If we are going to have faith that _______ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? On an Evolutionary Religion

Autumn rain this morning outside the church
Immediately upon finishing this address at the breakfast able this morning I realised it was a kind of outplaying of a splendid "bon mot" by the Unitarian minister David Usher who, upon being asked whether he believed in God?, replied, "The short answer is no; the long answer is yes."



Psalm 42:1-5

From James C. Edwards: The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism (Penn. State University Press, 1997,  p. 231):

[John] Dewey was right: in our time the problem with supernatural religion is belief. However lovely and powerful the stories of the gods and their minions for us are, there’s just no way that they are “required, as a necessity requires.” To say that we can’t really believe in them is just to say that we aren’t now forced to; they are not any more for us “inevitable knowledge.” There are plausible—more plausible—alternative accounts of the phenomena upon which the supernatural has based its claims on us: in the public square, or at least in the college quad, genes now compete with gods, and win. For us full Pathos [impressiveness], full belief, comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability. Having put myself to the question with all the scruple I can muster, it’s only what I cannot help saying that seems genuinely true, and therefore capable of being believed and acted upon with a clean heart. That’s what we admire (surely on the whole naively) as the achievement of natural science.

From Henry Nelson Wieman: Religious Experience and Scientific Method (Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9-10):

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist.
          Of course one can say that there are innumerable conditions which converge to sustain human life and that is doubtless a fact. But in that case either one of two things are true. Either the universe is a single individual organic unity, in which case it is the whole indivisible universe that has brought forth and now sustains human life; or else certain of these sustaining conditions are more critically, ultimately and constantly important for conditions are human welfare than are others. According to the first view God would be, or involve, the whole universe; according to the second he would be those most important conditions which, taken collectively, constitute the Something which must have supreme value for all human living. The word God, taken with its very minimum meaning, is the name for this Something of supreme value. God may be much more than this, but he is certainly this by definition. In this sense, with this minimum, God cannot be denied. His existence is absolutely certain. He is simply that which is supremely significant in all the universe for human living, however known or unknown he may be.
          Of course this statement concerning God proves nothing about his character, except that he is the most beneficent object in the universe for human beings. He is certainly the object of supreme value. Nothing is implied by this definition concerning personality in God; but neither is personality denied. In fact, personality is by no means a clear and simple term. But two things are made certain: his existence and the supremacy of his value over all others, if we measure value in terms of human need.  


Address: If we are going to have faith that _______ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? 

On an Evolutionary Religion

One of the great gifts to us of the liberal religious tradition to which we belong is, as I have explored with you in other addresses, that of complete spiritual freedom.

Whilst it is true that we started our religious and spiritual journey in the sixteenth-century by promoting certain clear Unitarian Christian doctrines in contra-distinction to orthodox Trinitarian ones, as we have grown and matured we’ve have begun to see that these doctrines were simply passing, temporary side-effects of our ongoing desire to maintain this freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today. We are a classic example of a religious tradition that is open to evolution, evolution in every sense of the word.

It is important to realise, of course, that the gift is not of the freedom to believe whatever we like, rather it is the freedom to believe only what we can. As James C. Edwards noted it is the freedom religiously to affirm only those things in which we can have full belief (pathos) and a clean heart. The natural sciences form an important measure for us in this regard. However, we must not forget to factor into this the human imagination. Again, as Edwards notes, we are looking for a religion that is driven not only by the intellectual necessity that is provided by the natural sciences but by that which he calls “artistic inevitability” — the poetic and fictional stories and ideas which, when they can be interpreted in ways which don’t flatly contradict the discoveries made by the natural sciences, inspire and challenge us to live rich and meaningful lives.

But even the greatest of gifts, such as this one, are never simple and unalloyed because, even as they open up to us new and exciting vistas they also reveal new, hitherto unforeseen, problems.

Perhaps the chief problem that now exists for us is that we find ourselves in a beautiful and remarkable natural world but without any longer the powerful presence of an object of religious belief, let’s give it the name “God”, that can stand powerfully before us with intellectual or artistic inevitability.

