Religion for pioneers — another look at Schellenberg's "EvolutionaryReligion"

Christ's Pieces opposite the church this morning
Reading: Luke 12:54-56

One of the most powerful criticisms of the liberal religious movement to which this church belongs, with its roots in liberal Christianity and the Enlightenment, is that it is too lacking in content and way too skeptical to be itself a meaningfully sustaining religious approach. The most well-known popular version of this was found in the Simpsons. Many of you will recall it.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church fête at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately adds, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

To give you a more nuanced flavour of this criticism, no pun intended, here is an extract from John B. Cobb’s influential book from 1973 called Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads (Westminster Press).

The image I have chosen for the title of this chapter is an all too obvious one for church people in these times. Consider the crossroads at which we stand as liberal Christians in terms of decisiveness of commitment on the one hand and openness on the other. [. . .]
          At the crossroads we can choose the way to the theological right. In the years after World War I, Karl Barth, recognizing the bankruptcy of liberal Christianity, pioneered that road. He showed that the turn to the right theologically could support courageous movements to the left in the political and social spheres. [. . .]
          Even so, despite the power and value of what can be found on the road to the right, for many of us it is too late. We are committed to openness to the truth that comes from multiple traditions and new discoveries in the present and the future. We cannot reaffirm one tradition against the others. However valuable the symbols and memories of the Christian heritage, they can no longer encompass the whole to which we must be open. The road to the right involves a going back, in however sophisticated a form, and we are committed to going forward, open to all truth and value from whatever source it comes to us.
          Hence we are more attracted to the road to the left than that to the theological right. That, too. is a well-traveled road. But the record of its travellers is not entirely inspiring. They begin with a commitment to openness wherever it may lead. But commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief. Hence the road to the left leads to one of two ends. One may adopt the academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none. [. . .] Alternately, openness may lead to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed. For decades liberal Christian churches have supplied the universities with uncommitted intellectuals and each new social and cultural movement with many of its most dedicated followers. This is not a shameful record, but it shows that the road to the left holds little promise for the future.
          The image of the crossroads, unlike that of a fork in the road, suggests that there is a third way we can go. Straight ahead. But whereas the roads to the right and the left are easy to make out and have well-known destinations, the road ahead is more like a goat path up a steep mountain. Only a few Christian thinkers have explored that trail, and their reports are conflicting. We do not know whether at the top we may reach a new plateau for travel or only more rugged cliffs. Even so, I am convinced that as liberal Christians we are called to scale the slope ahead.
          We cannot do this if our liberal openness and our Christian commitment continue to be in tension with each other. Openness can be sustained only where it is grounded in a faith that justifies and requires it. But we can affirm Christian faith wholeheartedly today only insofar as it opens us to all truth and value. Openness and faith must be brought for us into a new relation of mutual support.

I was profoundly struck by John Cobb’s book when I first read it back in the late eighties and it elicited from me a personal promise to try to take the road ahead.

For reasons obvious to most of us I felt sure as I could be that the route to the right was not going to work. However, a significant problem before me, then and now, was that as a liberal religious movement we had, for the most part, already gone a long way down the route to the left and it was clear that along the way many of us had discovered to our cost that “commitment to openness as such does not provide a place to stand, a place from which to evaluate the many claimants for our attention and belief.”

By the time I entered the full-time ministry in 2000 I had seen many examples of where liberal ministers and/or churches (in all kinds of denominations) had taken one of the two options that became available on the road to the left. To recap, the first option was to adopt an “academic stance of openness to all and commitment to none” whilst the second tended to lead “to the full acceptance of some vital and persuasive movement or vision, an acceptance that en-grafts one into a new history but ends the openness to which he was first committed.”

Neither of these options seemed acceptable but, on entering the professional ministry, I realised the path straight-ahead was considerably steeper than I had imagined. For many people it was, and still is, a very difficult path to get up.

However, I want immediately to add that, forty years on, we can see that it can be done and, should you choose to take it yourselves, along the way you will now find an increasing number of helpful and supportive signposts and guides along the way.

And now I can bring you the headline good news, on getting to the top myself (if, indeed, I have . . .) I have found, as have many others, to borrow a phrase from Cobb, at the very least “a new plateau for travel”. Not only this but at the top one of the guides I met introduced me to a way to travelling  which I think successfully maintains a balance between “liberal openness” and, if no longer precisely “Christian commitment” (in terms of Christian belief), then at least a new and genuine kind of “religious commitment” that still allows us to take something forward from our inherited Christian tradition.

A Prairie Schooner 
To help you through what follows it’s worth keeping in mind the image of the early pioneers travelling across the North American. Back in February 2013 and June 2014 I also suggested that we might usefully think of our liberal church as resembling a prairie schooner — one of those iconic wagons with a white cloth cover that they used to make their extraordinary journeys. It is important to remember that, as large as they were, they could only carry a minimal amount of stuff — just the essentials and with nothing extra that might unnecessarily weigh them down and grind them to a halt. I want to suggest that for those of us who choose to take the path ahead we, like the pioneers of old, need to ensure we go light, very light indeed.

With this thought in mind I can now return to the work of J. L. Shellenberg to whom I introduced you a couple of weeks ago through his 2013 book, “Evolutionary Religion”, the penultimate chapter of which is called “Religion for Pioneers”. I do this because he is the guide who has offered me a very light, minimalist religion that seems entirely appropriate to the path ahead, one that balances openness and commitment.

Schellenberg, you will remember, wants to place everything in the evolutionary perspective — into the context of deep time. I’m choosing to re-tell the basic story now because, as the Harvard biologist and paleotontologist, Stephen Jay Gould put it: “an abstract intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough — I know how many zeroes to place after 10 when I mean billions. Getting it into the gut is another matter” (cited in Evolutionary Religion p. 3). This address is designed to help, in a small way, to get this perspective into our guts.

