.”) The person-like character is ontic, but not ontological. Perhaps the nondualists and atheists have it right that God is ontic but not ontological: God does not exist apart from the interactions of people, which gives the experience of God as personal.

  5. tana February 29, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Thanks for this article, Mike.

  6. Don Milam February 29, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I am not smart enough to reply to something so deep. You younger guys are way beyond me in the depth of how you look at life and God. However, it does not mean that I have not thought about these things and wondered. Francis Schaeffer wrote a book many years ago entitled ‘He is There and He Is Not Silent.’ Au contraire, I have experienced many times in my life the seeming silence of God and wondered. As to the nature of God there is much I do not understand. There was a time when I understood everything. Those days passed away along time ago. Mike, I do like the tact that you take from God to Jesus. Now, that is something I can understand. I find it much easier to think of God through the Jesus grid. Like you, the mystics and the pietists left me numb with their insistence on good works. That never worked for me. Jesus’ introduction of grace and amplified by Paul does work for me. There have been a couple of moments in my life when I have experienced the personal presence of God in a very real way but they have not removed the mystery of his nature. Well, wished I could be brilliant in my response but this is the best I can do, at this point. Thanks MIke for pushing the envelope. Now I have to go take an aspirin. My head hurts. LOL.

  7. Micah Redding February 29, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    Mike, I agree with you that God must be personal, in the sense that whatever is the source of reality cannot be less than that reality. And I think you’re on a good trail with the Walter Wink stuff – I’ve been surprised it hasn’t been suggested before. My own attempts to parse out this issue run up against the ultimate problem of defining what “personhood” is when applied to something non-human. It’s a very difficult thing to conceive of, and so I’ve ultimately given up trying to nail down a cohesive theory of this. All we can really look for is God’s vital signs, so to speak…

    Personally, I’m returning to a more forward-looking conception, in which God’s primary mode of being is to draw us from the future. God is fully real and embodied at the end-point of all of our histories, and from there always calls out to us.

    One comment on these kind of discussions in general. There is a lot of philosophic talk about being-ness and essentiality and so forth. I think this serves to increase the emergent/traditionalist divide, not because thinking about God in new ways is appalling, but because such abstract and convoluted language is completely foreign to the majority of traditionalists.

    I wonder if pursuing that really helps what it is intended to help.

  8. ron cole February 29, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Whew!!! I got through it. Man! there is a lot of meat to chew on Mike. I’m 58 years old was a christian most of my life. My background is mainly science, a biochemistry major working in an acute care hospital. I have taken courses at Regent College ( Vancouver BC ) over the years, and I have taught, preached…pretty well done it all in the church. I was on the fringe for the last 10+ years, but now I have even cut that life line free. I don’t know what in the hell I would call myself. I can’t bring myself to say creeds any more. I’ve tossed foundational doctrines into the ditch. Now I’m not saying there isn’t something there, but, really…we are just poking into the dark. But yet, there is something in the gospels, and in Jesus life…excuse the language, drives me fucking nuts!
    This god-man, Jesus lived life in an altered state, really in another world. He talked like he was, and lived like he was…he was the message, and the messenger. I can’t describe it as ” connect the dots “, ” bold black and white print “…I can say it’s real. If we lived out the message, and became the message…the world would get the message.
    I believe in God, as this mysterious phenomenon that holds the match igniting the fuse of the ” Big Bang .” I don’t believe in a personal, ” hey, lets have a chat ” God. But, I believe in a kind of cosmic ecosystem type relationship. I tend to lean towards silence, meditation and reflection…focusing on my relationship to it ” All.” I mean even Paul, through Jesus had this profound sense of ” Christ holding it all together.”
    From the profound origin of existence there is something eternal ( divine ) embedded in each one us, call it star dust…but yet, we are also uniquely human. I think Jesus was the greatest example we as humanity will ever see as living out this balance of equilibrium…in which we find abundant life for all, and a sustainable life for all. So Mike, what am I, an atheist with a Jesus fetish.

