Contra Weinbergium:
Steven Weinberg, ++Rowan Williams, and Ernest Gellner
on fundamentalism and liberalism

By T. Peter Park

Regarding Dreams of a Final Theory (NY: Pantheon Books, 1992) by 1979 Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg.

Weinberg is an agnostic leaning toward atheism. He believes that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless" (Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, A. Deutsch, 1977, p. 149). He finds religion "indelibly marked with the stamp of wishful thinking" (Dreams of a Final Theory, p. 255). However, Weinberg has been approvingly quoted by fundamentalists and religious conservatives for a passage in Dreams of a Final Theory attacking religious liberals while describing fundamentalists as closer in spirit to scientists in seeing their beliefs as objectively true:

Religious liberals are in one sense even farther in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs "work for them."

Wolfgang Pauli was once asked whether he thought that a particularly ill-conceived physics paper was wrong. He replied that such a description would be too kind---the paper was not even wrong. I happen to think that the religious conservatives are wrong in what they believe, but at least they have not forgotten what it means really to believe something. The religious liberals seem to me to be not even wrong.

One often hears that theology is not the important thing about religion---the important thing is how it helps us to. live. Very strange, that the existence and nature of God and grace and sin and heaven and hell are not important! I would guess that people do not find the theology of their own supposed religion important because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they do not believe any of it. But through out history and in many parts of the world today people have believed in one theology or another, and for them it has been very important. [Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, pp. 257-258]

I found Weinberg's put-down of liberal (or simply middle-of-the-road) theology simply astonishing--and offensive. I could understand and expect fundamentalists to attack tolerance, open- mindedness, and civilized sweet reasonableness--but scientists? I found his snideness toward liberal and middle-of-the-road theologians undeserved--and just plain wrong. Weinberg's stereotype of liberal theologians simply struck me as a tiresome, unhelpful, and just plain false straw man. It seemed to betray either total ignorance of the subject, or a willful total disinterest in its nuances born out of a dogmatic preconceived conviction that any position other than dogmatic agnosticism and materialism is total "stuff and nonsense." As a presumable total disbeliever in ESP, telepathy, and "psychic" powers, Weinberg can only "guess" that religious liberals "do not find the theology of their own supposed religion important because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they do not believe any of it."Perhaps we should be grateful that he does not claim to actually read their minds!

Weinberg gives no explicit indication of having actually read any of the liberal theology he blithely dismisses. He gives no sign of having read anything, for instance, by ++Rowan Williams, Anglican Primate of Wales and new Archbishop of Canterbury designate, and I likewise don't specifically know if he has ever read a single word by, say, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, +John Shelby Spong, or Harvey Cox. I suppose he probably has read some glib, sensationalized summaries of their views in Time or Newsweek, or in potted histories of science and religion. Like so many dogmatic agnostics, atheists, and materialists, Weinberg seems to be simply tone-deaf to the nuances and subtleties of religion, theology, and spirituality. It is a condition perhaps better comparable to color-blindness, dyslexia, impotence, or frigidity than to the supreme perfect protein-computer rationality that they claim it is..

Perhaps worse, Weinberg indiscriminately lumps together all so-called "religious liberals" with no awareness or interest in the often sharp differences among so-called "liberals." He shows no awareness of significant distinctions in their actual views, or major differences in their actual degree of rejection or acceptance of various traditional beliefs. He makes no distinction between extreme radicals and moderate liberals in theology. He likewise makes no distinction between religious liberals proper reinterpreting but still upholding traditional beliefs, and de facto agnostics, secular humanists, or ethical culturists who have almost completely lost or rejected all traditional beliefs, but still hold curacies or bishoprics, and still wear clerical dress. He seems, in effect, to lump together Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, Harvey Cox, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, William Sloane Coffin, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, John Polkinghorne, Rowan Williams, Langdon Gilkey, John Cobb, Friedrich Gogarten, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Anders Nygren, etc., etc., into a single undifferentiated homogeneous crowd of "religious liberals" without bothering to look more closely at their specific theologies.

