Author Archives: Archie Spencer Th.D.

About Archie Spencer Th.D.

Dr. Archie Spencer is an Associate Professor in the John H. Pickford Chair in Theology.

The Anatomy of Atheistic Slogans

I’m sure some have heard the slogans about to appear on city buses, from Montreal to Vancouver, many times before in their lives. Two of them run as follows; "There’s probably No God", or "There is no God so Stop Worrying". O really? Is this the best that atheistic societies can come up with? Why not use the more forceful and certainly more interesting "God is Dead!" slogan on Frederic Nietzsche. You cannot help but feel for these folk as they attempt to come to grips with their minority status in the realm of ideas today. As for "worrying" what God might mean for our lives, this slogan completely misses the mark. Even avid theists stopped worrying about what God means for them long ago. One might call these people ‘theoretical theists but practical atheists’. They populate the pews of nearly every church in the land, including the most conservative of Evangelical churches. We theologians call this condition the late modern religious malaise. Our lives in the west have been so comfortable and self-sustaining over the last 60 plus years that one only need nod in the direction of the divine, now and then. The rest of the time God can be forgotten. If our times have any distinguishing feature it is not atheism or theism but, as the Germans say, Gottesgewissenheit, or ‘God-forgetfulness.’There is no God poster

We might have seen something of a return to concern about our relation to the divine in the current circumstances, perhaps even a substantial increase in such since 9/11, but by and large the last half of the 20th, and the dawn of the 21st, century in the west was hardly marked by a theistically induced angst, given the socio-economic situation. If there is an overwhelming slogan for what is really going on it would be "God is forgotten" or "forget God and live as you please". This was the condition of Israel as stated at the end of the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible where it says "everyone did as he saw fit." (Jdg. 21:25) We in the west have not viewed God as a serious threat to our existence since the rumbling guns of WW I & II faded away in the 1950’s.

While we are perhaps headed for another round of questioning our existence in relation to the divine in the not to distant future, we are hardly there yet. A lot more has to happen before the tenuousness of our existence is so forced on our horizon that we are driven to a re-examination of our lives in relation to the possibility of the existence of the divine. The fact is the softness with which these slogans are putting the question may well engender a new and fresh round of clear, unmitigated theism. Perhaps a better slogan might be "Shush! God is Asleep" or "Please Don’t Wake God." Atheists would have better success in furthering their agenda if they promoted this practical atheism then raising the specter of theoretical atheism, which is sure to be met by an equally ardent theism, especially from the serious followers of God in the so-called "monotheistic faiths." C’mon you can do better than that can’t you. Perhaps the problem is the reverse for atheists that it is for theists. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to living life without God that they secretly miss fighting with God and are now bucking for a fresh brew-ha-ha with the divine, and God’s supporters. One cannot help thinking though that their slogans are just as insipid as the practical atheism of the theists. Picture a big yawn from the current writer at this point, and do wake me up when this is over.

As for the slogan "There’s Probably No God", this is said with all the gusto of a politician, testing the waters to see if he/she should venture the "full Monty" and say outright, "there is no God". Perhaps they are awaiting the polling data on this slogan. This slogan will only invite the opposite sentiment, "perhaps there is a God" in the mind of the reader of such a slogan? What then? How should we live even if God is only ever confined to the realm of probability, either way? Perhaps this is the secret angst that sits at the heart of the late modern religious malaise? We cannot seem to break the spell of Kantanian agnosticism. All of our reasoning either for or against leaves us both wanting more and less of the divine? In fact, the slogan really does point to the real struggle the atheists are having. Since their reason militates against the affirmation of God, but does not permit them absolute proof, they are always suspended in (dis)-belief. They exist in a kind of intellectual "no-mans-land" (with due respect to "women" here). The best they can hope for is that we will be reaffirmed in out late modern religious malaise and continue to forget about God. But again they are begging the question when they put it out there is such a public way. What happens if the net result of their advertising issues in a re-affirmation of strong theism in the land generally. How will they spend the next several years in their discussion groups? What ever will they do with the rest of their advertising money? How will they come to grips with the money they wasted? Here’s a slogan for you theists out there, "There Are No Real Atheists so Stop Worrying." I know I already have. God will be God in the Freedom that is God’s to be God and not a wit of whit from theists or atheist will change that! So good night and sleep tight!

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #3

Reason #3.

