The Predicament of Belief -- A Review

THE PREDICAMENT OF BELIEF: Science, Philosophy, and Faith.  By Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  X + 184 pages.

                The word “apologetics” might not be the best descriptor for The Predicament of Belief, but that may have less to do with the intent of the authors, and more to do with the accumulated baggage from other apologetic enterprises.  The Predicament of Belief is not an attempt to accumulate evidence that demands a verdict; rather, like Schleiermacher’s Speeches to the Cultured Despisers the authors of this book seek to present theism as a reasonable and viable understanding of ultimate reality to an increasingly skeptical audience.    

                Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp are scholars and persons of faith.  Both have impressive academic credentials.  Clayton is Ingraham Professor of Theology and Dean of the Claremont School of Theology, along with serving as the founding Provost of newly born Claremont Lincoln University.  He has published numerous books and articles on theology and philosophy.  One of his primary interests is the relationship of religion and science.  I’ve previously reviewed two of his books, and have had the opportunity to personally dialog with him on matters theological.  Steven Knapp is President of George Washington University and Professor of English at that university.  Although this is my first encounter with Knapp, this isn’t his first collaboration with Philip Clayton.   Together they seek to address the “predicament of belief” by taking up the challenges presented by science, philosophy, and religious pluralism to a coherent and viable theism.    

Although brief in scope, this isn’t an easy read.  The reader will need to have a good grasp of the relevant issues, but then most skeptics and questioners have informed themselves on the issues.  They simply seek a reasonable answer to their questions.   The hope of the authors is that this is a reasonable response, even though some beliefs will transcend rationality.  This is especially true as one moves from the general to the more specific.  It is one thing to affirm the idea of an Ultimate Reality (God) and quite another to believe that this Ultimate Reality was present in and through a particular person in history, such as Jesus of Nazareth.  This is, therefore, why the authors shy away from calling this book a “manual of Christian apologetics.”  This is an attempt to lay out a “minimalist personal theism,” rather than lay out a robust orthodox vision of faith.

The authors recognize that there are significant obstacles to faith, but they also believe that one needn’t be content with agnosticism.  The Christian minimalist  position, in their estimation, assumes that the “reasons for affirming Christian claims are stronger than the reasons for denying them” (p. 18).  The faith they offer holds that the natural world stems “from a not-less-than-personal ultimate reality, a way of conceiving divine action that is compatible with scientific methods and results, and a way of interpreting the New Testament resurrection claims that we think remains plausible for men and women in the twenty-first century” (p. 22).  They do this knowing that there are significant reasons for having doubts about the religious enterprise. 

Starting with the objections to faith and then moving on to a discussion of the nature of the ultimate reality and the way this reality (God) is active in the universe, while taking into consideration religious pluralism, they lay out the foundations for a minimalist personal theism (MPT), addressing along the way continuing concerns and objections. 

It is the two chapters dealing with the particular that should draw considerable attention, and the authors acknowledge that this is the heart of the predicament addressed by the book.  One will have had to buy into the more general arguments for a minimalist personal theism to make it this far.   If you accept the premise that there is an ultimate reality that is not less than personal, and recognizing that there are a variety of options available to explain that ultimate reality (religious pluralism), then perhaps you’re ready to make a home in one particular tradition.  Their understanding of this reality involves the assumption that God does not stand outside the universe intervening in supernatural ways.  That assumption may not be robust enough for many Christians, but it fits with their panentheistic understanding of God (the world is in God).  With regard to the particularities of the Christian faith their focus is on two questions – the resurrection and the uniqueness of Christ.  They deal with issues such as the Trinity as well, but these are the two topics that draw their primary attention. 

They offer a number of possible ways of understanding the resurrection, from metaphor to bodily resurrection (sort of from Borg to Wright).  They can’t affirm the traditional understanding of a bodily resurrection because it is unsustainable, in their minds, when set against a scientific framework.  They also find the metaphorical/symbolic version less than true to what the early Christians envisioned, and thus they propose a participatory model of the resurrection.
Human beings share the “Spirit of Christ” insofar as they enter into the same relationship with God that was embodied in Jesus’ self-surrender to the one he called his “father.”  The heart of this theory, in other words, is that, in the event that came to be known as Jesus’ resurrection, his self-surrendering engagement with God became newly available, through the agency of the divine Spirit, to his followers, then and since, as the form, model, and condition of their own engagement with the divine.”  (p. 90). 
This understanding doesn’t address what happened to Jesus specifically, but it does suggest that the disciples of Jesus, then and now, participate in his relationship with God in a transformative way.

