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Monday, March 13, 2017



by Robert M. Price

I want to respond briefly to a challenge frequently issued by well­- meaning religious believers to the rest of us. In fact I am sure most readers will have been confronted personally with this challenge, namely, that a leap, or at least a step beyond reason is required if one is to live a full and well-directed life. The believer does not mean to violate reason, since reason is deemed fine as far as it goes. It just is not perceived as going far enough. It is held that the living of human life requires fundamen­tal answers beyond the kind available from mere logic. Thus, the challenge continues, a leap (or step) of faith toward belief in the Bible (or Reverend Moon, or whatever) is advisable. Only so can we be sure of the meaning of life, the proper moral code, etc. Fair enough. In the interests of friendly dialogue and mutual understanding, I want to take these claims seriously, and to indicate where I believe they fail to convince.

The Limits of Reason

First, in what way is reason said to be deficient? This claim is made in three different forms.
Sometimes the charge denotes the doctrine of the "noetic effects of the fall,” an implication drawn by some Calvinists (e.g., Cornelius Van Til) from the larger doctrine of "total depravity." Reality, it is held, truly operates according to reason and logic; the trouble is that sin has so blinded and warped the rational faculty of man that his logical capacity is a very poor one, and is fundamentally distorted. Otherwise, it would be plain to everyone that the Bible is the Word of God, etc. This argument is not to be taken too seriously, for its allegation must apply equally to the logical faculty of the one making the charge, at least so long as his words are understandable, however unconvincing, to the unbeliever. (If the Calvinist's "pre-fall" reason were regenerated and restored, would we "sinners" even be able to understand him?) Besides, since the only "reason" we know, the only “logic" we refer to by using that word, is being proscribed here, the result is the same as if we were simply being told to abandon reason in favor of a gnostic mysticism. And this is in fact what we are being told to do.

A second form of the "not reason alone" claim is that "post-fall" reason is still functional and healthy in itself, but that we unbelievers are "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” The facts are supposed to be plain, an open-and-shut case as a matter of fact. Reason alone should lead any open-minded person to believe in the Bible (or the Divine Principle, or whatever). The trouble is that unbelievers are not open-minded. We are really just throwing out a smokescreen to avoid repenting, because we’ve got something to hide. "Men love darkness rather than light, for their deeds are evil.” Therefore, only repentance and faith will take away the veil, and allow right belief to prevail. Again, this claim may quickly be brushed aside. It is a bald-faced ad hominem argument. It merely charges one with bad faith instead of actually dealing in logical refutation.

A third, and more weighty, form of the argument is that there is too much more to reality and to human life to allow us to remain content with what reason can provide unaided. Indeed isn't it easy to agree that the error of "scientism" is its imperious arrogance in ruling that only the quantifiable is real? Weren't the original logical positivists properly taken to task for not admitting that there are always other "language games" besides that of the scientifically demonstrable, in which statements may be judged meaningful? So the basic premise seems justified. Yet the way in which it is employed by the apologist for faith may seem more controversial.
Sometimes this challenge is brought to bear when there is no contesting the relevant facts. Suppose an evangelist or revivalist is challenging his hearers to begin a vital "personal relationship" with Christ. It is assumed that the audience is already nominally Christian, as is implied in the remark, "You may know about Christ, but do you really know him?" That is, even if one accepts the cognitive claims about Christ, there is more at stake in the situation. Volition, existential commitment, is just as important. Will you commit yourself to what you know with your mind? This is a point well taken. We run into difficulties, however, when those to whom the challenge is directed do not assume the cognitive validity of the religious claims. Suppose we do not already believe that Christ or the Bible is the revelation of ultimate Truth? Will existential commitment (a leap of faith) be adequate to carry us across the chasm of intellectual uncertainty? Blaise Pascal in his famous "Wager" said yes. So did William James in his deliberations on “the will to believe.” I want to examine the reasoning here, because there is more to it than first appears, yet there is finally less to it than there is supposed to be!

Intellectual Honesty

Thomas Henry Huxley held that it is actually immoral to accept intel­lectual convictions for which we do not have sufficient reason. Now of course one might be mistaken in an honest judgment of the facts, accepting for sufficient what is really insufficient reason. What Huxley meant to censure was what we commonly call "intellectual dishonesty," the witting acceptance of a rational-type position on other-than-rational, and thus inappropriate, grounds. The “leap of faith” appeal seems to be telling us that just such a jump is navigable and justifiable, since we need answers that reason alone cannot provide. We may (indeed must) readily admit that reason is but a formal instrument and that logic is always employed after presuppositions have been established. That is, of course, what presupposition means, after all.
But as "unbelievers" in revelation, we decline to leap, and this for two reasons. First, the logic of the argument assumes that there is only one "there" to leap to from "here.” Pascal says that if Christian dogma is true, then you have the devil to pay if you do not “wager" in Christ’s favor. But if it is false, then a "mistaken” wager will cost you nothing and will on the other hand provide happiness and security (albeit ultimately illusory, but so what?) for this life. Yet what if Christianity is false, but Islam is true? Uh- oh! You’re headed for hell! There are just too many possible directions in which to leap. And after the leap had been made, it would seem to have been the right choice, ipso facto. How could it seem otherwise, if the leap were really one of faith? But on this side of the chasm what guide have we? The "bet" Pascal wanted us to make is not the" sure thing he thought it was. One could lose one I s shirt, and at precisely the point when one made of asbestos might come in handy!

Another reason not to leap beyond reason to faith in a revelation is that this is not really allowed even by that extra- rational margin recognized just above. For if in life we must sometime s go beyond reason, would it not seem that our goal in so doing would be itself extra- (or pre-) rational? Yet the revelation provided by an inspired scripture or creed is rational in nature ("propositional revelation") however stridently it claims exemption from rational verification. Here is that inappropriateness of criteria that spells intellectual dishonesty.
            Of course, there are types of religion, e. g., mysticism or Liberal theology, wherein that religious" something more" does not pretend to take the form of privileged cognitive knowledge. For instance, for Paul Tillich revelation is an unveiling, but not a rational explanation, of the "Mystery of Being itself.” This kind of revelation claim, that of mysticism, is indeed "more than rational" and does deserve serious attention. I only mean to challenge those who would ask us to accept a rational-type belief on other­ than-rational grounds (i. e., faith).

A Place to Stand

At any rate, we say we are declining to take the leap advocated by believers. Yet they may reply that we have leapt already, merely by taking the position we hold, for “not to decide is to decide.” In other words, it is impossible to stand in the middle. We inevitably leap to one side or the other. We act on the assumption that the religion in question is true, or on the assumption that it is not true, no matter how agnostic (and thus technically neutral) we may claim to be. Living on the basis of any presuppositions is supposed to be a leap of faith. We all leap, then; we can do nothing else—so why be ashamed of leaping to the side of Christ or the Bible, etc.? The problem with this seemingly cogent point is that it depends on an equivocal use of the term "faith.” Is the “faith” of the one who simply declines to believe in revelation on the same level with the “faith” that does believe?
No, it is not, as religious apologists themselves quite clearly recognize in other contexts. For instance, the New Testament is clear that the kind of faith in view is nothing like the “faith” that, e.g., I really exist, that my body is substantial, that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse under me. Instead, we are told that “faith is the substantiation of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). The apostle Paul says that “we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This distinction is crucial. Faith in revelation is not faith in the inevitably evident. It is not the acceptance of those everyday realities which would take more faith to deny, the realities we cannot help but believe. Faith in the religious sense is that eulogized in the Gospel of John, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed” (John 20:29b). Or as Matthew puts it, faith is in realities which “flesh and blood hath not revealed unto thee, but rather my Father in heaven!! (Matthew 16:17). By contrast, no leap is necessary to attain the perhaps unspectacular certainties of the agnostic. So without leaping we are already standing someplace.
What the religious person is really asking us to do is to leap from the common ground of mundane existence occupied by everyone, to a higher ground where life’s answers are available to believers. But we ask if there is really any ground higher enough to merit attempting the climb. For per­haps where we stand now is not so bereft of the moral truths we are supposed to go seeking afar off, in some revelation. Let us look at some of the realities self-evident where we already stand. I have already mentioned those intuitive certainties which it would take a leap of faith to deny: my own existence, that of my physical body, the reality of my physical environment, etc. (Even Descartes admitted that his doubt of these things was only hyperbolic, all for argument's sake.) I believe we may add to the list certain moral truths, e. g., that persons deserve respect, that love is good, that honesty is obligatory, that truth is valuable. The crucial point is that these moral certainties seem to be intuitively established prior to any leap to “higher ground.” The religious apologist himself implicitly recognizes this when he urges that one ought to make the best available choice of possible revelations, presuppositions, directions in which to leap. He appeals to an implicit moral obligation to find and honor the truth. He assumes that prior to accepting the “revealed moral standards” he offers, the unbelievers will recognize the need8to find moral truth. And he is right- -we do! But then why urge us to look further? The basic urges to truth, love, and righteousness to which he appeals seem to us as undeniable as our perceptions that we exist in a real world. It would take faith to deny them. Intuition yields these convictions; what more has faith to offer? We fail to see why other ground would be higher than that which we already occupy. "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven? I or 'Who will descend into the deep?' For the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14).

