Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Bleakness of "Radical Theology"

Richard Grigg was recently a guest lecturer at William Jewell College (WJC). Although I heard only one of his two lectures, I found it quite engaging and thought-provoking.

Grigg (b. 1955), who has an M.Div. degree from Drew University and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, has been teaching in the Religious Studies Program at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut since 1985. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Beyond the God Delusion: How Radical Theology Harmonizes Science and Religion (2008).

Grigg’s lectures at WJC were quite closely related to his latest book, in which he rejects traditional theism in the first chapter. He writes about the God of traditional theism as being “the God who can answer prayer, guide history, and provide eternal life” (p. 37). In place of theism, Grigg forwards “radical theology” in his second chapter. That leads to the next chapter,  "Beyond Theism: A Scientifically Informed Pantheism.” That kind of pantheism is what Grigg presents as his radical theology.

I was impressed by Grigg’s humility and candor. No one could accuse him of holding to a position that was the result of some kind of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that the theology he presented was very bleak. And I had the feeling that Grigg himself was sad because now he finds himself unable to maintain the theistic faith that he, most likely, embraced in the past.

In his lecture, Grigg compared the “big claims” of traditional theism with the little claims of his radical theology. In all five areas considered, it seemed clear that the claims of theism were much more attractive. But because of his scientific worldview, he was unable to affirm that theistic position, as he probably once did.

My previous post was about the rejection of an eternal hell. Grigg not only rejects that concept but also the idea of an eternal heaven. He declared that there can be no eternal life apart from God. For a scientifically informed pantheism, though, there is no room for the idea of a personal life in heaven after death. For humans and all other forms of life, death is simply a part of the natural cycle and has to be accepted as such. There is just no place for a concept of eternal life (seen as conscious existence) in the scientific worldview.

At the close of his lecture, Grigg recommended serious consideration of Anselm’s well-known words about “faith seeking understanding.” And he ended by encouraging his listeners to “believe boldly,” and then adding, “Make sure you plumb your faith with your intellect.”

I have long been an advocate of faith seeking understanding. That stance has been a basic part of my intellectual endeavors for decades. But I am also fond of another phrase used by Anselm, credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand).

There is a problem with appeals to autonomous human reason. Our intellects are shaped by our basic beliefs, our presuppositions. So do we plumb claims about God with our intellect shaped by belief in the scientific world view, or do we plumb the claims of science by belief in the Creator God?


  1. Thanks for your post. Your last post sent me to the bookstore; I'm going to resist this week, although Grigg's book sounds much better to me than Bell's.
    It sounds like Grigg is making a fundamental mistake (and I'm speaking here based entirely on your post and thus mostly ignorant of Grigg's argument). The mistake is to assume that what science cannot demonstrate does not exist. That in itself is a materialist metaphysics that results in a faith of scientism.
    I would agree that theology cannot, with intellectual honesty, hold doctrines that are incompatible with scientific findings. That doesn't mean that the metaphysics of faith must conform to the metaphysics of science. That science can't demonstrate the existence of something beyond empirical experience doesn't mean that nothing exists beyond that experience.
    That being said, I would argue that the test of the truth of theological claims cannot be their attractiveness. The claims of theology are like lovers. The most beautiful lover is not necessarily the truest. :-)

  2. Here is a comment just received by e-mail from one of my older, and highly respected, Thinking Friend:

    "At 85 years I have allowed my faith and to become less complex with a focus on Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-3. Of course the important word from my point of view is FAITH. That does not mean that turn off our brain. Thanks for helping me to keep thinking about my faith."

  3. I am thankful for the brilliant theistic scientists of the past and present, many of whom were willing to change their presuppositions, who have laid out a rational place for faith.

    One such man was Billy Mudd, a college professor who was later terminated for his alcoholism, who challenged one presuppositional theory with physical evidence in class and published his proof.

    Skepticism is not a bad thing, especially for a theist from Missouri.