Progressive Christians in Alliance with Freethinkers

Russian River 05 002

A friend and colleague of mine, the Rev. Jim Burklo, is the Dean of Religious Life at USC.  As a “Progressive Christian” he has made a strong statement in support of true “religious freedom” that includes non-believers.

Progressive Christian Allies for Atheists 

I’d like to pursue some questions with him concerning the use of the negative term “atheist” (I prefer “freethinker” or “naturalistic thinker” or something more positive and open to engagement).

I also want to address the oft-repeated challenge to non-theists that we are simply rejecting the old, childish “Man in the Sky” image of a god.  I’m curious how he engages those of us who let go of god and faith through rational personal choice, sometimes after years of questioning supernatural explanations for the universe.

I’m very interested that he says he does not believe in a supernatural.  This almost sounds like he has left the “fold of faith” as most people would define it.  What is “Christian” about that “progressive” step?

So, hurrah!  This seems to open new trails, new waters to cross, for discussion and exploration!


9 thoughts on “Progressive Christians in Alliance with Freethinkers

  1. Great to be in this conversation, Chris! It picks up where we left off back in our Marin days, years ago! How can Christians abandon the concept of a supernatural God? By going back to our Christian and Jewish mystical roots. The God of the burning bush in the book of Exodus called him/her/itself “I AM that I AM” — existence itself. Nicolas of Cusa, the German Catholic bishop of the 15th century, described God as “Posse-Est”, “Can-Is” – a concept very similar to that of 20th century post-supernatural “process theology”. Konrad of Megenburg, a German Catholic scholar in the 14th century, wrote about the full compatibility of the “book of Nature” and the “book of scripture”. This “two books” concept had a lot of play in the late medieval era, as Christian theologians emulated the classical Greek understanding of a unified, integrated cosmos. There was an unresolved debate in the Catholic Church in medieval times about whether or not the biblical miracles were unusual natural phenomena. So the current American evangelical/fundamentalists’ assertion that God is supernatural is really a modern phenomenon reflecting their anxiety about the threat posed by science to their world-view. In fact there has always been plenty of room in the faith for a non-supernatural understanding of God. If God and Nature are one, we draw closer to the divine through scientific inquiry. By reclaiming this old strand of theology for our time, Christians can avoid a lot of silly apologetics that make no sense to folks who take science and common sense seriously.

    1. Faaaaascinating to engage this here, Jim! Thanks for jumping right in.
      As you know, I have a long and deep background in the faith and there has never been a time in my believing years when the super-natural was expendable. I’ve taught classes in spirituality, mysticism, world scriptures, and no historical voice ever took the leap to a non-supernatural conclusion.
      So, this intrigues me. I’ve heard it from other “progs” and still can’t make sense of it. In fact, I think for many of us in the secular community, we would find this line of presentation a bit on the nonsense side. It seems to me, if you postulate a “God” or “divine” or “spirit” at all, you’ve already left the realm of Nature, the natural, the rational. I get it about putting a name/face/personality on Nature (intrinsically anthropomorphic). I used to do that, as I progressed out of faith through the doorway of pantheism. . .but here’s the rub: if there is a Theism, there is a beyond, behind, above and “super” view. I don’t see how to get passed that.
      Mysticism rests (uncomfortably) on a reality behind or even within Reality. I get that philosophically, but as soon as you go theological, using any god-words at all, there is nothing left, in my opinion.
      As for the divine being “I am”/existence, I guess that would lead a person to simply be an existence worshipper. This is not grounded in any historic religious tradition.
      By the way, I should say, I do not worship Nature, though I honor that as a placeholder for Universe.
      I could blabber on here. . .but what say ye?!

  2. Great to be in this conversation, Chris!

    I’m mystified that you somehow missed the Christian mystical tradition that understood God as the essence of existence – that understood God as the awareness of the true Self at one with the cosmos. It is very much grounded in historic Christian religious tradition. The “supernatural” as we think of it today is a concept shaped very much by the reaction of fundamentalist Protestantism against the advances of science in the 18th and 19th centuries. Supernaturalism in America is completely woven into evangelical theology, which dominates the public’s perception of the Christian faith, so it is no wonder that you knew no differently back in your “believer” days. Before the “modern” era, nature and supernature often blended together in Christian theology. Relatively little threat to dogma was perceived in the quest to understand and apprehend nature. As I said, the medieval theologians debated whether or not the biblical miracles were natural or not. So we have to understand supernaturalism in historical context.

    There is great value in using God language to talk about Nature. It reclaims religious tradition into a new and positive relationship with science. It grounds science in awe, wonder, and a deep sense of the sacred suffusing all things and beings. Christianity is a profound poetic, artistic language to express the ineffable experiences we have in our relationship to Nature. It is of course not the only language available to us, but it is a really good one, deeply intertwined as it is with Western culture. Why lose it, when we can use it creatively to good effect?

    What we used to call the supernatural is really a manifestation of nature. It consists of cosmic-level emergent properties that arise from the unfolding of natural processes. Religion itself is an emergent property of the mind, which is an emergent property arising from the human nervous system that itself resulted from natural selection and random mutation. Religion is natural, and so is the object of its worship.

