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An Atheist Theologian

One of my (formerly) favorite writers on philosophical theology has become an atheist.

And, I’m not altogether sure how I feel about that.

411Rqlp-VNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In the early part of June I was at a get together for a couple I know from the church we attend. There were a lot of people there and I got into conversation with some of them. In one of those conversations I recommended  (as I often have) the writings of F. LeRon Shults, who teaches theology in Norway and has written several books I have read and appreciated. (The ones I’ve read are: The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology, Faces of Forgiveness, Transforming Spirituality, Reforming the Doctrine of God.) I’ve got two more titles on my Kindle — which I was going to read — but now I’m not so sure. If I am remembering correctly, in Reforming the Doctrine of God Shults identified himself as being both “evangelical” and “reformed.” I’m okay with the “evangelical” part — especially since there is a rather broad tent for some of us who like that designation — and quite a bit less so with the “reformed” part. Nevertheless, I’ve never felt any hesitation recommending his writings.

The incident in June  struck me funny the next day — when I discovered that Shults had since written two (quite expensive) books advocating atheism. (They are: Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture and Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism.) It struck me funny because I figured either (1.) I’ll never be at a gathering of people I know from church where I recommend his books again (which is a bit sad), or, (2.) I’ll never again be at a gathering of people I know from church (that is to say: I may need new friends).

There has been some interest, I know, in a kind of Christian atheism. I guess — I think — I don’t really know — that Peter Rollins is advocating something like this. I love to listen to Rollins. His parables are thought provoking. But, atheism per se is not interesting to me. I know there was some interest in the atheistic Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek  — because of Žižek’s fascination with the image of Christ. I always figured the Žižek / Milbank book The Monstrosity of Christ would probably be an interesting read — as would many other things.

F. LeRon Shults

F. LeRon Shults

But, it is not a “Christian atheism” which Shults is currently advocating — it is a far more thoroughgoing rejection.

I am biased. I have an immediately negative reaction to this. This arises not simply from the thought that I have wasted my life (a thought which has occurred to me anyway), but because of immediate emotional associations I have with these ideas. Atheism suggests to me meaninglessness, emptiness, despair, hopelessness, and the oppression of morally unrestrained political powers. Atheism seems to me to be tied to suicide — a connection the European existentialist writers understood well. I immediately think of the deaths in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and of Communist China, Communist Russia (under Stalin), the French Revolution, and so forth. I also think of Ayn Rand and her atheistic philosophy of individualism, greed, and selfishness. (Oddly enough, Rand’s philosophy has come to greatly influence conservative political opinion in the USA. But, I can’t help but think that the persistence of this type of thinking is bound to undermine all of society’s collective efforts toward the common good.)

It’s a subjective connection, but it is the first connection in my mind. Other people, I know, connect religion with oppression — and since many of them, I know, have experienced oppressive religion, I can understand that. For me, Christian faith is associated with hope and life, and atheism with meaninglessness and despair. It’s all a matter of how one’s life has gone, I suppose. I have seen too much, over the years, of the redeeming effects of evangelical faith, and of the surprising results of faithful prayer to be so dismissive.

And, for just that reason, Christian atheism is always a hard sell with me. Of course, stupid internet atheists — like the ones who post their pronouncements in the comments of Internet blogs — are no great recommendation either.

theology-after-the-birth-of-godBut, I also (in theory) think that Christian faith can benefit from atheistic critique. I am often hesitant to reply to such critiques. Actually, I am often somewhat in agreement with them.

And, all of us who have been part of the church are aware that there are toxic elements to church life. Legalistic, rigid, authoritarian forms of religion really are destructive. While they draw people who are looking for clear parameters for life, they generally also ride roughshod over them — crushing them and their individuality in the process. There are segments of the church that are spreading misinformation about science and evolution, about history, and about other matters. Fundamentalism — as commonly understood and practiced — proceeds from a misunderstanding of the literary and historical nature of the Bible. I could go on. Most of us realize that there are problems in the church — and the problems are at the local church level just as much (or more) than they are at the larger level. And, given the divisions and suspicions that exist in the church its often hard to see how reform is likely. There is hope, certainly. But, great pockets of toxicity will remain.

So, when people talk about the scientific study of religion, this seems to me like a good thing.  A view from the outside would be helpful.

