Yesterday’s ideas

23 June 2010

Lack of belief among clerics is damaging, says Harriet Baber

BACK in the 1950s, when meta­­physics was out of fashion, there was a brief vogue for re­visionary the­o­lo­gy. Revisionist phil­osophers of religion held that theological claims, properly under­stood, were not really about the exist­ence of supernatural beings or states of affairs. Affirming one’s belief in God was like saying that the sun rose and set — an idiomatic relic of an earlier age.

There was disagreement about what belief in God really meant: some held that it was a way of seeing the world; others held that it was a com­mit­ment to a life of love and good works. Revisionist philosophers of religion agreed, however, that it was most certainly not the crass, naïve belief that there existed a being who answered to traditional theological descriptions.

The fashion for revisionary theo­logy passed, and mainstream philo­sophers of religion were soon back to their old tricks — putting ever-new spins on the classic arguments for the existence of God and the worrying logical puzzles posed by the doctrine of the Trinity. Revisionary theology, how­ever, continued to flourish in Religious Studies departments, the seminaries, and rectories.

I discovered the disconnection be­tween theo­logians’ philosophical theology and philosophers’ philo­sophical theology when, as an under-gradu­ate, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

In the Philosophy Department, the consensus was that theological doc­trines were almost certainly false, but were nevertheless interesting, and posed questions about which well-informed individuals could reason­ably disagree. At my adult confirma­tion class, however, they were not even on the table. The curate who taught us assured us that believing in God didn’t really mean believing that God existed, and that “eternal life” really meant “life in depth and fullness here and now”.

Reading theology, I learnt that, instead of under­standing religious claims in the ordinary way, and hold­ing that they were false, theologians (such as the curate) held that they were true, but interpreted them in the revisionist manner — which came to the same thing. They were non-realists: they did not believe that God or anything supernatural really existed. Subsequently, in my walk with the Church, I discovered that clerics spoke theologically with the vulgar, but thought with the learned revisionist theologians.

This seemed to me not only point­less but disingenuous: priests knew that we lay people would take them at face value and assume that they believed that God existed in the ordinary, vulgar sense. Moreover, as far as I could tell, most of them, whether they believed in God or not, did not seem to think that religion was important or even interesting, or that there was any real point in being a priest: they regarded themselves by turn as social workers and commun­ity organisers, cor­porate executives and political activists.

Secularisation, even in the United States, is proceeding apace, and it is clear that liberal “mainline” Churches will be the first casualties. Now that religion is socially optional, un­be­lievers have no reason to go to church. More importantly, most main­­­line Churches offer little of interest to religious people. They sell themselves as commun­ity facilities, providing social services and secular activities for children and adults, who, it is as­sumed, have little interest in religion.

It is hardly surprising that main­line Churches are collapsing. They cater for lay people who have no interest in religion, and are run by clergy who do not believe in God.

Dr Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, Cali­fornia.

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