Still Searching for God in the “Waves”
Up until a year or so ago, I’d never even heard of Mike McHargue, better known by his online moniker “Science Mike.” McHargue, a touring speaker and co-host of the popular “The Liturgists” podcast (and erstwhile contributor to Conciliar Post), has emerged as a prominent voice in the “post-evangelical” space occupied by writers like Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, and David Gushee.
Curious to learn more, I read through McHargue’s memoir of faith, “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science.” McHargue is a good writer, and his book is engrossing. He recounts his religious journey—from Southern Baptist views to atheism to a kind of mystical Christian spirituality—with brutal honesty, and I imagine that his story resonates deeply with many readers. But upon reflection, “Finding God in the Waves” is perhaps most interesting not for its theological insights—which are heterodox at best—but for the way in which it expresses (intentionally or not) certain cultural undercurrents regarding religious belief.
(A brief digression: though this is a cheap shot, it’s worth pointing out that “Science Mike” doesn’t have much of a background in science proper; this comes through in his book. McHargue’s writing evokes the work of “science popularizers” like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye: it makes a lot of sweeping claims without the requisite methodological disclaimers. One longs for the sober tone of a John Polkinghorne or a Francis Collins.)
What does McHargue actually argue? Throughout “Finding God in the Waves” McHargue presents a series of “axioms” designed to ground a language of faith without invoking the transcendent. One in particular stands out: “God is at least the natural forces that created and sustain the universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. Even if that is a comprehensive definition of God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.” There are a lot of dubious philosophical presuppositions embedded here, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that this really isn’t classical theism, or panentheism, or even pantheism: it’s “religious naturalism,” a way of thinking and speaking about the world that lacquers spiritual language onto purely “secular” concepts.
And it’s never clear that McHargue’s bare-bones concept of God is demanded by science or philosophy: McHargue’s “rational” objections to traditional Christianity in no way represent the best of atheist thought (the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—all make appearances, and McHargue frequently quotes them with evident approval). But Dawkins and company have been rightly taken to task for their gratuitous misreadings of the Western philosophical canon, and McHargue doesn’t engage with that criticism (perhaps he simply isn’t aware of it?). In any event, I found myself repeatedly thinking that the overwhelming majority of McHargue’s concerns about faith and science could be resolved via a brief foray into the Thomistic tradition: secularity is not the only alternative to fundamentalism.
The same problem persists elsewhere: “Finding God in the Waves” consistently takes a superficial approach to philosophy, especially moral philosophy. McHargue’s ethical convictions are deeply progressive, as any listener of “The Liturgists” knows. And indeed, his definition of God presumes that “meaning, peace, and empathy” (which he generally equates with Western liberalism) are important enough goals to justify embracing some God-concept. But evolutionary accounts of “species survival strategies”—which is undoubtedly the language McHargue would invoke if pressed—contain no embedded moral imperatives whatsoever. In other words, the brute fact that certain moral impulses confer an evolutionary advantage doesn’t mean one ought to obey them, unless “species survival” is designated as an a priori moral good…and such a designation isn’t inherent in nature itself. (This is an age-old philosophical argument, but McHargue seems almost completely unaware of its nuances.) McHargue isn’t willing to embrace the moral nonrealism that “religious naturalism” properly demands, but instead builds his case for religious belief around a perceived need to advance progressive social values. That thread is thin indeed.
There’s much more I could say about the book, but frankly I’m more intrigued by what it represents than by what it argues. It seems entirely plausible to me—or rather probable, if McHargue’s soaring popularity is any indicator—that McHargue’s book reflects the way that many, many Americans (particularly millennials) are coming to understand religious belief.
McHargue’s spirituality is an individualistic way of seeing the world that demands little, if any, adjustment in one’s own life and behavior (assuming one agrees with his politics). But interestingly, what he’s promoting is something quite different from the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that’s been discussed ad nauseam in sociological literature. There’s a significant difference, for example, between arguing that “all religious traditions are grasping toward some essential truth of reality” and claiming that “all religious traditions are essentially reducible to psychological constructs.”
Even a functionally moralistic deity can provide, in the crudest sense, a grounding for some moral claims—“love your neighbor,” “be kind,” and the like. But a God who is no more—metaphysically speaking—than a label affixed to the natural order cannot underpin any moral truth at all. A God potentially reducible to “natural forces” is a deity-concept that may be constructed entirely in one’s own image, a denatured theological proxy readily leveraged for self-serving ends. This concept of God—a concept that appropriates theological language without any of the underlying substance—is something much more institutionally disruptive than any “moralistic therapeutic deism” could ever be. It is something that ventures well beyond the 20th-century “liberalism” denounced by J. Gresham Machen and his ilk—offering a grammar of moral urgency, but without an accompanying moral claim.
Is McHargue’s theology the future of modernity-inflected faith? Only time will tell, but I tend to think he’s ahead of the curve. And that’s not a particularly positive sign.