Rethinking Religion: Beyond Scientism, Theism, and Philosophic Doubt
Alan Soffin. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2011. 436 pages.
In a world increasingly divided by dogmatic religion, militant atheism, and extreme skepticism, Alan Soffin seeks to articulate an alternative path—one that recognizes and affirms the human need for meaning, yet avoids the intellectually and existentially inadequate options cited above. Soffin is a philosopher by trade, and has spent a lengthy career wrestling with the questions of God, religion, and science. And yet, it was his wife’s death and the age-old question it provoked—“What is the meaning of life?”—that propelled Soffin, “an atheist drawn to religion,” to write Rethinking Religion, part of Cascadia Press’s “The Living Issues Discussion Series.”
Despite the universal nature of its animating question, Rethinking Religion is dense, technical, and challenging. The book is divided into three major parts. “God’s Meaning” asks us to consider what we mean by the term “God,” and challenges such common conceptions of God as a necessary first cause. If we have no problem imagining life proceeding infinitely into the future (“heaven”), Soffin asks, why is it a problem to imagine it stretching infinitely into the rear-view mirror? A creator God is sought not because it explains existence (an impersonal “first cause” could do this), but because it renders existence humanly meaningful.
In part two, “God’s Humanity,” Soffin dives into issues around the relationship between human knowledge and divinity. Here, Soffin argues that human knowledge is a mysterious “bridging of mind and matter” and that this unique process is, in some sense, the “incarnation” of God. Part three, “God’s Body,” sets forth a conception of God similar to Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” where “God” is conceived as “the necessity of things,” an immanent presence within all that is (324). God is. God’s “existence” is conceived not as an ontologically distinct and unique being who transcends and exists outside the created order but as an immanent force or principle within a world that simply is.
While the book will undoubtedly prove a stimulating and rewarding study for the philosophically inclined, there is a sense in which Soffin’s entire project is an anachronistic one. In seeking a path between theism’s God “out there,” scientism’s cold materialism, and skeptical nihilism, Soffin largely goes down the same road as that of the quest of modernity, as evidenced by this approving quote of American philosopher John Dewey: “What would be the idea of the unseen, of the manner of its control over us and the ways in which reverence and obedience would be manifested, if whatever is basically religious in experience had the opportunity to express itself free from all historic encumbrance” (62, emphasis added).
Yet surely, if we have learned anything from postmodern critiques of knowledge, belief, and language it must be that the Enlightenment ideal is impossible, and there is nothing within the realm of human thought and expression that exists free from all historic encumbrance. There is no view from nowhere—no privileged, ahistorical position from which to objectively and detachedly evaluate our condition. Soffin’s privileging of reason and his desire to uncover the universal moral, rational, and existential laws governing human existence is an extension of the Enlightenment project, aims which have proven to be both misguided and impossible to realize.
Aside from the problematic quest of seeking a de-historicized religion, perhaps an even more significant weakness of Rethinking Religion is its almost complete neglect of the notion of redemption. While Soffin is to be commended for the central place he gives human needs like “meaning” and “purpose” in his consideration of “God” and “religion,” he fails to deal with the human (and religious) longing for salvation—for deliverance, rescue, even escape from a world full of evil and suffering.
Humans are not, after all, drawn to religion simply to ground their ethics or to explain the natural world or to assure them that existence has purpose. The religious quest is profoundly guided by a conviction that the world is not as it should be, that it will be, in some sense, subjected to moral evaluation, and that a new reality free from the pain of our current mode of existence will come. Soffin’s immanent God may be able to give us meaning and justify our moral norms, but it cannot give us redemption, for redemption cannot be wrought out of an examination of our experience, our capacity for knowledge, or analysis of the physical world. The hope and promise of redemption has to come from outside the system, even if its apprehension and application cannot but be apprehended and implemented by limited, profoundly historical human beings.