  9. Joy February 29, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Errr…I corrected my mispelling of “Boenhoeffer” on the AZFCT blog…sorry to appear so non academic.

  10. Kevin February 29, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    Thanks Michael.

    The problem with grand explanations about cosmic mysteries is that they almost always exclude themselves. So it feels right to talk about God as a person with feelings and intuition and perceptions and all such things that arise from within a person who is aware of herself. It seems to me that the truly nondual theories and theologies get their paradoxical character by being self-referential. And to be truly universal I would think a theology would need to embrace concepts as well as the human and physical and natural and concrete things. Personally, I’d like to see a theology that embraces Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Turing’s halting problem.

    • johnboy March 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

      Like Hawking observed, once he grasped the significance of Gödel’s theorems for TOEs, when faced with the choice between completeness and consistency, the good money’s on the latter. Whenever we deal with problems involving “beginning,” we cannot avoid playing philosophical whack-a-mole with circular reference, question begging tautology, causal disjunction and infinite regress; each time we shut an ontological door, we close some epistemic window.

      Still, those theorems apply to formal systems and Gödel would probably be the first to suggest that we needn’t necessarily PROVE a truth in order to SEE it. For example, we’d have to travel with Whitehead & Russell over halfway through the Principia to establish the axioms required to prove that 2 + 2 = 4, but most of us can see that truth without the extra bother. Gödel, himself, formulated an ontological argument for God.

      The practical upshot of this is that we can imagine one day having a grand unified theory, the truth of which we’ll be able to see but not prove, the axioms of which we may or may not find terribly interesting.

      Any good theology has already embraced Gödel’s theorems to the extent that it truly traffics in FAITH and not rationalism, empiricism, positivism, etc That’s why we call it faith, because it is SUPERrational, the SUPER implicitly referring to those existential axioms that we employ although unable to prove, save for the fact that we can, with the psalmist, TASTE and SEE the goodness of the Lord.

      One take-away from your excellent point is that those who pursue evidentialistic and rationalistic apologetics, who exhibit no epistemic humility whatsoever, somewhere along their way, have lost sight of the fact that there is a LEAP involved that cannot be logically coerced only lovingly coaxed. Neither God nor love are syllogisms. (Not even moral theology, Rick Santorum!)

  11. jim schoch February 29, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    21 yrs of pastoring left me empty. As i slipped away i found a love of people a love of life and a love of who i am as a person. Agnostic humanist might be the best description of me. Have never been happier and more at peace in my 52 years. No plans to return to the mental gymnastics i experienced via the mennonites the charismatics the word of faith the vineyard and the toronto blessing streams of church. My wife and i changed together and i feel very lucky that we are on the same page as our 3 grown kids. I wish you the best on your journey my friend.

  12. Johnboy March 1, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    Mike, you have been on a holy roll in 2012. Your essay is provocative and evocative and substantive. Your love shines through!

    re: PIETISM – The affective aspect of religion is not a problem in and of itself. Neither is the euphoria of first fervor. Pietism, which is a problem, results from an overemphasis on both the kataphatic and affective. At the same time, it is no more insidious than rationalism (an overemphasis on the kataphatic and speculative), quietism (an overemphasis on the apophatic and affective) or encratism (an overemphasis on the apophatic and speculative).

    Certainly, in the same way that first fervor and first naïveté have their rightful place in formative spirituality, in some sense, an a-theo-logical moment will always be indispensable for any who would hope to enjoy the second naïveté, who would hope to venture beyond the exoteric to the esoteric, from the literal to the mythical to the mystical?

    re: MIRACLES and signs & wonders & such – From a nondual perspective, we can adopt a stance that eschews the distinction between natural and supernatural (i.e. it’s ALL supernatural). Further, we can recognize that all human value-realizations present in degrees (e.g. varying in how much we cooperate as created co-creators with the Spirit’s promptings). And, we can still allow for miracles contra Hume because our emergentist perspective employs a modal ontology wherein the necessary has been replaced by the probable, which means that, even within the constraints of the universe’s initial, boundary and limit conditions, reality remains open not only epistemologically but probably also ontologically (extraordinary events can and do happen). To a priori rule them out requires us to prove too much.

    re: A/THEISMs – To live a profoundly upright and moral life, to realize truth, beauty and goodness in abundance, to love and be loved deeply, one should have no need of such hypotheses as address primal realities and ultimate concerns?

