Theological Anti-Realists Need To Come Clean About Their Beliefs

Theological anti-realism is nothing new. Since the days of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), professional theologians and their popular-level, pastoral counterparts have tried to unwed to task of Christian dogmatic theology from metaphysical commitments and the truth claims that they ground (e.g. God actually existing would be grounds for believing that ‘God exists’). While one might be moved to pardon Schleiermacher for his early anti-realist sins, especially as theologians of his day sought epistemic refuge from a new, Kantian paradigm that had apparently shattered religious knowledge, today’s anti-realists have less of an excuse for proclaiming an ontologically sparse, if not empty, Christianity.

Andrew Dole in his chapter “Schleiermacher’s Theological Anti-Realism” in Analytic Theology (Crisp & Rea 2009) summarizes theological anti-realism:

“To speak of theological anti-realism is thus to identify ‘theological claims’—let us say, claims about the existence, nature and activities of God—as constituting a ‘disputed class of statements’, and to assert that, while such statements appear to demand a realist interpretation, in fact they do not.” (Dole, 138)

And he goes on:

“the dogmatic or theological content of statements of this class can be expressed entirely by statements about the human self and its states of consciousness. Nothing as regards content is lost when such statements [about the world or about God] are reduced to statements about human beings.” (Dole, 140)

Hence, theological anti-realism is, at best, noncommittal with regards to metaphysical realities that exist outside the “human self and its states of consciousness.”

But, before I continue about what I think anti-realists need to come clean about, and why, who might these contemporary anti-realists actually be? Are there actual theologians or pastors today who use theological or churchy terms (e.g. God, incarnate Word of God, Holy Spirit, the Devil, etc.), but do not really hold the belief that these are mind-independent realities or agents?

I hesitate to say definitively, because only the theological anti-realist themselves can know, but names like Bell, Rohr, and McLaren come quickly to mind. Maybe most Jesuits as well, but I don’t want to make hasty generalizations. In any case, whether or not these popular authors, pastors, or priests, if pressed, would outright reject belief that God exists, or that Jesus rose from the dead, my suspicion is that they reinterpret those truth claims in a way that makes them metaphysically empty and, therefore, meaningless.

But why does it all matter? What importance does it have if propositional claims, whether true or false, are meant to actually refer to mind-independent, external objects, substances, or agents? Can’t we just use the language of religion without actually believing in these kinds of immaterial entities, especially ones with apparent causal powers, intentions, and wills (e.g. angels, demons…God?)?

I think not. First, to use language in such a way that it seems to make a truth claim, but then really believe that it is, in fact, not making that very claim, is, at best, intellectually confused, and, at worst, downright deceptive. In any other realm other than theology, this would be simply unacceptable.

For example, no CEO of a company would accept a report from the CFO claiming quarterly returns to be “x”, while at the same time thinking it okay that the CFO might not really believe that the money he is reporting on is actually there! That, in essence, the CFO is just reporting on supposed monies so that the CEO can feel good about the status of the company, and confident in his leadership of it. For some reason, however, in theology or in the church, it seems admirable for certain pastors or theologians to say things like “God has a plan for your life” or “Jesus can help you with that”, all the while believing that there really is no being, God, who has the causal capacities or personal will to actually make a plan, or a person Jesus, whose body has not already long since rotted away in a 1st century Palestinian tomb!

Perhaps we could take a more charitable route, however, and say that the theological anti-realist is merely confused about what he or she believes. He is parroting Christian language without having actually thought through what those Christian claims actually demand one commit to metaphysically. Perhaps the theological anti-realist just hasn’t engaged with the relevant sources or content of Christian philosophical theology (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, or maybe Swinburne, Plantinga, and Craig) to know what he or she should commit to? That is certainly possible.

However, when it comes to “Christian” (yes, very intentional scare quotes here) leaders who have seminary training, who are in the public eye, who write a lot of books, and who have been approached, either polemically and scholarly, or in casual friendship, by  Christian philosophers, apologists, and theological realists, yet who still maintain their air of anti-realism, well, that seems to give evidence for a less charitable interpretation of their motivations. Thus, while it may be that a more progressive pastor or theologian is simply confused about what he or she should commit to with regards to the minimal ontological criteria for historic Christianity, it might also be otherwise. It could be a form of intentional deception on the part of the anti-realist; an unwillingness to come clean about one’s actual beliefs, maybe for underhanded reasons.

Still, far be it for me to accuse any particular theological anti-realist of being actually intentionally deceptive. I will not make that accusation formally, even if I suspect it, since I cannot know that unless I were told it directly by the anti-realist him or herself. Although, some Christian philosophers have recently argued for a strong connection between actual belief in metaphysical realities (or the lack thereof) and recent, malevolent scandals in the church.

