Dan Fincke pwns Sophisticated Theology

May 14, 2014 • 9:57 am

Dan Fincke, philosopher, atheist, and ex-Christian, writes the website Camels with Hammers for Patheos.  A link to his latest post, “Dear fellow atheists, STOP saying Christians believe God is a bearded man in the sky. They don’t,” is an awesome parody of arguments by Sophisticated Theologians™ like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong. In fact, it’s such a good parody that at least one reader was taken in by it, telling me that I’d find a lot to disagree with in Dan’s post.

In fact, it’s a remarkable Poe of the ST™ arguments, showing a.) how easy it is to parody them, and b.) the ease of parody comes from their arguments being so crazy, and so clueless about what people really believe about God. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

And it’s important to note that Christians don’t believe in such silly and absurd things like that God is a man in the sky with a beard. I used to be a devout Christian and I never thought any such silly thing. God is ineffable. God cannot be material. God cannot, as sophisticated theology and philosophy teaches us, be “a” being at all. God is, rather than ineffable ground of all being or Being Itself. God is that from which all other beings derive their essence and that by which they are instantiated in reality. To call Him merely “a” being would be absurd since that would imply He was just one of the beings rather than that inexplicable, self-existence in which, and through which, all those beings have their being.

And Christians are very knowledgable about theology. They understand all this. The average person in the pew would leave Christianity tomorrow if you told him its true meaning was that there was an old man in the sky with a beard who has human emotions and thinks human-like thoughts. He would laugh you right out of his house if you talked about God in such anthropomorphic terms. A sophisticated theologian would fail you for being about 2,000 years behind the curve on human knowledge if you indicated you thought about God as being anthropomorphic like that. God is not a human just because we use human metaphors to describe God any more than I am a rock just because my best friend says to me, “Dan, you are my rock in times of trouble.” And we atheists need to understand that Christians are not ridiculous. They only ever mean to speak metaphorically about God. When Christians refer to God as “father” they don’t mean anything so literal as that God was a man who had sex and conceived them through that. They obviously say God is a father only in order to express in human terms that the “Ground of all Being” is the source of our being. This has been known for centuries of Christian thought.

. . . And they don’t believe in the nonsense about heaven being a bunch of harps and pearly gates and clouds. They fully understand that “heaven” just means being in the presence of the Ground of all Being eternally. Hell is just the absence of God. No red demons with yellow horns and spiky pitchforks there! Refuting silly cartoon ideas about heaven or hell as physical places just shows atheist ignorance.

. . . It’s time to acknowledge Christians only really believe in the ineffable, inconceivable ground of all being, being itself, that never intervenes in history, does not “literally” care about them like a “father” but just is “the source which emanates their being” and never answers their prayers. And when they say they’re “going to heaven” that’s not a place with things and people from their lives and endless joy. That’s “being with the ground of all being”. Whatever that is.

Right, Christians? That’s what you really believe, right?

There’s a lot more, and some funny pictures, too. The thing is that Dan used to be a believer, and knows from the inside that David Bentley Hart’s God resides only in the mind of sophisticated, well-fed academics, not in the hearts of the vast majority of believers. That gives his mockery special credibility.

A good job by Dr. Fincke, and a punch to the solar plexus of apophatism.

56 thoughts on “Dan Fincke pwns Sophisticated Theology

  1. “To call Him merely “a” being would be absurd since that would imply He was just one of the beings rather than that inexplicable, self-existence in which, and through which, all those beings have their being.”

    Finally someone talks some f*cking sense about this god character…

  2. Hmmm… I’d say yes and no. Clearly most believers believe in a personal god with many anthropomorphic qualities: desires, emotions, thoughts, plans, etc. Most believers believe that God listens to them and responds to them. They believe that God makes things happen in the world, both historically and now. Most believe God created humans specifically somehow, and that he caused many big events described in the Bible like the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the opening up of the earth to swallow the rebellious, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, and on and on. Most Christians believe that God was somehow physically a person in Jesus. So all of that is every bit as silly as atheists imagine and is definitely not the kind of almost Diest God that Heart and other theologians posit.