    Such values require no apologetic, qualification, justification or defense, only our embrace – “just because”?

    At the same time, most people do provisionally close and live as if this or that hypothesis is indeed the case? There are many such competing hypotheses (onto-theological, theo-ontological, creedal, atheological & more), which are often held informally, inchoately and even subconsciously?

    And, with no lack of epistemic virtue, many of these competing hypotheses can coexist as live options, even as one contradicts the next?

    Perhaps most embrace this or that existential disjunctive, which means “living as if,” aspiring to realize life’s values in superabundance, hoping to sojourn more swiftly and with less hindrance along life’s way, perhaps seeking ever sweeter consolations so as to gain the strength to lavish ever deeper compassion?

    If so, it will be their compassion – their beauty, their goodness, their love – that will draw us, not the cleverness of their metaphysics, not the intuitive appeal of their apologetics, for the only thing those rational accounts can hope to establish (because, even if necessary, they’re still not sufficient) is a mere equiplausibility between what can otherwise be wildly disparate meta-interpretations of reality?

    In a nutshell, reality remains consistent with quite a few different meta-tautologies and it is really hard at this stage of humankind’s journey to adjudicate between them all. To say which is the most taut, has the best fit, whether empirically, logically, rationally, morally, pragmatically or relationally, is to say more than we can possibly know. Those are just NOT the criteria available for those who wish to characterize this versus that account as “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and those who employ such apologetics are telling untellable stories.

    For me, the Gospel of Jesus is, indeed, the greatest story I’ve ever heard because of its performative, not informative, significance and because I’ve been quite enamored with many of its performers, just because.

    • Kevin March 1, 2012 at 5:20 am #

      Re: Being enamored as justification for a choice. I love it. It rings bells. It reminds me of the best thing I’ve learned about personal relationships. What looks like a breakdown in communication is often an absence of admiration (adoration). That is, admiration goes hand-in-hand with the desire to communicate. People naturally want to interact with those they admire. And people really do avoid those they don’t admire. I don’t know about teaching/learning admiration/adoration directly. But I do believe that barriers to admiration/adoration can be effectively removed.

      • johnboy March 1, 2012 at 11:26 am #

        Re: Being enamored as justification for a choice. I love it. It rings bells. It reminds me of the best thing I’ve learned about personal relationships.

        And yet I also positively eschew fideism. What I consider epistemic virtue is highly nuanced (drawing on Charles Sanders Peirce and some William James). Let’s just say that there are quite a few other justificatory chairs furnishing our epistemic suite that Goldilocks will have already sat in prior to her falling “en amour.”

        • Ted March 1, 2012 at 11:27 am #

          I’ve missed you, John.

          • johnboy March 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

            You, too, bro’mancer. Thanks. I’ve been all tied up working on a journal article entitled: “If men could get pregnant, birth control would already be both a sacrament and a constitutional amendment.” Everyone, please share that w/attribution. It’s the only thing I’ve ever written with even a remote chance of going viral.

  13. Matthew Lipscomb March 1, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    “Mike Morrell: On The Virtues of Having Dinner with Vegetarian Cannibals”

    I disagree with you on this. I think that you are approaching Pietism with a different judgmental standpoint then you are Atheism. At the risk of sounding condescending, I would point out that every budding scholar goes through a ‘look see here – I can connect all these dots’ phase, which typically embodies a great deal of exuberance over ultimately intractably tangental things.I will point out that Jonathan Edwards was a Panantheist, and that he felt that entire world was operating essentially out of the imagination of God – and that in this sense, all of creation was still in an ongoing state of creation.

    (I put rest on my blog, you can read it here)

  14. Ted March 1, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    “At the risk of sounding condescending…”

    Too late.

