Daniel C. Maguire: Christianity Without God: Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative

Review of Daniel C. Maguire, Christianity Without God: Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (SUNY Press, 2014). Paperback. 226 pages.

Daniel Maguire is a liberal Roman Catholic theologian and Professor of Ethics at Marquette University. Author of eleven books and editor of three anthologies, he specializes in social justice, medical and ecological ethics.

The book begins with a disclaimer, disarming for anyone with preconceived ideas about what to expect from an ordained priest who has taught almost exclusively at Catholic universities: “When I knelt on the marble floor of the chapel in Rome and heard the bishop intone over me, ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum’ (you are a priest forever), I could never have imagined I would one day write this book. In these pages, I argue against the existence of a personal god, the divinity of Jesus, and the belief that continued living is the sequel to death. I find no persuasive arguments for any of those hypotheses.”

Maguire claims that his intellectual integrity required him to write this book. “The guiding maxim of my intellectual journey has been to follow the truth wherever it beckons.” Accordingly he dedicates it to the American Association of University Professors “which stands tall as the defender of academic freedom and integrity.”

Christianity without God comprises four parts. The first examines traditional concepts of a personal deity; the second, how Jesus of Nazareth came to be declared God; the third addresses the implications of human evolution for belief in immortality; the fourth offers a radical vision of humanity inspired by the Hebrew Prophets and the gospels.

Maguire’s approach to the Hebrew Bible is literary rather than historical. Yet he maintains its abiding significance for our political and ethical values. In the Epilogue, he states: “One can profit from the poetry of early Israel in its polytheistic period without embracing polytheism. Biblical disarray and confusion about afterlife in some parallel universe does not destroy the poetic brilliance of that complex classic.” The Hebrew Bible is our “epic moral narrative.”

Maguire traces the tortuous path of ancient Israel from pre-exilic polytheism and monolatry to post-exilic monotheism. He targets supernatural theism, anthropocentrism and its concomitant, anthropomorphism. He eschews “god-talk.” Human beings have never agreed on the meaning of the word “God.” Morality does not depend on “unstable god-talk.” In fact, morality does not depend on religion. This, after all, was the gist of Socrates’ argument in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. The distinction is important and also advantageous: “A definition of religion that leaves out god-talk can include nontheistic religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.”

Traditional concepts make it difficult to speak of God in a coherent way. The word “God” is either meaningless or misleading. Consequently philosophers resort to analogy, symbol and myth. Apophatic theologians have recourse to saying what God is not rather than describing what God is.

Maguire dismisses outright negative theology, calling it The Apophatic Hideaway. “In popular piety, moreover, the apophatic doesn’t fly. Anthropocentrism reigns. There are no apophatic pews in churches.”

For Maguire the three Abrahamic religions are intrinsically anthropomorphic. They depend on divine revelation (Torah, Gospel, Qur’an):

“The very concept of ‘revelation’ is as anthropomorphic as Jesus. ‘Religions of the book,’ Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, posit a talking deity, talking as anthropoi do. And Nicaea’s homoousios decision made anthropomorphism official church doctrine.”

Moreover the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity accentuate the problem:

“Ironically, Jesus himself is a huge problem for Christians who want a transcendent non-anthropomorphic deity. From what we know of him, Jesus did not buy into a god hidden in abstractions. His god was not neuter but was clearly anthropomorphic and gendered. ‘Abba, Father,’ Jesus called him, the affectionate, very personal term for father in Aramaic.”

Maguire next traces the development of Christology, culminating in the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Nicaea supplied the Emperor Constantine with the requisite theology for his project of unifying the Empire. He quotes Eusebius’ description in his Life of Constantine of the lavish banquet that concluded Council of Nicaea, with the bishops entering the luxurious imperial apartments, flanked by the imperial bodyguards!

Maguire accepts the prevailing scientific worldview, citing Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. Since evolution is integral to that worldview, it impinges directly on belief in an afterlife:

“Evolution poses questions for afterlife believers. The hardest question is: when in the evolutionary process did immortality kick in? Our divergence from the apes began about seven million years ago. How far did evolution have to advance before we became immortal?” (Author’s italics).

The Hebrew Bible offers vague notions of an afterlife in Sheol, the abode of the dead in early Hebraic thought. The dualistic concept of an immortal soul entered Judaism during the late Second Temple era, with Hellenistic influence.

The final part of the book, The Quest for a Global Ethic, is by far the best. It offers a radical, visionary and prophetic view of humanity’s future, inspired by the images of paradise in Genesis and Second Isaiah. Maguire traces its roots to Sumerian cuneiform and the dream of a paradise called Dilmun:

“It was poetry, not geography or history, and it echoes still in the Genesis story of paradise. Literal-minded folk have often taken the Genesis paradise story as fact and have done digs to see if there are remnants of this paradise somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—a sorry witness to our metaphor-crushing dullness. There are enough hints in the Genesis story to make the point that this is myth, not facticity. The trees are not oak or elm but trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil, serpents talk, and angels staff the gates to this paradise. This is Dilmun poetically calling out.”

The Christian movement began as a Jewish sect, called The Way (Acts 24: 5, 14). It was a way of life rather than the system of beliefs that developed later. Maguire maintains that Christianity needs to recover its Judaic roots. Consequently he privileges orthopraxis over orthodoxy.

The book reprises Lloyd Geering, Christianity Without God (2002) and Gretta Vosper, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe (2008). It follows in the wake of Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (2010) and Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (2013). It is indicative of a shift in global Christianity away from doctrines and dogmas to ethical and experiential concerns. For conservatives and traditionalists this movement is unsettling.

In the Epilogue, the author recounts the reaction of a colleague: “A theologian friend who read my manuscript is in somewhat reluctant agreement with the case I made but she chided me saying how it used to be exhilarating to wake and see the special glory of Der Morgensonnenschein [Ger. morning sunshine], to feel invigorated by a sleep that ‘unravels care,’ and to say in the face of it all ‘Thank you, God!’”

This is an honest, engaging and challenging book, with a good index, extensive notes and an annotated bibliography. Though addressed primarily to the academy, it is recommended for the general reader.


©William Converse, 2015


William Converse e-mail, February 11, 2016

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