In The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, c. 1995), Donald W. McCullough argues “that the worst sin of the church at the end of the twentieth century has been the trivialization of God” (p. 13). Millions of folks gather together, in country-club comfort, and genially refer to a neatly-wrapped bundle of ideas they call “God,” but in fact they may fail to connect with the One Who truly Is! Currently President and Professor of Theology and Preaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary, McCullough formerly pastored Presbyterian churches in Solana Beach, CA, and Seattle, WA., so he has the broad-based background necessary to address this issue. All too many of us, he thinks, are like the young nurse, Sheila Larson, quoted in Robert Bellah’s study, Habits of the Heart, whose faith resided in her own pre-recorded mental tapes–“‘It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice'” (p. 22).
“Sheilaism” in various guises flourishes in a society which reduces faith to therapy. As sociologist Os Guinness notes, hundreds of “‘brand-name therapies now jostle’ to enlist ‘millions of clients in an expanding market of McFreud franchises and independent outlets’ which rake in billions of dollars. In fact, ‘The couch has become as American as the baseball diamond and the golden arches'” (p. 39). And too many Christian churches, ever anxious to apply soothing ointments to cultural itches, have embraced psychotherapeutic nostrums. “At first,” McCullough says, “liberals fell under the spell of the pastoral counseling movement; Carl Rogers became far more important than Karl Barth. But in recent years, evangelicals have out-distanced liberals, exchanging the language of Scripture for the language of Psychology Today. Now sin is low self-esteem; justification refers to experiencing God’s affirmation; sanctification means accepting self-worth” (p. 40).
We have in this process dissolved the highly Particular God to an amorphous “higher power,” or as Bob Dylan wrote, “an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires.” Preoccupied with ourselves, starved for “self-esteem,” demanding our “rights,” distressed by any kind of suffering, “stressed out” by unrealistic expectations, we surely worship strange gods! In fact, McCullough says, “Any god who promises to fulfill all of our desires is the devil in disguise” (p. 42). And the real God, the only One worthy of worship, the Barman Declaration makes clear, stands uniquely revealed, for “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation” (p. 66). If we resolutely stay focused on Christ, McCullough insists, we can never forget that “God is holy. God is the consuming fire of holiness–a fire wholly other than creation and a fire burning with redeeming love for creation” (p. 78). Furthermore, “God wants us to become holy” (p. 138). And all such holy “Love in action,” as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima declared, “is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared with love in dreams” (p. 94).
To return to a holy God, to rightly worship this holy God, to attend to His holy Word, is our calling. This means the Church must be the Church, and as such She must preach the Word! “‘Every man who preaches the Word,’ declared Augustine, ‘is the voice of God’; ‘the preaching of the Word of God,’ Luther proclaimed, ‘is the Word of God’; according to Calvin, God ‘deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them;’ and ‘through the activity of preaching,’ Karl Barth contended, ‘God himself speaks'” (p. 126). No small calling, this vocation of preaching!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sharing many of McCullough’s concerns, William C. Placher, a professor at Wabash College, critiques The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, c. 1996). Rather than focus on things present, however, Placher takes us on a probing historical journey to point out precisely why we moderns have lost sight of the high and holy God so central to Christian faith. In part, he endeavors to rehabilitate Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin–to restore them to positions of respectability and influence in today’s theological circles. Placher himself identifies with the “postliberal” or “Yale theology” which has influenced the development of “narrative” theology during the past two decades. He also shares some “postmodern” perspectives (proffering obsequies to such shrines as “inclusive language”) which, at times in my judgment, threaten to torpedo the thesis he advances in the book!
Placher basically argues that the Church’s theology suffered egregious harm in the 17th century, when rationalistic thinkers tried to rope and halter the unknowable God of Scripture. Such rationalism was absent in the “premodern” thought of St Thomas Aquinas, for in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas declared: “‘Now we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist rather than the ways in which he does'” (p. 21). Though St Thomas certainly trusted reason, and he wrote thousands of pages saying many things about God, he does make it clear that what we know comes to us through divine revelation, not through human reason. Thus he developed what Placher considers a marvelous way of thinking: the analogia entis. With this distinction in hand, reasoning by way of analogy, we find a middle way between equivocity and univocity. We’re not consigned to the agnosticism of equivocation, wherein we can affirm nothing about God. But we’re not locked into the arrogance of univocity, presuming to impose human categories on the Holy One. Thinking analogously, firmly rooted in Revelation, St. Thomas thus found faith a middle way between opinion and knowledge, the way to know God.