Regardless then of the personal motivations for certain pastors or theologians to try and reinterpret historical Christianity in such a way that truth claims are without actual, external referents, I will simply argue that to do so is, in principle, both immoral and damaging to people. I think this for two reasons.

First, it is immoral, because almost all people (especially those not formally trained in epistemology, or some other relevant philosophical discipline) tend to intuitively take claims in the form of a proposition as claims to truth. Thus, if I say “I believe in God,” most people will think I mean that there is an actual God. And, upon further qualification and additional claims about that God, most people will think I mean that not only does this God exist, but that this God possesses certain kinds of attributes, and maybe even that this God actually causes things to happen in the world, to include things in the personal lives of real people.

However, if you say, as a theological anti-realist might, “I believe in God,” but you really mean that God is a purely mental concept, developed and cultivated by human cultures over time, and that this concept helps human persons and their communities better navigate emotionally and psychologically the reality of an essentially empty and purposeless world; well, then that would seem to be quite deceptive indeed.

Almost all of us would agree that intentional deception is immoral (although where and how anti-realists ground morality is another question all its own). Thus, for this reason I would call out all pastors or theologians who do not hold the necessary metaphysical commitments for Christian orthodoxy to clarify their actual beliefs before their congregations, on-line communities, Facebook friends, readership, and other relevant audiences. If you believe that God is a concept, not a person, then just say so.

Second, however, is not only the immoral nature of intentional deception, but also the aftermath or damage to individual persons that this kind of deception can cause. Even if the message of certain religious anti-realists is one of psychological and emotional comfort (as opposed, perhaps, to an anti-realist who espouses a version of Islam agreeable to ISIS), can one easily recover from the aftermath of realizing that none of the terms his or her “Christian” preacher is using actually refers to anything other than…well, the person themselves (i.e. the constructs of their mind)? In the final analysis, what does the progressive theologian or pastor leave the congregant with, other than the fundamental message of “you must, in the end, save yourself.” Or, perhaps, more charitably “we must, in the end, save ourselves.” But, is this not a political message, rather than a theistic one?1 Barack Obama at a rally on Feb.5 2008 said this “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

In all honesty, if the core motivation of the theological anti-realist is to facilitate brain-states in people, whereby they have a sensation of ease, and feel happier about life and with themselves, then this can probably be done far more honestly and effectively with actual drugs than with the Marxian opioid of religion. Moreover, the use of drugs to ease existential angst is also not a novel notion (as Aldous Huxley once wrote “The dictatorships of tomorrow will deprive men of their freedom, but will give them in exchange a happiness none the less real, as a subjective experience, for being chemically induced.). 

Of course, history is replete with examples of man-made dystopias; kingdoms, empires and soviet unions that revolve around man and his own attempts to find cosmic satisfaction; to save himself. Some of these attempts have ended in grandiose horror, while others seem to be fading out, whimper-like. If Christianity is false, therefore, wouldn’t it at least be better for the anti-realist to come clean and admit that God cannot save us…because He is literally not there. Then, at least, we could pursue some of those other options available to us for assuaging our human condition (like Huxley’s psychotropic one.)

That said, as much as one might find the “New Atheists” perturbing in their approach to religious beliefs and the individuals or communities that hold them, at least their message has always been consistent with regard to their ontological commitments and their opinions about Christianity. So, if Dawkins is right and there is no God, then Christianity is false, and so be it; let’s get on with other stuff. Isn’t this the more honest position than that of the theological anti-realist pastor or theologian who might accept the first part of that clause (God not existing), but who stills claims that Christianity is somehow true?

In short, yes, it is.

Therefore, in conclusion, I admonish the anti-realists among us, “Please stop preaching, teaching, and selling your “Christian” books right now! If this indeed applies to you, then come clean about what you actually believe is true!” To do otherwise, would be to deceive. Would it not be more ‘Christ-like’ to liberate your audiences from such deception and let them decide for themselves whether or not there is a God…who is there?

On a personal note, to paraphrase one, great theological realist2 Luther wrote in 1527 about Zwingli, who rejected the doctrine of Real Presence in the Eucharist, “I would rather drink pure blood with the Pope than mere wine with the fanatics”: I would have rathered drunk a whiskey with Hitchens, than a grape juice with the ‘Christian’ anti-realist (whoever they may be).

3 thoughts on “Theological Anti-Realists Need To Come Clean About Their Beliefs

  1. If you want to get a sense of where McLaren & Bell are at now, maybe see my book “Authentically Emergent.”

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