On the Illusion of Orthodoxy

I’m no theologian, but Ben over at F&T has written a theological blog post entitled “On the virgin birth: or, why it’s better to say the creed than to criticize it” that is worthy of critique. In this post, Ben defends a belief in the virgin birth for multiple reasons. First off, I should say that I don’t care about the virgin birth theologically or personally, and I agree with Pannenberg that it’s historically questionable and I think it’s certainly dispensable (a la Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers).

Ben’s argument is that acts of revelation are singular and are “not part of the normal historical sequence”. Hence, although these events actually happened, they cannot be verified through the historical method. This position is as old as sin, and it smacks of the fideism that makes Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics (which I read for reasons I’m still trying to figure out) frustrating. Barth certainly bewildered his liberal theological professors with his dismissal of the historicism of classic liberal theology. Furthermore, from Ben’s perspective, these events are immune from criticism and must be accepted on the grounds that they are ‘divine’ and beyond reproach. I’ve always respected Pannenberg’s methodology because of his firm belief that theology has to be historical. Thankfully, Pannenberg is willing to reject certain theological doctrines if they do not stand up to the historical method, a method that Ben finds irrelevant.

Another problem I have with Ben’s post is the ethos of humility. Ben makes the typical orthodox theologian move by asking the question “[w]ho do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke?” From this perspective, faithful humility makes the theologian deeply gracious and respectful of the tradition. Presumably, anyone who questions the creed must be an arrogant, cynical maverick who believes they can flippantly dismiss creedal statements. Of course, Ben’s mature and respectful position only serves to alienate those believers who struggle with Christian doctrine. It should go without saying that one can legitimately question from a position of epistemological humility, and we all know many Christians who embrace the tradition in very arrogant and exclusionary ways. Side note, it never ceases to amaze me how orthodox theologians dismiss atheists and heretics as petulant children who are rebelling against the Big Other. This was evident in a post Ben wrote a year or two ago about how only orthodox Christians are patient and hold onto faith in God in the midst of suffering, whereas atheists lack the maturity of the wise believer and reject God. Atheists cannot endure suffering without rejecting faith, whereas believers possess the psychological and spiritual maturity to rise to the heavens as the atheists throw up their hands in impatient, childish despair. Although I identify as Christian, it’s obvious to me that this position is self-congratulatory bullshit.

Next, Ben writes, “[i]t’s a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.” This statement strikes me as wrong on multiple levels. Doesn’t this reduce faith to be simply therapeutic for folks who are trying to make sense of this world? Or, to put in Freudian terms, this type of faith is merely an illusion or wish fulfillment. It provides the individual a way to escape the existential anxiety of life by offering a coherent narrative that diminishes the stress of having to make decisions and take responsibility for his/her desires.

Finally Ben writes, “[i]f you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.” This is a typical sentimental, romantic theological statement we often get from orthodox theologians. The only real adventure is orthodoxy; the only real revolutionary is the conservative; and the only truly radical ideology is…Christianity? That almost makes sense. These types of paradoxical statements sound cute and certainly make the believer feel good about himself, as if surprises are only afforded to the good Christian who accepts everything without struggle. But how can Ben reconcile his previous statement that faith is good because it prevents folks from “wondering about” and that this faith is also “full of surprises too”? Wasn’t the whole point of the previous statement that faith is good because it helps to mitigate anxiety about the unknown by providing a grounding, indubitable framework? Obviously, orthodox Christians can be surprised and struggle with doubts, but it seems wrong to assume that a faith that is better “to believe than to criticize” is somehow full of surprises, considering that everything is already decided for the believer in advance.

21 thoughts on “On the Illusion of Orthodoxy

  1. As I think a bit more about the post, what frustrates me about Ben’s post is the sentimentality (“it’s a good thing to be a Christian”). Christianity is not good. Christianity is simply the history of Christianity, which has too often been really ugly. Also, the whole notion that belief is better than criticism strikes me as problematical. You can’t say Christianity and the creeds are good by definition without offering some argument. This type of arguments strikes me as soft Christian imperialism, Radical Orthodoxy-lite.