Philosophy Needs Theology

Why do we need theology when we already have philosophy? Precisely the reason we need theology! Theology, at a minimum, is a constant reminder to human wisdom that a transcendent judgment stands over all human attempts to arrive at God through pure human sapentia alone. God’s wisdom stands over against human wisdom. The real basis of human wisdom as such must be found in God’s own self-revelation. Thus theology must be the real ground of all love of wisdom.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology #4

Reason #4.

Simply put, neither science nor philosophy can supply all the answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? and whither are we going? Where they draw a blank on these questions theology comes in with solid answers that give hope and explain an otherwise inexplicable universe. To be sure these answers do not always coincide with scientific answers, but where science and philosophy are silent, theology can and does speak. Don’t you want more than just “we don’t know?” For more see John Polkinghorn’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #5

Reason #5.

The fact is, much of what remains of western culture can be traced back to the philosophical and theological roots of the early Church and its encounter with Greeco-Roman culture. To not know the theological aspect of what has been the predominant source of culture is to be only half educated in respect to it. Thus, we need to fill up the missing chunk of our education by reading theology.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #6

Reason #6.

Simply put, liturgy lives from its theology and dies for lack of it. With out a solid grounding in theology those who perform and participate in the church’s worship neither are capable of bringing the church fully into the presence of God, nor make participants fully realize the eternal weight of Glory that grounds proper liturgy. As the church, and its participants, learn and recite the church’s theology in song, creed and ordinance it gains a proper sense of the enormous proportions of its witness to the reality of God. Indeed, without theology we worship a mere phantom of our ourselves, unaware!

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #7

Reason #7.

Evangelism: Properly understood and carefully learned theology enables you to be more articulate when expressing your faith. The scriptures tell us to ‘always be ready to give a reason for our faith.’ In the long run theology is precisely this; I believe Christ is my savior because… . It is critical to be clear, concise and reasonable when answering this and all the related questions that go along with it. To be sure, witnessing to Christ is more than having a set of organized beliefs. Genuine witness requires actions as well as words, and actions that are congruent with words. But words are still and will always be necessary. Why not have them ready to hand and clearly understood. Good theology equips us to do this.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #8

Reason #8.

Theology has great potential as a teaching tool for the church. In fact the whole concept of systematic theology was not just about trying to describe the whole of reality in systematic terms but about the orderly catechesis of the faithful. As a teaching tool it enables you to think more clearly about the nature of the God-human relationship and make better sense of it all.

Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Read Theology – #9

Reason #9.

You need theology because, lets face it, we all talk about God at some point in time. Wouldn’t you want to speak about God intelligently, with at least a basic idea of who, and what we are talking about? We are all theologians of sorts, why not be an informed one? Even atheists need some knowledge of theology or their arguments make no sense, (not that they ever do fully make sense). But then again, “only a fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'”. On the other hand, if we have no knowledge of our theological tradition we could end up saying other things just as foolish. Other than the indispensible Bible, you could start with a very good book like Alister McGrath’s Introduction to Theology.

The Evangelical Emergent Condition

I have been teaching a series called “Principles of our Faith” lately at one of our local Fellowship churches and one of the questions people keep asking me is; “what do you think of the concept ‘emerging church’”? My answer is always the same. The emerging church, like Postmodernity, is a condition, only confined to the evangelical church. It marks its self by its lack of clarity, its lack of direction and its lack of theological depth, all because evangelicals have forgotten their Bibles, lost their historical identity and jettisoned their doctrinal roots. The reactions are predictable. Denial. But I have yet to be proven wrong. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Church and Culture

In a recent essay I wrote on the future of evangelical ecclesiology I came to the following conclusion regarding the need to engage the culture in a different way. “We need to “disestablish” and “disengage” ourselves today if we hope to bring anything meaningful from Evangelical ecclesiology to culture. “Until we have learned to distinguish the Gospel of the crucified one from the rhetorical values, pretensions, and pursuits of society, our churches will fail to detect, beneath the rhetoric of official optimism, the actual humanity that it is our Christian vocation to engage.” We must liberate ourselves from the conventions of cultural religion. We are not advocating an abandonment of culture, but a recognition that Christianity has a responsibility in culture, not to it. We are salt, light and yeast. We must re-discover the possibilities of ‘littleness.’”

What’s In a Name?