    OTOH, I don’t think many Christians think of God as a literal person in the sky with two legs, a beard, and some location somewhere. I know for sure that my own very fundamentalist sect taught very explicitly that the image on the Sistine Chapel, if taken literally, is blasphemous. God has no body or specific location in space. God was conceived of and promoted as some kind of “spirit”, as a pure mind existing nowhere in particular. Of course, this ran right in the face of the Genesis account of God “walking in the garden”, and that bothered me personally quite a bit. But the fact that I remember being very bothered by this Genesis description highlights that our official teachings were very strongly geared toward the idea that God was not like that, that he had no physical body whatsoever (except when he was Jesus) and didn’t walk anywhere. I can remember sermons where the (possibly apocryphal) quote from Yuri Gagarin that he didn’t see God in space were mocked for the naiveté of imagining that God would be the kind of thing one could see, or that he had a specific location above the clouds somewhere.

    Of course, the religion of my childhood is late, already having to deal with spaceflight and so on. Perhaps in earlier times people really imagined God as he’s shown on the Sistine Chapel, as a powerful wizard who lives somewhere in the sky. But I certainly think that if you mock Christians now for thinking that God is a man in the sky they will think you ignorant, for not many still hold such a view.

    There is plenty to mock them for as it is, but no need to give them the comfort of thinking that you don’t understand them.

    1. Dan actually answers your point in the very first comment to his post. He is not satirically implying that Christians believe in both bearded-god-figure and bearded-Jesus-figure. He is pointing out that the bearded-Jesus-figure that they really, honestly accept has exactly the same qualities as the bearded-God-figure that they really, honestly reject as a silly anthropomorphism.

      1. I should have read down to the comments. The Jesus character does conveniently let them try to have it both ways, a guy whose hand you can shake and an ineffable mind.

      2. They are also very inconsistent about it. For example, most Christians I know believe that Jesus, an actual man, really did rise up from the ground and go up into the clouds exactly as described in Acts. They think that story is a factual eyewitness account of a real event. And, at this point in time, everyone also now knows that it’s silly to imagine that he’s up above the clouds somewhere, just hanging out in the sky or in orbit around the earth. Worse than silly even.

        So how can they believe this account? Well, of course, they have to imagine that he sailed up into the sky and then something happened out of sight… he disapperated (mixing fictions here) into the alternate dimension where God exists or something. This is the “just different enough that it isn’t silly” shifting of meanings that one commenter describes.

        1. And there’s a long tradition of theologians fron Tertullian to Kierkegaard saying that “of course the incarnation is insane, unbelievable nonsense – and that’s precisely why we believe it!” (more or less)

  3. One could mention that Mormonism from Day One explicitly disavowed all this and insists God really does have a body with eyes, arms, etc (and presumably genitalia).

    Classical Catholicism did hold that God was beyond space and matter as we normally know it, but none of that for the Mormons.

  4. I thought this part was particularly good:

    they know that when Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” what he meant was “Talk about the things you want to the Ground of all Being, pretending it is a person like you and will grant your wishes. Then those times when coincidentally what you wanted to happen happens say it was an answered prayer. But when what you pretended to ask for doesn’t happen or when atheists ask why prayers show no discernible effects say, ‘I’m just trying to be close to the Ground of all Being, you philistine atheist nincompoop.’”

  5. If anyone’s interested, you should check out the comments on that article. Fincke expands and refines the point he was making in an exceptional fashion.

  6. What I’d like to hear Sophisticated Theologians™ explain is why it is, them being the elite of their respective denominations, that they have zero influence on the religious teaching indoctrination of children. After all, it is certainly important that children not miss out on the ground of all being insights bullshit.