But having pointed out some important aspects of Aquinas’ thought, demonstrating that he relied on revelation rather than reason, Placher tries to sweep the Angelic Doctor into his own brand of Spirit-certified postmodern subjectivism. So he concludes his discussion with this statement: “Faced with a world that makes no sense on its own terms, then, I read or hear the propositions of scripture or otherwise encounter Christian teachings, and I encounter the person of Christ. Nothing I see compels me to believe that this is the story of the self-revelation of God, and yet I am captured by its authority through a power not my own, the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that I find myself able to have faith in an unknown ‘beginning and end of all things’ revealed in Christ. I believe that the language I use about that mystery is somehow true, but I do not know how it properly applies. I am enabled to reach beyond any system, not brought to see it all fit together, trusting in language I have been given the faith to believe, and the God in who I believe is the God revealed in Christ and known and loved by the gift of the Holy Spirit” (p. 36). Somehow we know something about something we can know nothing about! He then turns to Martin Luther, determined to demonstrate how he too found God utterly hidden, even in revelation–a crucified God who defies rational categories. With his notorious contempt for reason, Luther fits more easily into Placher’s case for the irrational wisdom of pre-modern theology. Turning to “Calvin’s Rhetoric of Faith,” Placher finds the Swiss Reformer more concerned with expounding the biblical message than developing a rational theological system. Rereading Calvin with Placher as our guide is certainly instructive, but (as in the case of Aquinas) I suspect the scholars most deeply immersed in these masters would argue that there is far more reliance on reason, far more certainty in doctrinal definitions, than Placher wants to admit.
As we leave the “premodern” thinkers, however, Placher’s analysis and argument become much more persuasive. Indeed, these sections deserve careful reading and reflection, for developments during this era largely shaped the world we live in. Certainly the Age of Reason, blending into the neatly trimmed hedgerows of the Enlightenment, incubated a host of theologians who reduced the mystery of faith to the univocal language of logic and the demonstrable data of science. Cajetan and Suarez transformed Thomism into an iron-clad system. Jacob Martini and Johannes Quenstedt made a scholastic out of Luther, and Francis Turretin hardened the categories of Calvin.
In concert with rationalistic philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz, many theologians banished the transcendent, the ineffable, the “glass” through which we see but dimly, the shadows from theology. In time God became totally immanent–a dynamic power in nature and the human heart, but very much close at hand. Works slowly replaced grace, and the Faith withered into a genial moralism whereby we humans perfect ourselves and our world. The strongly Trinitarian thought of Aquinas and Calvin are sidelined as an Arian- oriented unitarianism generally emerged in many quarters. In brief: “theology took some wrong turns in the seventeenth century” (p. 181), and for the health of our souls we must find again the right road.
Placher would have us recover a profounder commitment to Revelation, to the hiddenness of God, the utter transcendence of the Holy Other who, nevertheless, is continuously active in His world. Telling His story, as revealed in the scriptures and by the Holy Spirit within us, is the primary way to do this. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, well worth reading and pondering, and one need not share all Placher’s theological convictions to appreciate his illuminating scholarship.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Musing on these theological works prodded me to re-read Philip Rieff’s classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c. 1966, 1987), a treatise all religious leaders should read before embracing the latest brand of political or psychological wisdom or business acumen. Faith cannot but collapse when it gets sucked into humanistic movements of any sort. That such has happened becomes clear once one recognizes that in our culture “hospital and theater” (p. 24), fitness centers and media moguls, are replacing family and nation. “Religious man was born to be saved,” Rieff writes; “psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe,’ the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ‘one feels,’ the caveat of the therapeutic” (pp. 24-25). Within the Christian tradition, this trend became clear as early in 1857, when “Archbishop Temple put into clear English what had been muddled in German ever since the time of Schleiermacher: ‘Our theology has been cast in a scholastic mould, all based on logic. We are in need of, and are actually being forced into, a theology based on psychology” (pp. 41-42).
Ancient and Medieval civilization developed through the subjugation of sensual desires, choosing to follow moral standards rather than pleasure principles. This tradition of self-discipline and responsibility–labeled by Rieff a “dialectic of perfection, based on the deprivational mode,” celebrating martyrs and saints–“is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode” (pp. 49-50). Rather than restraining himself, psychological man seeks to “be kind” to himself! An egoistic ethic of self-esteem and tolerance replaces the ethic of repentance and sanctity. The “ideal man,” from Plato to Tocqueville, was understood to be a “good citizen,” sacrificing his own interests for the welfare of others. In the emergent therapeutic culture, however, the “ideal man”–as is evident everywhere from the Oval Office to the box office–knows how to amuse himself.
This seismic shift, Rieff shows, has a deep theoretical fault line. Under the classical theory, the mainstream of Western Culture, “what ought to be” takes priority over “what is.” “Theory is the reflecting mirror of man’s mind, catching glimpses of an order eternally right and good” (p. 85). “Things being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions conform to the right order, so that we too can be right. Theoretical knowledge is therefore of the good; the ideal is therefore most real, the model from which the is-ness of things, in their splendid variety, derives. Theory is the way of understanding the ideal. In this theory of theory, knowledge finally emerges at its highest level, as faith; the best life is that of true obedience. God is the final object of all classical theorizing; to contemplate God in the unity above all the variety manifested in His natural and social orders (or moral commandments), was the highest good” (p. 86).
