How Do Theologians Learn to Talk Like This?

Fine-Tuning Christianity…Until It Vanishes
One of my seminary professors—a bit more cynical than most—wisecracked about Karl Barth’s 12-volume magnum opus on Christian theology, “Nobody knows 8,000 pages about God—not even in German.” The key word here is knows. Just how does anyone figure out God—has anyone actually done it?—based on hard evidence? It would be greatly appreciated if the legions of Christian theologians and apologists could provide just one page of bona fide God knowledge.

Hence, long ago I got into the habit of scrawling in the margins of theology books, “How does he know this?” And when I came across especially florid sentences: “How do theologians learn to talk like this?” But often I simply wrote, “Theobabble!” in response to nonsense and obfuscation.

Sometimes we come across theological posturing where we least expected it, as was the case last week in an article in the New York Times. The day before Easter, columnist Nicholas Kristof presented an interview with Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, one of the most prestigious seminaries in the U.S. Was I expecting too much in terms of a reasonable explanation of Christianity? Well, of course, that’s impossible anyway.

But this is the exquisite theobabble we heard from Serene Jones: “At the heart of faith is mystery. God is beyond our knowing, not a being or an essence or an object.” Beyond our knowing? This is double-speak. Of course, she knows something about God, otherwise she wouldn't be in the position she is. If God is beyond our knowing, why do seminaries even exist? Is the Bible, a thousand pages of details about the deity, useless? The authors of the Bible were confident that they knew a lot about God; one of the few non-anonymous Bible writers, the apostle Paul, spoke with certainty about God. He bludgeoned people with his knowledge about how to get right with God.

All those folks who show up at church every week—how many hundreds of millions would that be?—surely are alarmed by the claim that God is “not a being or an object.” What are they worshipping then? Of course, God is a being, the Supreme Being, or simply The Man Upstairs who listens to their prayers. What did Jesus have in mind when he commanded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) How can anyone direct such intense love at a non-being? (Well, of course, people do love fictional characters, e.g., Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, etc., but let’s not go there right now.)

Ms. Jones attempts to distance herself from traditional personal theism because she probably knows very well that it is incoherent and unsustainable. And she admits as much:

“…I don’t worship an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being. That is a fabrication of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology. That’s not the God of Easter.” An awful lot of Christian theology has been written to defend these very attributes of God, and isn’t it risky to suggest that these are the product of Roman juridical theory and Greek mythology? None of them can be traced to the Bible?

Then I ran into this sentence: “The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.” How does she know this—any of it? This is full-throttle theobabble. The God of the Bible was perpetually engaged in manipulating the world, and was vulnerable only in the sense that his ego was easily bruised. Her highly intellectualized concept of God—who, somehow, is not a Being—allows her to imagine that he/it is overwhelmingly committed to love, justice, mercy. God “invites” us to embrace these virtues, while he himself declines to do much at all on their behalf. Show us the hard evidence, the unambiguous data, that he has. Otherwise this is just so much hot air.

On the day before Easter, Jones’ approach to the resurrection was to deflect.

“When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves.”

Would Jones say the same thing about Matthew 27:52-53: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Of course we know this bubbled out of Matthew’s wild imagination, and we don’t have to kid ourselves about whether it happened or not. How is the resurrection of Jesus any different?

Would Jones be as agnostic about the Romulus resurrection tales? Or about the raising of Lazarus in the John’s gospel? That incident is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament and comes across as a stunt. John says that Jesus intentionally stayed away from the ill Lazarus, apparently to provide an occasion for Jesus to proclaim, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The story is contrived; it is theology, not history. We don’t have to kid ourselves that it happened.

But Jones herself seems to have little patience with resurrection belief:

“For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie?”