  15. Gene Smith March 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    wow! interesting and weighty matter here Mike…i love your conclusion too.

  16. johnboy March 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Mike, another way my view affirms your own is by suggesting that human values and the methods we employ for attaining them are continuous (w/neither epistemological nor ontological discontinuities, in other words, nondual).

    We can take Kant’s interrogatories, for example, and map them such that our probes (methods) regarding 1) What can we know? = the descriptive = literal sense of scripture = awareness ; 2) What can we hope for? = evaluative = anagogical sense of scripture = hope; 3) What must we do? = normative = moral/prudential sense of scripture = love; 4) What does all of this mean? = interpretive = allegorical sense of scripture = faith. In other words, the hermeneutical spiral is essentially the same for the secular and the sacred. We could also ask how any given group of humans is dedicated, empowered, nurtured/healed and saved and map those enterprises, respectively, as the 1) cultural or theological 2) social or ecclesiological 3) economic or sacramental and 4) political or soteriological. Finally, we could map the 1) descriptive as science 2) evaluative as culture 3) normative as philosophy and 4) interpretive as religion.

    This is to suggest, then, that a person with a pneumatological imagination, in other words, who sees the Spirit at work always, everywhere and in everyone, the secular will represent the Spirit at work, implicitly, in the descriptive, evaluative, normative and interpretive, in science, culture, philosophy and in all religions (although, from place to place and time to time, human cooperation with the Spirit and the values thus realized – or frustrated – may vary in degree for manifold reasons). Any explicit recognition of Spirit will amplify the epistemic risks already undertaken (in epistemic virtue) through an interpretive lens that engages awareness, hope, love & faith (a/theological virtue) toward the end of augmenting the values of truth, beauty, goodness and unity.

    Bottomline, Sagan realized the same values and employed, essentially, the same methods any believer does. Believers would claim that they take more epistemic risks (though not without epistemic virtue) than Sagan did with an aim toward augmenting the values they might then realize. Perhaps many have but that would have to be measured sociologically in terms of intellectual, affective, moral, sociopolitical and religious growth (Lonergan’s conversions), which is more than a tad problematic. Many clearly have not, though, and that’s easy to see with simple common sense.

  17. Lewchuk March 13, 2012 at 9:24 pm #


    This is my take….
    The semantics of this topic are difficult but I will try.
    Theistic religion, by definition, create a boundary between the immanent (us) and the transcendent (God). This separateness is embedded in dogmatic theology. Express an opinion otherwise would result in your testicles roasted in less charitable times. Some theists had experiences of non-duality which they seem to “keep quiet”, express in careful words or have difficult times….think of Spinoza, Eckhart…Jesus?

    When it comes to “atheism”, I think the issue is whether you think matter is primary or consciousness. Western “atheism” focuses on matter as primary (a science hang-over). Hence why I think “awestruck atheist” is a bit of an oxymoron; can machines invoke awe? Or more appropriately, where does the sense of awe come from if everything is a machine.

    Eastern “atheism” focuses on consciousness as primary. In a sense, I am reluctant to call this atheism in that it is really the purist form of panentheism.

    Who do you side with? The Christian, the Scientist or the Buddhist 🙂

  18. Jeff April 3, 2012 at 12:44 am #

    An Experience:

    Years ago I had a life changing experience. I was spending a weekend at a Trappist monastery. A friend and I entered the church for the first time, We suddenly and simultaneously each had a marked spiritual experience. We stared at each other in shock and surprise. It was the presence of the Holy Spirit, fiery and enlivening. It lasted but a moment. What shocked me most was not the mere fact of experiencing “spirit” (I was used to that in my new age and eastern religious exposure) it was that it simply wasn’t the same spirit as I had encountered in those arenas. I had been taught the cardinal principle (dogma?) that God or Spirit or the Absolute in every religion, despite different approaches and words, was the same in essence and taste. I could no longer think that, based on my experience and what I was reading in the Bible. I was undone. Unless I reinterpreted and redefined the words of the Bible in the light of systems alien to the Bible – making it say things it doesn’t. – I couldn’t blend Christ and Hinduism/Buddhism. I still had a way to go but eventually I left eastern and new age thought behind and became a Trinitarian/Nicene creed type as that understanding had the best fit to scripture and my own experience of the Three Persons of the Godhead.