Saving Knowledge

At this point our religious friend will naturally suggest another angle from which to view the problem. If he is willing to grant the unbeliever his moral seriousness, even the workable adequacy of his moral stance, another question would seem to remain outstanding. What if there is some “saving truth" available only to faith, and without which one will be damned? If this were true, the believer suggests with obvious cogency, wouldn't it be good to know it? The "blissful ignorance" of the agnostic might one day turn out to be anything but blissful (Remember our asbestos shirt.) If the question "whence morality?" is settled, the question of salvation still needs attention. A leap of faith might still be in order.
In answer, we must pose a counter-question. If God is a God of truth who requires honesty (and what creed denies it?), would he make salvation dependent upon an act of faith which some cannot make with intellectual integ­rity? Remember, we have already argued that to attain unto some alleged “saving/revealed truth" by a leap of faith would be impossible to do with intellectual integrity since it seems to entail accepting rational-type claims on other-than-rational grounds. If one must demur from the evangelist's offer of faith, because one is zealous for honesty, will the God of truth con­demn him? If our well-intentioned religious friend finds himself answering (however reluctantly) “yes,” then we must reject his offer as incoherent. For then it cannot really be the God of truth that we are being asked to obey!
Fundamentalists may have a rejoinder at the ready: “But the truth is often narrow and no one objects!” For instance, no pilot veers off his landing pattern because it would be narrow-minded to do otherwise. No one complains if a disease can be cured by only one treatment, so long as treat­ment is available at all. A point well taken, to be sure, but this is not the point at issue.
On the one hand, the line of reasoning just summarized does effectively refute the common liberal bias against the notion that one religion might be superior to others. (Is anyone really prepared to maintain that Buddhism or Judaism is not superior to the Rastafarian drug-cult?) Theoretically, there is certainly no reason that there might not be only one way of salvation, with non- believers in that religion being badly mistaken.
On the other hand, whether those non-believers (skeptics or believers in false religions) are damned by virtue of their ignorance is quite another question! And on this not even all Evangelical Christians are agreed. Some will allow some latitude for “those who have never heard the gospel.” But it is pretty well agreed that the rest of us are in trouble, whether we have simply declined to accept faith, or having once embraced it, now reject it.
Let us urge the religious believer to reconsider this position. Suppose that there is in fact one true plan of salvation and that we are “missing the boat" (however conscientiously) by not accepting it. Our doubts are not negative but positive since, as Paul Tillich would say, they are affirmations of' Truth. We reject this or that candidate for “truth" because we will be satisfied with nothing but the truth and are afraid that many notions do not pass muster as truth. We could not with intellectual integrity accept them. And if we have mistakenly cast aside as glass what turns out to be the gem of revelation, because we honestly could not recognize it as such, will we be damned for it? We would think better of a God of truth. So we admit to the religious person concerned for our eternal destiny, that he might in fact have the truth (as might a thousand other sectarians), but that the bare possibility is not cogent evidence. And, from his vantage point, we would suggest that he keep in mind the warning of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott: "Failing to recognize that faith is a gift and not exclusively a product of the human will, certain conservative Christians refuse to believe in the integrity of a man who says that he cannot believe" (Adamant and Stone Chips, p. 88). Even if we are wrong, we may not be damned.
Finally, in answer to our religious friends, agnostics, and unbelievers must deny that the limits of reason compel us to accept their claims for special “revealed truth” inaccessible by normal channels. We cannot see how the gap can be leapt with intellectual honesty. We deny that our refusal so to leap is in itself a leap. We are not convinced that a leap of faith would supply any lack, for we perceive no lack. Like the religious believer, we already love the truth, and so we fear no reprisals from the God of truth, if such there be. And we humbly acknowledge that there is always truth yet to find. But we feel ourselves on safer ground if we seek it in a manner that it may be found--that of rational inquiry. We wish to “test all things and hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Robert M. Price : H. Richard Niebuhr’s Doctrine of Revelation in the Context of Contemporary Theology

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Doctrine of Revelation
in the Context of Contemporary Theology

by Robert M. Price

Richard Coleman, in his fascinating and helpful book Issues of Theological Warfare: Evangelicals and Liberals, undertakes to explain the theological position of each protagonist to the other. The difficulty is obvious and did not go unnoticed by reviewers. It is the pride of Evangelical theologians that one can fairly represent the thought of their movement in systematic fashion. But does the bewildering maelstrom of Liberal Protestant thought lend itself to such pat schematization? Probably not, yet why is Coleman's thumbnail system of Liberal theology so helpful? 
We suggest that there are wide areas of agreement, or trends, which from time to time enable us to characterize Liberal theology as a whole. Or, to be more modest, there are at least broad types of Liberal theologies; or, even more modestly still, there are certain spectra in which the thought of a given Liberal theologian can be placed. 
The utility of such "placing" may be that it becomes apparent where a thinker might have taken his theology, or where he should have taken it in order to be consistent. We will ask such questions with regard to H. Richard Niebuhr, narrowing our focus to Niebuhr's doc­trine of revelation. When we compare his theories with those of conceptually kindred theologians who differ on this or that point, we have the opportunity, as it were, to test Niebuhr's thought with reference to a theological "control group." But on to the discussion itself.

As is well known, Niebuhr's acquaintance with the thought of Ernst Troeltsch made him attentive to the problem of historical relativism. How can the observer standing in the midst of the shifting sands of history claim any absolute or nor­mative reference point? Here appears our first question: According to Niebuhr, can revelation really tell us about reality?

Niebuhr admits the gravity of the problem as well as the high stakes he is gambling: “We are aware... that all our philosophical ideas, religious dogmas and moral imperatives are historically conditioned and this awareness tempts us to a new agnosticism.”1  
This is a problem dealt with engagingly in Peter Ber­ger's A Rumor of Angels. Berger suggests that all "signals of transcendence” in ordinary life be used to base a new theological reconstruction. Niebuhr dis­sents from this kind of solution. Such a course of action would be illusory since it could never start at ground zero as it pretends to do. Berger cannot help but use his traditionally-communally received religious notions to interpret such apparently neutral "signals." As Gordon Kaufman would say, Berger only has an idea of "transcendence” at all because he has received the concept from his religious tradition. Niebuhr proposes something different from an attempted escape from conditionedness: 

It is not apparent that one who knows that his concepts are not universal must also doubt that they are concepts of the universal, or that one who understands how all his experience is historically mediated must believe that nothing is mediated through history.2 

Thus it seems that for Niebuhr, revelation, though historically mediated, can indeed tell us about reality. It may "see in a glass darkly," but see it does. 
Here Niebuhr is very close to Tillich with his concept of religious symbols. Symbols, the media of revelation, participate in the Ultimate (or Holy) to which they point, yet without being identical to or exhausting that reality. Or in Francis Schaefer’s terms, they give us "true truth" without being "exhaustive truth."

But this does not give us the whole picture in Niebuhr. There are other statements in his writings, particularly in the key text The Meaning of Revela­tion, which sound much more consonant with an entirely different theological perspective. Niebuhr wants above all things to be fair. But one may wonder if he doesn't sometimes bend so far over backwards as to fall. He begins by pointing out that Christian assertions about reality are not exhaustive, even though sufficiently true. He seems to go on to suggest that all assertions, no matter how contradictory, at least might be equally valid. For instance,  

The events of history to which Christian revelation refers may be regarded from the scientific, objective, non-committed point of view.... when this is done it is apparent that the scientist has as little need for the hypothesis of divine action as Laplace had in his astronomy. 3

Moreover it seems evident that the terms the external historian employs are not more truly descriptive of the things-in-themselves than those the [believer] uses and that the former's understanding of what really happened is not more accurate than the latter's. 4 

The difference is one of perspective. It all depends 'on the "imaginative” gestalt one uses to order the otherwise random data of experience. And Niebuhr makes it clear that no finite knower can know the "ultimate nature of the event.”5 Here he is close to Bultmann:  

objectivity of historical knowledge is not attainable in the sense of absolute ultimate knowledge, nor in the sense that the phenomena could be known in their very "being in themselves" which the historian could per­ceive in pure receptivity. This "being in itself" is an illusion of an objec­tivising type of thinking.6

What we are suggesting is that certain statements of Niebuhr tend to under­mine his denial of agnostic relativism. In his skepticism about knowing the "ultimate nature of the event," Niebuhr almost approaches Paul Van Buren, a radical theologian on the fringe of the "Death of God" movement. Van Buren speaks of the "dissolution of the Absolute.” He adopts a radical "pluralism" which denies that things are ultimately to be characterized in any one fashion. All Christians know is that the story of Jesus has inexplicably grasped them with its contagion of freedom. He writes: 

“Meaning" is not some... shadowy element which lies "in" history. "Meaning"... refers to the attitude of the viewer.... It points to the way in which he sees history, to the discernment and commitment arising out of his study of one piece of history which influences the way in which he looks at the rest of history and also his own life. Logically, to find "meaning in history" is to have a "blik."7 

Before such questions as whether there is some absolute being, even "Being itself,” [the Christian] will be wise to remain silent. . . . What he has to tell is the story of Jesus and the strange story of how his freedom became contagious on Easter.8

Van Buren has been quoted at some length so that the reader may feel the impact of the similarity between Niebuhr’s statements (and the outlook implied in them) and the essentially agnostic and relativistic viewpoint of Van Buren, and all this despite Niebuhr’s disavowal of “a new agnosticism.” It seems that Niebuhr, to be consistent, should have, with Tillich, maintained an anchoring (though not exhaustive) truth-claim in Reality. Or with Van Buren, he should have gone the whole way to pluralistic, agnostic relativism. We could be chari­table and speak of a "tension" in Niebuhr’s thought, but why equivocate? This seems like a confusing contradiction.

Moving now to a second important facet of Niebuhr’s doctrine of revela­tion, we must ask about the status of the “Thou” encountered in revelation. Niebuhr plainly rejects the old notion of “propositional revelation" for "personal revelation, or encounter” (It is this preference, among other things, which has led commentators to place Niebuhr in the “Neo-orthodox" camp of theologians. It will become apparent that we question this piece of theological taxonomy.) Yet as James W. Fowler inadvertently demonstrates, the “personality" of God is one of the most elusive and ambiguous elements of Niebuhr's system (if it can be called a system). In his study of Niebuhr's thought, we are told how Niebuhr came increasingly to personalize his originally abstract concept of God, yet we are left with equivocal expressions like this: "we recognize that the Creator has something like personality.”9 The difficulty seems to be that Niebuhr defines God as the (abstract) "principle of being itself,”10 yet he adds "The ultimate principle is not logical, not mechanical... it is personal."11 Are not these two statements difficult to hold together? Niebuhr sets himself the same task as does John A. T. Robinson when the latter describes his "conviction that reality at its deepest is to be interpreted not simply at the level of its impersonal, mathematical regularities but in categories like love and trust, freedom, responsibility, and purpose.”12 Accordingly, for Niebuhr one's act of faith (trust plus loyalty) in God is one's affirmative acceptance of his own absolute dependence on the One.