Beginning with Francis Bacon, however, a new approach, powerfully shaped by psychoanalytic theory, has exerted a growing influence. According to this theory, we must learn how to change what is, to “create our own” reality, to craft whatever suits our desires. Marx wielded philosophy as a hammer and sickle for social change. Freud proffered clients insights whereby they could choose whatever seemed desirable. Jung and Adler and hosts of lesser folks followed suit, and our world is largely ruled by folks who want to rule! This leads Rieff into extensive discussions of Jung, Reich, and D.H. Lawrence–thorough, penetrating, illuminating analyses. He shows, persuasively, how the “sexual revolution” has its roots in the likes of such intellectuals, and he makes clear how effectively they have subverted the civilization which shaped the West.
As a result of adopting this therapeutic approach, many folks in our society lack the arresting sense of sin which typified the classical culture. Indeed, it is “incomprehensible to him inasmuch as the moral demand system no longer generates powerful inclinations toward obedience or faith, nor feelings of guilt when those inclination are over-ridden by others for which sin is the ancient name” (p. 245). No longer haunted by sin, modern man feels no need for salvation, no desire for a Savior. So churches emphasize “religious” experiences and advertise “spiritual” therapies designed to help vaguely distressed people feel better. Many, indeed, have “become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution–under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic” (p. 251).
Rieff himself merely observes this process. He has nothing invested in the classical tradition and seems to think it’s forever vanished, but he wants to make it clear that the therapeutic society which has replaced it has set sail on different seas. Unlike the pop-psych of Rogers and Peck, or Peale and Schuller, this is a profound, disturbing work, one which certainly could help us call the Church to return to her Real Roots.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Providing a fundamentally theological perspective on this issue, Richard John Neuhaus has edited a set of essays by Peter Berger, Avery Dulles, Robert Jenson, and James Turner, in American Apostasy: The Triumph of “Other” Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1989). The book’s title comes from Berger’s Erasmus lecture, entitled “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of Apostasy.”
Speaking as one of America’s finest sociologists, Peter Berger argues that since World War II the American middle class has spun off a great satellite, an orbiting “New Class” of well-educated people working in the “knowledge industry.” Composed of teachers at all levels, journalists and media celebrities, therapists, bureaucrats dispensing Welfare State entitlements, and lawyers, this New Class now dominates the bureaucracies and educational institutions of “mainline” churches, confidently leaping, much like skydivers in free-fall, into assorted dark holes of modernity. This they do, Berger insists, by preaching “a different Gospel,” a gospel of political and social change which ignores the transcendent truths of the faith once delivered to the saints.
That different Gospel, James Turner shows, in “Secular Justifications of Christian Truth-Claims: A Historical Sketch,” emerged flying the flags of the “Social Gospel” a century ago. Various earlier scholars, during the Age of Reason, had battered holes in the castle walls of orthodox theology by seeking to make Christianity acceptable to the intellectual elite of their age, generally discarding all things supernatural and miraculous in order to promulgate moralisms of various sorts. Consequently, eminent Social Gospel thinkers, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, sought to save society rather than individuals and located sin in the “wealthy and powerful, suggesting that they were responsible for such social sins as alcoholism and racism” (p. 25).
Avery Dulles adds a Catholic perspective to the discussion in “Gospel, Church, and Politics,” insisting that the primary mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel, not to engineer social reform, for “The God of the Gospels, pace Feuerbach, is not a projection of human ideals, nor is divine justice simply human justice writ large” (p. 30). Rather, the Gospel calls us to be transformed, to then prepare for the coming of a transcendent realm, God’s Kingdom . Unfortunately, Dulles says, many Catholics have over-emphasized social reform, and the Church has thereby failed to call for personal conversion and religious vocation. “As a general rule,” however, “faithfulness to Jesus will incline the ecclesiastical authorities to avoid entanglement in economic and political struggles” (p. 55).
Robert W. Jenson’s essay is entitled “A ‘Protestant Constructive Response’ to Christian Unbelief.” Trying to understand why large segments of modern, mainline Protestantism have replaced the Gospel with ideology, he wonders if there is some “theological flaw” infecting its ranks, for “Protestant Christianity has come to proceed, whenever it has a choice to make or practice to pursue, as if God were not, while remaining fervently dedicated to the Christian religion. But why, theologically-systematically, did Protestant theology and piety react to modernism by becoming operationally atheistic?” (p. 57). Probably, he thinks, because of the Enlightenment’s influence. So Jenson turns to Jonathan Edwards, who has been his North Star for many years, and finds the theological clarity, the doctrinal orthodoxy, as well as a commitment to “holy affections,” well worth recovering.
# # #