  2. Perhaps there is a venerable quality to the humility of recognizing that there are smarter, more reflectant people on the other end of history (relatively speaking.) Too much of modern scholarship seems enamored with our own intellectual hubris, which is validated our seemingly higher quality of life/thought, than to allow for recognition of a valid point that happens to be several thousand years old.

    Also, just as Christians often mischaracterize atheists as immoral pagans isn’t it just as obvious that atheists mischaracterize Christians as intellectually imfebbled imbeciles?

    Perhaps actual authenticity and humility should be the watchwords for both responses. I was glad to have read Ben’s post.

  3. Robert,

    A bias against old ideas is not at issue here. There are equally old or even older expressions of Christianity in the New Testament for whom the idea of the virgin birth is completely irrelevant. There are probably fields where presentism is a real problem — the hard sciences spring immediately to mind — but I don’t think that’s the problem theology is facing, by and large.

    It’s hard for me to understand what your remark about atheist dismissal of theologians has to do with anything under discussion here.

    Basically, you’re reasserting the position under critique in the post without contributing anything resembling an argument. Step up your game, or sit this one out.

  4. Your point about atheists is irrelevant. Obviously, some atheists are uncharitable, although I suspect Christians have much more to apologize for than do atheists. Also, your point about actual authenticity/humility do not make sense to me. I don’t doubt that Ben is sincere (although i agree with Hauerwas that sincerity has little to do with Christianity), but what I don’t like is the way in which humility is used to shut down conversation and it creates a false caricature that those who deny orthodoxy are arrogant and lack respect for the tradition.

  5. HI Jeremy, I got an email notice of your reply to my earlier comment. You asked me, “What the fuck are you saying?” Good question. I figured I owed you a thoughtful response (even if you did use the “F” word in your reply. Don’t worry, I’m not offended by that, I’v noticed that folks here at AUFS like to use the “F” word a lot and the way I figger it in your sentence it just poses as a signifier of inanity–mine that is LOL). Anyway, I wrote up a pretty good response for you I think, but when I went to post it I couldn’t find my comment anywhere!? Now it’s really hard for me to believe that my cute, little quote from “The house at Pooh Corner,” was so poignant, incisive, and downright threatening that Y’all just became so overwrought with outrage that you expunged it?!!! So I reckon what happened was, that after thinking about it, y’all figured that my comment was so irrelevant, silly, and let’s just say it plainly, stupid, that you wanted to spare your other readers. I can understand that; and let’s remember that the crew here at AUFS have a reputation for erudite…well, erudition (sorry, i don’t have my thesaurus at hand) and longtime readers like myself look forward to your critical insights on all kinds of subjects. Well, that’s about it, I apologize for any irritation and if you still want some kind of an explanation on that conversation between Pooh and Rabbit, well I reckon you could either put my comment back up or email me personally. blessings and obliged.

    p.s. I gotta say, In all my years I have only ever had one comment of mine expunged on a blog, It was by a really fundamentalist, falangist, ultra-conservative, professor who didn’t like my quite mild and comical chidings of George Bush’s political theology. Anyway, I (we) get the message, obliged.

  6. Your comment was not in line with the comment policy. My comment that I quickly deleted was also an attempt to stay within the comment policy.

    Nobody’s persecuting you. You just made a comment that did not advance the conversation in any substantial way, and AUFS is not a blog for you to post something cute just because you feel like it. If you wanted to make an actual comment on the substance of my post then you’re free to do that.

    “We do not aspire to the ideal of unlimited free speech. Instead, we aspire to an informed discussion that stays on topic as much as possible.”

  7. This was exquisitely written. You make many strong objections and I admire you for being impartial in declaring certain beliefs or practices to be ridiculous.