    I came up with this parable to express what I met in my spiritual journey

    A Parable:

    The coast of Namibia is the only place in Africa where elephants swim in the ocean. Two gnats went out to sea. One landed on an elephant; the other on a whale. Both returned to land and shared their experiences. While their respective accounts had differences both said something like this: “It was huge beyond belief, wet, gray, and above all, alive!” Many gnat theologians decided the two gnats had experienced the same thing, while others disagreed. The discussion continues.

    Obviously the whale is Yahweh.

    What is the experience of the elephant? I think the “elephant” is deifying and absolutizing via “spiritual” practices and teachings your inward awareness which is created in God’s image. Your inner awareness and self is Godlike being made in his image and through proper training and continued mental programming you can expand it into an experience and perception of “absolute reality”. From the Christian perspective this is embracing the primal lie of Genesis that you can be as God! and is the root of eastern religions.

    Anyway this is the conclusion I’ve come to in this area. I know this is offensive to sincere and well intentioned followers of eastern spiritualities, but Jesus Christ is termed the rock of offense and the stumbling stone. I know I barked my shins against him and it was painful, but in the end I trusted in him.

    • johnboy April 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

      Jeff, what you describe, in my view, is based on a common and facile caricature of the East, which, by the way, in no monolithic tradition but, instead, very pluralistic with many schools. For example, regarding anatman or no-self, in both Buddhist & Hindu traditions, many westerners tend to misappropriate the teaching when they adopt it, misinterpret it, when they critique it.

      One of the many practical take-aways from advaitan sensibilities for Christianity would be to simply translate the concept “identity” into “intimacy,” whenever it is encountered, to consider identity a reality we approach — not actually, but – asymptotically. In other words, even for some (maybe even most) advaitans, no-self is an adjectival & analogical interpretation of a phenomenal experience not a literal & ontological description of a metaphysical reality. The concept entails, therefore, an epistemic critique and not a positivistic description. This approach recommends we employ phenomenological vagueness for depthful, dynamical realities like God and self (i.e. both dei & imago dei) in the place of substantialist, essentialist categories. Many advaitans are panentheists, then, as are many Christians.

      It’s more like swimming in the ocean and either BEFRIENDING (literally) a whale or BECOMING (metaphorically) a whale, in the latter instance by being swallowed like Jonah. And these are not mutually exclusive propositions. Many have experienced both realities. It’s trialectical because first (there is a mountain) the whale is encountered and befriended, then (there is no mountain) one is swallowed by the whale, then (there is) one is spit ashore by the whale, for personal identity thus perdures even in the East!

      That’s one of the signs that point to the Resurrection, which we celebrate this Holy Week!

      Namaste Jeff

      • johnboy April 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

        RE: What is the experience of the elephant? I think the “elephant” is deifying and absolutizing via “spiritual” practices and teachings your inward awareness which is created in God’s image. Your inner awareness and self is Godlike being made in his image and through proper training and continued mental programming you can expand it into an experience and perception of “absolute reality”. <<<<<<

        This is tantamount to calling the Eastern experience a navel-gazing anthropomorphic projection, the same critique that Feuerbach leveled at Christianity and other theisms. It's a nonfalsifiable tautology whether leveled by Feuerbach at you or leveled by you at the Eastern traditions. Alternatively, though, we might consider the inner experience to be an encounter of the indwelling deity, even as we needn't deny that, at the same time, many of us from all traditions are engaging in no small amount of self-projection, an activity from which we progressively desist on our journeys of transformation (theosis, where humanization = deification).