Thus far, Niebuhr's God-concept is remarkably similar to Tillich's. Both would fit into what Gordon Kaufman calls the "teleological" model of transcendence, where God as Being is conceived as the unmoved mover. Though "personality" language may be used of such a God, it is only in a severely qualified sense. That is, to use Tillich's own distinction, God is here understood as the super­personal "ground of all personality." The "personal" qualities which so concern Niebuhr (and Robinson) are rooted in the ultimate ontological reality; e.g., "love" is grounded in the universal process of separation and return. One's faith-response to this absolute dependence on, or ontological participation in, Being is "the courage to be.” Yet Tillich is forthright in his admission that such faith is in "the God beyond the God of theism,” i.e., beyond (the image of) the personal God.

Niebuhr wants to take the personality of God farther. He characterizes God as the structure of causation and purposiveness. Intentionality is present in the historical context as a whole. With this development Niebuhr moves into Kaufman's second model of transcendence, the "interpersonal" model. Here per­sonalistic language, according to Kaufman, is more directly appropriate since in a real sense we are talking about a "living" God who "acts" and who reveals him­self in a succession of revelatory events (though not discontinuous, miraculously caused events). This factor of intentional will makes the difference. Or does it?

Niebuhr seems to run into an enormously significant problem here. God’s intentional will actually seems to make no difference. It "dies the death of a thousand qualifications" since it is essentially unverifiable.  

Love to God is conviction that there is a faithfulness at the heart of things: unity, reason, form and meaning in the plurality of being. It is the accompanying will to maintain or assert that unity, form and reason despite all appearances.13  

What kind of "unity, reason, form and meaning" are compatible with any apparent state of affairs, no matter how chaotic? If language means anything, such words are surely meant to make a claim about the discernable state of reality. Yet Niebuhr says they have really nothing to do with discernable reality. To put the dilemma in slightly different terms, let us consider another of Niebuhr’s state­ments: "This same structure in things... ‘means intensely and means good' ­not the good which we desire, but the good which we would desire if we were good and really wise.”14 In other words, we can be confident that God's provi­dential direction of things will issue in what is good. Unfortunately, however, God’s standards of “good” seem to have very little to do with ours! So, in the long run, we can be confident of nothing except that things will turn out as they turn out! Our standards of good give no indication of how things will turn out, though at the beginning of the quote they sounded like they could. Niebuhr's talk about “unity, form, reason, meaning,” or "willing the good” is finally just bait on the hook of theodicy. The all-important “intentionality” recedes from the arena of meaningful discourse.

Incidentally, these observations would tend to corroborate our earlier observation. That is, Niebuhr implies that faith/revelation does not allow us definitely to characterize reality in any way. Rather it gives us only a subjective “blik," in this case a positive disposition toward whatever happens rather than an assurance that something definite (definable) is happening, i.e., provident direction toward a meaningfully; good end. It only seems to give such assurance if one doesn't look too closely.

Niebuhr would have done well to stay (with Tillich) within Kaufman's first, "teleological,” model of transcendence. This model is quite adequate to Niebuhr's discussions in, e.g., Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (“Radical Faith ­Incarnate and Revealed in History") and The Responsible Self (“Responsibility in Absolute Dependence"), where he speaks of one’s encounter with, or responsibility toward, the One in whom we participate and meet in all our finite relations. The idea seems to be that one’s relation to Being may be characterized as “per­sonal" because life is not a spectator sport. Involvement in it is lived with the passion of subjectivity and requires an I-Thou, not I-it, relationship. This might imply that the “personal” applies, strictly speaking, more to the character of my relating than to that to which I relate.

Our comparisons of H. Richard Niebuhr with other contemporary theologians have attempted to clarify various threads of his thought by placing them in a larger context. In so doing, we have found reason to suggest that Niebuhr sometimes inadvertently tries to combine incompatible notions and sometimes tends toward positions much more radically liberal than one would at first think.

1 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan Company, 1974), p. ix. 
2 Ibid., p. 13.  
3 Ibid., p. 41. 
4 Ibid., p. 45.  
5 Ibid., p. 61 
6 Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology, The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962), p. 121. 
7 Paul Van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York: Macmillan Company, 1966), pp. 112-113.      
8 Ibid., p. 144. 
9 H. Richard Niebuhr, quoted in James W. Fowler, To See the Kingdom, the Theological Vision of H. Richard Niebuhr (New York: Abingdon Press, 1974), p. 182. 
10 H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970), p. 32. 
11 Niebuhr, quoted in Fowler, p. 194. 
12 John A. T. Robinson, Exploration into God (Stanford, California: Stan­ford University Press, 1967), p. 29. 
13 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 37. 
14 Niebuhr, quoted in Fowler, p. 80.

Robert M. Price : Some Difficulties in Process Christology

Some Difficulties in Process Christology

by Robert M. Price

1. Introduction

Surely one of the most discussed (since most important) aspects of theology today is Christology, the theological meaning of Jesus Christ. No school of thought can manage to avoid it; to all of them Jesus still addresses his question “And who do you say that I am?”  Or, conversely, modern theologians no more than ancient Fathers can avoid asking in chorus “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” This is true even among theologians of the Process camp, who are known for their reemphasis on the doctrine of God, in reaction to the exaggerated Christocentricity of Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy. In the present essay, we will attempt to assess the validity of some efforts by Process thinkers to make sense of Jesus Christ. What weaknesses may be uncovered will probably be just as symptomatic of troubles besetting modern Liberal Christology as a whole.

2. Distinctive Christology?

First, let us try to evaluate just how novel and distinctive a Process Christology is. What is the point of such an inquiry? After all, what has novelty to do with the truth of an idea? To listen to the Process thinkers themselves, one would imagine that novelty is very important indeed, because all the old Christological answers either were always inadequate or have proven to be so in the light of newer developments. For instance, Norman Pittenger is forthright in his admission that “We do not believe any longer in divine intrusions or miraculous deliverances.”1 Anyone can see that, with this observation alone, apparently repre­sentative of all Process theologians, there is going to be quite a bit of adjustment necessary. But it doesn’t simply stop at the rejection of myths and miracles. Process theologians follow Whitehead in his conten­tion that abstract concepts such as “substance” and “essence” are not the proper currency of modern metaphysics. All such terms suffer from "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” and give us a distorted picture of reality. Instead, one should realize that everything is ever “in process.” Not only can one never step into the same river twice (Heraclitus); one cannot even step into the same river once (Cratylus)! The only constancy by which “things” or individuals may be characterized is a certain "routedness” of continuous “drops of experience.”
If the map of reality must be so drastically redrawn, it is no surprise that new categories for Christological thinking are necessary. And we seem to have them in Schubert Ogden’s “re-presentation," John Cobb’s "fields of force," etc. But there may be less here than meets the eye. We may find reason for doubting that here we have truly “something new under the sun." First of all, one may note a striking similarity between the seemingly fresh ideas of Process Christology on the one hand, and much older Liberal theology on the other. The most outstanding example here is that of John Cobb. Cobb searches for a new way to formulate God’s incarnate presence in the man Jesus.  He proposes, by means of Process conceptuality, that Jesus experienced no tension between his own will and the Logos (the divine lure toward creative transformation). Thus God's will became the basis for the integration of his personality. In other words, Jesus' self was co-constituted by the Logos. “In Jesus there is a distinctive incarnation because his very selfhood was constituted by the Logos.”2 Perhaps impressive, but how different is this from the idea put forth long ago by the “father of Liberal theology,” Friedrich Schleiermacher: "The Redeemer... is like all men in virtue of the identity of human nature, but distinguished from them all by the constant potency of His God­ consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in Him.”3 Whereas most mortals are conscious of their “absolute dependence” upon God only intermittently, Schleiermacher's Jesus was always in a state of such satori. Has Cobb proposed anything new here? Granted, the jargon is different, but the resulting Christological solution seems pretty much the same: Jesus' complete openness to God is supposed to be tantamount to an incar­nation. As Kenneth Hamilton has aptly observed, many Liberal Christolo­gians show by their family resemblance that they are indeed “Schleier­macher's modern sons.”
Startling resemblances to old-time Liberal theology do not stop with Schleiermacher. Cobb's Christ is amazingly similar to Cobb's own description of the Enlightenment Liberal version of Jesus, a conception he seems to think he rejects (!): “a man like other men - only better. He was wiser, more pious, more free, more obedient to God.... The one caveat was that the difference must be one of degree and not one of kind.”14  Similarly, one is hard-pressed not to think back to Ritschl’s notion of Jesus “having the value of 'God' for us,” when he reads of John A. T. Robinson's view that Jesus' function is "to act and speak as God for us.”15 (On Robinson as a Process Christologian, see page 202, “the lines of the sort of solution I would favor... have already been indicated by those who stand within the tradition of process philosophy.”)
Finally, one more rehashing of old Liberalism may be discovered in the Process view of atonement. Cobb speaks of "fields of force" generated by Jesus’ personality, which trigger in us the same sort of existence he enjoyed. This chain-reaction seems to come primarily via his recorded words. Norman Pittenger is more forthright in admitting that all this boils down to the old “moral influence theory” of Abelard. Basically, we are moved by the words of Jesus to follow him. Or the example of Jesus' self- sacrificial love moves us (and, according to Pittenger, also reflects the self-sacrificial love that characterizes ultimate reality). But at any rate, one hardly needs Process categories in order to affirm the moral influence theory of the atonement. What then is the new contribution of Process Christology at these points?
If Process Christology may to a significant degree be seen as a recapitulation of earlier Liberal theology, it might also be suggested that it is at least sometimes a recapitulation of ancient heresies. First, let us remind ourselves that Process Christologians explicitly seek to remain faithful in some sense to the traditional creedal formulae, even when they want to rephrase the creed with new conceptuality.  
the creeds themselves are not part of the characteristic structure of the church; they are but ways in which the faith is stated, in language appropriate to the time when they were promulgated, and there is no reason why they may not be revised to state this faith in more understandable terms and with greater factual accuracy--but it is the faith, not the creeds, which is important. (Pittenger) 6 
To mean what the New Testament writers or the Fathers intended to say of Jesus' humanity or divinity we may well have to say different things. (Robinson)7 
From statements like these one receives the impression that the theologians want to tread carefully. They do not just want to start from scratch; rather, they feel they had better remain in the general confines of the old creedal categories, even when they want to fill them with new mean­ing. They don't want to move the ancient boundary markers. Yet some­times we are forced to ask if they have not done just this. For example, do we detect a trace of Nestorianism in the Christology of Pittenger? 
Human potentiality is not toward becoming divine, but toward so responding to the divine initiative that the Self-Expressive Activity of God would have what Athanasius styled an organon - a personal instrument open to employment by God but with full human freedom retained - adequate for the divine purpose. This would indeed be incarnation in a climactic sense.8 
We get here more of a picture of a harmony between two separate agencies than of a true incarnation, despite the cosmetic allusion to Athanasius. But since Pittenger puts it in terms of Jesus' obediently yielding to a rather impersonal- sounding "Activity of God," we are even reminded strongly of adoptionistic "Dynamic Monarchianism." An adoptionistic strain also comes through in Cobb's admission that we have no reason to deny that other individuals besides Jesus were sufficiently yielded to the Logos as to qualify for Christhood. The Ebionites of course had said the same thing, only in terms of Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Law, in principle repeatable by others. We suggest that the Process Christologians are heirs of the Ebionites or adoptionists.
In clearing a space for the "full humanity" of Jesus, the real incarnation of a personal God must be compromised, and that by redefinition.. Again Schleiermacher was their pioneer and forerunner. David Friedrich Strauss pinpointed the critical shift here: 
If we think of the divine in Christ according to [Schleiermacher’s understanding], then we no longer think of it in personal terms, no longer as a divine being united with the human, but only as an effective impulse working on it.... As is known, Schleiermacher also called this “constant potency of the God-consciousness" a "veritable existence of God in him," but the very fact that he calls it a real existence shows that he rather senses that it is an unreal one.9 
We rather sense it too, not only in Schleiermacher but in his "modern sons" as well. And, again like Schleiermacher, Process Christologians are determined to safeguard the "true humanity" of Jesus because of their rejection of miraculous interventions into the historical sequence. “The incarnation does not mean insertion into the living stream, an intervention by God in the form of a man, but the embodiment, the realization of God in this man" (Robinson).10 "For [Process] theism, the significance of Jesus is found first in his providing the classical instance of what is always and everywhere operative” (Pittenger)11  In our next section, we will explore a few of the quandaries raised for Process Christology by this tendency.