  8. Thank you Jeremy for a quick and really quite reasonable response. And I assure you that I don’t feel “persecuted” at all. My…oblique style of communicating has many flaws and shortcomings, and if folks take objection to it my first reaction is that I am the one who is at fault. Truth be told, I kinda expected that there would be some (hopefully playful) harsh and biting criticism of my comment. But I was also hoping that readers would take some time to reflect and look just a little deeper and maybe discover that beneath the surface of my Pooh comment there was a profoundly trenchant and relevant criticism of y’all’s objections to Ben Myers post. Granted, in hindsight, quoting the song and snippet of dialogue from Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit may have been a poor communication strategy for the…erudite (now just where the hell is that thesaurus?) and scholarly readers and blog masters here at AUFS.

    Still, over the years I’v seen people say all kind of rather foolish, off topic, even offensive things here without y’all going to all the trouble to delete them. Deleting a post is sort of the ‘nuclear option’ of responses. Of course, one could argue that some comments warrant a nuclear first strike, (but you nuked a song by Pooh for Pete’s sake, really?) but expunging someone can also be used as an ultimate form of negation and a ruthless way of rendering anyone that you don’t agree with powerless (think about that as you are deleting this very comment).

    Nevertheless, your comment policy is relatively clear (let’s just set any post-structuralist considerations aside for now) and any objections I may have to it’s capricious implementation are again, irrelevant. However, now that I know that comments are being expunged here, it diminishes my interest and really high regard I have had for your blog in the past (though I reckon y’all will someone figure out how to continue on with my attenuated approval LOL). Still, if you have a second, just so me any others that might still be reading can fix the borders of your policy, maybe you could explain how Adam calling Ben Myers an “arrogant bastard,” “advances the conversation in any substantial way?” Also, in the comment thread above you also charge others several times with ‘irrelevance,’ and writing things that ‘don’t make sense to you,‘ and yet somehow they made the cut. I just can’t help but wonder if maybe you did kinda get just what I was trying to communicate with my Pooh reference after all, and maybe it wasn’t that my comment was obtuse, irrelevant or adolescent, but just the opposite, that my comment really hit the mark and that you just didn’t like what I said and were concerned that others might also agree with my critical evaluation of AUFS’ condemnation of Ben’s post (and I reckon we’ll never know now?).

    Anyway, I wish y’all the best and thanks for your consideration, obliged, daniel.

  9. Right, so now you’re getting hung up on the meta issues involved that do not interest me. Maybe you could ‘make it plain’ if you were wanting to be clear on what you disliked about my post. You’re entitled to all your fantasies about why I deleted your comment, but I’d ask you to take my reasons at face value. Either make a direct comment about my response or stop commenting.

  10. “…as if surprises are only afforded to the good Christian who accepts everything without struggle.”

    I don’t see how this critique is warranted: if anything, Ben was communicating that surprises are afforded to the good Christian precisely because he does struggle. It’s after the struggling, all the existential turmoil and doubt that, after perseverance the Christian is surprised to find that “problem” was in reality a non-problem.

    I’m just not reading anywhere in his post that Orthodoxy requires one to never “question the creed”, instead, I think it’s through the lens of perseverance that I think we can best understand Ben’s post: It’s not as if Ben hasn’t had his “questioning” days. He is not “against criticism” – he has already criticized, and he’s found himself the side of Orthodoxy. So he’s been through the ringer and is tired of self-imposed cognitive dissonance – so what? Especially in the realm of biblical-criticism, within which the mythical theories of what “really happened” are growing exponentially, (and exponentially conflicted), who wouldn’t expect a kind of warm sentiment towards the familiarity of faith? (Surely this works the other way around as well: After a while, any ideology that we profess all the time becomes something virtually invulnerable to criticism.) Anyhow – Ben sums up his whole post with an analogy; “Faith… is as good as Christmas” which gets at the heart of what I felt he was saying: Faith is something that is perpetually recurring (whether we like it or no) and cannot be done away with (though we may choose not to celebrate it). We may as well learn to enjoy and celebrate the mystery of faith rather than constantly skewer it with (often unnecessary and, in regards to something like “higher-criticism”, I think very childish) doubts.

    I don’t think anything I just mentioned translates to the notion that when doubts come we “run away” from them or just stop up our ears. It means that the Orthodox Christian wrestles them, and wrestles with the intent to beat them, and, through the grace of God, will defeat them.

