Theology: You’re Doing It Wrong

Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart
Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart

Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose. At least, that is its purest and most minimal essence. There are, of course, practitioners of the trade who possess talents of a higher order—the rare ability, say, to produce complex sentences and coherent paragraphs—and they tend to occupy the more elevated caste of “intellectual journalists.” These, however, are rather like “whores with hearts of gold”: more misty figments of tender fantasy than concrete objects of empirical experience. Most journalism of ideas is little more than a form of empty garrulousness, incessant gossip about half-heard rumors and half-formed opinions, an intense specialization in diffuse generalizations. It is something we all do at social gatherings—creating ephemeral connections with strangers by chattering vacuously about things of which we know nothing—miraculously transformed into a vocation.

So begins philosopher David Bentley Hart’s ripping of journalist Adam Gopnik’s musings on theism. He makes it clear that his comments are “no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers…Not only do convinced secularists no longer understand what the issue is; they are incapable of even suspecting that they do not understand, or of caring whether they do…[T]here is now—where questions of the divine, the supernatural, or the religious are concerned—only a kind of habitual intellectual listlessness. ” Because to this, critics like Gopnik never grasp the metaphysics of “pure “classical theism,” as found in the Cappadocians, Augustine, Denys, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Shankara, Ramanuja, Philo, Moses Maimonides . . . well, basically, just about every significant theistic philosopher in human history. (Not to get too recherché here, but one can find most of it in the Roman Catholic catechism.)” Instead, they claim a certain kind of materialism as having “exclusive ownership of scientific knowledge” and “assert rights here denied to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton[.] Or to Arthur Eddington, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Anthony Zee, John Barrow, Freeman Dyson, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and (yes) Albert Einstein[.]”

Hart’s concluding words have much to teach not only unbelievers, but believers as well:

The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players)…Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.

Unfortunately, I think this captures the culture of believers and non-believers alike. This is why Terryl and Fiona Givens find that “militant atheism” and “fervent theism” are “both just as likely to serve as a dogmatic point of departure, as they are to be a thoughtful and considered end point in one’s journey toward understanding…[N]either the new believer nor the new doubter has necessarily progressed or reached enlightenment.” Both theists and atheists should reengage in this “philosophical passion and moral adventure” for the bettering of each other.

My Pops in a Web Comic

Garden of Enid is a fun, Mormon web-comic that I read regularly. (You should too!) So imagine my surprise and delight when it turns out that Friday’s comic was about my very own dad! Yup, pretty much the finest hour for the Givens Clan, I’d say.

In all seriousness, and at the risk of sounding sappy, I am extremely proud of the work that both my mum and dad do. They are the best. (And I generalize from a comic about my dad to both of my parents because I know how much my mum has been there every step of the way, even if she didn’t come out and coauthor a book until quite recently.)

Miller Eccles Study Group Texas: Terryl & Fiona Givens

Terryl and Fiona Givens (Nathaniel’s parents) were here in Texas this past weekend at the invitation of the Miller Eccles Study Group and the Genesis Group. Their presentations were based on their books The God Who Weeps and the upcoming The Crucible of Doubt. I’ve written up a brief commentary at Worlds Without End on their Saturday presentation (based largely on Crucible), sprinkling it with a bit of neuroscience.

Check it out.

Fiona and Terryl Givens Discuss Uchtdorf in NYT

2013-10-09 Gen Conf

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has two General Conferences every year (one in spring and one in fall) where the leadership of the Church address the members in a series of 2-hours sessions that are broadcast live around most of the world. In the most recent conference (just last week) Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke with compassion and honesty about the struggles many Mormons have with doubts about their faith. Uchtdorf is the Second Counselor in the Church’s governing Presidency (sort of like a vice-vice-president), and his conciliatory tone has created a big reaction among the membership of the Church.

This NYT article discusses the impact of Uchtdorf’s words and quotes several Mormon scholars, including my parents Terryl and Fiona. The text of the speech, called “Come, Join Us” is available as here (or watch or listen to it here.)

My own impression: I like Uchtdorf’s comments quite a lot. I think they lend significant credibility (though no official support, of course) to my parents’ efforts at The Temple and Observatory Group, which is a non-profit focused on addressing the doubts and concerns of Mormons. I think it’s a mistake to see any grand change in policy, however. (Dallin H. Oaks’ rather hard-hitting No Other Gods, which was given the next day, makes that pretty clear.)

The tone reflects a response to the expectations and concerns of members, but there wasn’t a single word that was new doctrine. Many people have told me in the past that the Mormonism described by me or by my parents is one they would love, but not one they recognize from their own upbringing or congregation. Uchtdorf’s “talk” (that’s Mormon for “sermon”, basically) makes it much more prominent, but it’s always been there.

Jonathan Langford on the God Who Weeps

Godweeps5083070_detailJonathan Langford over at A Motley Vision gave an insightful review of Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps, perhaps the best book I read this past year (and which quickly leapt up to my all-time favorites list). Check it out by clicking here.

Also, if you’re interested in my own approach to, and appreciation for, the Givenses and their work in the past, here are my thoughts on Terryl Givens in Terryl Givens: The Mormon C.S. Lewis and my interview with Fiona Givens, Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God.

And, yes, Difficult Run’s Nathaniel Givens is the son of these two stellar people, which makes me wonder how a single family can deal with so much awesomeness!