3. Perfect Man?

From our brief consideration of the Process juggling of Christological categories, we saw that Process thinkers tailor Jesus' “divinity" to accommodate his “true humanity.”11 Now we must ask whether they are able to do justice at least to this traditional tenet of orthodox Christology. Unfortunately, problems arise even here. First we have to ask whether their assertion of Jesus' “perfect manhood" is not an arbitrary state­ment, hanging in the air. The root of the problem is that historically the postulation of "true man” was the correlate of the tenet “true God," a belief we suggested has been seriously compromised through re-conceptualization (a la Strauss's criticism of Schleiermacher, cited above). Dennis Nineham sums up the point well in his criticism of his fellow contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate:  
So long as the doctrine of the incarnation was taken as a statement of an objective metaphysical fact, that Jesus was literally divine, then the unique perfection of his humanity was a legitimate deduction from the fact of its hypostatic conjunction with divinity, even if the connota­tion of perfect humanity in this context could not be precisely specified. In [modern Liberal Christologies], however, the perfection of Jesus is being used as a support for the doctrine of the incarnation... or as a starting-point for an alternative conceptualization or symbolization.... In that case, it is difficult, at any rate at first sight, to see how the claim for the perfection of Jesus’ humanity could be supported except on historical grounds.... Is it, however, possible to validate claims of the kind in question on the basis of historical evidence? To prove an historical negative, such as the sinlessness of Jesus, is notoriously difficult to the point of impossibility.12   
Nineham seems to depict with uncomfortable acuteness the dilemma facing the “perfect humanity” affirmation of Process Christology. What makes it all the more ironic is that these Christologians themselves seem to see the problem but to shrug it off! For instance, Pittenger makes “the honest admission that the material in the Gospels is not the kind that per­mits us ... to pay Jesus... moral compliments - as if he is indubitably known as in every sense, both in teaching and behavior, to be ideally perfect.”13
Robinson reiterates: “We simply have not the evidence to say even that he was always obedient, always loving.” “And we should be careful to avoid theological judgments that imply historical statements we cannot substantiate.”14  But Robinson himself seems in the long run not to be quite so careful. Nor does Pittenger, who can blissfully affirm: “His response to the divine intention was adequate and complete, even if this cannot be demonstrated from the material in the Gospel narratives.”15  Then on what possible basis are such statements being made? It is hard not to conclude that Process Christologians are mainly working off of what we might call “theologica1 inertia,” holding onto this or that item of traditional doctrine after having kicked most of the props out from under it.
But let us suppose that the Process thinkers’ belief in Jesus’ “perfect humanity” has some valid basis not apparent from their own defense of it. We still must question its viability at an equally crucial point. The clear direction of Process rhetoric on this issue is to say that Jesus was qualita­tively different from the rest of us, that his conformity to the Logos, or to God’s aims, was unparalleled by the mass of humanity. (This is basically the claim, even if there are held to have been other occasional exceptions—a question we will take up in the next section.) Will this work? More specifically, does such a belief comport with the Process desire to have Jesus be of a piece with humanity rather than a radical exception to it? We saw that the Process zeal for a completely human Jesus recapitulates the Christological agenda of Schleiermacher: It "must... be possible with respect to our task to present the divinity of Christ in such a way that the human element in the whole phenomenon of Christ in his whole life remains unimperiled.”16
How successful was Schleiermacher in his bid to avoid the shadow of docetism at all costs? Strauss was not persuaded: 
A sinless, archetypal Christ is not one whit less unthinkable than a supernaturally begotten Christ with a divine and human nature. On the contrary, since he appears on the very basis of a world view which otherwise excludes miracles or uncaused effects, a further contradiction clings to him from which the church's Christology, which proposes belief in miracles, is free. 17 
In other words, this Son of Man truly has no place to lay his head, since neither naturalists nor supernaturalists can find any room for him. We think that Process Christologies have inherited the same diffi­culty: their "perfect" Jesus is "neither ichthus nor fowl" since his perfection seems to stick out like a sore thumb from the Process framework which disallows divine interventions.
Of all the writers on Process Christology, at least John Cobb seems to be uneasily aware of this problem. But his "solution" is not a happy one. As if to tone down all these claims for perfection, he imposes limits on Jesus' "perfect” harmony with the Logos. His selfhood, then, was "completely" constituted by the Logos, but only "at least at important times in his life.”18  Keep in mind that Cobb wants to talk about "a distinctive incarnation”19 in Jesus, i.e., the logic of the whole system tends toward attributing some kind of qualitative distinctiveness to Jesus; ­otherwise why bother with him?
In slightly different terms, we can find the same tension in Process talk about "incarnation." Whitehead's use of this term is hailed as at last providing the grounds for an intelligible doctrine of incarnation. But since Whitehead's "incarnation” refers to what is always and everywhere the case, it is in a real sense trivial (not in the sense of being an unim­portant idea, but rather in the sense that it is an explanation of the mundane). Process thinkers can apply the idea to Christ only with difficulty. Now Christ is to be considered merely "a paradigm case of incarnation." Something seems to have been lost in the translation. Cobb seems to be importing religious significance into what for Whitehead was almost a kind of physics. It makes about as much sense for Jesus to be the paradigm case of Whitehead's "incarnation" principle as of Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle or of Mendel's theory of genetic inheritance.
To return to Cobb's attempt to downplay Jesus’ "perfection," it will be revealing to see just how distinctive his "historical Jesus” turns out to be. He was a person who "felt peculiarly alive;” he took advantage of "rich potentialities for experience.”20  Thus his "human potential was actualized "at least at important times in his life.”21 Could not as much be said for most adherents of popular self-help therapies or of the psychology of human potential? We may justifiably apply to Cobb this observation of Schleiermacher: 
those who take their departure from the attempt to represent the life of Christ completely as a genuinely human life usually end up by conceiving Christ in such a way that no intelligible reason remains for making him in any way... an object of faith.22 

