Here’s your Tuesday Tea-ology for the week! In this episode, a discussion of pantheism and panentheism. Why is it so important that God is personal? And, is white chocolate mocha tea any good?
…a postscript to my ruminations a few days ago on the celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and the song’s message of despair.
In that earlier post, I noted in passing the hypocrisy of super-wealthy celebrities singing a song that contains the line “imagine no possessions”. Upon further reflection, I think that dissonance reflects one of the basic fallacies of the song and its misunderstanding of naturalistic, materialistic ideology.
For the song suggests that embracing a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—rejecting religion, with its metaphysical notions of heaven and hell, of transcendent morality and judgment and eternal hope—thus “living for today”, will help us break down the barriers and “live as one”. This is, ostensibly, the future that those promoting this ideology dream of.
Now, let us assume that the celebrities singing this song hold to such a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—they are atheists, who believe that this world is all we get, and intend to live for today. This may not be true; I’m not very knowledgeable about celebrity news, and for all I know Gal Gadot et al may claim to believe in God; but the public testimony of this song is that they don’t, so let us suppose that to be the case. Ostensibly, they are “living for today”, they dream this dream.
But they are not sharing their possessions. Oh, I don’t doubt they give to charitable causes; but they keep vast amounts of personal wealth for themselves. They make no effort to “live as one” with the people of the world. Apparently “a brotherhood of man” is not their dream, after all?
Why should it be? This is not a simple matter of hypocrisy—singing the song is, but living a lavish lifestyle isn’t. Naturalistic materialism provides no moral impetus. “Living for today” is perfectly consistent with living selfishly. Transcendent morality and eschatological hope, on the other hand provide a profound foundation for charity.
Of course, many Christians fail to live out the faith, sometimes infamously; because our sanctification is incomplete, we are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent. Still, we should see clearly, and here is the key difference: selfishness and greed are hypocrisy in Christians, but are perfectly consistent with an atheistic worldview.
Therefore, if in fact selfishness and greed are bad, then atheism is wrong. If there is good, there must be God.
“In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1, NIV)
In grasping a proper concept of reality, the first piece is understanding that God exists. The Bible begins with an account of the creation of the world, but that creation account already presupposes the existence of God. In the beginning, He is already there, and He acts to bring the world into being.
God is, we may say, the necessary presupposition. He is the basis of all else, including our own self-consciousness and the fact that we inhabit a rational universe. To honestly doubt the existence of myself may be insanity, but to doubt the existence of God is nonsense—for that would be doubting the basis for sense at all. God is the presupposition of the ordered and rational world in which we do our thinking.
Contrary to the popular idea that religion is a subjective field of life, one that concerns psychology and morality but not reality, religion is an objective field that concerns reality on the most fundamental level. The Bible begins with being: the God who is, and the universe He creates.
One practical implication of this is that human culture is inescapably religious because a culture must ask—and answer—questions about the nature of reality. And a culture that embraces idols rather than the true and living God embraces wrong ideas about reality, and thus should expect chaos. But a culture (or sub-culture, or counter-culture) that embraces the true and living God has a consistent first foundation on which to build an ordered society—a society that makes accurate judgments about transcendent matters, questions of the true, the beautiful, and the good.
Religion is never purely private, because religion is foundational to understanding the world. And true religion begins with the one true God, who was in the beginning, who acts, who lives eternally, and who reigns over this His world.
Union Theological Seminary is back in the news, with another display of the theological deterioration that liberalism brings.
I trace the progression something like this: the failure to hold to the truth about God as revealed in Scripture leads to an over-emphasis on the immanent, on the matters of this world; accordingly, the Divine transcendence collapses into immanence–aided by the feminist impulse, which takes umbrage at the masculine personalism of God in the Bible, and pushes either in the direction of goddess-worship or a loss of God’s personalism (or, paradoxically, both); the result is a slide from theism into panentheism, the conflation of Creator with creation. I’ve read that Paul Tillich, possibly the most renowned 20th-century American liberal theologian, came to the point where he couldn’t really pray, but only meditate in or upon nature; God had ceased to be personal in his conception.
What I’m saying is that when your gospel becomes too this-worldly, so does your picture of God.
I am not saying that Union has arrived at panentheism yet, only that they are perhaps on the road there. They have certainly arrived upon a place of absurdity; what else can you call a worship service involving confession to plants of mankind’s sin against creation?
To quote Union’s widely-circulated tweet:
Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.
What do you confess to the plants in your life?
It is not entirely clear whether they prayed to plants (i.e., regarded them as divine) or simply whether they prayed about their misdeeds towards plants or prayed with plants to God, so I give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t actually worship the plants. But they did confess to them, regarding them as “beings who sustain us.”