    1. Bart Ehrman says something similar, though in a nicer way and to a slightly different audience. In Jesus, Interrupted he points out that all these mainstream priests that are leading services and preaching sermons went to seminary. Where they learned higher criticism and all the stuff he (and other critics) are pointing out – that the stories contradict each other, that many of the passages are later forgeries or that they are copies of each other and so not independent sources, and so on. This is not stuff that only a few rare scholars know (Ehrman says), it’s taught in all mainsteam seminaries. Yet when the priests leave the seminary, they ignore what they’ve learned and teach their parishoners a more naive version of Christianity. Why do that? Why deny your flock this important knowledge that you’ve learned about your faith? Why do you not teach the truth of what you know about your own religion to your parishoners and their children?

      1. Reminds me of the new priest in the remote Irish parish who found his flock were sadly deficient in Catholic teaching, so he gave after-Mass classes. He carefully explained that worship (latria) of the Virgin Mary would be idolatory, and while they venerated (dulia) saints, what the must do with Mary was give her extreme veneration (hyperdulia). At this an old woman walked down the aisle to the image of the BVM and said (in a brogue of your taste):
        “Don’t listen to him, Mary! We do so worship you!”

        But believers in ST™ also mix-and-match theology to their taste in the present, describing God in impersonal ground-of-all-being terms one minute, and calling on His infinite compassion and mercy the next.

        A God Who is “beyond time” is incoherent, since it makes no sense to have hopes or wishes, or to be disappointed in humanity, or to have Plan A (Adam & Eve) and Plan B (Noah) and Plan C (Jesus) from outside time. I suspect a similar case could be made for Him not to be coherently outside space, and there may be other ways in which ANY concept of God is incoherent.

    2. I remember from Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School (indoctrination) a verse, “Morning, noon and night, will I pray.”

      Two prayers too few, or three prayers too many? 😉

  7. Funny article, but his comment about Hell being the absence of God made me think. If God is the ground of all being, then the absence of God would make existence impossible. So being condemned to Hell would cause your supposedly immortal soul to cease existing. Which, of course, means that it wasn’t immortal after all. I wonder how sophisticated theologians explain all of this.

    1. Finke (who is verbose already) could probably write a couple whole posts on the silliness of the “hell is merely the absence of God” argument. I’ll repeat two of the fairly obvious arguments about it:

      1. Sounds like a description of Earth, not hell. I don’t see God here after all, do you?

      2. When some nonbeliever points out “if it’s not unpleasant, why should I avoid it?” a standard Christian response is “oh, it IS unpleasant.” Which means they are circling back to some form of a fire and brimstone hell, despite their protestations to the contrary.

      1. If as David Bentley Hart claims transcendence is the presence of god or actually is god, then is heaven just the equivalent of watching a sunset gif for eternity?

    2. From what I can tell the sophisticated theologians mix the qualities of “consciousness” and “bliss” into the concept of the Ground of Being, so that an absence of the Gob-God would entail the loss of consciousness and bliss. Love goes all the way down to the foundation of reality. In other words, the “absence of God” equates very simply to being unhappy. No problem then with explaining why you don’t want Hell. Who wants to be miserable?

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who believed in BOTH a rarified Ground of Being AND a literal burning hellfire version of Hell which all people with the wrong religion go to. Instead, the advocates of a sophisticated God have an equally flexible and loose interpretation of what it means to “believe in God.” For most, believing in Good is sufficient, and loving kindness is ipso facto an acceptance of Jesus Christ. Anchor the generalized Ground of Being to a specific religion and it’s hard to avoid ecumenicism — or humanism, for that matter.

      1. Your last paragraph is perfectly exemplified by the writings of C.S. Lewis, especially the Narnia stories.

        …but of course you knew that….


        1. Also The Great Divorce, where Lewis supports the notion that atheists and believers in other religions can go to heaven. His theology seems to be that it is more difficult for bad people to make that choice, because they will want to keep being bad, and heaven doesn’t allow bad behavior. But basically everyone gets to see what heven and hell are like, and decide after death which option they want to stick with.