    Ok – so much for the “sentimental, romantic” stuff. As far as biblical criticism goes, I’m actually quite surprised that in an intellectual climate such as the one here at AUFS – one that continually emphasizes the importance of ontology – genuine bewilderment over why someone would ask to “just believe” in the virgin birth is even expressed in the first place. When we enter into any form of ontological discourse often times the only way to intelligibly proceed in discussion is to “just believe” certain assertions (if only virtually) – and often such “virtual beliefs” for the sake of argument end up becoming an ideological position we end up adhering to. I mean… speculative realism, anyone?

    Well, anyway – maybe I was just reading his post in a different light. I certainly didn’t think he was advocating a kind of “anti-critical” approach to faith, and if he was, that certainly doesn’t describe the Orthodox tradition.

  11. First, thanks for responding to the actual post.

    I recognize that Ben is not a fundamentalist and he clearly states that in his younger, arrogant days he used to be proud and cynical and sophisticated in his dismissal of the Virgin Birth. These all communicate a certain attitude towards those who have a different relationship to orthodoxy. Or, to put it another way, the mature decision, humble decision is to side with the tradition. The implicit message is that those who don’t end up there are arrogant, pretentious, etc.

    You didn’t think he was advocating an anti-critical approach even though the post is titled “why it is better to believe the creed than to criticize”? I realize you think my rebuttal was uncharitable, but I think you are conceding too much here.

    I notice you didn’t reply to the part of his post that I found most concerning, namely, the idea that faith is good because it helps answer “basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.” Again, that strikes me as anti-critical.

    Regarding your comments about ontology and AUFS, each author is different and this post reflects my thinking.

  12. Jeremy,

    I think Ben’s point is precisely, as the title indicates, that it is better to believe than to criticize; it does not follow that is is good to be anti-critical. Criticism is good, but faith is better. Perhaps you are right in saying this isn’t Ben’s main point (and I suppose we could just ask him) – but this is how I understood the piece.

    As far his comment about “basic questions being [already] settled”, I think he simply means that myth is a good thing, and since we all live and operate within some mythical structure, it’s a bonus that the Christian myth is millennia old and has such an intricate and rigorous philosophical history. It is a good thing to believe something “larger than yourself” as it were; self-made/individualistic myths are (in my opinion) flimsily and are a relatively modern phenomenon anyway (I think of Freud, for example.)

  13. I have no reason to accept your point that faith is better than criticism. Where’s the argument? Presumably you don’t believe because it’s good for you, but you believe because it’s true.

    It’s good to believe in something larger than ourselves by virtue of the fact that it’s been around for awhile? Why is it good to believe in something larger than yourself? Doesn’t this pave the way for the individual to abdicate responsibility by relying on a Big Other? Why do we need a mythic structure to fall back on? Isn’t it to avoid the ontological anxiety that we would experience if were honest about our existence (in Lacanian terms to avoid the cut of castration and alienation when the subject falls into language)? Just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean one has to become omnipotent, grandiose, individualistic, or self-made. In fact, not having a God to fall back on, might drive people to be in solidarity with one another because, in the final analysis, all we have is each other

    Freud is bad because he’s modern? Freud is only bad if he’s wrong.

  14. I never said Freud is bad, I said that his mythos is, in my opinion, much weaker than the classical mythologies that have been handed down for millennia. This doesn’t necessarily mean that older is better, but perhaps there is a reason why Orthodoxy has aged so well while other forms of myth have died out.

    Criticism isn’t bad, either. Faith is “better” than criticism in so far as faith directs the way in which one is critical: To critique an ideological structure, one must first place faith either in an opposing structure, or at least faith in the idea that the structure pending critique is worth critiquing in the first place. In this way, faith is always “above” criticism because faith precedes it.

    There is no lack of criticism within Orthodoxy. This is why Paul exhorts the communities of believers to “stand firm in the faith” and to “fight the good fight of faith”: To hold firm in faith is not a passive acceptance of easily digestible ideas and actions, it is a continual fight against all other forms ideas and actions. Orthodox faith, then, is the ultimate criticism, because it criticizes everything that is not orthodox.