And, this brings us back to Shults. His embrace of atheism is the result of his involvement in the bio-cultural study of religion. As a result of his study in this field he contends that belief in God, as such, results in the creation of in-groups and out-groups. Thus the very idea of God itself hinders the human race’s ability to address the problems that affect the human community as a whole. Religious spiritual practices (like Scripture, prayer, and worship) support the perception of God’s reality — thus feeding the problem. So, Shults’ current objection to theism is a moral objection.

Sadly, this development seems to consign Shults’ previous works to the junk pile. No one within the world of Christian theology will cite him now — since he has repudiated his own work.

the_god_debacleThis also seems to signal the total collapse of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theological program. In light of the developments in the thought of his students, Philip Clayton and F. LeRon Shults, it now appears that it eventuates in either a flaccid Christian neo-liberalism (see: The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith) or outright atheism (Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture). What Pannenberg intended as a call for Christians to engage in the realms of science and learning has become either a strategic retreat or a complete reversal.

Those who are interested in this (and if you’ve read this far apparently you are) are encouraged to either view or attend the upcoming event planned by Homebrewed Christianity in Redondo Beach, California on Wednesday, October 21 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM (PDT), The God Debacle. The aforementioned Philip Clayton & F. LeRon Shults will be discussing the idea of God in the light of our current understandings in science. The discussion should be very interesting.  Don’t be surprised if the ideas that come out of this discussion also end up being discussed here. I am looking forward to this event with great anticipation. (If you have read this far, you should be too.)

In fact, the following autobiographical remarks by Wolfhart Pannenberg seem to me to signal the emergence of this problem. Pannenberg is discussing the development of his systematic theology, and he says:

In my experience, the most difficult subject to deal with was the doctrine of God. I soon became persuaded that one first has to acquire a systematic account of every other field, not only theology, but also philosophy and the dialogue with the natural and social sciences before with sufficient confidence one can dare to develop the doctrine of God. In fact, not until the early 1980’s did I begin to feel solid ground under my feet in this area.

— Wolfhart Pannenberg, “An Autobiographical Sketch” The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (edited by Carl E. Brattan & Philip Clayton) Augsburg 1988 p. 16.

So, the difficult subject has returned! And, because I strongly suspect that the atheistic critique of religion — and Christianity in particular — has considerable validity to it, you can expect atheism to be a new topic here — in spite of my deep aversion to it.


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10 Responses to “An Atheist Theologian”

  1. Ann Ahnemann says:

    I would be interested in knowing how a person’s entire worldview could so dramatically, and for me sadly, change. If you know of an interview with Mr. Shultz about this please send it along. Ann

    • He has been interviewed in the Homebrewed Christianity podcasts. I don’t have the links right now, but I’ll see what I can find Ann. I am very interested in this, so it is likely that I will be writing about it.

  2. William says:

    Great post, Craig! That Pannenberg quote is excellent. As with most conferences, I look forward to a book being published. I also look forward to your future posts on this.

    • Yes. It’s very possible, that the Clayton / Shults conversation will eventuate in a book. We’ll see. Shuts’ atheist books look quite interesting but they are currently also very expensive. His previous writings are very good — but his renunciation of both Christianity and theism casts a shadow over them.

  3. Craig,

    I did not know this. I too have appreciated his work, especially his book, Christology and Science.

    • I have been quoting him on Twitter and on this blog for some time now. I have been recommending his writings when I get the chance. I especially appreciated the fact that his work seemed to be an extension of Pannenberg’s theological project. Now I am wondering if that can be extended at all.

  4. I mentioned that Shults’ atheism books are (currently) quite expensive, but I should also have mentioned that he has provided several significant essays that explain his position at the Free Downloads page on his website:

    Also, he has made several appearances on the Homebrewed Theology podcast, initially as an emergent theologian, and then as an atheist. You can find these interviews here:

    My brief summary of his position might seem (and actually is) rather simplistic and dismissive, so if you want to explore this further — without shelling out a lot of cash in the process — these would be good places to start.

  5. David Brush says:

    I believe Roger Olson was also a student of Pannenberg, so I wouldn’t say his project and influence has totally collapsed into one or the other of the camps you describe.

  6. As soon as I found this site I went on reddit to share some of the love with them.

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