          1. It’s a very touchy-feely feel-good solution to the sorts of moral horrors invented by religions in the first place.

            Of course, it’s still incoherent and entirely without evidence, but at least it’s not quite so malicious. Still doesn’t explain why, for example, Jesus still never calls 9-1-1.


        2. Except Lewis (at least in the Narnia stuff) was picky about “good”, too. Susan gets left out because she has other interests. The Calorman who was honest etc. is included. I disagree with the hedonic and commercialistic lifestyle too, but if you’re going to inch towards a weak universalism, …

      2. I slept like a rock last night. Not a literal rock, but Sophisticated Theologians would understand. I had neither consciousness nor bliss and enjoyed it very much.

        1. If I sit or lie on the couch or bed but am awake, the only difference between that and sleep is being awake. Not much exercise going on. Yet, do I understand correctly that the brain consumes as much as 1/3 or 30% of the body’s stash of glucose? (Perhaps affected by how much critical or productive thinking is going on.) I find myself in my “older age” looking forward to sleep as a way to isolate myself from the (over-?) stimulus of this “modren” Age in which we live.

      3. Well that runs into the problem on the opposite side of the spectrum, which is that if humans on earth can be conscious, feel love, etc… then we are currently in the presence of God. And it’s not all that heavenly, is it?

        Any ST that pushes the ‘heaven is the presnce of God; hell is the absence’ has to eventually grapple with the fact that such a theology means Earth must be either heaven-like or hell-like. This is a(nother) departure from mainstream christian theology, where neither are earth-like. So, this is another instance of the sophistimicated version not reflecting what people actually believe.

        1. Then there’s this from Isiah 65:17:
          “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”

          This is mentioned again in Revelation 21:
          “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.”

          Clearly heaven and earth are not the same places. Clearly, there must be something wrong with heaven if there needs to be a new one; and despite protestations to the contrary, how do these and other similar verses indicate anything other than people back then literally thought heaven was a place up in the sky somewhere?

          Then there’s the “former things shall not be remembered” part, and how that possibly comports with it actually being you there…

  8. I have spoken to such sophsticated believers, then shown up at their church where the sermon uses Isaiah as evidence that Mark is prophecy, and not e.g. Mark cribbing directly. So, um, yeah. ‘fisticated fology.

    1. Sorry, other way round: Mark as evidence Isaiah is prophecy. You know what I mean.

      I do actually know a lot of sophisticated Christian believers. They’ve actually read large chunks of the Bible, and they know its history, and they could probably quote the original Greek at you, and they know all the atheist arguments, and they still believe. They’re extremely high-quality, good people. As far as I can tell, it’s a bit like being into a much-maligned musical form: you know it’s a bit crap really, but you still love it.

  9. Does anyone know why Sophisticated Theologians™ are arguing with atheists in the first place? Seems to me they should go talk to the people that believe really silly things.

    Instead of talking to the people who won’t believe really silly things.

    I guess I’m saying they should STFU. (Sophisticated Theologians, Focus Usefully.)

    PS. “God is, rather than ineffable ground of all being or Being Itself.”

    God is quantum physics!? I guess we can cut the middleman then…

      1. The lone consistent shared defining characteristic of all gods of all believers is that the god cannot be demonstrated nonexistent. Everything else is up for grabs, but not the god’s existence. And any argument that would otherwise demonstrate the god’s nonexistence is either, by definition, either invalid or an argument against some entity other than the god in question.


    1. That’s the part of the double standard that really bugs me. These people have no problems accepting you as a Christian when all you know how to do is answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘are you a Christian?’; however, to for them to accept you are an atheist you have to have read absolutely every apologetic ever written.

      If they consistently and honestly applied the same level of knowledge requirement to their co-religionists as they did to atheists, Christianity would consist of a couple thousand people, tops.

    2. Exactly.You’d think they would want to spend their time explaining to their fellow-believers how wrong they are,if they
      were really concerned with the Truth.

