Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Assassination of Theology: The Case of Union Theological Seminary

There is a growing disdain for theology, even in many seminaries. The last past-president of Union Theological Seminary, Joseph Hough, Jr. provides a good example. In an interview with the New York Times, 1/12/2002, The Times writes that Hough “has been calling in recent speeches for Christians to adopt a new theological approach to others, one that goes considerably beyond simple tolerance.”
What is Hough calling for?—that Christians surrender their claims that they are right and others are wrong:

“Religion, our rituals, our music, even our theology is a human attempt to express what we have experienced…Therefore, we want to be careful about claiming that one religious form is the only one that is authentic or real.”

Because our theologies are merely human, we shouldn’t be dogmatic about them, certainly not to the point where we claim that we’re right and the Buddhist or Muslim is wrong. But Hough isn’t simply concerned about Christians being “careful” about asserting that Christ is the “way, truth, and life” or about asserting any other exclusive claim. He later clarifies that the Christian has absolutely no legitimate right to make such a claim at all.

“The fear that openness to other religious traditions will destabilize our Christian faith has led many to resist full recognition of the adequacy of other religions to transform human beings with hope and promise.”

According to Hough, other religions are fully adequate. The “adequacy” that he’s referring to isn’t just some form of psychological adequacy, but an adequacy before God, an adequacy that sidesteps the need for the Savior.

“I believe that there is ample evidence in the best of the world’s religions, including our own, that God’s work is effective. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others have been and are being transformed by a powerful vision of God that redeems them with hope.”

It’s no longer the Savior that transforms but a vision or philosophy of the many religions. What is this “vision of God?” Many Buddhists don’t have a God; many are avowedly atheistic. Some have impersonal gods, while others have gods who are continually at war with one another. Of what does this “powerful vision” consist in view of their differing “visions” of God? Hough’s wording suggests that they share a common transforming vision but what exactly do these religions hold in common in terms of a belief in God?

Putting aside these incoherencies, it’s not easy to contend against Dr. Hough. I can easily envision a debate scenario. I’m being scorned as narrow and judgmental. The accusing fingers point in my face. It’s my absolute beliefs that lie at the root of pograms, persecutions, and genocide, as Hough insinuates.

“The fomenting of religious conflict has been and still is a theological problem for Christians, because we have made our claim to God’s revelation exclusively ours…we have killed each other and members of other religions in defending that exclusive claim.”

According to Hough, we Christians are judgmental, thereby causing strife. However, Hough is equally judgmental! He refers to the “best of the world religions.” How can he stand in judgment over the religions that aren’t the “best” after he forbade the Church from doing this very thing? While claiming that historical Christianity is intolerant, he displays the same intolerance of Christ’s exclusive claims: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He subsequently adds,

“Wherever there is peace and movement toward peace, where there is justice and movement towards justice, God is present and working.”

According to his criterion, when Hough fails to see such a “movement,” he deems that God is absent. That’s quite judgmental! What makes Hough’s judgments valid while, according to him, other religious judgments are invalid? Why should he alone possess the luxury of making value judgments that he denies to everyone else?

Furthermore, if it is our exclusive judgments that cause intolerance and bloodshed, why is it that Hough’s exclusive judgments about what is “best” won’t cause this? Won’t those religions that fail to make the grade of “best” resent such a judgment, especially from one who derides judgmentalness?

Everyone draws a line somewhere, and Hough is no exception. Everyone has a religion or worldview from which he or she judges other worldviews, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is inevitable. Hough also has a religion – we call it “religious pluralism” - by which he critiques the rest, although his standards might be different. Nevertheless, he too is passing judgment and is dismissive of other religions. He too is claiming, although not overtly, that he is right and everyone else is wrong. In fact, all of “best” world religions are wrong in holding their own exclusive claims while Hough is right!

One might wonder at this point how it is that Hough is the president of a “Christian” Seminary and why he continues to identify himself as a Christian. He says that,

“Religion is something that we human beings put together in an effort to give some cultural form to our faith.”

From this perspective, the Bible is just another human effort. We therefore have to cull from it the good stuff and leave behind what offends. For Hough this would include the exclusive sayings of Jesus. This leaves us with a reconstructed, postmodern Jesus! Instead of God’s Word standing in judgment over us, it is we who exercise dominion over His Word. The result – an entirely different faith!

If we did possess such discernment, what need would we have of the Bible, let alone of Christ Himself? What need would we have of seminary, learning, even of Christianity? Also, if it’s all the same, is there anything to learn about? Why study about our own religion or even other religions? Why not just leave the ivory tower and live the life? But what life?

The belief that the Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) is central to Christian faith. Although this is a doctrine that others have a right to contest, Hough instantly dismisses it without an argument. How can he consistently preach tolerance and non-judgmentalness in view of his own dogmatism?


Christianity has always placed a high priority upon peace and justice. However, Christianity looks beyond the superficial. It recognizes that the motives of the heart are at least as important as behaviors. Jesus often criticized Pharisaic externalism. They often did the right thing but for the wrong motives (Mat. 6). Although they looked spotless on the outside, Jesus declared that they were filled with filth (Mat. 23-- something that could be said of the entire human race). They were more concerned with the opinions of man than the opinion of God (John 5:44).

At first glance this might seem to lack ethical significance. What difference do our motivations make as long as we’re acting morally? The Bible recognizes that peace and justice can’t be maintained without the proper underpinning. The communists talked a lot about justice but had a twisted human heart. Consequently, this twisted heart twisted everything they touched, albeit sincerely and idealistically, with serious consequences – the slaughter of 100,000,000!

