I am repeatedly told—as have all of us sympathetic to New Atheism—that we are not engaging with the “very best” of theological thought, the so-called “Sophisticated Theology™” (I notice that the term now has a nice RationalWiki entry, and I will greedily claim credit for the trademarked phrase). Instead of dealing with Kierkegaard, Tillich, or (God forbid) Plantinga and Aquinas, we are said to caricature religion, taking it to be the faith of fundamentalist yahoos or extremist Muslims. Modern religion, we’re told, is not closely tied to any form of literalism. In fact, just today I was accused by a colleague of making that mistake. I gladly accept the charge, since most believers are theists and therefore, at least to some extent, literalists.
As Sophisticated Theologian™ John Polkinghorne said, “I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motive an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorange in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.” This is merely a modern restatement of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:13-14): “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
Such criticisms of New Atheists also neglect the fact that, at least in America, the vast majority of Christians continue to embrace a faith that rests solidly on belief in Satan, Heaven, Hell, the divinity of Jesus, and the Resurrection. Islam has its own faith claims, and I doubt that many Muslims see Allah as an ineffable Ground of Being. And, of course, even Sophisticated Theologians™ like Plantinga believe in the Resurrection and the notion that Jesus was the son of God.
The argument that “sophisticated” religion is that brand of religion free of epistemic claims fails to acknowledge that no brand of religion knows more about God than any other; ergo “sophistication” rests not on more advanced knowledge, but on the ability to use fancier words or gain affiliation with a university. In what sense is Tillich more “sophisticated” than William Lane Craig? Does Tillich know more about God than does Craig? I don’t think so.
But I fulminate—as I’m wont to do with faced with accommodationists or apologists who accuse us of ignoring Sophisticated Theology™, as if that represents mainstream religion. If you read Sophisticated Theology™ as Walter Kaufmann did, you’ll see that it is a pile of garbage, steaming away in a dump of intellectual dishonesty. Its advocates make things up exactly like Less Sophisticated Theologians, but, as Kaufmann notes, they try to have their cake and eat it too, striving to simultaneously satisfy both semi-literalists and more sophisticated believers. Kaufmann has no love for people like Kierkegaard.
I’ve just finished Kaufmann’s great book Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Here’s his take on the cherry-picking that characterizes modern theology (p. 157).
56. Gerrymandering. This is a political term, but unfortunately, politicians have no monopoly on dividing districts in an unnatural and unfair way to give one party an advantage over its opponent. Many theologians are masters of this art. Out of the New Testament they pick appropriate verses and connect them to fashion an intellectual and moral self-portrait which they solemnly call “the message of the New Testament” or “the Christian view”; and out of other Scriptures they care all kinds of inferior straw men.
Theologians do not just do this incidentally: this is theology. Doing theology is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in which the verses of Scripture are the pieces: the finished picture is prescribed by a denomination, with a certain latitude allowed. What makes the game so pointless is that you do not have to use all the pieces, and that the pieces that do not fit may be reshaped after pronouncing the words “this means.” This is called exegesis.
I love Kaufmann’s concision and dry wit.