4. Decisive Disclosure?

Process Christology relies heavily upon the conception of Jesus as a “decisive disclosure" or "re-presentation" of what God is doing in the world, or of what reality is all about. A couple of representative statements make this clear: 
To say with the Christian community... that Jesus is the dis­tinctive act of God is to say that in him, in his outer acts of sym­bolic word and deed, there is expressed that understanding of human existence which is, in fact, the ultimate truth about our life before God. (Ogden)23 
Christian faith sees in Jesus Christ the appearance of a focus, a specific point, a decisive event. In him the entire movement is crowned, so far as humankind is concerned, with an action that shows the meaning of it all.... In him we see what God is up to in the world. (Pittenger)24 
Basically the idea here is that it should be evident that the “way of the world” in God’s plan is love, but it is not obvious to man in his fallen­ness or forgetfulness. The appearance of Jesus in history wakes us from our forgetful slumber to see not what is true only with Christ's advent, but what was ignored until then (or until our conversion). So far, it seems that Process Christology has been able to "save the appearances” of older Christological thinking quite well. For example, this schema sounds very close to that of Calvin, for whom God's glory is always manifested, "mirrored,” in the world, yet remains invisible to man until he receives God's "spectacles" in Christ. The analogy is all the more remarkable since Process thinking disavows the older framework of supernatural interven­tion.
But the parallel may not be so close after all. The general asser­tions come to be qualified in very important ways. Ogden does not leave it at saying that what Christ "re-presents" is the "primordial,” “original possibility" for authentic existence, with the implication that this possibility was lost with man's sinful forgetfulness. On the contrary, we soon find that men still can and do realize the original possibility for existence apart from Christ. Seen this way, how “decisive” can Christ be? Ogden says Christ's revelation “corrects and fulfills” all other ways of apprehending God’s offer of life, but what is this supposed to mean since other ways are adequate on their own (e.g., secular philosophy, Old Testament Judaism, other religions)?
We can observe a similar evacuation of the term “decisive” in this statement by Pittenger: “what happens to the so-called 'finality' of Christianity? The answer here is partly that Christianity does not claim finality for itself. Rather, it stresses the decisiveness of Jesus Christ as the one who is 'important' and... 'unlosable'”25  These words just do not mean the same thing. The drop from “decisive” through the anticlimactic “important” to the downright comical “unlosable” is much more of a distance than Pittenger would like to admit.
Another difficulty with the Process thinkers’ use of the term “decisive” has to do with the manner in which they relate Jesus to their concept of the overarching meaning in the world. Though they claim to have gotten their world-vision from Jesus, it becomes apparent that they have first established their world-view and then derived the significance of Jesus from it. First let us remind ourselves of the Process concept of an “act" or “revelation" of God. David Ray Griffin describes it well: 
Every event in the world is an act of God in the sense that it originates with an initial aim derived from God. But some [events] will be his acts in a special sense, just as some of a man’s external acts are the man’s in a special sense... Now, every event is to some extent an expression of God's nature. But specially suited for this are the words and deeds of a human being through which he expresses a vision of reality, for in such events intelligible expression could be given to God's character and purpose.26 
And how does Jesus fit into this picture? “The aims given to Jesus and actualized by him during his active ministry were such that the basic vision of reality contained in his message of word and deed was the supreme expression of God’s eternal character and purpose.”27  But Griffin, with most other Process thinkers, has passed too quickly over a major question, the question of criteria. Just how is one supposed to find out that Jesus is the “human being" whose “vision of reality” is the true one? Obviously, there are several other candidates for this position. Why not Nietzsche? Machiavelli? We only know that Jesus' “Galilean vision" accurately reflects the reality of the world if we can compare his vision with some independent knowledge of what that reality is like. And if we do have such prior knowledge, then Jesus' appearance is not a “decisive disclosure” at all. At best he may be judged a “particularly good example” of it, or in Cobb's terms “a paradigm case.” But “decisive disclosure” and “paradigm case" are not the same thing.
Rather than deriving one's worldview from Jesus, as "decisive disclosure" language would lead us to expect, Process thinkers seek to understand Jesus in terms of a worldview derived from elsewhere. One more example of this reversal may be found in Cobb's puzzling connection of the terms "Logos," "Christ," and "Jesus." In chapter 4 of his book Christ in a Pluralistic Age, he observes that in early Christianity the "Logos" was understood, with Heraclitus, as a universal principle of proportion-in-change. The Process equivalent would be the "principle of creative transformation." The Apologists, of course, made the Heraclitean "Logos" synonymous with "Christ" because of the application of both terms to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Thus Cobb feels justified in equating his Process "Logos" with the term "Christ." (Note that this connection is made simply on the basis of historical precedent, not because of any inherent relation of the two terms.) And since Jesus may be shown in some sense to have partaken of "creative transformation," then he may be said to have been the "Christ" or the "Logos" as already defined. Clearly Cobb has placed Jesus into a system defined a priori by Process Theology.
The contrast with early Christianity is indicated by his reversal of the historical connection between the three terms. Early Christians began with "Jesus" of Nazareth whose impact on them caused them to recognize him as "the Christ," the savior of Israel. Further reflection led believers to the conclusion that Jesus was of more than national importance; his view of things was seen as the way the world was. He was called the "Logos." Jesus became known as "Christ," and then "Logos" as he was taken with greater and greater seriousness. Cobb has reversed the whole process logically as well as historically.
This whole avenue of approach points up an important, even a fatal, irony in Process Christology. If he qualifies as "Christ" who most clearly conveys to us God's aims in the universe, then the most obvious candidate for the job might seem to be Alfred North Whitehead. On the criteria set forth by Process Christologians themselves (e. g., Griffin, quoted above), naming Whitehead as the Messiah would seem to be inevitable, since it was through him that the Process view of God and the universe appeared in its greatest fullness and clarity. Jesus is at best an illustrative example of God's aims (and this is really all Cobb and company are able to show). Whitehead, not Jesus, "revealed" the Process vision.
In conclusion, let us return to the question, briefly raised above, of Jesus' "decisiveness" as implying either uniqueness or finality. It is important at this point to remember that these Process thinkers have indicated their aim of reinterpreting the assertions of the Christian faith, not of rejecting them and starting over. At least, as Robinson put it, their goal was to wind up "meaning what the New Testament writers and the Father s meant." Robinson eventually addresses the crucial question of Jesus' finality. 
In a pluralistic age, is there still any sense in which Christ can be spoken of as the man for all? Many Christians, I am sure, find them­selves genuinely torn at this point between not being able to deny. that Jesus Christ for them remains central and final, in the sense that he gives unity to their whole perspective on life, and yet not being able to assert that this must be so for all, in the sense that this is the only true perspective without which in traditional terms, men "cannot be saved." 28 
Similarly Cobb calls for “a full recognition of the variety of structures of existence among which that of Jesus is one and that of Gautama, for example, is another.”29  He allows that "There is no a priori basis for determining whether others have participated in this structure of existence." Jesus is unique, then, not in principle but only “so far as we know.”30   But the most interesting statement along these lines is made by Schubert Ogden: 
The New Testament sense of the claim "only in Jesus Christ" is not that God is only to be found in Jesus and nowhere else, but that the only God who is to be found anywhere - though he is to be found everywhere - is the God who is made known in the word that Jesus speaks to us. 31 
Is it really very difficult to surmise that the assertions “Jesus is the only way to God” and “There are many ways to God besides Jesus” intend to exclude one another? It is certainly doubtful whether the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ are as peripheral to the Christian faith as suggested by Ogden, Cobb, Pittenger, and Robinson. On the contrary, we believe that a fair analysis will show the systematic logic of the Christian tradition to have stressed that Christ is unique because of his finality. This was the whole point of calling him “the savior of the world" (John 4:42) and claiming that he was “predicted by the prophets" (John 1:45). In other words, "In the past God spoke... through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things" (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is important to see that statements like "only through Jesus Christ” do not merely represent an aberrant narrow-mindedness easily detachable from the body of Christian belief. When Cobb, Ogden, et al., effectively make Jesus one of many prophets with a "message" about God, instead of God incarnate to save us and sum up all revelation, they have fundamentally shifted the whole logic of Christian faith. Now to do such a thing might be quite advisable. But this seems to be far from the stated intent of the Process thinkers we have been considering, who want to "mean what the Fathers meant.” 

5. Conclusion

Our study of some problematical aspects of Process Christology has indicated that the whole enterprise seems to be reductionistic in its effects, though this is contrary to its intentions. Initially we found that the use of the highly-touted Process conceptuality actually contributed little that wasunique to a mode of theologizing essentially of a piece with traditional Liberalism. Next we suggested that the important Christological category of "perfect man" in Process thinking ran into serious problems because of its adaptation to a non-supernaturalist worldview in the light of which the category "true God" was radically changed in meaning. This latter concept had been the traditional prop of the "true man" notion, which could not stand very intelligibly without it. Finally, we concluded that what is probably the central Process Christological category, that of Jesus Christ as "decisive disclosure," was misleading since the Process Christologians tended to evacuate the term "decisive" of any real meaning. They did so by making Jesus derivative of, instead of determinative of, their worldview; and by placing Jesus, at least theoretically, on a level with other bearers of a divine vision. Our final observation was that Process Christology represents a much more radical reshaping of Christianity than it claims or intends. All this should not be taken to suggest a smug complacency with regard to traditional orthodox Christology. The conceptual problems raised by Process thinkers are real ones; it is their proposed solutions we must question. But they are quite justified in their concern to make God-Man Christology intelligible in our day. This work must be taken up by others, hopefully in more satisfactory ways. 

1 Norman Pittenger, The Lure of Divine Love (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979), p. 15. 
2 John B. Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 139. 
3 Friedrich Sch1eiermacher, The Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), p. 385. 
4 Cobb, p. 165. 
5 John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973), p. 210. 
6 Pittenger, p. 158. 
7 Robinson, Human Face of God, p. 17. 
8 Pittenger, p. 112. 
9 David Friedrich Strauss, The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 24-25. 
10 Robinson, Human Face of God, p. 203. 
11 Pittenger, p. 81. 
12 John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 188. 
13 Pittenger, p. 106. 
14 Robinson, Human Face of God, pp. 96, 123. 
15 Pittenger, p. 147. 
16 Friedrich Sch1eiermacher, The Life of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 34. 
17 Strauss, Christ of Faith, p. 29. 
18 Cobb, p. 173. 
19 Ibid., p. 139.  
20 Ibid., p. 145. 
21 Ibid., pp. 171, 173. 
22 Schleiermacher, Life of Jesus, p. 82. 
23 Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977), pp. 185-186. 
24 Pittenger, p. 99. 
25 Ibid., p. 163. 
26 David R. Griffin, A Process Christology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), p. 215. 
27 Ibid., p. 218. 
28 Robinson, Human Face of God, p. 220. 
29 Cobb, p. 169. 
30 Ibid., p. 142. 
31 Schubert M. Ogden, Christ without Myth (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1979), p. 144. 



by Robert M. Price

The recent controversies over cult "brainwashing" and deprogramming have brought the question of "conversion" once again to people's minds. Just what is involved in such a sudden and unexpected turnabout? Is it the work of the Holy Spirit, or mere brainwashing? In the light of this questioning, perhaps the time is ripe for a reconsideration of conversion and its role in evangelical Christianity. This article will argue that conversion understood as the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit is not merely the entry-point to the Christian life. Rather, it is integral to the theological agenda and determines the shape of evangelical religious life from beginning to end. And when the understanding of conversion as supernatural is modi­fied, the far-reaching implications are both surprising and ironic. 