  19. Jeff April 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    I find this fascination with non-dual spirituality curious. After all, penultimate reality in the New Testament is quite dualistic, even multiplistic, presented as being individually and corporately before the presence of the Father and the Son filled with the Holy Spirit embodied in transformed physical bodies like Christ’s. So it stands to reason then that the best state here in this life would also be physically embodied before the Father and the Son filled with the Holy Spirit individually and as a group. Once when reading descriptions of nondualistic states of consciousness offered by Buddhism, I asked myself what is the Christian version of the highest, at once I felt the personal love of the Father. It was even directional, coming from my right (“because He is at my right hand”, Psalm 16), his personal love for personal individual me. I said,”Wow, screw this Buddhist stuff this is the real thing!”. But in the eyes of nondualism this is a vulgar and low rent state of awareness. Do I detect a whiff of snobbery/elitism in this fascination with non-dualism?
    I think a root of this attitude is not knowing, acknowledging, or even resisting (we will not have this man to be king over us – from a Gospel parable) the present, immediate reality and individual authority of the incarnate God-Man Jesus Christ of Nazareth. After all when Paul said on the road to Damascus “Who are you, Lord!” The answer wasn’t some generic spiritual identity like “Ground of all Being” or “the True Light” but “I am Jesus of Nazareth”. So embodied, so dualistic, so vulgar, so particular, and so challenging – The Father said at the Transfiguration when Jesus as the True Light was manifest – “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”

    It doesn’t get better than this, lets all be dualistic and loving it, like children before our Father in heaven!

    “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” Acts 7:54
    “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” Matthew 28:20
    “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd: he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:17
    14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
    20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21

    • johnboy April 9, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

      Don’t we intrinsically and absolutely value all human embodiments of truth, beauty and goodness? which is why, on the spiritual journey, we consider each stage to be assimilated, not subjugated, and carried forward?

      Any use of the term, “highest,” therefore, would describe quantitative realities and not qualitative opinions?

      At any rate, “highest” state would thus denote “later” state; such qualifiers as “best” state, “vulgar” state and “low rent” state are thus neither applicable nor interesting nor connoted and only have purchase in ideologies of dominion, epistemologies of hegemony.

      Finally, the nondual and dual are not mutually exclusive — at least, not in nondual approaches.

      • johnboy April 9, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

        check out the 2 articles on disability at the bottom of these notes (url below) for a more thorough consideration of why we do not devalue any part of the spectrum of our human engagement of God!

        In terms of knowledge and love, Christians are nondualists. Ontologically, though, neither dual nor nondual models are conceptually coherent; it seems we invoke the former to stop infinite regressions and the latter to avoid causal disjunctions, while neither escapes tautological question-begging. It seems to me that, dualistically, we experience a robustly relational intersubjective intimacy even as, nondualistically, we enjoy a sort of intraobjective identity vis a vis God, what some panentheists describe as an immersion in a divine matrix, all which leaves us as quasi-autonomous creatures, while beyond both of those putative realities there lies what would be an interobjective indeterminacy to which we can refer but not describe. These may roughly correspond to our (manifold and mulitform & varying in degree) experiences of 1) unitive, 2) unitary (or unity) and 3) ultimate reality, which, in my view, respectively convey, albeit inchoately, 1) how, 2) how much and 3) how very much beyond our ability to imagine — we are loved. I appreciate that some dualistic paradigms imagine that we enjoy varying degrees of beatitude both per some sort of spiritual meritocracy as well as per various types of growth paradigms but … having been loved just as I am …

  20. Jeff April 10, 2012 at 1:21 am #

    Hmm, I’m starting to realize that I’m encountering the mindset that the words and concepts of the New Testament are to be sent through a sausage grinder of an outside interpretative framework to be properly understood, so in that case why bother with the NT and just embrace what really is the authoritative “scripture” the NT is being understood through?

    The person of Jesus as described in the NT is ground into lifeless generic spiritual mush in your system, no flesh and bones to touch, no sins borne in his body upon the tree, no light of light.

    You have been taken captive and have lost the living Jesus of Nazareth. I am sorry he isn’t flesh and bone and Spirit real to you and that you have swallowed intellectual figments instead.

