And if there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls
(Unidentified Flying Object, Larry Norman, 1971)
As a teen, growing up in the 1980s in Nashville, Tennessee, I was fascinated by the music of the Jesus Movement that was written when I was only a toddler. In the above lyrics, written by Jesus movement era singer/songwriter, Larry Norman, I was exposed to a thought that never came up in Sunday School.
So, if there is life on other planets, do they know about Jesus?
Around the same time, I enjoyed watching reruns of the original Star Trek (this was before The Next Generation). These episodes would often play on Saturdays. One of the reoccurring themes of Star Trek was the “prime directive.” Basically, whenever the crew of the Enterprise encountered a more primitive civilization, they would have to adopt the clothing, customs, and technologies of that culture. Their fear was that a careless mistake might accidentally change the course of a society.
I reflected on these two thoughts over the past two weeks as I read The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx by Dr. Dominic Erdozain. I realize that this sounds strange, but let me elaborate on the book and come back to my connection.
The Soul of Doubt is an intriguing book that blends history with theology and philosophy. Erdozain is a historian who has studied theologians and philosophers so completely that he is able to tackle both the historical facts/stories as well as the complex beliefs which are held by these historical figures.
The first two chapters of The Soul of Doubt hit me square between the eyes. I had a basic knowledge of the background and theology of Luther and Calvin, but Dr. Erdozain adds a new dimension into the backgrounds, experiences, relationships, and choices of these men.
As he approached the topic of religious persecution that was practiced by the Reformers, Erdozain did not pull any punches. He states…
Evangelicals did not rival the papacy in the scale of their persecutions, but they eclipsed their enemies in hypocrisy and chilling theological justification. The Reformers had the Bible, the fresh insight of salvation, yet they twisted it to justify what they formerly condemned.” (page 42).
I was disturbed by the account of the burning at the stake of Spaniard Michael Servetus as a heretic, an action where John Calvin was a part of the deliberations. To think of Calvin in the role of a Protestant Inquisitor, assisting in the passing of a death sentence to a man because of his differing theological beliefs, was stunning.
The book does a great job of delving deep into the lives, belief systems, relationships, and impacts of some great figures including Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. Yet, there is one figure that Dr. Erdozain comes back to again and again: Baruch Spinoza.
Most Christians do not have the visceral reaction to the name “Spinoza,” as compared to “Marx” or “Darwin.” Yet, he is considered to be the father of modern biblical criticism. In modern times, he has been revered by atheists, pantheists, secular humanists.
Yet, Erdozain shows that Spinoza deeply valued the love of God toward humanity. Aligning Spinoza with the Quakers, highlighting their emphasis on a God that could be felt, Erdozain writes poignantly “The nemesis of dogma was spiritual experience.” (page 84). Yet, Spinoza was opposed to any kind of superstitious fear of God. Spinoza felt that “Superstition is essentially selfish…promoting both aggression and a kind of competitive ascetism: a cult of self-denial.” (page 100). To Spinoza, happiness and joy were indicators of spiritual maturity, not Calvinistic piety.
Spinoza harshly critiqued the theologians of his day for misusing scripture for their own benefit when he wrote: “If people truly believed in their hearts what they say with their lips about Scripture…they would follow a completely different way of life.” (page 107).
Today’s evangelicals will certainly have an issue with some of Spinoza’s theological beliefs about the nature of God. Yet, there are also many things that can be learned by reading Spinoza.
Erdozain affirms this when he writes,
The evangelical movement had always valued inward conviction over external evidence or written testimony. From John Wesley to William Wilberforce, the evangelical challenge was that “Real Christianity” is more than the “Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians.” Faith was more than Dogma… (page 195)
This brings me back to Larry Norman and Star Trek.
As I read The Soul of Doubt, a lot of “What If’s” jumped into my head. In hindsight, history seems so fragile. What if Luther lacked the courage to oppose Rome…or what if Rome had been reformed by Luther?
As I daydream in the realm of science fiction, what if there was another planet like earth? And what if a Bible was given to that planet? What religious expression and theologies would develop? Would less orthodox theological interpretations become the norm? What if Spinoza’s teachings were accepted by the majority in the West?
While that is a curious thought (for me, at least). There is a voice in my head (or my heart) that often speaks up and says, “Don’t forget the Holy Spirit.” You see, unlike Deists, I believe that God is living and active in our world. The Holy Spirit guides our lives and our theologies. I actually believe that the Church is not simply the result of the evolution of theology and culture… it is the Bride and Body of Christ.
For me, this belief is both experience AND dogma.
“Live Long and Prosper”
Erdozain, Dominic. The soul of doubt: the religious roots of unbelief from Luther to Marx. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.