    As to your question, “Why is it good to believe in something larger than yourself?” I might equally ask, “How is it that we don’t believe in something larger than ourselves?” Nobody can really create an entirely individualistic philosophy; even Freud borrowed from the Greeks. I still contend, however, that the modern tendency to borrow from the epic sources only to do away with the cosmological foundation upon which they are built is something like picking fruit from a tree and wondering why, not buried in the earth, the fruit doesn’t grow back into a tree. At best the fruit ripens a bit, and then begins to rot. This is precisely the state of our modern ontological malaise – that of a rotten fruit. If we had any sense we’d stop trying to preserve or dissect the seeds that Orthodoxy has given us and we’d bury them under the earth and let them die.

  15. I’d have to know what you mean by Freud’s mythos. Freud envisioned psychoanalysis as a science, which is evident in his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895). This is currently apparent in the developments in neuropsychoanalytic research, an attempt to reconcile psychoanalytic metapsychology with modern neuroscience. I’ll grant you that Totem and Taboo is a myth, but Freud’s metapsychology was a scientific enterprise based on psychoanalytic research. I reject Ricoeur’s hermeneutical rendering of psychoanalysis, as I do not think it it is faithful to Freud’s project. Of course, some will claim that psychoanalysis is not scientific, but that seems a bit rash for three reasons. One, analysts have over a century of psychoanalytic data evident in case studies that prove the value of the psychoanalytic method. Two, there is a growing movement in the US that has verified the empirical efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy (psychoanalysis proper is harder to research). See Shedler’s (2010) paper “The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy”. Three, I have seen the benefits of psychodynamic practice (both as patient and therapist).

    I don’t know if I can get behind your notion that we must have ‘faith’, considering that we haven’t defined it. I agree with you that we all have beliefs and ideas that guide our reasoning and way of living. However, I think there’s a difference between belief and faith. Do scientists really have faith in science in the same way believers have faith in the divine? I don’t think so. Scientists and psychoanalysts attempt to verify their theory by putting it into practice and by subjecting it to the standards of science. Obviously, religion doesn’t have that luxury.

    Of course, we do believe in something beyond ourselves, e.g. in ethical notions of justice, love, and service. This serves to guide our critiques of various ideologies. We have to be honest about our presuppositions and the ways in which we arrived at these grounding ideals.

    I never argued that Freud emerged ex nihilo. Of course, he was constantly in conversation with philosophy, neurology and theorists of psychopathology (e.g. Charcot early on in his work).

    Orthodox faith, then, is the ultimate criticism, because it criticizes everything that is not orthodox.

    I don’t see how this makes Orthodox faith the ultimate criticism, at all. This is why the work of so much of theology is invariably boring and predictable. The conclusions are decided in advance. This is why I said I appreciate Pannenberg’s methodology, precisely because he attempts to argue for faith while not attempting to immunize Orthodoxy from other disciplines (e.g. history, science, philosophy, etc.). I can’t say the same for Barth. This was my whole point. If ‘divine’ events are off limits to critique, then theology is no longer accountable to anything beyond itself. This is a dangerous position, as it runs the risk of making theology irrelevant and irresponsible.

  16. Thanks for a thoughtful response to Ben’s post, as well as drawing my attention to it in the first place (I’ve been away from most blogs for a while). I, too, was disappointed with the sentimentality of Ben’s response, especially because of its attitude toward the creed(s).

    If the purpose of such authors as Luke and the other gospel writers is relevant to this conversation, then the purpose of the authors of the creed ought to be as well. Was the purpose of the creed to establish historical certainty about the virgin birth any more than NT authors? Or was it about imposing certain beliefs as the “straight and narrow” to the exclusion (sometimes exile) of others? I am sure there were many intents, possibly intentions in conflict with each other too. But I speculate that on average the intentions of NT authors holds closer to the desired humility being spoken of in this conversation than the creeds authors and enforcers.

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