Let me give one example of the sort of error committed by Weinberg--and by his fundamentalist and conservative religious admirers--though he did not himself specifically address this particular doctrine. Pastor C. David Hess of the West Henrietta Baptist Church in Rochester NY, not an all-out fundamentalist but a self-styled "raging moderate," quoted the Weinberg passage in a Sunday sermon discussing "the Resurrection as event, not just metaphor." Posting the Weinberg quote on his church's web page the following week, he included Weinberg's "through out history and in many parts of the world today people have believed in one theology or another, and for them it has been very important."Pastor Hess the commented:

Such people were the early Christians. Their attitude was: Call us liars if we must, but don't patronize us with talk of metaphor (I Corinthians 15:14-15) ["And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised"] (C. David Hess, "Resurrection: Metaphor or Event")

Here Pastor Hess, like Steven Weinberg, lumped "religious liberals" with "religious liberals." So- called liberal, modernist, and radical Christian theologians and Biblical scholars in fact hold a wide variety of views about the historicity or literal truth of Jesus Christ's bodily Resurrection--all the way from "event" to "metaphor," in Hess's words. Moderate religious liberals in fact agree with religious conservatives in upholding the historicity of the bodily Resurrection and of the empty tomb and post- crucifixion apparition stories of the Gospels. More radical theologians have questioned the hstoricity of the empty tomb and post-crucifixion appearance narratives. Instead, they have seen the Resurrection as a metaphorical expression in mythological language of a spiritual realization of Jesus Christ as an eternally, timelessly valid and relevant expression of God's love and mercy. As Rudolf Bultmann put it, the Crucified One is announced and identified as the Risen One, "risen into the kerygma." Paul Tillich and +Spong expressed rather similar views--see, for instance, John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994). In contrast to the "metaphor" view of Bultmann, Tillich, and Spong, however, another prominent "religious liberal," ++Rowan Williams, upholds the "event" view.

++Williams courteously reviews the different interpretations of the Resurrection in On Christian Theology (Blackwell Publishers, 2000), Chapter 12, "Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne" (pp. 183-196). He concludes (p. 194), however, that "the story of the empty tomb is not in fact incidental or secondary in the exposition of what the resurrection means theologically." Without "the form of the New Testament proclamation," the empty tomb stories, and the apparition narratives, "the Church is left with a problem as to how it will avoid making belief in the resurrection simply a belief in its own capacities." ++Williams affirms that "belief in the empty tomb as an historical fact is essential to belief in the resurrection." He realizes that "this is a deeply unfashionable conclusion" among radical theologians of the Bultmann type and radical critics of the John Dominic Crossan type" (On Christian Theology, p. 194). Billy Graham, Pastor Hess, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson should not have serious quarrel with such statements!

In other chapters, again, of On Christian Theology, ++Williams examines and ultimately affirms the traditional Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity--although some Anglican ultra-conservatives have accused him (hastily and unfairly, I believe) of being an "Arian" and (on one e-mail discussion list) even a "Muslim"(!) ++Williams likewise affirms a fairly traditional sacramental theology, "returning to and exploring St. Thomas Aquinas' admirably and typically simple observation that makes sacraments distinct is what they are for, the activity in which they are caught up, which is making human beings holy" (On Christian Theology, p. 197, citing Summa Theologiae, III, lx.2c and ad.1). With warnings against its exaggerations and distortions, ++Williams mentions a "perfectly respectable theology (which I accept) of devotion to the consecrated eucharistic elements" (On Christian Theology, p. 206). In many other respects, however, ++Williams is an unquestionably "liberal" theologian and churchman, as, for instance, in his view on homosexuality and the ordination of women. ++Williams, however, is hardly alone or unique in affirming the empty tomb, physical Resurrection "event," Trinity, Incarnation, and God's real presence in the Sacraments, while holding "liberal" views on many other religious issues.

That ++Williams IS nevertheless a "liberal" despite his many traditional positions is indicated, for instance, by his critique of "the effective redefinition--and the disastrous shrinkage--of the literal sense" of Scripture "that we associate with fundamentalism." While "correctly identifying 'literal' with 'historical,' in sound historical fashion, fundamentalism" in ++Williams' view also then "assumed that 'historical' could be applied only to a univocally descriptive and exact representation of particular sequences of 'fact'" (On Christian Theology, p. 48). "Honesty compels the admission" for ++Williams that religious conflicts "over areas of sexual and personal ethics" like homosexuality, "economic and public matters" like the Church's relation to capitalism, and "major issues of war and defence" like the legitimacy of the nuclear deterrent are not "likely to be 'settled' in the foreseeable future" by the Christian churches, "certainly not by appeals to what is commonly taken to be the "literal sense of Scripture' (i.e., particular clusters of quotations)" (On Christian Theology, p. 57). Revelation, for ++Williams, has "nothing to do with absolute knowledge," but rather "both is, and is not, 'over'" (On Christian Theology, p. 142).