This clearly poses a real challenge to any religious body, such as this one, which has fully come to accept that our old conceptions of, and beliefs about God, the divine and the sacred are simply no longer plausible. We can stuggle to fill in the blank that appears in the title of this address.

At this point I can begin to introduce you to a thought offered by the contemporary Canadian thinker J. L. Schellenberg (b. 1959) whose work has long been directed towards articulating something that he has called “skeptical religion” and which he thinks is compatible with atheism (and Shellenberg is clear that he considers himself an a-theist).

A key idea in his overall thinking is that when we change the way look at time and look into both the deep future as well as the deep past, we come to see that humanity may well be at a very early stage in our development as a species for, as he points out, it is possible that the Earth will remain habitable for another billion years. As you hear this figure bear in mind these words of Shellenberg’s from his book Evolutionary Religion (Oxford University Press, 2013):

“. . . one needs to think hard about the fact that the perhaps 200,000-year history of H. sapiens is wedged between three and a half billion years of development on one side — life’s past — and another billion on the other — life’s potential future. Consider especially the second figure. A billion years is a period of time ridiculously longer that the 50,000 years of thinking and feeling that, on a generous estimate, our species has put into religion so far. What developments in religiously-relevant thought and feeling might Earth see in so much time?” (ER p. 3).

Given this, for us, almost unimaginable time scale, Schellenberg  asks, why would we think that our best ideas – even ideas about religion – are behind us? Consequently, right now, at this early stage of our development, Schellenberg argues powerfully that we need a religion of a different sort from that which we have seen before.

I cannot in a 2000-word Sunday address properly unfold the richness of his thinking about this. For those interest it’s to be found in its most complete form in his trilogy (“Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion”, “The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism” and “The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion”) but most accessibly in his book “Evolutionary Religion” published only last year (2013). However, I can bring before you what seems to me to be a discrete helpful thought about the kind of God that might, today, appear before us and in which we can have genuine faith.

Schallenberg wants us to consider what might be the appropriate *object* of evolutionary religion, i.e. a religion that is radically open to the real possibility that we are still in the earliest stages of our religious development. He asks:

“If we are going to have faith that _____ to guide all our religious activities, what proposition should fill the blank? Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for example, have traditionally professed faith that there is a loving and all-powerful personal God. What propositional counterpart can be suggested for evolutionary religion? Put otherwise, how should a bottom-line religious reality (or “Divine” reality, as I will sometimes say) be conceived by temporally contextualised religious beings? (ER p. 93).

That’s a big question, what proposition might we use to fill the blank?

But first we need to note that Schallenberg observes that any “Divine” reality needs to be “more” than our everyday world and life in three ways — he uses the word “transcendent” for this (though be aware that in his hands this this does not at the same time, seem necessarily to imply the "supernatural"). It is also very important to note that the words which follow are found in a chapter called “Imagination is key”.

Firstly, “Divine” reality needs to be “a more fundamental fact about reality than any identifiable natural fact”. (Metaphysical transcendence)

Secondly, “Divine” reality’s splendour and excellence also needs “to exceed that of anything found in nature alone” (Axiological transcendence)

Thirdly, our relationship with “Divine” reality “will make for more well-being, fulfilment, wholeness, and the like for creatures than can be naturally attained” (Soteriological transcendence)  (ER p.94).

Schallenberg then introduces to us two pairs of distinctions, “Thick and Thin” and “Strong and Weak”.

  • A thick concept of the Divine says the Divine is triply transcendent and also gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence.
  • A thin concept of the Divine says the Divine is triply transcendent and it offers no additional as to the nature of its threefold transcendence.
  • A strong concept of the Divine says the Divine is ultimate in all three spheres of transcendence.
  • A weak concept of the Divine says that the Divine is not in all three spheres ultimate.