A recent email from a colleague describes a decision made at his church regarding their Baptist identity. It begged a response and so I have followed this quote from the email with my own response. The email states as follows:

"We have stopped making reference to being "Baptist" for a few reasons. First, the denominational distinctives are often based on spurious biblical arguments which have nothing to do with the heart of the biblical theology. Thus, adding denominational qualifiers often disqualifies people who come from other labels. Secondly, we aspire to be a Christian, Bible based church, where people who seek to purse God under the authority of God’s Word can worship together without artificial barriers. Thirdly, our congregation at the present is made up of people from all Christian traditions like Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Pentecostals, Anglicans and others. We are a mosaic of Christians going well beyond Baptist distinctives. Thus, while there are many claims which make Christianity exclusive. Our name, while helping people to identify us and find us, should be as inclusive as we can make it without erecting unnecessary barriers and divisions. For accountability, and in order not to multiply the denominational fragmentation, we still remain a part of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada."

Now, this sounds to me like another effort at, "lets return to the pure form of the church" that gave rise to "Baptists" in the first place. At some point all churches have to establish a set of doctrines, even if one of them is, ‘we have no set doctrines.’ The moment they do that they will form a new denomination, of sorts. Call it the ‘non-denominational-non-doctrinaire church of Christ’ if you will but they will have to teach their beliefs, train others in them and then ensure structures are in place to continue the process. That is essentially what a denomination is. Every church has standards of membership. What are they going to say to people who want to retain the Baptist identity? "You no longer belong!?" Labels are inevitable because it is part of human nature. So they are deluding themselves if by denying their Baptist heritage they think they will succeed in alienating less people. That’s my belief anyhow!

At the Origins of the Christian Claim – Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim Trans. V. Hewitt; Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7735-1714-6 (Cloth): ISBN 0-7735-1627-1 (Paper)

In his “Religious Sense”, Luigi Giussani laid the foundations for a defense of the inherent religious impulse of the human that requires a totalizing answer to the “utmost questions” of human life and existence.  Giussani is now prepared to offer an initial answer to the question laid bare at the end of his first enterprise, namely, does the Christian God, understood as Father, provide the most reasonable solution to this human religious dilemma?  The answer lies, as the title suggests, At the Origins of the Christian Claim.

This second part of Giussani’s trilogy amounts to an investigation into how the ultimate questions of the earliest disciples were decisively answered by the totalizing message of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  This was a conclusion at which they arrived simply because life “spurs reason to search for a solution.  Indeed reason’s very nature implies that a solution exists.” (Introduction, p. 9)  The “religious creativity of man” [sic], which is the “entire expression” of human imaginative efforts to “possess the mysterium tremendum” has left us with a “spectrum of hypothesis” regarding the “truth” of any one religion.  1)  Either we must know all religions in order to make a rational and dignified choice or; 2)  Know at least the major religions and risk the loss of any truth in minority religions.  3) Perhaps we should aim at a form of enlightenment syncretism which synthesizes the best of all religious truths or still; 4) Allow for the truthfulness of all religious on an empirical basis, requiring adherence to ones native religion only.  All of these options, which express our human imaginative attempts at grasping the divine, require us to posit a freedom on the part of the “mysterium tremendum” which transcends, interrupts and challenges our “religious imaginations”.  That is, human reason must be “confirmed by revelation”.  Reason cries out for it and launches itself toward this hypothesis, “which is so rational and so much part of our nature that, to some degree, it always emerges.” [p. 21]  This impulse toward revelation is inherent in our drive for knowledge, our need for mediators of knowledge, our experience of proximity to God, our common appeal to revelation, and our western appeal to the faith of Israel.  If there is a crime that can be leveled at this universal religious impulse, as conceived by culture today, it would be that of the claim to “exclusive truth.”  Yet, Christianity does just this.  For Giussani this is a claim that can only be justified or not, when we return to the “origins of the Christian claim.”

Considered on its own merits as a human construct, Christianity would certainly be wrong to make such a claim in the face of other religions.  If, however, we understand the Christian claim to be an expression of the “enigma” as a fact within the history of this human religious trajectory, then this fact must be regarded or examined on its own merits.  Were we to suppose that the enigma (mystery, God) became flesh then this “supposition would correspond to the need for revelation”.  To deny this would be irrational and contrary to the human religious sense.  Were this to be the case then could not Christianity prove to be “a more human synthesis, a more complete way of valuing the factors at play.” [p. 30]  Taken in this way the Christian claim is no longer an hypothesis but a problem that must be solved.  Announced as a fact of history, the Christian claim must be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, not as a “despotic irrational claim”.  It concerns a question of fact, i.e. incarnation, not opinion.

