Simultaneously Embracing the Magical, Mythical, Empirical, and Rational

‎Eric Elnes, Senior Pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC), has begun thinking about what he sees as a “convergence” trajectory for post-evangelical Christians and postliberal Christians.  He thinks those two groups are moving toward one another from different places.  He has written a great blog post, “The Characteristics of Convergence Christianity,” in which he identifies “something these communities [both post-evangelicals and postliberals] generally are letting go of, and the new reality they generally are embracing.”

His remarks are interesting, but not all of them describe who I am or what I see in others who are postliberal progressives.  For instance, he begins by saying, “They are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet.”  Perhaps post-evangelicals are letting go of that, but “the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet” has not been part of the liberal or postliberal tradition.  Most of his twelve characteristics, in my view, describe what post-evangelicals are letting go of.  I would like to think about what postliberals are letting go of and what we are embracing.

A note on terminology: Eric speaks of postliberals, while  I speak of postliberal progressives.  I have never identified myself as a postliberal.  Some who use that label or who have that label applied to them seem to have returned to traditional Christianity rather than moving on to a new form beyond liberalism.  If I were to think of myself as a postliberal, I would therefore think of myself as a postliberal progressive rather than simply as a postliberal, which might include both postliberal progressives and postliberal traditionalists.

So what is it that I think postliberal progressives are letting go of, and what are we embracing?  What follows in the next few paragraphs comes in response to questions posed to me by my good friend Danny Nettleton, whose poetry blog, Words and Spaces, you should definitely follow.

Persons in different stages of faith, a la James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, experience different socially constructed realities. Faith is experienced differently for persons in different stages, and truth is understood differently. When I was in a magical stage of faith and first learned that Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains, I prayed that God would move the barn across the road to show me I had enough faith. Is it true that faith moves mountains? Was my prayer a true prayer? Was my lack of faith responsible for the barn never moving? Was Jesus untrue when he said this? (Did Jesus even say it? A question from a later stage of faith.)

Since the Enlightenment, empiricism and rationalism have been privileged over other ways of knowing and over other kinds of truth. This has brought us great boons, including boons in the realm of the critical study of religion. Historical criticism helps us to understand the context of the writings in the Bible, and it helps us to figure out who wrote what when.  Rationalism and empiricism help us decide that some of the things written in the Bible can’t be true in the sense that empiricism and rationalism dictate. Some people have bought into the Enlightenment paradigm to the extent that they see truth only in this way. The magical and mythical elements can’t be true for them. This is grounded in the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theologians, biblical scholars, and religious scholars who sought to demythologize Christianity. I once was there, thinking we had to rid Christianity of its mythical elements.

Postmodern thought, though, has discredited this imperialistic notion that empiricism and rationalism have a monopoly on truth. Paul Ricoeur writes about coming through the stringent criticisms the “masters of suspicion” have about religion, taking those criticisms to heart, but returning to the myth and the magic in a willed naïveté or second naïveté. This is not a return to a pre-critical understanding of religion but a re-embracing of ways of knowing that the critical methods of the Enlightenment had cast away. Fowler calls this the “conjunctive” stage of faith, holding in paradoxical tension positions that seem to be antithetical to one another.

Eric Elnes, with whom I began this blog post, in addition to being pastor and author, is the host of an online show, Darkwood Brew, which its website describes as “a mind-opening exploration of Christian faith for the modern world. This weekly program blends ancient worship practices developed by Benedictine monks with cutting-edge media technology.”  In one episode, Eric speaks with Brian McLaren via Skype (Skype interviews are a regular part of each episode) about the notion of Convergence Christians.  At around 34:00, McLaren speaks about Ricoeur’s notion of the willed, second naivete and about some mainline Christians becoming post-critical Christians.  This is exactly what I think postliberal progressives are letting go of and what we are embracing.

What would this look like?  How can I let go of empiricism and rationalism as the only forms of truth and still embrace magic, myth, and empirical, rational forms of knowing simultaneously?  In another Darkwood Brew episode, Failing, Falling and Flying: Genesis Stories of Original Grace – Week 1: “Imago Dei – Rethinking Our Creation”, Eric incarnates this posture perfectly.  He has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton.  (To my chat buddies on Darkwood Brew, drink!  Inside joke, for everyone else.  Sorry.)  He has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton, so he utilizes the best critical scholarship regarding the creation story in Genesis 1, but instead of demythologizing them, he explains their message in relation to another, influential creation myth existing at the time that the biblical story is being told, written, and edited.  He contends that Genesis 1 is a creation myth written in conversation with the creation myth of the Babylonians, found in the Enuma Elish.  He notes both similarities and differences between the two texts and says that reading only the Bible without understanding the Enuma Elish is like overhearing one side of a telephone conversation.  We might think we know what Genesis 1 is saying, but without hearing the Enuma Elish, its conversation partner, we can’t get the real gist.  I encourage you to watch this wonderful episode, but I’ll share just a couple of Eric’s points.

In the Enuma Elish, creation is the result of the slaying of an ocean goddess, symbol of chaos, in the form of a dragon or sea serpent, by a storm god.  The heavens and earth are created when her body is cut down the middle.  Human beings are formed from the clay of the earth by the gods and infused with the blood of the slain chaos monster.  In this view, we are inherently chaotic and violent.  In contrast, Genesis 1 has no such violence and, while Genesis 2 has the first human formed from the dust of the earth, it is God’s own breath that makes humanity a living soul.  In Genesis 1, humanity is created in God’s image, but, in the Enuma Elish, only the king is created in the image of the gods.  Eric is saying that the stories in Genesis 1-11 are largely a conversation with the Enuma Elish and function as both a counter-narrative and a cautionary tale.  When the serpent, symbol in Genesis 2 of the Babylonian myth, whispers in our ears and we think of ourselves in the way the Babylonian myth characterizes human beings, we do descend into chaos and violence, but we are not created to be that way.

In seminary I learned everything about the Enuma Elish that Eric mentions in this episode, but I think it’s important to think this way about the Bible in the context of the convergence with which this post began.  Eric uses the best of critical study of the Bible—Enlightenment tools—not to demythologize the Bible but to help us better appreciate the message and the power of the mythical elements in Genesis.  This, I think, is precisely what postliberal progressives are embracing, but it is only possible to do so after we have let go of the notion that empiricism and rationalism are the only forms of truth.

Are post-evangelicals also arriving at this spot?  I’m not sure of that.  Post-evangelicals like Brian McLaren seem to be arriving there, so some post-evangelicals are there or will be there at some point.  Postliberals and post-evangelicals are coming from different places, though, and are moving in different directions.  We may converge on the same territory for a while, or at least similar territories, but it may wind up being the case that we part ways again as we continue on our respective journeys.  I am not yet convinced that convergence is the best metaphor for the cross-fertilization that is taking place between post-evangelicals and postliberal progressives, but I will be happy to walk with post-evangelicals as long as we are in the same vicinity.

And I am very excited that there seems to be some sort of movement among progressives to become the kind of conjunctive Christians Fowler describes, to take on Ricoeur’s willed, second naïveté.  I think this could breathe fresh life into mainline churches, as long as we don’t try to hang on to the institutional aspects that are so obviously failing.  But that is another blog post.

(Originally published at Divine Salve)

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