Religious conservatives, too, in fact span a wider gamut of actual beliefs than Weinberg assumes. A liberal Baptist pastor and theologian, Kenneth Cauthen, John Price Crozer Griffith Professor of Theology Emeritus at Colgate-Rochester/Crozer Theological Seminary, has outlined an interesting actual real-life spectrum of fundamentalist and conservative views on religion and science:

Fundamentalists hold the view that the Bible is inerrant, without error. It tells the truth about everything it mentions. It is right about nature, the universe, the origin of human beings, the reproduction of species, and so on. All of its historical claims are true. The miracle stories happened just the way the Bible says. There is to be no compromise of biblical truth. The Bible is the Word of God in a full, complete, total manner and in all respects. Hence, if the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were literal people living a garden somewhere on earth that we could locate on earth, then that story is just true. If evolution teaches something contrary to what the right interpretation of Scripture requires, then it is wrong. True science is in harmony with the Bible. Whatever contradicts the Bible is bad science. Some conservatives have made a variety of accommodations to science with respect to biblical cosmology, the age of the earth, and even evolution. Some even venture to distinguish between matters of science not essential to religious truth and matters of faith in which the Bible is without any error at all. As the recognition of the authority of science grows with respect to its own legitimate field of inquiry, the closer it comes to blending in with a moderate liberal approach. At some point the boundaries between science and theology and between fundamentalism and liberalism may become fuzzy. [Kenneth Cauthen, "Science and Theology," c. 2000]

For many of the moderate fundamentalists and religious conservatives described by Cauthen, Christ's Resurrection is much more a central non-negotiable absolute than the Genesis creation story, Nmoah's Ark, or Jonah and the whale. Again, I wonder if Weinberg understands this?

Another dogmatic agnostic/atheist of the Steven Weinberg type showing a total incomprehension of liberal and middle-of-the-road Christian theology was the Czech-English cultural anthropologist and social philosopher Ernest Gellner (1925-1995). Gellner, the late Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, and formerly professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, most extensively developed his views on science and religion, fundamentalism and liberalism in Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). He defended his own Enlightenment agnostic scientific rationalism there against both religious (and especially Muslim) fundamentalism and postmodernist relativism. Before launching into his observations on contemporary militant Islâmic fundamentalism, Gellner defined fundamentalism in general, in the process expressing his disdain for liberal theology. He defined fundamentalism as the demand that a "given faith" be "upheld firmly in its full and literal form, free of compromise, softening, re-interpretation or diminution" (Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, p. 2).

Fundamentalism, Gellner observed, is "best understood in terms of what it repudiates." It rejects the "widespread modern idea" that "religion, though endowed with some kind of specified validity of its own, really doesn't mean what it actually says, and least of all what ordinary people had in the past naturally taken it to mean." What religion "really means," according to the "modernism" rejected by fundamentalists, is something "radically different from what its unsophisticated adherents had previously taken it to mean," and "far removed from the natural interpretation of the claims of the faith in question." Fundamentalism repudiates the "tolerant modernist claim" that the "faith in question" means "something much milder, far less exclusive, altogether less demanding and much more accommodating; above all something quite compatible with all other faiths, even, or especially, with the lack of faith." Such modernism, Gellner felt, "extracts all demand, challenge and defiance from the doctrine and its revelation"( Postmodernism, Reason and Religion , pp. 2-3)

The "cosmogony of a given faith," in such "softened modernist re-interpretation," is "in effect treated not as literal truth," but rather "merely as some kind of parable, conveying 'symbolic' truths, something not to be taken at face value, and hence no longer liable to be in any kind of conflict with scientific pronouncements about what would, on the surface, seem to be the same topic." For example, "modernist" believers are "untroubled by the incompatibility between the Book of Genesis and either Darwinism or modern astro-physics." They "assume that the pronouncements, though seemingly about the same events--the creation of the world and the origins of man--are really on quite different levels," or even "in altogether different languages, within distinct or separate kinds of 'discourse.'" Generally, Gellner found, the traditional doctrines and moral demands of the religion are "turned into something which, properly interpreted, is in astonishingly little conflict with the secular wisdom of the age." This way, Gellner felt, "lies peace--and doctrinal vacuity" (Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion, pp. 3-4). Elsewhere, Gellner found that in most contemporary societies the "old theological high doctrine" of the local traditional religion "may formally continue to claim to be referentially true," but "inevitably also conceding, whether with emphasis or evasively, that its own truth is 'different in kind' from that of science." A "distinction is invented which had been absent before, and would previously have seemed absurd" (Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History [University of Chicago Press, 1988, 1990], pp. 206-207)