    1. Whew, Jim, I thought perhaps I had offended with my comments about nonsense. So, surely glad to have this friendly dialogue continue!

      After that exchange, I posted my little diagram of the Big Green Box:

      Yes, this is mystifying stuff!

      I think I’m understanding your perspective a bit more. It could be that the God language indeed continues to trip up my mind. Certainly I grasp that many mystics (in a variety of traditions) to some degree felt an awareness of an identity of Creator and Creation. The biblical record has glimpses, but I wouldn’t say this is an historically Jewish or Christian viewpoint. What you describe is much more integral to Hindu theology.

      As I know you know, Jim, mystics were always on the edges, indeed the heretics never quite accepted by the mainstream. Of course, if your lens for understanding Christian history is primarily mysticism, I suppose that can work, though it means denying pretty much the entire historical record of the Church, biblical interpretation, creeds, etc. I would simply wonder why a person would hold to any of that (titles, terms, texts, etc) if we’re all just absorbed into God and vice versa.

      I’m intrigued by this dictionary definition of mysticism: “Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.”

      The sense of awe, wonder, delight I feel in Nature is not “mystical” in any way. There is no deity, spiritual apprehension or something inaccessible to the intellect. There is no self-surrender into some greater Self. It seems to me, as soon as we name Nature/Universe/All a God-name, all kinds of trouble begins. Divisions start. I fully appreciate the “poetic, artistic language” and the desire to “use it creatively,” but seems to me we still needlessly perpetuate the old anthropomorphism.

      That’s why I ask: Why call the All “God” at all? I just don’t see why the need to name Nature “God,” except to “have a relationship” with “Someone.”

      I get it, religion is, to some extent, “natural” but I think your next phrase causes a mental facepalm: “object of worship.” This appears to be the main rub. . .where mysticism leaves Science and on-the-ground reason behind. No one I know worships, prays to or devotes their life to “existence” or “universe.” (well, maybe a few in a Marin hottub!). Can one be a Minister of Existence? If so, why, and what’s that even mean?

      Btw, teaching courses about Walt Whitman has really helped me get a better grip on this. His concern for “absorption” without religion is fascinating. I’m teaching a class on his friend, John Burroughs, this fall. He addresses some of these issues.

      Ok, not sure I want to drag or drone on any more right now.

      Rather hear what you have to say!

      1. We are sure raising big questions here, Jim. Stimulating!
        I just came across this line from Robert Ingersoll that seems pertinent:
        “Beyond nature man cannot go even in thought—above nature he cannot rise—below nature he cannot fall.” (The Gods). I get the impression you would agree.

  3. Yes indeed, Chris – big questions we’re tackling here!

    Back to mysticism in Christianity. There is a modern evangelical “meme” about it that says “it begins in mist and ends in schism”. This has come to dominate the public imagination about mysticism in Christianity. But it is untrue. Jesus was a mystic. Paul was a mystic. The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were generally not considered heretical, but they were mystics. The Parisian Victorines were not heretics, but they created an elaborate psychology of Christian mysticism. Nicolas of Cusa, a mystic, was the Pope’s right-hand man in Germany. And the list goes on. Mysticism is at the very heart of Catholic orthodoxy, and it manifests in many forms, embedded deeply in various Protestant orthodoxies.

    The irony is that the modern rejection of God-talk is a consequence of modern fundamentalist Christianity. Atheism is not a reaction to old-fashioned religion, but to new-fashioned religion. If we go back to the medieval era and the era before it, we find a mainstream mysticism that adapts well to modern scientific understandings about Nature. If we root our faith in the old-fashioned mystical Christianity at the heart of the first 16 centuries of the Church, we’ll find a mythic and poetic language of faith that can artfully and evocatively express our experiences of Nature as informed by modern science.

    Your “Big Green Box” is a metaphor describing Nature as a whole. The burning bush named I AM who confronted Moses in the desert is an awe-inducing metaphor for Nature as a whole. The burning bush is a pulsing ball of matter-energy that burns without being consumed. Astrophysics tells us that the Cosmos is a boundary-less, ultimately timeless sphere. Much more mysterious, and dare I say mystical, than a green box.

    Ingersoll spoke truth about our inability to think beyond Nature. But we cannot even think fully within Nature. Godel’s Theorem is but one formal expression of this reality. Hence the primal urge of our souls to hold the Ultimate Reality in holy awesome reverence. Hence the impulse to religion, whether old- or new-fashioned.

    1. Wow, Jim, this is good!
      And I’m very glad that we once-upon-a-time sat together with “housing challenged” folks. It reminds me that theological wordplay is fun but doesn’t feed or shelter anyone (I know you agree). Wherever we come down on these worldviews, living in the real world is the ultimate point. And I’m happy to say we can collaborate on what matters.

      My main question remains: Is Nature “God” for you? If so, how is that specifically and uniquely “Christian” or even Progressive Christian”? Why not simply be a “Progressive Nature Worshipper?” (or Hindu or Sufi or Buddhist?). How or why does one pray to or worship Nature in a mystical way? Does this mean the vast majority of Christians have it wrong, because the vast majority apparently doesn’t see this as you do? Are there “true Christians” who subscribe to the “union with the divine” and all the rest who are doing something else?