It is one thing to poetically address plants as a sort of metaphor, or to speak about how they reveal God, as in Psalm 19 or my own poor poem from yesterday. It is quite another to confess our sins to plants, as though they were personal beings and as though it were them, not their Creator, who we have offended by our wasteful destruction of the environment. It insinuates devotion to Gaia, rather than to God.
Faced with criticism over this debacle, Union has defended their decision by pointing out that they weren’t exactly committed to wholehearted devotion to the one true God anyway. As their statement is reported in the Washington Examiner article linked above, in their chapels:
“One day, you may come in to find a traditional Anglican communion, another day you may enter into a service of Buddhist meditation or Muslim prayer,” the spokesperson continued. “Another, you may find a Pentecostal praise service or a silent Quaker meeting. We create a home where people can worship side by side, in traditions similar to and very different to their own. Through this process, we learn from our neighbors and discern our own faith more deeply.”
That does fill in the picture, but its hardly comforting for anyone concerned about the students’ souls.
There is a God, a righteous and holy God, a jealous God–the God who says, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isa. 42:8, NIV).
You must know Him; that is the single most important thing in this life.
There’s no absolution from confessing your sins to a fern. It can’t forgive you. It’s not the tree of life. You have to bring your sins, instead, to Christ who bore them on the cross. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24, ESV).
But when you turn away from the cross, you can get so lost you find yourself talking to trees.
While all of us who minister do so only by the grace of God, and I am keenly aware of my unworthiness for this high and holy calling, I think some of the minimal qualifications of pastoral ministry are rather intuitive–such as believing in God.
The United Church of Canada has decided, apparently, that theism is not strictly necessary for pastors. No doubt it is still desirable in the eyes of that denomination’s discerning leadership that their pastors believe in God; but it is not a deal-breaker. That is the inescapable message of the news that the denomination has decided Rev. Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, will continue to pastor West Hill United Church, in Toronto.
The article linked above, from the liberal Religion News Service, is enlightening. It begins, “Gretta Vosper is surprised to still be a minister.” I’d imagine quite a lot of people share her surprise. It’s a rather puzzling thing, until you follow the (il)logic.
How does the United Church of Canada justify this decision? Why would a Christian denomination allow an atheist to shepherd a church? The key is inclusivity. The denominational leaders found themselves wrestling with the tension between two of their “core values”: “our faith in God” and “our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”
So, by “inclusive” they mean not simply that they welcome different groups of people, but that they welcome people with a variety of doctrines (or lack thereof) into the clergy. Aha. That would create a conflict with your cherished belief in the existence of God. The leaders of the United Church of Canada have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of wanting to affirm x and not-x at the same time. I suppose the implication of their solution is that they will accept either x or not-x (please choose one); which is to say that the United Church of Canada believes nothing at all, or at least not with any real conviction.
How does a denomination get to such a pitiful place? Quite obviously they have let themselves be swept along by the winds of western cultural trends and ideologies; the zeitgeist, rather than the Holy Ghost, has been filling their sails. But it’s more specific than that.
The atheist pastor herself offers what may be the key. In this she does a valuable service to orthodox Christianity, if we will heed it. From the article:
Vosper was willing to go through with the hearing even if the ruling went against her. She said she is fit for ministry in the church.
She said she believes what she was taught in seminary.
“Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training I received,” the 60-year-old said. “I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.”
During her studies, Vosper said she learned that the Bible isn’t the only source of spiritual or moral authority.
“If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time,” she says, “why does it take such a central position in the United Church?”
Well, I think she has put her finger right on the problem. The rot took hold of their seminaries, particularly a rotten doctrine of Scripture, a loss of the orthodox doctrine that the Bible is uniquely inspired, completely true, and utterly authoritative. Her seminary professors passed down to her a faith uprooted and blighted, and at whatever point in her journey it followed the logical course and became no faith at all.
But Vosper can perhaps take some comfort that the Bible does not enjoy nearly so central a place in the United Church as she feared. If that were the case, they might have put more weight on the fact that the Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning, God…” (Gen. 1:1).
We have here a wake-up call for faithful Christians in the United Church of Canada–it might be time for an exit plan; a cautionary tale for the orthodox–guard your institutions, because what’s taught in seminary doesn’t stay in seminary; a warning for theological moderates who want to see more doctrinal inclusivity in your denominations–you might find yourselves inclusive’d all the way to atheism.
The good news is that this disease is easily preventable. There’s a ready antidote to this poison. There’s an extremely popular book that could be studied in seminaries to promote deep and widespread theism among the ministerial students. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NASB).