A New Global Faith?

Richard A. Rosengarten

May 20, 2019

The March 22 issue of the Times Literary Supplement includes an article by Rupert Shortt, “Choosing our religion: The current state of global faith.” Shortt is the author of an informative and helpful biography of the theologian and erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as well as a nuanced, intelligent response to “the new atheists.” The TLS article is an extract from Shortt’s forthcoming book, Does Religion Do More Harm than Good? 

I do not know if one dare judge a book by its extract, but the piece itself is richly summative and reflects the sensibility that informs Shortt’s aforementioned writings. It emerges in the reading that what Shortt means by “global faith” is not literally one global faith but rather the state of “faith” around the globe. Shortt detects a “turning of the tide” with the rise of secularization theory and its recent empirical rebuff (“Three-quarters of humanity profess a faith; the figure is projected to reach eighty percent by 2050…”). Shortt parses this as contextualizing the current moment, one in which religion might reclaim a serious role in public life. From this perspective, Short articulates three “if … then” propositions which will be crucial to the realization of such a role. First, if “the theistic picture” now looks more coherent than it once did, and at least partially displaces the explanatory power of the natural sciences, then we can anticipate a more robust role for religion. And, second, if a conglomerate of strong arguments for the existence of God (in lieu of Aquinas’s five proofs, Shortt enumerates “six strong arguments for the existence of God”—the modal ontological, the kalam cosmological, the moral, the mathematical, and the arguments from fine-tuning and from consciousness) “can draw one toward the threshold of belief—to the point where one [then] makes a life-changing commitment, moving beyond intellectual assent alone”; and, third, if it in turn builds bridges with atheism that demonstrate that religion is not irrational, “then it will have served a valid purpose.”

Faith around the globe is characterized by a broad complementarity regarding divine transcendence (here Shortt invokes a bit of a religious laundry list: Neo-platonism, “the three Abrahamic religions,” Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and aspects of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism). Each “see God as the one infinite source of all reality” who is “uncreated, eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, transcending of all things and, precisely by dint of not competing for space with creation, immanent in all things as well.” This last phrase seems to be highly consequential in Shortt’s account: it articulates (in a formulation borrowed from David Bentley Hart) what one might term the recombinant DNA of “global faith”: an entwining of the metaphysics of God with the phenomena of the human encounter with God. It follows for Shortt that the model is thus not remotely in tension with modern science. This leads to a fourth if formulation: if religion is so understood, the classical (Christian?) doctrine of creation cannot be undermined by Charles Darwin. To think otherwise is bad theology—the answer to which is, as Shortt rather disarmingly puts it, “the good sort, not no theology at all.”

This is in service of a “more rigorous theological framework” that is always already prepared to acknowledge that it does not have the corner on truth. Believers in one tradition can, on this model, embrace the possibility that other traditions “may be approximating to this or that aspect of truth.” 

Given the care and forthrightness of this account, it is interesting that Shortt then remarks that many believers actually evince little interest in “technical arguments about the existence of God or the theory of knowledge, focusing instead on how to live their lives.” As evidence that the global faith has a concomitant global ethic, Shortt invokes widely shared patterns of “altruistic giving” across many religions. He also argues (perhaps more controversially) for an innate distinction between humans and animals in the focus of religions on human dignity and virtue. This leads to a key contention: “People everywhere have a striking idea that they ought to behave in certain 'humane' ways, but also an awareness that they do not in fact behave as they should. It is often noted that these two facts are the root of all clear thinking about ourselves and our world.” Shortt goes on to note that this is given most striking voice in “the justice of claims made by preachers down the ages.” Shortt’s coda is a meditation on religious practice and its relation to “a community of belief”: one can of course practice absent a community, but in doing so one relies on communities that have enshrined not those beliefs and their concomitant practices, but a history of internal critique. 

As Shortt makes clear, the effort of the project here excerpted is to equip thoughtful people with a syntax and vocabulary to distinguish good from bad religion. Good religion seems, on his account, to be several things: above all, theological in the sense that it is theistic, and involves something very much like faith; truth-regarding and truth-claiming, but not hegemonically or exclusively; and mindful and receptive of the range of good theistic religion, as well as of other forms of knowledge (in which it has played some part in spawning). It will also promote charity and community, and it will not only accept but welcome pluralism.

How to talk about religion as a force for good and for ill in the world, in particular how to do so while one holds a religious perspective, is one of the more pressing challenges of our cultural moment. Rupert Shortt is to be commended for taking on such an essential task—one that entails at once a narrative of our circumstances and a normative claim that inflects both that narrative and its extension into a future beyond it. I find myself at once edified and worried by his effort. The unmistakable import of that effort is that to follow it will be, for Christians and Jews and Muslims who occupy the emphatic middle of the moderate-to-left positions of their traditions, straightforward. They can probably “choose this religion.” But the choice surely leaves the chooser with a remit: apart from dismissing their thought and practice as “bad theology,” Shortt appears to have little to propose, at least in this excerpt, about how right-thinking theists of his stripe would engage those who, in the prescient formulation of Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, practice a nostalgic faith premised on a time that never in fact existed. Put differently: while Shortt rightly and usefully notes that religions have resources for internal critique, he does not afford even a putative sense of how we might think about religion when it evinces no such capacity—to say nothing of a religious practitioner whose self-understanding is non-theistic who might offer critique of that theological position. To enable a “global faith”—and to avoid its own nostalgia—Shortt will need to say more about that enduring gap.  

9188f13b-9f27-417a-add8-36f24daddaf4.jpgAuthor, Richard A. Rosengarten (PhD’94), is Associate Professor of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the Divinity School.  

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD student in Religions in America at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by Richard A. Rosengarten