29 January 2009

Marcus Borg on the new atheism ...

Posted by at 11:49 PM Read our previous post

Marcus Borg spoke in Phoenix earlier tonight (the 29th) at the Church of the Beatitudes on 7th Ave and Glendale. This was a very well-attended event (standing room only when the appointed time came, in fact), sponsored and promoted by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology (AzFCT). I guesstimate that there were at least five hundred people there, mostly older Church of Christ and Methodist congregants, with a smattering of various other denominations (Dr Borg started his lecture with an impromptu headcount, so I'm pretty sure of the distribution :). The place is a mid-size hall with a kind of in-the-round vibe. Tall vertical abstract stained glass serves as the centerpiece adorning the altar. The sound was good.
His talk was basically a cursory critique of what is known these days as the "new atheism," which is a phrase coined to highlight the recent contemporaneous publication of four best-selling books that all argue against traditional religion in general—and Christianity specifically. Borg only mentions three of them, though (more on that in a bit): Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Good.
First Borg summarizes the atheist critiques of religion. The first of these is that these writers assert that religion is intellectually indefensible. Borg makes a distinction between, on the one hand, supernatural theism, which is the belief in a person-like super-powerful authority figure who's "out there" and separate from the universe, and panentheism on the other, which is a belief in god not so much "out there" but as the Tillichian "ground of being itself" which encompasses the universe and transcends it. His favorite word for this numinous quality was "isness" tonight. He used it repeatedly. This panantheistic variant of god has been around for a long time, but the "new athesists," Borg said, just dismiss this god as if it was just some new-fangled post-modern mysticism.
Borg does concede that their critique of supernatural theism is valid. In fact he confesses to having abandoned his belief in this punitive god sometime in his twenties, but he calls the atheist writers to task on their neglect of this other more-mystical definition of god.
Next, Borg talked about the notion of infallibility and inerrancy of scripture as stumbling blocks to belief. He readily agrees that when the texts are read in this way (half of the US does by his estimation) they are unbelievable. But he finds a limit in the new atheist critique because "they do not recognize any other way of seeing scripture that has emerged in biblical scholarship over the past few centuries".
The next charge from the atheists is that religion is morally reprehensible. Borg responds to this charge by conceding that religion indeed has been the source of much evil in the world. "One could make the case that religion has been the greatest legitimator of human evil and of unnecessary suffering," Borg says. But he's quick to add that to focus on the bad an not see the multiplicity of good things and good lives it has also produced in parallel is unfair: "And yet religions have also produced some of the most remarkable lives in human history." He refers to the "ambiguity of religion." There is good religion and bad religion, he says, just as there is good music and bad music. Religion goes bad usually when it allies with power, in his opinion (he cites Charles Kimball here).
Religion can also go bad when it becomes idolatrous, continues Borg, but by idolatry he does not mean a trivial concern with "graven images" or "statues." He defines idolatry as "the absolutization of anything finite." Religion becomes idolatrous when it "absolutizes its own teachings" as eternal. Religion beecomes idolatrous when it "claims to be the one true religion." Using similar logic Borg then wonders whether the new atheists' absolutization of empiricism and of science might qualify as idolatrous too. Borg suggests an antedote for idolatry: radical monotheism. I didn't quite get the drift on that one.
There was a brief question and answer period. Sure enough, one of the best questions was on that last point regarding "radical monotheism" and how that might be distinguised from mere "idolatry." I thought it a great question. My own experience tells me that the best audience questions are never quite answered in this kind of setting and this was no exception.
When it was all over I waited in line so that I could ask him my own question. I introduced myself as a longtime reader of his work and of the atheists as well. First I asked him why he didn't count Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell among the works being discussed. He answered that he simply had not read that one. Fair enough. But I asured him it was the best of the lot. Then I told him that I thought he had erected a bit of a straw man when he implied that the reason the atheists didn't engage the panentheistic model was because they saw it as some reactionary novelty. He smiled and looked me straight in the eye, and I think he genuinely appreciated where I was coming from when I told him that if they ignore that theological model, it is not for that reason at all, but instead because as soon as you engage with panentheism, you run into a semantic no man's land where words such as "isness" and "otherness" can be molded to fit any mystic notion, causing a modern empiricist sensibility to exclaim, "What the hell are they talking about??" He smiled and nodded and eventually signed the title page of the book that I had laid on the table in front of him (Jesus In Contemporary Scholarship). We talked for a while. He's a very gentle man with soft blue eyes and a quiet demeanor. I quite enjoyed our conversation. It was cool to shake the hand of a man whose writings I've long admired.


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post, but it's not clear whether Borg was relatively unengaging because he got you point or because he didn't want to get into an involved discussion. I think your presentation of why the New Atheists don't take on panantheism was well put.


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