So, let’s remember, we live on a planet that is approximately 3.5 billion years old which has, all things being considered, a possible further billion years of existence before the sun gives out on us. Squeezed in between the deep past and the deep future lie us, who, as Homo sapiens, have only been around for about 200,000 years. Of this figure only 50,000 years have seen us producing what we can call distinctively human culture and only 6,000 years have seen us engaged in the kind of religious and philosophical thinking we inherit today. The history of the natural sciences is, by a considerable degree of course, even shorter still.

Is it likely then, Schellenberg asks, that our best religious and philosophical ideas are behind us? The answer, surely, has to be “No”. Is it also likely that the natural sciences have already discovered everything there is to know about the universe, it’s make up and operation? Again the answer is, surely, “No”. This means that in the areas of religion and philosophy, and in the natural sciences, we must acknowledge that we know very little indeed and should, therefore, adopt a properly skeptical attitude that is firmly committed to an openness to the possibility that for an almost unimaginable period of time to come “new light and truth” will continually be discovered and emerge.

At this point, you may be forgiven for thinking that this radical openness simply sounds like Cobb’s road to left only reached by a different route. But Schellenberg does not stop here for, like Cobb, he realises our need, not just for openness, but for commitment and, more specifically for something that we can call religious commitment.

Remember, for Schellenberg, any religion (at this early stage in our development) must live itself out by committing to three general assertions:

  • Firstly, that “Divine” reality needs to be “a more fundamental fact about reality than any identifiable natural fact”. (Metaphysical transcendence)
  • Secondly, that “Divine” reality’s splendour excellence and value also needs “to exceed that of anything found in nature alone” (Axiological transcendence)
  • Thirdly, that 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)  (Evolutionary Religion p.94).

The natural sciences, as we currently practise them, certainly buys into the possibility of the truth of the first of these assertions and so, on this very general level, there need be little or no conflict between science and religion. However, the way science is currently understood by many of its practitioners and advocates means that science is all too often co-opted by people  who want to rule out the possibility of the truth of the other two, clearly religious, assertions. But go back to Schellenberg’s point about being at an early stage of development, can the natural sciences really be said to have shown, confidently and absolutely, that we can rule out the possibility that there might be in the universe some, as yet, undiscovered fundamental value and/or wholeness and set of relationships? The answer is, of course, “No”.

But, at this point, please don’t misunderstand Schellenberg (or me) because it is also absolutely clear that neither can these things be confidently and absolutely ruled in. The point here is simple, at this early stage in our development, we can neither rule any of these three assertions in, nor out. We must adopt an appropriately agnostic and skeptical stance.

Again you may complain that is still sounds like the road to the left by another route — it’s all just openness, it’s all just an empty ice-cream bowl. But now let’s hear Schellenberg ask us an important question: How can we — at this early stage of our development — best find out whether these three assertions are true or false?

Well, we can begin to get to an answer by considering a very down-to-earth human example. Let’s go back to our image of the pioneers and imagine ourselves travelling across the open prairie in our wagon. Suddenly we come across someone walking alone whom we have never met and about whom we know nothing. How do we find out if we can trust them? After all, we think to ourselves, an extra pair of honest hard-working hands would be a wonderful thing. So, you pull up, stop, get down and begin to talk with them over coffee and beef jerky. They seem nice enough and during the conversation they assure you that they are indeed trustworthy, hardworking and will prove to be a worthy companion and help. But, as they stand there before you, you realise you have no way of finding out whether their assertions are true except by taking the risk that what she claims will turn out to be true. The best — in fact the only — way to find out is not to leave them behind on the prairie but to invite them to join you, to take them on board, in faith. Notice that I speak of having “faith” in, and not “belief” in, them.

Schellenberg suggest, given our early stage of development, that the situation is similar with regard to the three assertions I mentioned earlier. We cannot rule them out but neither can we rule them in and this means it’s way too early for us to believe they are all true because we simply don’t have the right kind of evidence to allow that.

But we can, at this moment in evolutionary time, choose to live faithfully with, and commit fully to, these assertions. It is important to see that we both can, and need, to make this commitment for good, rational and skeptical reasons because we know the only way to find out if the three assertions are true is to live with them for a while, to invite them, in faith, onto our prairie schooner. We can see it would be highly irrational and foolish, at this stage in our development, to leave them behind "on the prairie."

In short, what Schallenberg offers those who make it up the path to the plateau for further travel is “a form of religion appropriate to our place in evolutionary time” (Evolutionary Religion p. 4), one that lives ”on imagination rather than belief” and which “keeps open the door” to evolution in both cultural and physical terms (Evolutionary Religion p. 5).

I realise that for many people, Schellenberg’s skeptical, evolutionary religion for pioneers is going to be too thin and minimal, not least of all because it is a kind of religion that must not be thickened up into the kind of religion we have practiced until now — including even our own old beloved forms of liberal Christianity.

This doesn't mean, of course we have to let everything go. We can, for example continue to keep on board Jesus but only in so far as we do not take the heavy and thick "theological Jesus" but only the lighter, leaner human teacher, guide and companion. But, to my mind at least, that is sufficient unto the day.

To conclude today, I think it is worth remembering that Jesus seems once to have criticised people for being able to interpret the appearance of the sky but not the signs of the times (Luke 512:54-56). Let us not commit the same mistake and fail to see the signs of our own times which are beginning powerfully to reveal to us the extraordinary implications of deep, evolutionary time.

Our own times are surely saying to us: have faith only in the most simple, minimal and light religious assertions and let all the rest go. Only then will we have an appropriate religion for pioneers one capable of helping us humbly and faithfully setting out for perhaps a billion year long journey of discovery across the new plateau stretching ahead of us.