It’s not enough to look at an outward show of peace and justice and then to conclude that God is present. The way we think and believe is foundational and must not be discounted. The book of Proverbs assents to this: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).  If this is true, we can’t divorce behavior from religion and its teachings. It’s the belief that Christ has died for me, one so utterly unworthy, that impels me to love and protect others, even those who disagree with me and hurt me. It’s this belief that prepares me to lay down my life for others even in light of my repeated failures to live up to this standard.
What is justice? Declaring all forms of sexual misconduct as protected human rights? The Bible defines justice differently: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 17:15).

Peace and justice must rest upon moral standards and accurate data. But is this possible when the “Religion of Peace and Justice” forbids anyone to say that they have the exclusive truth because religion is merely a human creation? If all religion and ethical standards are merely human attempts to understand God’s truth, it follows that no one can make an absolute truth claim.

We all need standards by which to measure behaviors and the various claims of what constitutes peace and justice. We need our law books that coherently define what constitutes a crime. We also need religion upon which the law rests. Without the authority that comes from above, law is arbitrary, dictatorial, and fails to command conscience.

Upon what principles does Hough’s system rest? It’s not enough to say “peace and justice.” In the USA, it’s easy to use these terms and to get away with it. Since our society has been so thoroughly Christianized (and so too great portions of the world), we lose sight of the fact that there are many other conceptions of justice. There was the “law of suttee” which directed widows to throw themselves upon their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres to join them in death. There are female circumcisions and honor killings that constitute justice in other parts of the world.

I’m confident that Dr. Hough would protest against these practices. However, what criteria would he base his judgments upon? If justice and peace are the bottom line, there is no underpinning to determine what is just. If “religion is something that we human being put together,” then to what body of truth can we appeal to justify our conceptions of justice? Hough has made the connection between man and God tenuous by relativizing religious truth claims. What does he substitute for them?

Hough claims that he’s found evidence of justice and peace “in the best of the world’s religions.” He then goes on to mention the major five. Of course, his assessment demonstrates a pragmatic wisdom. These five along with the “others” probably include about 95% of the world’s population. On the surface, this seems very noble. However, each religion, by its very nature, is intolerant of others. Many Buddhists and Hindus cannot countenance the idea that anyone who eats meats will enter into Nirvana, while many religious Jews believe that Jews are ontologically different from other peoples, the Goyim, while Muslims believe that no one who rejects Mohammed can enter into the Garden.

What does his endorsement of these “best” religions entail? Mustn’t he too discriminate regarding their teachings? He must and does! However, what makes his standards any better than others? According to Hough, his religion is also man-made. Perhaps he would appeal to his conscience, but they too have a conscience, which instructs them differently. Who’s to decide?


Hough’s religion is based upon a discredited assumption: sameness will remove any basis for hatred. If we’d merely shed our exclusive truth claims in favor of a “God” in general, would love and peace prevail? The communist experiment was built upon a similar assumption: removing class distinctions would usher in a utopia. Instead, the world has witnessed the “utopia” of genocide and oppression.

History has taught us that distinctions and competing truth claims are here to stay. It’s unrealistic to expect to cleanse humankind’s religions of their distinctive dogmatic claims. Instead, maturity demands that we learn to love despite the competing truth claims. There are always going to be differences in any meaningful relationship. It’s therefore unrealistic to demand that love be predicated upon sameness or at least an absence of dogmatism.

Dogmatism and exclusivity aren’t necessarily evils. I want my wife to be dogmatic - dogmatic in her faithfulness to me. I also want her to exercise “exclusivity” in her regards towards me, and it seems to work.

Likewise, the Christian should be dogmatic about love, determined to always reflect Christ to this broken world. However, this dogmatism is insupportable apart from a dogmatic belief in Jesus Christ and His Self-sacrifice. Yes, we can resolutely determine to act this way despite the erosion of the “exclusive” Christian beliefs. However, without this underpinning, this determination will soon erode.

Nazi Germany and its belief in Aryan superiority didn’t occur in a vacuum. It followed on the heals of several generations of unrelenting liberal attacks against the Bible led by the German seminaries and universities. Consequently, the Church was rendered ineffective in its struggle against Nazism. Foreseeing what lay ahead, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in 1832,

“It is to the great merit of Christianity that it has somewhat attenuated the brutal German lust for battle. But it could not destroy it entirely. And should ever that taming talisman—the Cross—break, then will come roaring back the wild madness of the ancient warriors, with all their insane Berserker rage, of whom our Nordic poets speak and sing. That talisman is now already crumbling, and the day is not far off when it shall break apart entirely. On that day, the old stone gods will rise from their long forgotten wreckage and rub from their eyes the dust of a thousand years’ sleep. At long last leaping to life, Thor with his giant hammer will crush the gothic cathedrals…For thought goes before deed as lightening before thunder. There will be played in Germany a play compared to which the French revolution was but an innocent idyll.”

Instead of promoting love, Hough’s belief that the Bible is just a human attempt to understand God will bear the same fruits as it did in Germany through the contributions of “higher” criticism. Ironically, it’s the exclusive Christian conviction that Christ died for our sins, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that fuels our love. Once that is taken away, there is nothing to prevent the “old stone gods” of lust, anger, and rage from “roaring back.”

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