Like Steven Weinberg, Ernest Gellner seems to have been simply tone-deaf to the actual nuances and subtleties of religion and theology. Like Weinberg, he pontificated from the outside about something for which he had no "feel" or understanding--and about which he does not seem to have been too well- informed. As in Weinberg's case, I'm not at all sure if Gellner ever actually himself personally read a single word written by ++Rowan Williams, +Spong, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, or Harvey Cox beyond glib mass-media summaries. Again like Weinberg, he seems to have lumped together all so-called "liberal theologians" with no awareness of or interest in significant distinctions in their actual views, or major differences in their actual degree of rejection or acceptance of various traditional beliefs. Like Weinberg, he made no distinction between theological extreme radicals and moderate liberals--or between religious liberals proper and formerly believing de facto agnostics, secular humanists, or ethical culturists still holding curacies or bishoprics and still wearing clerical dress. Like Weinberg, he lumped together Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, Harvey Cox, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, John Polkinghorne, Rowan Williams, Friedrich Gogarten, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, etc., into a single homogeneous crowd of "liberals" or "modernists."

We usually think of parapsychologists-investigators of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, ghosts, poltergeists, out-of-the-=body and near-death experiences, and mediumistic communications--as very different in outlook from both fundamentalists and materialists. However, many parapsychologists are as convinced as Steven Weinberg, Ernest Gellner, and the fundamentalists that religious or metaphysical concepts like "God" or "soul" must produce observable effects on the "real world" to be meaningful. Parapsychology, and its 19th century precursor "psychical research," arose from the determination to ground spiritual beliefs in the kind of empirical evidence demanded by a scientific age, and not merely in the tradition, metaphysics, and supposed revelations of pre-scientific ages. The earnest Victorian founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882 appealed to the Victorianm scientific empiricism of Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer to bolster the receding religious faith lamented by Matthew Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson. This appeal inspired the poet, classicist, and eventual SPR founder Frederick W.H. Myers, when he asked his friend and fellow SPR founder, the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, on their famous 1869 "star- light walk," if he thought that "when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena--ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be--some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen"(quoted by John L. Randall, Parapsychology and the Nature of Life [Harper & Row, 1975, 1977], p. 67).

A century later, English parapsychologist John L. Randall expressed a far more uncompromising religious scientism in Parapsychology and the Nature of Life (1975, 1977), both echoing the fundamentalists and anticipating Ernest Gellner. Randall criticized liberal Christian theologians who hoped to escape, by-pass, or transcend the conflict of science and theology by positing a God who "stands behind all the phenomena of the physical world" as the "Ground of all Being" but "does not interfere with the mechanistic laws which govern the operation of the universe." Despite its "popularity," however, Randall found this view "totally unsatisfactory." It seemed to "achieve a kind of false reconciliation between religion and mechanistic science: the mechanists are left in full possession of the physical world provided they agree to make no intrusions into the spiritual realm." Ever since Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species, he noted, theologians and "Christianly-minded" scientists had been "trying desperately to place their God beyond the reach of advancing science." Attempting to "make the foundations of religion unshakeable by placing them outside the realm of empirical facts," they reduced the "dramatic figure of Yahweh, miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea in order to deliver his people," to a pallid, bloodless "'demythologised' abstraction, a vague sort of cosmic mind which is supposed to lie behind all phenomena, but which is never permitted to exert any direct influence upon the observable world of science."(Parapsychology and the Nature of Life , p. 194).