    “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ who is the head over every power and authority” Colossians 2: 8-11

    • johnboy April 10, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      You raise an interesting angle, here, Jeff. What I shared above is a theology of nature, a poetic rendering of the imagination that begins within the faith and involves post-experiential reflection on the life of faith. It is, then, a theo-ontology, that is grounded in special divine revelation. This is not to suggest that an autonomous philosophy cannot begin with the facts of positivistic science and reason its way to an interpretive metaphysic of God in what might be called an onto-theology or natural theology, all consistent with general revelation, but, for lots of reasons, in my view, while it helps frame questions and is a useful way to probe reality, it doesn’t provide their answers and cannot prove reality. So, there is neither a philosophical nor a theological outside interpretive framework being imposed.

      At the same time, because we as Christians believe that other religions variously participate in the very same pneumatological (Holy Spirit-related) realities, there is some comparative formative spirituality going on in our mapping of concepts interreligiously. The essential dogmas of Christianity, as revealed in scripture, clearly convey THAT we are loved and those beliefs are generally categorized as theological (What about God?), Christological (What about Jesus?), pneumatological (What about the Spirit?), anthropological (What is wo/man?), soteriological (What do we need?), ecclesiological (What about community?) and eschatological (What about ultimates and “end things”?). And, while the answers do include such as our incarnational reality and sacramental economy, they don’t otherwise explain the empirical HOW. So, beginning with what we do know from our human sciences, cultures and philosophies and what we do believe from our religion, we imaginatively engage reality, like the psalmists, and offer what are essentially poetic renderings. Some do begin in philosophy with onto-theology, but all metaphysics are doomed to failure vis a vis primal reality. And, in our theo-ontology, all metaphors eventually collapse. As it is, a theology of nature is a mere heuristic device, a vague model at best, which acts as a conceptual hatrack for our hymns of praise; it doesn’t have speculative value and isn’t falsifiable. It has practical significance for the life of worship and prayer for those who might resonate with its poetry, which goes beyond the essentials of faith but neither without them nor inconsistent with them. Some people DO improperly conflate the otherwise autonomous methods of science, philosophy and theology; some DO aspire to a robust onto-theology; some DO articulate theologies of nature with bad science and bad anthropology. But as long as we avoid those pitfalls, we can otherwise only be guilty of bad poetry. Mea maxima culpa.

  21. Jeff April 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    When I read what you write I’m unsure if I really understand it. I am more of a “simplicity of Christ” guy “persevering as seeing him who is invisible”. I believe in a literal Genesis for reasons of Spirit and poetry. Below is something for you to chew on while I’ll take another crack at what you’ve written. I believe straight up Biblical images are more on target than abstruse philosophical reinterpretations that try to make it more palatable for the smarty pants. And the Biblical images are more fun! Pascal contrasted the god of the philosophers with the living fire of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

    Michelangelo and William Blake were right!

    From a Biblical perspective the nature of God is seen as reflected in aspects of the created order. Yes, God to a certain degree does have the nature of space, wind, emptiness, mist, air, sky, force, energy, light, darkness so congenial to Buddhist/Hindu/New Age types. However humans as being made in the image of God, are the best representation of what God is like – especially a human at their highest development, a mature, wise, good, vital 50+ man or woman. I knew a dynamic, spiritual woman in her sixties. She reminded me of a female God the Father.

    To me saying God is NOT like a man – the Sky Daddy – is dumbing God down, making God less than what he is, flattening the divine out, a less than human orgasmic gas. In a true sense since humans are made in the divine image, there is a humanness intrinsic to God, though divine humanness is a infinite multidimensional cube compared to our simple flat squares. God is even more human, personal, individual, distinct, even idiosyncratic than any of us – who are mere echoes of him. And we encounter Him in the Spirit, answered prayers, providential circumstances we find Him to be that, and someday when we have a body like the one Jesus has now we will see this peculiar, wonderful Sky Daddy face to face. I remember the magic and power of my own father when I was a little boy.I remember the day when my younger brothers were rushing out of the house to greet my father arriving home from work with ecstatic cries of “Daddy, Daddy” and suddenly I could no longer do that, the magic was gone, though I still loved and respected him. He was mere man. Christ taught us to pray to our “Our Father in Heaven”

    There is much wisdom and truth in Michelangelo’s and William Blake’s renditions of God as his a dynamic, active, wise older man. Far from being simplifications of God they point to his depth, his danger, his joy and love.