An obsession? Physical resurrection has been bedrock doctrine since Luke and John went out of their way to describe the functioning body of the resurrected Jesus. And yes, Christianity is vulnerable because of this. Since we can be 100 percent certain that the body of newly alive Jesus never left planet earth (the Ascension to heaven was believable only in first century cosmology), even those who believe that Jesus rose from the dead have to accept that he died again and was buried again. So the grave of Jesus is somewhere. It takes a lot of tortured theology to figure out how Christianity is not a lie. At least traditional Christianity anchored to the resurrection, as has been preached forever.

Her rejoinder: “Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.” Well spoken, of course, if you’re a graduate of an Alabama Bible College. Couldn’t the president of Union Theological Seminary do better than that? Faith got Mormonism where it is today, and Scientology, and the ancient Jesus cult.

Of course, the Empty Tomb is iconic for Christians, but we don’t know when that story was invented; our earliest Christian writer, the apostle Paul, apparently knew nothing of it. But there it is, depicted countless times in Western art, and theologians are confident of its great meaning. Jones is sure that the Empty Tomb “symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.” More theobabble: she assumes that “ultimate love” sounds profound, but what does it mean? And, more of the same banal Preacher Talk: “Something was struggling to be born on that first Easter. It burst forth in ways that changed the world forever.” Wait a minute: hasn’t she just told us that the God of Easter isn’t involved in manipulating the world? Of course, the ancient Jesus cult did change the world forever when it eventually gained political power.

Kristof also asked Jones about the Virgin Birth, and her answer was spot on for a liberal theologian:

“I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message. The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.”

I suspect, in the case of Matthew and Luke (the only places in the NT in which virgin birth is mentioned), ‘sinful sexuality’ was not so much the issue; for them, the absence of a human father guaranteed Jesus’ divine pedigree. But the idealization of Mary (not really in keeping with the sparse NT mentions of her)—especially in Catholic piety—did indeed contribute to sexual stereotyping.

Kristof offered Jones an opportunity to extol Jesus himself: "For someone like myself who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?" To which she responded: “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.”

Beware of those who are “drawn to Jesus’ teaching.” They have blinders on, focused on the feel-good sayings attributed to Jesus—and there are quite a few—but conveniently ignore the horrible things he said. You can be ‘drawn to Jesus’ teachings’ only by choosing very carefully the texts to highlight and idealize. Richard Carrier jolts us to attention: “…the character of Jesus in the Gospels was not the wisest and kindest of beings—he is actually quite loathsome and rarely gives anything but really bad advice…”

How so? How can that be? How can that be a fair analysis? This is not the Jesus proclaimed from the pulpit. But truly, there is so much in the gospels that drags Jesus down and damages his reputation as a great moral teacher. Let’s call this the Carrier Challenge: read the gospels carefully, critically—without the coaching of a priest or pastor—and try to figure out why Carrier would say this. Make a list of shocking, mediocre Jesus sayings, those that would move him into the “loathsome” column. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

In my series of Flash Podcasts called Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said, I have completed and posted three. Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3.

I do congratulate this liberal theologian for a statement that will bring the ire of the faithful, her blunt takedown of the central doctrine of Christianity: “The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts.” That’s not theobabble!

We have witnessed Serene Jones trying to fine-tune Christianity to make it palatable to her target audience, those who are suspicious of miracle and magic. She deletes virgin birth, physical resurrection, God as a knowable being who manipulates the world, and the redemptive function of the Cross. She also blasted prayer: “I don’t believe in a God who, because of prayer, would decide to cure your mother’s cancer but not cure the mother of your nonpraying neighbor.”

Hasn’t she gutted the faith? But how much can be deleted before it all just vanishes, especially with the Jesus negatives in full view? Why bother even claiming to be Christian? It seems to end up a mild-mannered philosophy.

The interview with Jones brought to mind what conservative Christian blogger and radio host Erick Erickson said recently about Pete Buttigieg: “But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.” Ouch! He would have worse to say about Jones, but I’m sure she has a sound grasp of Christianity—and thus sees its multiple insurmountable problems.

But why put so much energy into making it come out right? Why not just move on? There’s a place waiting for her at The Clergy Project.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.