Circles within circles

May 7, 2006

Now and then, I expect to blog on theology and religion. That’s not easy to do for a mixed audience, small as I expect my audience to be. It’s not all that easy when I’m the only audience I’ve got, since the conversations I have with myself on religion already involve a throng of interior interlocutors and points of view: the long discredited but in some ways fondly remembered atheist I was for a few years, the admirer of Paul Tillich, the sympathetic reader of Talmud and of the Blue Rock Collection, the guy who feels most at home when worshipping with evangelicals, and the fellow who blanches with horror at the politics that pop out in the same services’ sermons.

I’m likely to chatter blithely about the common heritage of mystics from all traditions, like some latter-day Richard Bucke. And then I’m likely to start hammering on some arcane doctrinal point by flinging around prooftexts (though I prefer to think of it as “close reading”) like the most Bible-besotted preacher who ever waved his King James in the air.

Rather than talking about “natural” and “revealed” theology, Tillich said that theologians speak sometimes from outside and sometimes from inside “the theological circle.” It seems to me that the theological Inferno or Paradiso is composed of many more circles than that. Once someone abandons materialistic monism, and starts thinking of mind or consciousness as things that cannot be reduced to the buzz of a neural switchboard, however entangled with and even dependent on that switchboard they may be, she has stepped into the first circle. Confident that the innermost circle contains all the rest, I will give myself permission to be sloppy about which one I’m speaking from.

Still, I wouldn’t want to be deliberately confusing. So by way of orientation, I’ll deal a few simple cards face up on the table right here. I am an orthodox Christian, by which I mean that I can recite the entire Apostle’s Creed without crossing my fingers behind my back or placing selected words in scare quotes. There was a virgin birth, there was a resurrection on the third day… you know, the whole six yards. I cop to being both “born again” (blinded on my particular Damascus road at 26) and “evangelical” (the Christian message is both “eu” – good, and “angelical” – news, information about real events rather than just a way of looking at things.) I regard the Bible as the proper court of appeal for resolving moral and doctrinal issues within the church, but not as an inerrant text on science or history.

I also cheerfully acknowledge that I could be wrong about all of that. I feel no obligation to believe it, I just find that I do. And I certainly feel no obligation to drag anyone else kicking and screaming into believing any of it. If my faith happens not to be folly, that kind of heavy hauling is God’s job; if it does happen to be folly, it’s no one’s job at all. What I can do, piece by unsystematic piece, is explain why a set of beliefs, so bizarre to the uninitiated, coheres for me both with itself and with the endlessly intriguing world I live in.


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