Put all of them together and you get the following:

  • Thick/Strong concept of the Divine gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and moreover regards the Divine as ultimate in all three ways.
  • Thick/Weak concept of the Divine gives details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and holds that the Divine is not in all three ways ultimate.
  • Thin/Strong concept of the Divine gives no details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence but regards the Divine as ultimate in all three ways.
  • Thin/Weak concept of the Divine gives no details as to the nature of its threefold transcendence and holds that the Divine is not in all three ways ultimate.

Now old fashioned theism — which we no longer find persuasive — is Thick/Strong. As Schallenberg says:

“The theistic God has all power, all knowledge, all goodness, is the absolute Creator of the natural world, and our deepest good, so theists say, lies in being related to God in love. Both details and ultimacy are here. And notice that the triple transcendence is here converted into triple ultimacy” (ER p. 96).

That’s a lot of detail, and for the great majority of us here today, way, way beyond what we could possibly believe in with full belief and a clean heart.

The second option, Thick/Weak, can be found in, for example in the thinking of John Stuart Mill (especially in his Three Essays on Religion), William James and Robert Nozick. A fair few modern thinkers think this is the right way to go and, in fact, it seems to me that this option was in certain ways closely related to the position articulated by Jonathan Harrison, a member of the congregation who was himself a noted philosopher of religion.  

The third option, Thin/Strong, like theism, will embrace ultimacy, but will say less about it, holding only that the divine is in some way ultimate [in the three spheres]. So we still have triple ultimacy on this option but without any content added to that basic characterisation.

Finally, a Thin/Weak concept, although it embraces ultimacy it also has less content. Essentially it simply states the basic content any such religious idea may have — namely some kind of triple transcendence.

Now, according to Schallenberg the problem with a thick religious concept, whether strong or weak, is that there is just too much content. It doesn’t satisfy our pressing need for an intellectual minimalism — this minimalism is required because, as Schellenberg's evolutionary point suggests, we’ve only just begun and it’s best to hang fire until we know a great deal more about the world and have grown up a bit. Given that we know we don’t know so much we need to keep open as many possibilities as we can. So, for Schellenberg (and for me), thin is to be preferred over thick.

Turning to the thin conceptions, the Thin/Weak option has certainly been adopted by many people within our own liberal religious movement. But the problem with this conception is that it is so very, very general and because of that, in our religiously primitive state, it can’t really challenge us, either intellectually or morally. This is why Shellenberg opts for Thin/Strong and says that:

“The religious idea needs to be big enough, surely, to embrace both reality and value. It needs to be worthy of our imaginations, and therefore, must present to us more than the limited deity that, in a concession to the limits of popular imagination [John Stuart] Mill advanced [and which we ourselves might be tempted to advance]. [The religious idea] needs to be big enough that we — impressive creatures though we may be — might exist at an extremely early stage in the discovery of its true dimensions” (ER p. 98).

This mention of a big enough religious idea and the chapter title, “Imagination is Key”, reveals that in a church such as this we are likely to be in the business of constructing a workable compelling supreme religious fiction that speaks of the divine in a thin and strong way. (Schellenberg speaks of "imaginative religious faith" — ER p. 105)

So, with all the above in mind, in what God do I believe — how do I feel that “blank” can be filled in? Well I know of no better pithy candidate than that offered by the Unitarian theologian and religious naturalist, Henry Nelson Weiman (1884-1975) that you heard in our reading:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist” (From Henry Nelson Wieman: Religious Experience and Scientific Method, Macmillan, 1926, pp. 9-10).

So, apart from this, all I really want to encourage us to do today is to make sure our thinking here about God remains at the "thin" end of things with, perhaps, a general inclination towards articulating something thin and strong.

And now, if you've got this far you might now enjoy watching Schallenberg talking about "New Visions of the Divine." You can view it by clicking here.


sfwc said…
Thanks for this lucid and thought-provoking explanation. The question of what should fill the blank is certainly an important one. But why should the proper thing to fill the blank be a proposition (in the sense of a claim about the way the world is) at all?