Conversion and Miracles

Among evangelicals (Christians who would describe themselves as "born-again" or "Bible-believing"), conversion is commonly believed to be a miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit, an act of God discontinuous with the ordinary chain of worldly cause-and-effect. One often hears such phrases as: "God just reached down into my life." It would be hard to deny that most born-again Christians mean this in more than a metaphorical ... sense; we might call them "hard-line supernaturalists." But in recent years, some of their psychologists have become willing to admit that con­version is quite admissible to naturalistic causal explanation, and that the supernatural aspect of conversion must be redefined. This shift results in part from the embracing of general psychological methodology, wherein immanent causation, not otherworldly intervention, is the only calculable factor in diagnosis and treatment.
But one suspects that these psychologists have also felt the force of the challenge of William Sargant and others, who claim to be able to show the purely psychological roots of conversion. For example, Sargant (1975) wrote, "When we find that the technique of ‘saving' people at revival meet­ings follows the same pattern [as abreactive treatment of wartime patients] and depends on the same brain mechanisms, it is impossible not to wonder about the reality of the divine power supposedly responsible for the ‘change’” (p. 194). Long ago, of course, William James had made essentially the same observation: 
Psychology and religion... both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemp­tion to his life. Nevertheless psychology, defining these forces as “subconscious” . . . implies that they do not transcend the individual’s personality; and herein she diverges from Christian theology, which insists that they are direct supernatural operations of the Deity. (James, 1958, p. 173). 
But James adds, "I do not see why Methodists need object to such a view" (p. 191). That is, perhaps evangelicals might find acceptable some model of conversion that did not demand a miraculous intervention of God in the psychological process.
Now it seems that some psychologists have taken the bait, compelled to make some peace between their professional methodology on the one hand and their faith on the other. Malcolm Jeeves, responding to William Sargant, is certain that theological truth is of quite a different order than that of the facts of psychological causation. Thus even if Sargant is right, one need not doubt that the supernatural is still involved, at least in some sense. Jeeves writes: 
Neither is the psychological account [of conversion] a competitor with the account which the person converted gives in his own personal and religious language... The point is that within its own language system and at its own level, each account may be regarded as, at least in principle, exhaustive... but [not] exclusive. . . . Thus the personal account which refers to a personal encounter with God does not have to be "fitted in" to... the psychological. . . account. . . . In general, we find that the personal account of the event is much more concerned with the personal significance of the event than with the particular psychological. . mechanism which may have been opera­tive at the time. (1976, p. 141). 
Thus conversion requires no miraculous intervention into the normal psycho­logical process.
We find a similar approach to the mechanics of conversion in Keith Miller (1978). After accepting James’s basic outline of the psychological process of conversion, Miller goes on to explain conversion in terms bor­rowed from Abraham Maslow: 
the experience of "Christian conversion" seemed very similar in some ways to Maslow’s “peak experiences" in the lives of self-­actualizers.... There may be a real correlation between what hap­pens to a person through becoming a Christian and the meeting of dif­ferent clusters of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.... What may have happened is that through a significant conversion experience some Christians have had several of their basic clusters of need met by God and the church (pp. 78-79).
Indeed Maslow himself is hardly disinclined to see conversion experiences ("personal revelations") in such terms. But again he sees a significant implication that Miller does not see.  
The big lesson that must be learned here, not only by the non­theists and liberal religionists, but also by the supernaturalists... is that mystery, ambiguity, illogic, contradiction, mystic and transcendent experiences may now be considered to lie well within the realm of nature. These phenomena need not drive us to postulate additional supernatural variables and determinants (Maslow, 1974, p. 45). 
Miller wants to facilitate our understanding of conversion for good pastoral reasons, but, as Maslow observes, the mere explicable conversion becomes in immanent psychological terms, the less room is left for divine causation from without. The less mysterious it becomes, the less miraculous. And Maslow warns against simply redefining terms like "miraculous.”  
I am myself uneasy, even jittery, over the semantic confusion which lies in store for us-- indeed which is already here--as all the concepts which have been traditionally “religious” are redefined and then used in a very different way. (1974, p. 45). 
Just such a redefinition seems to be implied in the writings of psycholo­gists and counselors like Jeeves and Miller. The influence of the Holy Spirit is still supposed to underlie the process of conversion in a general but rather unclear way. It is striking to realize the continuity between the "soft-line supernaturalist" redefinition of the miraculous aspect of conversion, and the understanding of miracles in Liberal theology. 
In fact... a miracle in the sense of an action of God cannot be thought of as an event which happens on the level of secular (worldly) events. It is not visible, not capable of objective, scientific proof.... The thought of the action of God as [a]... transcendent action can be protected from misunderstanding, only if it is not thought of as an action which happens between worldly actions or events, but as happening within them. . . . The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith. (Bultmann, 1958, pp. 61-62) 
In events like the Exodus or the Resurrection, Liberals say, no extraordinary events occurred, but God may still be said to have “acted” in the significance of events. Divine action did not interrupt or preempt the ordinary sequence of cause-and-effect. In Bultmann's terms, God did not actually vivify the corpse of Jesus, but he did "raise Jesus into the kerygma” in Geschichte (supra-history). (1961, pp. 41-42). Or as Gordon Kaufman puts it, God’s acts take place in the “history of meaning,” not in the history of events (1968, p. 433).
The same tendency is apparent in the writings of Charles Martin (1973). He also seeks to reply to the charge of Sargant, which he first summarizes: 
The mechanism by which [Christian conversion] is produced is akin to psychological brainwashing. Billy Graham and his fellow­ mass-evangelists are seen as expert mindbenders ... Thus becoming a Christian can be reduced to molecule-talk (mass psy­chology) (p. 114). 
Molecule-talk is one of three language-games enumerated by Martin. “Mo1ecu1e-talk assumes a real world, cause and effect, and the significance of rational thought" (p. 11 0). By contrast, the second and third language games are those of personal subjective freedom, and of ethica1 “oughtness" and obligation. Each is irreducible to the others. 
[N]ow "God” cannot be fitted in among these.... Yet God-talk gives accounts of things that can be acc.ounted for in the other fields.... Certainly "God" cannot be fitted into any of these three frameworks nor can he go into a fourth area on the same level (p. 11 0). 
Once again, God is the transcendent cause lying behind the whole works, not a “ghost in the machine” that interferes with its workings at opportune moments: 
The realm of nature, the molecule-talk area, is seen to depend upon God as creato! in setting it going, and God as sustainer in keep- ' ing it going. It is regular and open to rational investigation because it is the work "of a reliable, rational God (p. 111). 
Not only has Martin repeated Jeeves's (and Bultmann's) sealing off of the historical/scientific and the theological levels of reality; he has (no doubt unwittingly) even recapitulated the assumptions of Schleiermacher' s polemic against miracles! Schleiermacher wrote in his magnum opus The Christian Faith (1963): 
Now some have represented miracle [as intervention in the cause ­and-effect process] as essential to the perfect manifestation of divine omnipotence. But it is difficult to conceive... how omnipotence is shown to be greater in the suspension of the interdependence of nature than in its original immutable course which was no less divinely ordered. For, indeed, the capacity to make a change in what has been ordained is only a merit in the ordainer, if a change is neces­sary, which... can only be the result of some imperfection in him or in his work (p. 179). 
Schleiermacher, like Martin, hails the Newtonian regularity of God's crea­tion and attributes it to God’s sovereign transcendence that He is not one more cause-among-causes! What Schleiermacher sees that Martin does not is that this observation demands the redefinition of "miracle" in a non­interventionist sense: 
Miracle [should be understood as] simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, become s a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant [view]. To me all is miracle (Schleiermacher, 1958, p. 88). 
Literal miracles, or miracles as traditionally conceived, would require God to be one more finite causal agent within the realm of "molecule-talk,” since it is God and no natural process which vivifies corpses and parts the sea.
Another way to approach this question would be to apply Francis Schaeffer's "line of despair" schema (Schaeffer, 1976, p. 22). According to this theory, modern theology (as all modern culture) has opted for an explanation of mundane reality in terms of a closed system of cause-and­-effect. Experienced reality is explicable naturalistically, without penetra­tion by divine causation, i. e., no miracles or miraculously revelatory Scripture. If this is true, conclude s Schaeffer, reality functions mecha­nistically. It is then nothing short of an arbitrary "upper-story leap" above the "line of despair" to postulate any noumenal realm of transcendent, divine reality (p. 58). If the rise of Easter .faith can truly be accounted for without a literal resurrection, what besides religious nostalgia could lead Bultmann to postulate a "suprahistorical" act of God? The important thing to see is that by declaring theological explanation different in kind from psychological explanation, and parallel to it, Jeeves and the others have made God is alleged action in conversion "suprahistorical." Divine causa­tion does not penetrate the continuum of worldly events; it runs parallel "above" it. Jeeves writes: 
It is not that the descriptions in terms of the various restricted categories [i.e., of psychology and theology] of the same events have gaps in them. Such descriptions might be in theory complete and perfectly valid as description on the scientific level. The point is that there are other levels (1967, p. 13). 
Jeeves, like Bultmann, has made an "upper-story leap." And if this kind of understanding of God's acting can be admitted at this point, shouldn't soft-line supernaturalists be willing to adjust theology across the board? In fact, the burden of proof would be on anyone who would hesitate at such consistency.
The same link between conversion and the biblical miracles is reflected in sort of a mirror-image fashion in the work of apologists like Carl F. H. Henry and Clark Pinnock. They have warned that Liberal theology “dissolves the availability of the Gospel's answer for lithe existen­tial dilemmas of modern man" (Pinnock, 1976, p. 14; Henry, 1968, pp. 152­-153). What they have in mind is of course “born-again" faith. If one opted for a libera1lheilsgeschichte" understanding of God's activity, the possi­bility of real personal regeneration would be compromised a few steps down the line. If theologians deny that God intervenes miraculously in history, they cannot then affirm that he may intervene miraculously to regenerate individual lives today. Thus, apologists warn us, Liberalism is to be shunned. But now, ironically, some “soft-line” psychologists are begin­ning to erode the whole enterprise from the other end! If conversion is not literally miraculous, why must any other "act of God" be? Now such an implicit wide-ranging theological readjustment might be a good thing. But if one is unwilling to make it, one might better push the camel's nose out of the tent. Evangelical psychologists should stick to their hard-line super­naturalist guns and try to refute Sargent and others, if they think they can. 