This "will not do," Randall believed. Statements like "there is a spiritual reality'," or "there is a God," he felt, are "meaningless unless the entity thus named produces some detectable effect within our world." To "hypothesise about the existence of something which lies forever beyond the reach of observation, or whose existence can never be inferred from any event or complex of events," was "simply to talk nonsense." Our "only justification" for saying "God exists" must be "that we believe that he has, at some time or other, revealed his existence by some kind of detectable effect within our world, whether that effect be upon physical objects or upon the minds (and therefore brains) of men." Similar arguments, he continued, applied to "the soul theory of man: if the soul is in any meaningful sense 'real', it must produce some detectable effects in the real world." If the "soul theory" is true, we "would expect something similar to psi phenomena to occur, at least on occasions." It thus seemed "futile" to Randall to "try to keep religion and mechanistic science away from each other's throats by confining each of them to a water-tight compartment" (Parapsychology and the Nature of Life , pp. 194-195).

Parapsychologists like John L. Randall seem to crave the same immediately obvious, easily traceable, quick-fix, instant-gratification connection between fact and theory, cause and effect, hypothetical entity and visible proof, as Steven Weinberg, Ernest Gellner, and the fundamentalists. Many parapsychologists seem to sympathize with the Weinberg-Gellner-fundamentalist mind-set. In a private e-mail message to me this past July, one parapsychologist enthusiastically quoted and endorsed Weinberg's view that fundamentalists and conservative religionists have much more in common with scientists than do religious liberals. Scientists and conservatives, he quoted Weinberg, believe that their words actually refer to empirical things and events. By contrast, he described religious liberals as playing "contorted word games" that "assure that their words have no referents in the world." In a May 17 e-mail, he had described the beliefs of liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and John Polkinghorne as "nice, dry, and abstract, and removed from the world of experience." They "don't pose any significant challenges to tidy distinctions (e.g., between science and religion)." Polkinghorne was "especially amusing because he addresses both science and religion, and he studiously avoids commenting on the most obvious points of overlap, i.e., miracles and the supernatural". He was "recently rewarded with the $1 million Templeton prize, which will send a nice strong signal to other religious scholars." I'm not quite sure if he was being altogether fair to Polkinghorne. He added that I had been "quite right"in one of my recent communications about many "elite Protestant writers avoiding the topic of miracles." He found the "disputes within Protestantism...quite interesting," and felt that "much can be traced back to Calvin," though "Calvin's views were decidedly ambiguous and ambivalent" on such things in his view. He mentioned "the Protestant doctrine of the cessation of the charismata, but that is not accepted by all Protestants."

The question of the miraculous, supernatural, and paranormal is a huge, complex topic which I don't have the time to discuss right now. Suffice it just to say that many liberal and middle-of-the-road Protestant theologians have expressed quite varied views on these topics, that moderate liberal theologians on the whole are more sympathetic to the paranormal than extreme radicals of the Bultmann/Tillich type, and that liberal and moderate Roman Catholics are generally rather sympathetic to parapsychology. For liberal and moderate RC's, parapsychological explanations frequently appeal as a naturalistic explanation for the miracles and apparitions of popular Catholic piety--the Virgin Mary apparitions, weeping Madonna pictures, bleeding crucifixes, levitating mystics, non-decaying saints' corpses, Fátima and Medjugorje "solar miracles," stigmata, etc. For educated, liberal, and sophisticated Catholics who are embarrassed by such gaudy modern "miracles" but unable to completely dismiss evidence that something odd may really be going on, parapsychology may serve the function of swamp gas for UFO skeptics. Liberal Anglicans and Protestants, for their part, may cherish the Resurrection while feeling embarrassed by gee-whiz supermarket-tabloidish alleged modern marvels. As impeccably traditionalist a Christian apologist as C.S. Lewis could sharply distinguish between the awesome solemn dignity of "the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection" with the triviality of "some pious tittle-tattle about how Mother Egarée Louise miraculously found her second best thimble by the aid of St. Anthony" (C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study [London: Bles, 1947, 1960; New York: Macmillan, "Collier Books" paperback, 1978], p. 107). In contemporary American Protestant or Episcopal charismatic circles, the equivalent of Mother Egarée Louise's thimble might be a fundamentalist or charismatic pastor hurrying to a prayer meeting finding all the traffic lights on his route turning green for him just on time to allow him get to the meeting on time. Many committed, sincere Christians outside "fundie" or charismatic circles might be skeptical and sniffish about such anecdotes. ++Williams certainly doesn't seem very interested in repeating such tales, at least not in On Christian Theology! But enough on this now--perhaps a little more sometime in the future.

Pax vobiscum,
T. Peter


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