Given that Christianity, as a factual problem, has a history, the place to begin solving the problem is with an attuning to the singular event of Christianity, the Incarnation.  “The mystery chose to enter the history of man through a life story identical to that of any other man.”  As imperceptible as this divine entry into time was in terms of recorded history, nevertheless history records a certainty on the part of the disciples of having found the Messiah.  The imperceptible became perceptible as a conviction among a few which produced a “profound certainty over time.”  If one follows faithfully the “itinerary” of their conviction one comes to the certainty that this incomparably great man of power and goodness was a master to be followed in freedom as the Messiah, indeed as the forgiving one whose new ethic inaugurates a new kingdom.

So the origin of the problem as a fact of history lies not so much in the event itself as in the “perceptive experience of the earliest disciples” and their careful formulation of the primitive “Christology” or Messianism.  While the event is a mystery, almost imperceptible, the conviction is the fulfillment of humanities deepest longings, needs and questions.  It was, as such, a totalizing event.

But Giussani is not satisfied to lay all the weight of the exclusive claims of Christianity on the basis of the experience of the earliest disciples.  He takes great pains to point out that Christ himself, through a “slow pedagogy”, taught his disciples to think of him as “God”.  Jesus’ claim is simply a fact that lays bare “the basic position of the human heart – whether closed or open – to the mystery of being.” [p. 79]  As such the Christian problem is resolved in the same terms in which it presents itself:  “either we are dealing with madness or this man, who says he is God, really is God.” [p. 79]  Our free decision to penetrate this mystery “is a decision with hidden roots bound to our attitude to reality as a whole.”  It is that “supreme something” which sees Jesus as the ultimate good and worth our free commitment.

To understand this Christian claim we must be educated into “Christ’s conception of life” which is an education in “morality for understanding”.  What is at stake is the “correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ.” [p. 83]  Jesus own outlook on the value of humanity, dependence on the Divine, self existence, sin and human freedom answers the ultimate questions about these core human realities in a definitive way.  “Following Christ (faith) thus generates a characteristic existential attitude by which man walks upright and untiring towards a destination not yet reached although sure (hope).” [p. 83]  Thus, the event of the Incarnation, as mystery, is an “ethical urgency”, and an “education to the ideal”.  It was “an extra ordinary historical reality” in which Jesus moved his disciples from “awe to conviction” because the answers he gave to the questions of ultimate concern convinced them that he was the “God-man”.  The greatest task of Christianity is to announce, with the same conviction that was present “at the origins of the Christian claim”, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  Furthermore;

“The task of the Christian is not only the greatest, but also the most tremendous in history because it is destined to provoke unreasonable reactions; yet it is supremely reasonable to face and to verify an hypothesis on its own terms, and here is precisely an event which happened in history.”

This task is the reason for the Church’s existence, from which place the message will be proclaimed and worked out in society.

Some Reflections

Once again Giussani has surprised us with his unique ability to combine profound concepts with a well illustrated and very readable style.  As with The Religious Sense, one has the feeling of not being in the classroom but rather sitting by the fire listening to the sage expound on the most important events in life with story, poem and prose.  Catholics, whether clergy or laity, should embrace this almost folksy rendition of contemporary Catholic Christianity with enthusiasm and a desire to go deeper with Giussani.  Though this work is shorter and less detailed than the previous volume, The Religious Sense, it is no less a serious call to reconsider the Incarnation as a natural, historical event that gave rise to an historical consciousness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Similar treatments in the history of Christian theology from Schleiermacher to Schillebeeckx have taken many more pages and done it less justice than Giussani’s brevity.  As with the previous volume, this one will have to be reckoned with by Protestants and Catholics alike; whether scholar, clergy or lay person.  It will be intriguing to see how such a religious sense is worked out in the Church, the bearer of the historical claim to answers of ultimate concern.

A serious question remains, however.  Despite his brevity, clarity and intellectual power, Giussani has still failed to answer the question of the relationship between revelation and experience.  The Incarnation as event is almost eclipsed by the disciples experience of it.  The attempt to uncover the “religious sense” of today will always be a dubious exercise because of the gulf between our time and theirs.  Without a clear starting point in revelation as the event of the Word of God, we are left with only a surmising of how that event affected the first followers.  Their experience must be secondary to the event and not constitutive of it.  Giussani needs to be clear on this.