Conversion and the Christian Life

Having indicated the oft-unsuspected theological centrality of conver­sion, understood as supernatural, the discussion will show how miraculous conversion shapes the religious life from start to finish. A brief considera­tion of three aspects of “the born-again experience!” will serve this purpose. 

Personal Growth

First, conversion produces what might fairly be labeled "a short circuited process of growth of the personal identity. It can be understood in Helfaer’s (1972) terms as "precocious ego-identity formation” (p.5).  
In the case of the conservative Protestant subculture, the social identity around which the ego-identity is formed is that of the “Chris­tian," or “follower of Christ." The identity is a relatively simple one, and it represents the internalization of the mutually recognized values and symbols of the community (p. 65). 
If conversion occurs in late childhood, the born-again Christian will appar­ently have a head start over his secular friends. "Adolescence is not a time for major reorganization of the personality” (p. 65). Why should it be? The evangelical youth has been given the answers, even before he or she becomes aware of the questions.
James Marcia (1966) has investigated what he calls the "foreclosed" personality among college students. The resulting portrait strikingly matches that of many fundamentalist college students and, we would argue, of other born-again Christians as well. According to Marcia, 
A foreclosure subject is distinguished by not having had experi­enced a crisis [of identity formation] yet expressing commitment [to set value s and beliefs]. It is difficult to tell where his parents’ goals for him leave off and where his begin. He is becoming what others have prepared or intended him to become as a child…. College experiences serve only as a confirmation of childhood beliefs. A certain rigidity characterizes his personality; one feels that if he were faced with a situation in which parental values were nonfunctional, he would feel extremely threatened (p. 552). 
Though Marcia shows that religious dogmatism is part of this personality-package, "foreclosure" refers in general to the subjects' atti­tudes toward vocation, politics, and other areas. Such a student has definite ideas on all these topics, yet without having wrestled with the ques­tions on his or her own. By contrast, Marcia also dealt with "identity diffusion" subjects, sort of “good time Charlie” students who drift through college years with neither settled goals or definite convictions. They have also "successfully" avoided a crisis period, but have no firm commitment either  Then there were "identity moratorium" subjects who, at the time of testing, were in the throes of the identity crisis. For them everything was "up for grabs." Answers were not clear, but the hope was that they eventually would be. The last group, "identity achieved" subjects, were those who had completed the “moratorium" or crisis period, with the result that they had solid opinions and goals, integrated into their personalities, and wholly their own.
Returning to the "foreclosure" category, we may easily expand Marcia's references to "parents" to include the “significant others" of the individual's religious peer group, especially those responsible for his or her conversion if born-again faith has not been simply inherited from the family. The aptness of this sketch may be attested by anyone who has had much experience with campus Christian groups like Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Chi Alpha, etc. Adopting Marcia's categories, Henry and Renaud (1972) describe the college experience of "foreclosed" students: "A good majority never consider any other path, and any question of alternative life styles rarely comes up for discussion" (p. ) Just so, the evangelical student may attend discussions where moral alternatives (say, premarital sex) are raised only to be refuted with proof-texts. 
Awareness of options or the possibility of change tends to precipi­tate anxiety in"such young people, and left to themselves they skirt the unfamiliar. . . . Thus they effectively insulate themselves from meeting new people and being exposed to new ideas (p. 5). 
Accordingly, Campus Crusade and Inter- Varsity "action groups" establish a cozy support group where the student1 s "plausibility structure" (Berger, 1970) is maintained against the pressures of the secular environment. The student is to venture forth to meet the "unsaved" only on covert missions of "friendship evangelism.” Contact with those of different opinions is initiated for the purpose not of interaction but of proselytizing.  
One of the implications of such a mode of operation for the college experience is that these students, already largely closed down to new experiences and ideas when they enter college, usually continue to avoid faculty whose views might challenge theirs (Henry and Renaud, p. 5).  
This observation accounts for the frequent avoidance of religion or Bible courses by fundamentalist students on secular campuses. Of course there are exceptions which prove the rule; nowadays one finds more fundamentalists taking such courses specifically in order to “defend the faith" against unbeliev­ing professors. For this purpose, the student is armed by the evangelical staff worker with apologetics literature such as Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1973). The Inter- Varsity Press, probably the most sophisticated arm of that organization, seems largely dedicated to providing an extensive range of apologetics material dealing with every issue from biblical criticism to comparative religion, from Behavioristic psychology to Marxism. The student is led to believe that he or she just happens to be heir to the most cogent interpretation of the facts in virtually every field. And this of course is just what these students want to believe anyway. Why bother to evaluate the alternatives for themselves? The apologists have saved them the trouble.
Besides falling short of liberal-arts academic ideals, do such "fore­closed" students, whether born-again Christians or otherwise, really suffer ill-effects from their "foreclosure"? Yes, it seems as if they do. Marcia found that such individuals’ self-esteem was more easily threatened by negative feedback than those who had "achieved" identity through struggle. They also seemed inclined to set unrealistic goals for themselves. And, not surprisingly, they tended toward authoritarian thinking. The relevance of this last observation is only too clear relative to those students who are taught to settle all questions by biblical proof-texting instead of inductive reasoning. Chesen (1973) summed up the problem well: “Rigid, confined, and stereotyped religious thinking patterns can be directly contributory to emotional instability" (p. 27). It would certainly seem to be in the interests of the campus evangelism groups themselves to encourage a more flexible and inductive approach to college experience among their members. Evan­gelical students might then arrive at a faith better integrated and more balanced, though obviously the dangers of assimilation and secularization would also be increased. Yet this risk is the price of trusting students to think for themselves. Certainly more might drift away from faith and into the secular mainstream. But others would no longer be driven from faith by the narrow limits of it defined by their campus groups. And graduates from these groups might be more capable and valuable members of the evangelical movement.
We have been concentrating on young people and students, but it would seem that basically the same dynamics are in play no matter at what age conversion occurs, since much evangelical rhetoric tends to make the goal of all personal (“spiritual”) growth the ideal of "conformity to the image of Christ,” characteristically interpreted as being religiously mature. Other facets of life tend to be ignored. The effect of this adoption of a relatively simple, and basically religious, ego-identity has two important, superficially positive, results. First, it accounts in large measure for the much vaunted "sense of purpose" and of “having the answers." Born-again Christians seem to "have peace” in a troubled world because they do not have to work out the answers for themselves. Second, this sudden "ego-identity forma­tion” explains the ideological "party-line" approach to moral issues present among most rank-and-file evangelicals. For example, the minions of Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant know homosexuality is evil, perhaps without ever sensing the need to reason it out. 

Fortress Mentality

A second area in which the importance of conversion is manifest, is that of "witnessing" and apologetics. Conversion provides a bond of emo­tional tenacity which no reasoning is likely to affect. Leuba (1896, cited in James, 1958) wrote, “As the ground of assurance here is not rational, argumentation is irrelevant. . . it is a gross error to imagine that the chief practical value of the faith- state is its power to stamp with the seal of validity certain particular conceptions" (p. 198). He means to disallow emotive nonsequitors like "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” But can anyone deny that born-again believers constantly confuse emotional fervency and rational convincement in this manner? This can be seen most readily in the quasi-rational approach taken in trying to deal with objections of a non-believer whom one is trying to convert. The lay evangelist has taken the trouble to master the answers to “questions non-Chris­tians most commonly ask,” but if he is stumped, he has been coached to reply, "Say that’s a good question! I don’t have an answer, but I'll try to get one for you." The irony of this reply should be, but may not be, obvious. The whole appeal to the skeptic is an allegedly rational one, seeking to satisfy rational objections, but the last statement makes it clear that the believer himself holds his view on the strength of sheer will power!Other ­wise, how could a “good” (i.e., genuinely cogent) objection not phase him? This common practice is depicted in cartoon form in a recent flyer distributed by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1980), advertising a "Lay Seminar on the Authority of Scripture." In the drawing, a smirking skeptic challenges a (literally) wide-eyed believer. carrying a huge Bible, "Don't you believe the Bible is full of errors?" The believer answers "No, the Bible is inerrant.” The skeptic barrages the inerrantist with questions about textual contradictions, evolution, etc., to which the believer replies variously "Well...," "Ahh...," "Well ahh. .." The skeptic: "Doesn't anyone have answers to my questions?" Not the believer! For he answers, "Funny you should mention that. There is this seminar. . . ." (p. 1). Since born-again faith was probably accepted because of emotional-existen­tial factors, not intellectual factors, the latter have little to do with the maintenance of faith. Apologetics is only a strategy, and often a subtly dishonest one. 