      I would have to challenge your assertion there is a “mainstream mysticism” of the past that “adapts well to modern scientific understandings of Nature.” How so? I get particle physics, dark matter, etc (kinda), but then, why not be a scientist rather than religionist?

      Your phrase, “holy awesome reverence” is mystifying (smile here). Like the “worship” you mentioned earlier, this frankly makes no sense and would in no rational way be affirmed by modern science. Again, I feel awe without an Almighty.

      As a non-theist myself, I have to object (politely) to some of your generalizations about atheism. My reaction to Christianity is not primarily against evangelicals or fundamentalists, but the very foundation of what you call “old fashioned mystical Christianity.” Whether “myth,” or “poetry” or “faith”–what you call the “mystical” is very different from natural science. Mystery is one thing, but that in no way implies the mystical or miracle. I wonder how we might describe our experience of the same tree or river?

      As for rejecting God-talk, this is one of my central issues: Using words that have essentially no content (God, soul, holy, sacred, etc). Once again, if you are simply placing the word “God” on Nature/Universe, then I have no hook to hang anything real on that. Is that tree or river just a tree or river, or are you overlaying something “deeper”?

      I’m having a funny image moment here, imagining Moses coming down from the mountain to tell the people: “A pulsing ball of matter-energy gave me some lithographic lessons for you”! I wonder how a community or religion would emerge from that. . .

      There’s so much more to say!

      Thanks for returning to the mental ping-pong.

  4. Your closing question, Chris, gets exactly to my point. You can say a pulsing ball of matter-energy gave lithographic lessons. Doesn’t make very good poetry, does it? But to say that the Great “I AM” met me in a flaming bush in the desert and showed me how to live — now that’s getting pretty rich and evocative. Coldly factual, no. Poetically evocative, yes. Christianity is poetry.

    Speaking of words that have no content, try: Big Green Box . What is boxy about the universe or Nature? What’s green about it? What meaning does “big” have when faced with the unspeakable ineffable enormity of the Cosmos? – and also its periodic tendency to shrink down to the size of something somewhere between a golf ball and a house? Words fail us all, scientists included, when pondering Nature as a whole. Hence the “holy awesome reverence” that so many scientists experience in the course of their study. There’s a whole class of folks like Ursula Goodenough, the evolutionary biologist (who wrote The Sacred Depths of Nature), who call themselves “religious naturalists”, a wide enough category to include theists and non-theists alike.

    Theoretical physicists are so boggled by the stuff they study that they become giddy, and that leads them to name the “particles” in bizarre terms. One kind of hadron is called a “strange quark”, for example. At this level of reality, phenomena go past the limits of prose.

    Religion is not the river. It is the raft. As the Buddhist story goes, one does not carry the raft on the land once having crossed the river. You tie it up and leave it for the next person to use. There are of course a lot of rivers running through life and religion can get you across at least some of them. But religion is a tool for negotiating the river, not the river itself. Religion is a language, a way to put structure to experience so that you can talk about it and evoke it for yourself and others. God-talk consists of pointers toward experience. For me, the Christian language is a wonderful raft on the river. And since it is so foundational for Western language and culture, it offers a particularly rich vocabulary for pointing to our spiritual experience of encounter with Nature.

    Again, the foundation of mystical Christianity is not opposed to or in conflict with science. Mysticism is not about magic. It is not about miracles. Many of the great saints of the church warned against getting excited about any kind of paranormal experiences in the course of mystical contemplation. Defying the laws of nature was never the point at all. Mysticism is about direct spiritual experience. When I stand under the desert sky and behold the Milky Way, when I behold a wildflower in the Santa Monica Mountains, I experience what Meister Eckhart experienced when he said that the eye with which he saw God was the eye with which God saw him. One eye, one seeing.

    1. A lot to chew on here, Jim.

      I think I’m throwing out too many questions at once (and still wondering if you have any questions of me, as a non-theist who hasn’t walked away from faith for any of the reasons your atheist encounters left faith).

      A few of my major puzzlements with your explanations are:

      Why is the “God/Nature” you speak of specifically the Christian God?

      Is the Christian poem the “richest vocabulary” for us, even in the “Western world”?

      Do you pray, worship and “have a relationship” with this God/Nature? Certainly most mystics in history have done so. If you do, you must imagine the Universe has a Personality? (this is where your view, I think, leaves the realm of the scientific and rational).

      I certainly get that Christianity and Religion itself is a kind of poetry. There’s a beauty in that. Yes, each has its own poetry and language. Yet, poetry can be pure imagination and/or fantasy that ought not be confused with the real world. And poetry can present a fundamentally brutal, tribal, blood-thirsty Deity (much of the Bible-Poem).

      It’s one thing for a physicist to get “boggled and giddy” at the strange, bizarre nature of Nature. It’s a whole other “out of the green box” thing to start using God-words and say “See, it’s mystical!”

      (interesting you mention Goodenough. I am a member of the Religious Naturalist Assoc–though the “religious” part is not the reason I joined. Association is good, as we find here!)


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