    • johnboy April 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

      We have a conceptual breakthrough! For we have (almost) gotten past those category errors, which imagine theologies of nature to be essentially philosophical or metaphysical (again, we’re not talking about any god of the philosophers).

      Much like different spiritualities and not totally unrelated to same, they are radically plural, such that, beyond certain facts and norms, theologies of nature are otherwise very much geared to differences in temperament, cultural evaluations, aesthetic sensibilities and personal preferences, or, in a phrase, personal taste.

      The plurality of expressions (very much including your beautiful images) are mutually enriching and not mutually exclusive. However, beyond a certain measure of realism, we must avoid not only an epistemic but also an aesthetic hegemony, being careful about exactly what we might mean when using descriptors like “on target” or “best representation.”

      As any seasoned spiritual director knows, not all have been blessed with such loving fathers. Since additional levels of human development don’t contribute value to humans, in my way of looking at reality, they really don’t influence my preferences vis a vis God-images. In fact, I resonate most with the image of God as an infant, sometimes as a sleeping baby, more often, though, crying … but not in desperation but, instead, with an importunate supplication oriented by an unrelenting instinctual faith and hope … in love.

      • Jeff April 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

        Well, perhaps a baby works for you, but that wasn’t what Stephen, Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, or John saw upon the throne. I defer to their experiences and descriptions. Saintly Catholic contemplative and mystical reports don’t resonate with me. I do like the confession of Saint Patrick though, really written by him in the 400’s. The one bit of Catholic spiritual writing that as a Protestant I appreciate and model after, perhaps because it was written before Roman Catholicism had crystallized. Here is a link to it

      • JB April 12, 2012 at 8:22 am #

        rather than engage other traditions, or elephants and whales, only through the prism of orthodoxy-heterodoxy, we might also consider a new hermeneutical category – polydoxy


  22. Howard Pepper September 27, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Very interesting and provocative article! You’ve helped me further understand what people may mean who say they are spiritual and perhaps even identify as Christian but also call themselves atheists.

    I can see how you are being inclusive of process thought and process theology at certain points (e.g., “panentheism” and referring to people like Bass and Smith who draw a lot from this approach to the foundational issues you identify). However, I think it would be helpful in this kind of discussion to name “process” specifically, and maybe it’s key people like Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, etc. Along with this, it could be mentioned that process theology has worked carefully to find more logical and satisfactory ways to understand the problem of evil, the “personalness” (better than “personality” I feel) of God, etc.

    The way you explain things, I can see how pantheism can be seen as very, very close to process’ pan-en-theism, but for the typical lay person, I think there can and should be a fairly clear distinction; and perhaps that involves both agency and “personalness”. While it may not be airtight to a deep thinker, I do believe process provides for God’s agency without seeing God as a coercive power — i.e., God indeed is “love” and evolution happens via both God’s influence and our (sometimes) free choices.

    • zoecarnate September 28, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Thanks for these reflections, Howard! Welcome to the blog.

  23. Andy November 26, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    That’s a very wide and overgeneralized definition of Pietism.


  1. The New Athiests are Christians | AzFCT - February 29, 2012

    […] In this current piece, Mike shares his experience as friend to an increasing number of Atheist Christians. Think you know what’s coming next? You might be surprised. Contrary to what might seem logical to those who come from foundational Christian roots, these Atheists aren’t hardcore Dawkins and Hitchins-loving non-believers. Instead, they are former fully devoted followers of Christ that have come to an atheistic perspective in surprising settings, like their churches, the Biblical texts and via thinkers like Bonhoffer, Zizek and Caputo. The article is full of brilliant quotes, video clips and links to all kinds of awesomeness…Read the full text here: […]

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