The New Theism: Shedding Beliefs, Celebrating Knowledge

Re-blogged from evolutionarychristianity.com

Interesting ideas.  Kind of feeling it…

Since April 2002, my science-writer wife Connie Barlow and I have traveled North America virtually non-stop. We have addressed more than 1,600 secular and religious groups of all kinds. Our goal is to communicate the inspiring and empowering side of science to as many people as possible…

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3 thoughts on “The New Theism: Shedding Beliefs, Celebrating Knowledge

  1. Mmm…. no.

    I’m a theistic evolutionist and an orthodox Christian. As such, I take the stance that “all truth is God’s truth” and don’t find that scientific knowledge is at odds with religious knowledge. I’m a charismatic who believes that dividing reality into two levels (natural and supernatural) is a fundamentally flawed conceptual move to make, and that material and spiritual are aspects of one, whole reality. I’m a fan of the folks at BioLogos and their work, who really are doing interesting things with science and Christian faith.

    These “New Theists,” on the other hand, don’t seem even to entertain such a approach as a possibility. They merely take it for granted that scientific knowledge has superseded all other forms of knowledge, that there is no possibility of an integral reconciliation of scientific and non-scientific knowledge, and that the only useful knowledge is that which science can provide. Thus, they have set aside non-scientific modes of knowledge and understanding as flailings in the darkness of ignorance (“night language” as they call it) with virtually no value to guide us.

    What these guys are doing is nothing more than retaining a veneer of Christian language over their non-Christian beliefs. It is really just a vague pantheism shot through with a great deal of chronological chauvinism. By their own confession, science and science alone guides them, and in natural world (note how they’ve accepted a natural/supernatural divide and then simply rejected one side, rather than rejecting the division) they find something “inspiring” and some very vague moral principles. This isn’t evolutionary Christianity. Its just half-baked pantheism that doesn’t have the nerve to give up some Christian trappings.

  2. Your point is well-taken, but you’re a little harsh on the outcome.
    Here’s where you’re right: Dowd uses words like “science”, “reality”, and “evidence” as broad, sweeping terms with set-in-stone meanings. At no point does he set out precise definitions or functions. The reader is left to insert her own ideas into these words and filter them through her own experience. Dowd does the same thing with Christian language and symbols. It’s intentional.

    You’re right in pointing out that it’s not consistent with orthodox Christianity. It isn’t meant to be. But it’s a bit too harsh to say that this is “just half-baked pantheism that doesn’t have the nerve to give up some Christian trappings”. Failure of nerve doesn’t enter into it. It’s an admittedly unprofessional, un-academic, and under-critical reappropriation of Christian symbols onto a layperson’s understanding of “science” and “evolution”. Dowd is attempting to create a syncretic mythology. He’s neither a professional scientist nor a professional theologian. He’s an unorthodox pastor and evangelist who’s really interested in science and theology. Dowd is much like Diarmuid O’Murchu in that respect.

    Dowd’s work is little different from most of the charismatic and evangelical sermons I’ve heard in my life. Most of them use terms like “grace”, “salvation”, and “Christ” without ever defining them. Their congregants are left to filter and fill in the blanks as they see fit. Isn’t that how American Republican Christians have ended up with a very American Republican Jesus?

    We’re all guilty of remaking the divine in our own image. It’s inevitable. The human tendency toward idolatry is universal, irrespective of religious tradition, education, or theological and epistemic integrity. What I hope to do is remain as conscious of my own idolatry as possible. Isn’t that the very definition of humility?

    • I looked through his site and read through a number of the highlighted pages. It really is simply pantheism. It isn’t just heterodox Christianity, but rather a rejection of every Christian doctrine. In all seriousness, Zoroastrianism is much closer to Christianity than this. If Dowd wants to call himself an evolutionary pantheist, that’s fine. But to call it any form of Christianity is misleading, and that’s the point of my objection.

      I will admit, however, that I stepped over the line when I attributed a failure of nerve to Dowd. I shouldn’t claim to know his motivations for wanting to retain the label and some of the language of Christianity. However, I stand by my charges of chronological chauvinism and of knocking over a straw man in regard to the relation of science and religion.

      Your comparison to charismatic and evangelical sermons is not quite on target, Barrett. It is one thing to be fuzzy and even misguided in the way one uses religious language, and another to empty religious words of their meanings and give them different ones. In postliberal terms (I’m thinking particularly of Lindbeck’s Nature of Doctrine here), even bad evangelical sermons are still speaking within the Christian language system—perhaps in a rather low dialect—and still mean something more or less comprehensible to other Christians. A Franciscan nun and a Word of Faith preacher may have very different theologies of grace, but they are still able to have a real and potentially fruitful argument about the meaning of grace because they nevertheless have the same overarching structure of meaning in common. Neither the nun nor the preacher could have such a discussion with Dowd, because the entire meaning structure in which their conceptions of grace are situated is foreign to his, and vice versa. The discussion would rather have to be about what grand meaning structure to accept—which is precisely what we see written on Dowd’s website. To the degree that he is retaining Christian terms, the situation is more like interlanguage loanwords: when an English speaker says “brute,” it doesn’t mean the same thing as when a French speaker does.

      Your definition of humility serves well in this context, but I’m not sure what that has to do with whether it is accurate or misleading for Dowd to label his views as a form of Christianity.

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