The Bearded Old Man in the Sky: More on Church Doctrine

Following on from my blog posting of March 29th entitled “How much Church Doctrine do we really Believe”, a blog that in the way of social media got circulated, I recently got an email from Alfred Kracher in the U.S.
I think Alfred’s email expresses what I was trying to convey in a much clearer way than I could, so with his permission I reproduce it here:

Recently the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church re-published your blog “How much of Church Doctrine do we really believe?” It articulates very well many of the problems I have with the current status of the Catholic church. After 25 years of active participation in the science-religion dialog from a scientist’s perspective I am frustrated with its loss of credibility, in particular the part that comes from clinging to doctrinal fossils.

During my eight years at Jesuit schools in Vienna some of our teachers emphasized “Gott ist nicht ein bärtiger alter Mann im Himmel.” Translating the German into “Bearded Old Man In The Sky,” I started to call this the BOMITS concept of God (everything has to have acronyms these days). It made us well-educated youngsters feel smug–sort of rather like the Pharisee in Lk 18: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people who still believe…”
It took me fifty years to finally ask the question: if this is the case, then why are so many pronouncements, rituals, prayers, etc., still so, well, BOMITSy? One answer is surely that religious authorities (and not just Catholic ones) seriously underestimate the spiritual intelligence of the general pew occupant.

Another factor is that centuries of art depicting God the Father in this way has left a lasting impression and cannot simply be purged from our cultural history and memory. But I strongly believe that the core problem, the crux of the difficulty, is that there is not as yet any spiritually satisfying alternative. This it is what we need to accomplish, and sooner rather than later if we want to have anything like a viable (Christian) religion two or three generations hence.

As you say, it’s not as if the top academic theologians aren’t aware of this. And I get it that some people feel comfortable staying with old forms. They are welcome to do that, as long as it is theologically sound (some of the saint worship probably isn’t).

But people who read or hear regularly about the expanding universe, artificial intelligence, brain science, and so on, can be expected to have different spiritual needs from their Baroque-era ancestors. That does not in any way change the fundamental importance of love, care for our neighbors, leading a good life. But it does change the imaginative background against which these things unfold in the lives of modern people, and if this background remains to be a vindictive, judgmental BOMITS, things go very wrong indeed.

If I am not mistaken, a major part of your article can be summarized by saying that in a certain sense ancient theologians knew way too much about God. We “know” a level of detail that would probably have nicely satisfied a thinker steeped in ancient Greek philosophy, but this is not how our world thinks any longer. That is where the problem of language comes in. Language changes.
There are indeed perennial problems of human nature, but there is no perennial articulation of what they are or how to deal with them. Still the church sticks, as you say, to the “very different language” that came out “of the early centuries of the church.” In fact, the default assumption seems to be that as long as it is said in Latin it means the exact same thing in 2000 that it meant in 1200. All that is needed is “proper catechesis,” for which apparently no rethinking of the original concept is required.

These are the problems that worry me about the future of the church, and this is why I am so appreciative of your blog.