Theology deadlock

One of the things I see as I watch the slow-motion train wreck that is the budget deadlock in Congress is a battle between two competing theologies.

These two competing theologies have, above all, differing notions of sin and salvation (soteriology):

On the one side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside primarily in individual humans. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily the responsibility of an individual. The way to fight sin, and move towards salvation, is to assign the highest level of responsibility to individuals. This theological position tends to deplore government intervention in social problems, such as providing health insurance; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals, not impersonal social structures, are ultimately responsible for saving themselves and, e.g., taking care of their own health.

On the other side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside both in the individual and in social institutions; however, in practice the emphasis tends to be on social salvation and social sin, since social sin is perceived to be so much more powerful a force than individual sin. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily a battle that must be fought in social institutions. The way to move towards salvation is to assign the highest priority to fighting sin in society. This theological position tends to urge governmental solutions to social problems; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals are not powerful enough in themselves to fight social sin, and must use social structures such as government to fight sin and reach salvation by establishing a moral society.

These two different theological positions also have differing understandings of the nature of human beings (theological anthropology): Continue reading “Theology deadlock”

Theological disunity

In a previous post, I looked at some areas where Unitarian Universalists have a great deal of theological unity. Now I’d like to turn to four areas where there is far less unity.

(1) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding a fundamental ontological claim of process theology. To oversimplify, process theology asserts that God is in the process of evolving. Therefore, a Unitarian process theologian like Charles Hartshorne might call the concept of omnipotence a “theological mistake”; God cannot be omnipotent because God is in process. By contrast, many Unitarian Universalists today will argue that if you’re going to talk about God, one attribute that God must have is omnipotence; this is the foundation for many arguments by Unitarian Universalist atheists or humanists showing that God must not exist.

This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of God, and about the nature of reality (ontology).

(2) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding one key component of most liberation theologies. Continue reading “Theological disunity”

Moral decisions about eating, pt. 2

A distinction that I’ve found provocative when thinking about moral decisions about eating is the three-way distinction between those decisions give priority to other human beings, those decisions that are most concerned with one’s own self, and those decisions that give priority to non-human beings. For example, one can distinguish between three types of strict vegetarians:

  1. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat and animal products because they are concerned that animal food products can use up to 16 pounds of grain per pound of animal, which could mean that raising animal products could take food out of the mouths of starving people;
  2. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that meats may adversely affect their health;
  3. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that raising and slaughtering animals for food leads to unnecessary pain and poor lives for the animals.

In reality, of course, many strict vegetarians use all three types of moral reasoning; but even so, usually one of these three types of moral reasoning generally will feel most important to any one person.

The first type of moral reasoning above is likely to be acceptable to nearly all religious liberals. Even though we will argue about the specifics, we commonly hold an ethical standard that we should act in such a way that we minimize harm to other people. Thus, if we all agreed that eating meat is really going to take food out of the mouths of starving people, causing them serious harm, we would generally agree that we should stop eating meat. (Of course, we don’t all agree that eating meat is going to harm others; the devil in moral reasoning is often in the details.)

The second type of moral reasoning above is least likely to be given much weight by religious liberals. While most of us would agree that it’s important to take care of oneself and to refrain from damaging oneself, nevertheless we are not particularly concerned with treating our body as a sort of holy temple; we’d place a much higher priority on making the world a better place for all persons. (I’d even say the reason many religious liberals take care of their health is to have more energy to make the world a better place for all.)

The third type of moral reasoning above remains under contention among religious liberals. While every religious liberal that I know feels that taking care of the entire ecosystem is a moral imperative, some religious liberals want to do this because we humans depend on the health of the ecosystem for our own health; that is, not harming the ecosystem is of secondary importance to not harming human beings — whereas other religious liberals want to take care of the ecosystem because they feel it is more important than human beings. (This latter position is sometimes referred to as Deep Ecology, or being “deep green” rather than merely “green.”)

If we let it, this conversation can take us to some interesting questions:— What’s most important in the universe: humanity, or something else? — and what do we name that something else? —God? —creation? (which begs the question, created by what or whom?) —earth? —the universe?

And those interesting questions, and others like them, can lead us to examine the roots of our theologies. Thus, one of the reasons I can’t call myself a humanist is that I can’t place utmost importance on human beings; I would call myself a Transcendentalist where my understanding of the universe tells me there’s something that transcends humanity, something before which I and all humanity must feel very small and insignificant; and this leads me towards some kind of Deep Ecology. By contrast, many of the liberal Christians I know are humanists; that is, even though they are committed to protecting God’s creation, they would consider human beings to be of utmost importance. (Here I’m using “humanist” in the broader sense of the word that goes back at least to Erasmus; I’m not using “humanist” in the new, reductive sense of the word that merely means “rejecting God”.)

From what I’ve seen, there’s an almost unresolvable difference between those who place humanity at the center of the universe, and those who place something else at the center of the universe. And in the latter group we can also find some unresolvable differences; there are those like me who place something hugely and transcendentally larger than humans (the ecosystem? God? Gaia?) at the center of universe; there are others who are more concrete and specific about what’s placed in the center of the universe (animals including perhaps human animals, etc.). All these nearly unresolvable differences help explain why our moral arguments about eating don’t often seem to get very far — we are often arguing from very different frames of reference.

“Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”

Carol and I have finally been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the 2000 bestseller that gave a popular account of some scientific research in epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. Like Dr. Johnson, neither one of us has wanted to read the whole book all the way through*, so it lives in the bathroom, and we read bits of it when we’re not looking through the catalogs and magazines that also live there.

But while I haven’t actually read the book, I have been reading the end notes, which are really more informative than the book. In these endnotes I finally came across a reference I have wanted for some time: a reference to the scientific work that helps explain why human organizations with less than about 150 members are qualitatively different than human organizations with more than 150 members. The reference is: Robin I. M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution, 1992, vol. 20, pp. 469-493.

And why should we care about the size of primate neocortexes? The neocortex is the part of the brain through which primates keep track of relationships; the larger the neocortex, the more relationships a given species of primate can keep track of; thus the large size of the Homo sapiens neocortex allows us humans to keep track of all the relationships in a group of up to about 150 members. When, however, human organizations are larger than 150 members, individuals can no longer keep track of all the relationships, and the group therefore feels qualitatively different.

This helps explain why congregations often stop growing when their active membership (measured as the average weekly attendance of adults and children) becomes larger than 150. My guess is that because our neocortex can’t handle any more relationships within that group, we literally cannot relate to any newcomers who may arrive. And if the newcomers can’t make connections with the other primates in the congregation, they’re not going to stick around — we primates are social critters who want to make connections with others of our species. This also helps explain why something like three-quarters of all U.S. congregations have an average attendance of fewer than 200 adults and children — we’re just more comfortable in groups with 150 or fewer humans. 

Whether a congregation is growing or not may thus have less to do with the attractiveness of the congregation’s theology than with the neocortex size of the primates who make up that congregation.

* “Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’” — Boswell, Life of Johnson, Monday 19 April 1773.