    3. Seems obvious to me that the reason they focus on atheists is because sophisticated theology is just apologetics, dressed up in academic robes. They are defending theism (and in many cases, Christianity in particular), though obviously the way they do it has a bit of a ‘kill the patient to save the patient’ flavor.

      1. This is true. There’s also still that big gaping chasm they just seem to dismiss with a wave of the hand dressed up in several pages (or chapters, or books) of verbose drivel. No matter how much they want to claim an Ineffable Ground of Being God as some kind of fundamental reality, the farthest they get on that front is that it is not a logical contradiction or falsifiable and then they have to use this vague description to explain how this Ground actually effects things.

        They have to jump over the above chasm and give the Ground of Being attributes, which they happily do and come up with all sorts of reasons why these one-off Biblical miracles and other such things can occur. The Ground of Being made all things and he’s ineffable, infallible, omniscient, omnipresent, inside of time, outside of time, everywhere and nowhere, so of course He (and we know its sex too!) can make anything happen! In other words, magic!

  10. Fincke is, of course, right. I recall a few years ago that during a phone conversation with my mother that God had called her to do something in her life and He will for me too. I told her that God must’ve lost my number. Naturally, she admonished me for failing to understand the metaphor and then went on to talk about a funeral she attended that day. She saw a butterfly, which was a sign from God that He was there. I said I understood, the butterfly wasn’t real, it’s a metaphor for God’s presence.

    “No son, the butterfly is real and God put it there…”

  11. I’ve had sophisticated theologians get upset when I describe Jesus as having Created the world, and get particularly upset when I challenge them with John 1:1 and similar passages that make quite clear that Jesus really is the Christian creator. This, of course, at times when they’re trying to discuss non-anthropological Ground Round of Beast aspects of divinity.

    That they’re willing, even eager, to so shamelessly commit the worst possible blasphemies — denying Jesus as the Word who Spoke Creation into Existence — in order to defend their positions is all you need to know about their honesty and integrity.



    1. But! They still maintain the resurrection as a physical event that happened in this universe!

      Yeah, I’m tolerant of good people who do good things even if they’re epistemologically full of it. But … they’re epistemologically full of it.

      1. Agreed…but there’s also the problem of the good-hearted theists giving cover to the not-so-good-hearted ones. If we’re not supposed to criticize them because they have faith, how can we criticize others who have faith that Jesus wants them to marry dozens of teenagers?

        The answer, I think, is to demarcate between the good deeds and the religious motivations towards them. When the UCC holds a rally for immigrant rights, join and link arms with them. But, when you’re at the pub afterwards gnawing on a bucket of wings, and if the topic comes up, don’t be afraid to (politely) tell them that they’re nuts for having conversations with imaginary friends.

        And then, the next day, link arms again with them in the marriage equality protest.

        Lather, rinse, repeat, as they say.


  12. If most believers held the “ineffable ground of all being or Being Itself” views of the divine, the depictions of God in Far Side cartoons would be very different.

  13. Actually the concept of “Hell is the absence of God” is the same as the traditional Eternal Punishment model- this will come out occasionally when a sophisticated believer has been pushed too far in an argument.

    The quality of fire that warms us is due to the goodness of God, as is a cooling breeze (central heating and air-conditioning for you less poetic types).

    That water quenches thirst is also because of God’s goodness.

    Yet Hell is the absence of God for all eternity. It doesn’t mean just sitting in the dark forever. it means being burnt and frozen simultaneously; thirsting and drowning, suffering every form of pain and frustration imaginable,forever. So it works out to be much of a muchness; though they will piously point out that you chose this yourself.

  14. «The thing is that Dan used to be a believer, and knows from the inside that David Bentley Hart’s God resides only in the mind of sophisticated, well-fed academics, not in the hearts of the vast majority of believers.» And even that one has some anthropomorphic features. Jerry even said he would eat his boots (or his hat?).

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