                Further, the authors address the question of uniqueness of Jesus.  How does Jesus embody or represent the ultimate reality?   The participatory theory involves the assumption that in Jesus we participate in the reality that is God, through him, but that doesn’t mean that he is the one and only way for this to occur.  The New Testament does assume that Jesus is the highest and fullest instance of human participation in the person and presence of God.   But, how strong should our claims be?  Clayton and Knapp seek a way between the exclusivist position and one that resist all such claims.  They prefer to move beyond an either/or solution to one that affirms some aspects of uniqueness without ruling out other ways in which God is present.   The resurrection appearances offer a means by which one can envision the Spirit of God making the presence of Christ available, even if not in a bodily/physical form.  Jesus, by the Spirit, remains personally but not physically present.  It’s not a metaphor and it’s not a vision, but it’s not Wright’s physical/bodily/tangible presence.   I appreciate their attempt at finding a middle ground, though I’m left wanting a more robust understanding of the resurrection.  
                They close the book with two chapters that revisit the questions of doubt and belief, and it’s here that they address issues such as the Trinity.   Then they close with a chapter that deals with the church, and what the church might look like if it allows for a rather wide spectrum of beliefs.  Can the church survive and thrive if at its heart it requires a minimalist perspective?  The authors offer their vision of the church as the most reasonable way of reaching those who see themselves as spiritual but not religious (about 72% of millennials).   The reality is that we likely don’t have a choice.  We can be hard and fast with doctrinal rules, but that works only for a rather small number of folks, and its shrinking quickly.  Can the church thrive if membership doesn’t require that adhere to one particular understanding of God or of Jesus’ relationship to God? 

As we ponder this question the authors note that in presenting the church in this fashion we must also take into serious consideration a question raised by John Cobb:  does it matter?  Cobb is no conservative, but his suggestion that progressive denominations could be declining because we don’t always seem to believe that what we’re saying and doing is all that important.   Unless this faith gives meaning to our lives, it won’t live on, especially in an age where religion doesn’t have much social value. 

Ultimately this is the question that we face.  Does it matter whether we believe or not?  Even if we can overcome the challenges of science and theodicy and religious pluralism, does the Christian faith offer meaning to our lives? 

My feelings about this book are mixed.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent my entire life as a Christian and because I was an evangelical and still have some evangelical elements to my theology, I’m left wanting more.   This is especially true of the resurrection.  I’m not sure that their solution is sufficient for me.  That may be true for other readers.  On the other hand, I think this would be a most useful book for my friends that are struggling to accept even a minimalist theism.  I think that it will help move people beyond agnosticism, and maybe even atheism.   So, maybe my mixed feelings have more to say about me than about the author’s project. 

Read the book, especially if you struggle with doubt.  If you’re one who seeks a more robust view of God and of Jesus’ relationship to God, then you might be left wanting more, but recognize that the authors really aren’t speaking to you.  It has its audience, and hopefully it will help draw into the body those who struggle to find meaning for their lives.  One of the reasons why a book like this may not appeal to everyone is that many people prefer a more black and white kind of faith.  The faith they offer is rather complex and even messy, and that can be troubling.  


Jeff said…
IMHO, the Gospel according to Mark leaves more room for this kind of endeavor. It conveys its message by showing not telling, and it lacks the theological pre-digested 'this is how you think about these events' quality of the other Gospels. One is left to answer for one's self just who this Jesus is, and to wrestle with what to make of an empty tomb as well.
Tripp said…
You said about the resurrection stuff "I appreciate their attempt at finding a middle ground, though I’m left wanting a more robust understanding of the resurrection." How would you suggest saying more? I mean if you allow for a certain type of interventionist divine action it undoes the theodicy chapter and creates a whole series of other predicaments. I say that because I had the same reaction as you but have found that the argument of the book itself makes one aware of the theological consequences for insisting on saying 'more' when it may have collateral theological damage, be more than the NT was wanting to say, or just because I grew up asserting something different.
Robert Cornwall said…

I understand the dilemma (predicament). I'm not sure how this works. Once you let the camel's nose of intervention in, you end up with an open can of worms. That said, my gut wants a more robust doctrine of the resurrection. I don't have a solution though!! Hoping someone else will come up with one.
Tripp said…
know the feeling!
Philip Clayton said…
Bob, thanks for a fair and accurate review -- as always! Note that we are not evangelizing for liberalism. We also say that we want to stay as close to the traditional affirmations as possible, and we welcome those who believe they can justify more robust assertions than we can justify. This is not an ideological book. It's the story of two Christians who are struggling with the reasons for doubt and who are affirming as much of the tradition as they can affirm in light of the objections.
Robert Cornwall said…
Philip, thanks for your comments on the review. I think you captured the struggle that many of us have with finding a pathway that is true to reason and true to our hearts. The idea that the resurrection is mere metaphor leaves me cold. Your solution has much merit, though my heart wants more.

I will definitely suggest this book to my friends who struggle with belief. You have caught their dilemma well!

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