Instant Sanctification

Third, conversion can be seen to be determinative of the whole shape of "the Christian life" because of the "get-saved-quick" scheme it proffers. "It cannot really be disputed that most evangelistic rhetoric offers virtually instant solutions to all problems through conversion. For example, take the "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet (1972) used extensively by Campus Cru­sade for Christ, the recent "Here's Life America" campaign, and many local churches. A diagram characterizes the "carnal" life as chaotic and troubled as long as "self" is on the throne. By contrast, the "spiritual" life has all interests in order, orbiting serenely about the enthroned Jesus Christ. And the difference is as simple as praying the standard prayer that follows. However this promise is seldom completely fulfilled.
A second Campus Crusade booklet, "Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-filled Life?" (1972) reveals the hitherto-unsuspected existence of a third classification, the "carnal Christian."  One's life is again a shambles, even with Christ as savior, but again the remedy is simple. "Spiritual breathing" (confessing sins and appropriating the Spirit's fullness) will rectify things. Note that all of life’s problems are here reducible to sin. And one need seek no further for a solution than religious repentance. Let no one think that Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade) is unique in this perception of things. In slightly different idioms this “hard religious line" (to modify our earlier terminology) is common to evangelicals ranging from Jay Adams (1971, 1975, 1976) with his "nouthetic counseling" to Don Basham (1977) and his "deliverance ministry,” with several stages in between: e.g., Vernon Grounds (1976), Tim La Haye (1974).
All this implies what might bluntly be called the "Shazam model of  sanctification." If regeneration is to be accomplished in an essentially miraculous manner without the effort of the convert himself, why not the subsequent process of growth? That is, whenever the born- again Christian encounters some personal obstacle or deficiency, he must "lay it on the altar," "give it to the Lord." It would be positively impious to try to struggle through it oneself, and so act "in the flesh." But isn't such strug­gling, fortunately or unfortunately, the only path to personal maturity? And isn't this model of growth an attempt to leapfrog one's way miraculously into maturity, as when youngster Bill Batson said the magic word "Shazarn” and suddenly became the adult Captain Marvel (Steranko, 1970)? It is not likely to work; immaturity will be protracted as long as one takes Malcolm Smith's (1972) advice to "turn your back on the problem."  

The "Soft Religious Line"

Eventually, growing numbers of evangelicals (including Bruce Larson, Keith Miller, O. Quentin Hyder, Cecil Osborne, and Gary Collins) have some to see the lack of psychological realism in this "hard religious line.” They seek to substitute a more humanistic approach, whereby all problems are not simply spiritual in origin or solution, and whereby the only goal is not "spiritual growth." Sentiments like these are representative: "If my faith is in God, then my job is not to build a successful, untainted religious life; it is to live a joyful and creative human life" (Miller, 1977, p. 190). "[It] is absolutely untrue that Christians cannot or should not become men­tally ill. We are just as vulnerable as pagans" (Hyder, 1974, p. 153). We might call this a shift to a "soft religious line." Interestingly, the same sort of modification of initially absolutist claims has been observed among Meher Baba sectarians by Anthony, Robbins, Doucas, and Curtis (1977). 
The early stages of involvement in a mystical movement may also involve unrealistic expectations of rapid spiritual apotheosis, e.g., Nirvana, Satori, God Realization. Such decisive realization could be expected to obviate all emotional difficulties.... The press of worldly experience tends to result eventually in the diminution of the unrealistic character of such expectations. Over time, converts realize that conversion to a mystical perspective does not result in the early transcendence of all earthly burdens (p. 873).
Renouncing the repression and perfectionism they see in the "hard religious line," such "soft-line" writers announce a new freedom for born-again Christians, a new possibility of "being human." The irony is that the “burdens" being shed according to this new gospel, are precisely the "blessings" promised by the old! Hard-liners like Bright, LaHaye, and Adams offer spiritual-psychological miracles that are supposed to give relief from the burdens of worldly existence. Soft-liners like Larson, Miller, and Osborne recognize such promises as incapable of delivery. Thus the latter group's "good news" is that tired and frustrated Christians can have relief from their burdens by being more like everyone else! It would seem that insofar as evangelicals move toward this "soft religious line, " they ought to be pre­pared to rethink their evangelistic claims about spectacular benefits avail­able only through Christ. The whole situation comes to look somewhat more ambiguous. 

A Possible Solution

Up to this point, this article has argued that miraculous conversion is not merely the beginning of the "born-again experience," but is instead integral to evangelicalism's theological program, as well as to the shape of its religious life. But this far-reaching significance of conversion, under­stood as miraculous, is often unsuspected. Thus many "soft-line" psy­chologists in seeking to tone down and redefine the supernatural side of conversion have set in motion changes which are far more significant than they intended. In seeking just a bit more psychological realism, they turn out to alter implicitly but radically both the theological and the experiential claims of evangelical Christianity. It is proving to be more difficult than they had imagined to hold onto humanistic psychology with one hand, and traditional evangelicalism with the other.
Is there, then, any solution, or are the difficulties exposed here insur­mountable embarrassments to the notion of conversion? What sort of sal­vage operation might a psychologist or theologian attempt? One might acknowledge a more liberal approach to the nature of revelation and religious .language and try accommodating theology to it (Kraft, 1979). The implied change s would be far-reaching indeed. And though various factors (e.g. biblical criticism) may yet force such a change, the solution to our particu­lar problem seems less drastic.
One need not revise or weaken the concept of "miracle." One only need alter its application to the concept of “conversion." It would go most of the way toward solving the problem if “soft-liners" shifted the focus of the "miraculous” from the subjective pole (conversion per se) to the objective pole--that to which one is converted. Evangelicals need only maintain the supernatural character of the truths of faith to which one converts. They are the "saving truths," i. e., one's life is affected by the implications of the divine facts themselves, whether or not there is any magic in the believing of them.
Though by-and-large a “hard-liner" in approach, Bill Gothard's view of scripture meditation is, in isolation, a perfect example of what we are suggesting. Gothard's idea is that God has ordered human life according to certain unchanging structures which can be disregarded only at the cost of the inevitable "reproofs of life." The person converted to the study of Scrip­ture will be at a distinct advantage in life because the Bible tells him or her all about those built-in "structures." Thus if one continually meditates on God's Word, one is assured of "successful living." The process is one of simple common sense. Certainly the divine truths involved are supernaturally ordained and revealed. But so little "miraculous" is either the process of observing these truths or the gaining of results that Gothard admits even non-believers will have success when they follow them. All that is necessary is that one reform one's "thought-structures" by the prolonged and repeated  rehearsing of those biblical truths. The doing of it is not supernatural at all, and this is no embarrassment.
Another example would be Bruce Larson's observation (1974) that the born-again Christian's faith in Christ's love provides a head start in the pro­cess of learning to love others, a process which in itself is quite natural, however difficult. Similarly, one’s faith in eternal life will surely provide a sense of direction in this life, that a non-believer will lack. And one who believes in God’s loving providence will take adversity with more resilience than one who is resigned to the blows of blind fate. The point in all this is that certain notions cannot help but have positive psychological effects when believed. So the believer in Christ’s love, eternal life, and divine provi­dence can certainly expect the benefits of peace, assurance, and purpose. But there need be nothing supernatural in the believing of these things for these benefits to accrue. Is there anything miraculous in one’s joy at hear­ing a confession of love from his or her spouse? No, it simply follows “naturally.” Even so here.
It would be useless to pretend that nothing would be different on this understanding. There could be promised no supernatural short-cuts to mature self-identity, no easy answers to questions of personal ethics, no automatic freedom from depression. (On the other hand, believers would be freed, as soft-liners want to free them, from the guilt of believing that they should be miraculously free of problems and confusion when they are not.) Such an awakening to reality, however rude for some, should be welcomed since it ends the illusion that Christian faith is to be embraced for the sake of the benefits one stands to gain. And this is undeniably the approach of much evangelism today, wherein the Gospel is hawked as a miraculous panacea, a happiness elixir. (Witness the amazing bumper sticker: “Make life a little easier with Jesus.”) Any sober reading of New Testament statements like “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27) suggests that Christian dis­cipleship may actually be more of a liability than an asset for life in this world. The spectacular (and unrealistic) promises of the hard-liners tend to obscure this fact.
So “soft-line supernaturalists,” on the present understanding, do not need to trouble themselves about redefining and compromising the miraculous quality of conversion. They would be well-advised instead to leave the meaning of "miracle” intact and deny that conversion is miraculous at all! Surely the whole point is the supernatural miracle to which one is converted, namely Christ. The decision to believe the Gospel message is "merely” a decision like any other decision. But the message is like no other message. Revivalist Charles Finney knew that there was nothing particularly mysteri­ous about the decision to embrace Christianity. The important thing was how to persuade people to make it.
And this observation raises an apparent difficulty with the present proposal. Though nothing inherent in the concept of conversion implies a supernatural character, conversion might be required to be miraculous because of the other tenets of one’s theology. For example, Calvinists might be more reluctant to accept this solution than Arminians, since Reformed theology seems to require Calvinists to make conversion other than human in origin. But all that need be said in a Calvinist framework is that while the conversion decision is pre-ordained by God, it comes about by no special act of God, but rather as a result of his general providence, just like other, more mundane, events. That is, the causation involved in conversion is more analogous to that operating in a common auto accident or the winning of a contest, than to that at work in the parting of the Red Sea or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, it can be observed that, as often happens, a problem has been created by a misleading delineation of the issues, in this case by evan­gelical writers and counselors themselves. And the solution is as simple as putting the issues into better perspective. When this is done, the need to weaken the concept "miracle,” with the ensuing theological implications, vanishes. And though the evangelist will still be justified in promising expe­riential benefits arising from faith, the se promises will be more realistic both biblically and psychologically. In fact, it becomes superfluous to promise that God will “miraculously” cause peace and joy to spring up in the convert’s life. Anyone who has come to believe that he or she has eternal life with a loving God, will need no help in feeling peace and joy.
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