Working Toward a Mature Faith

In undergraduate school, I remember one professor marveling at various features of brain functioning and talking about the reasons that a particular function evolved.  It was just as easy, or easier, for me to think of reasons that these features were designed into the system.  In my first class on physiological psychology, the professor did not have an evolutionary bent that I could tell, and merely marveled at the function and complexity of the brain.  I think many students are unprepared for the naturalistic worldview, and that this often can trigger a crisis of faith.  In their book, God Attachment, Clinton and Straub (2010)1 note that people often enter adulthood with the same views they had with their faith that they learned in early childhood.  In other words, they have not developed a more mature faith that allows them to have an understanding of the problem of evil, the existence of many different religions, and the evolutionary viewpoint (a view espousing the all-powerfulness of useful accidents).  Thus, they are setting themselves up for a crisis of faith that will inevitably come with real-world life experiences and the hard knocks that life delivers.  I frequently encounter people who become sort of paralyzed in that crisis of faith without attempting to find answers to their questions.  They will often just resign themselves to somewhat of a wishy-washy stance like, “I’m not sure I believe everything in the Bible.  I believe, but I’m just not sure about X.”  When asked, they’ll admit they’ve never tried to resolve the issue with learning more about the subject.  So, they end up assuming a distant stance with God on the basis of a particular issue that they have not taken the time to resolve.

I don’t think people have to believe that Genesis is literally true to be saved.  I don’t think there is anything in the Bible that would suggest that.  But I do think it is possible to be logically consistent and hold an intelligent worldview encompassing a literal account of Genesis.  Frankly, I think a literal account of Genesis leads to the most logically consistent stance in explaining the problem of evil in the world (i.e., the fall).  Also, one only needs a vaguely possible scenario to explain certain observations (apparent age of the Earth and Universe) to make this tenable.  If God is all-powerful, then He could have done it.  I’m not advocating a kind of “God did it” approach to science, but I am rather asking believers to explore the issue in more depth and to develop a more mature way of viewing their faith.  This can help believers have a more mature relationship with God.

I would also caution creationists against the view of saying that people who advocate for evolution are liars.  Evolution contains many lies, but to lie involves intent to deceive.  There are times when they do likely lie, but it’s better to be careful about this.  I’d rather look at it as a worldview, which I think contains many untruths.  It’s understandable, just false.

I urge fellow believers, and those with doubts, to more fully explore these issues in order to develop a more mature faith—a faith which can stand up to the complexities of the world and the problem of evil in the world.  More personally, it will help with the very difficult things that you face in your own life and promote a deeper connection with God.

1). God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God

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14 Responses

  1. Welcome back, Shrink.

    You are correct that biblical literalism can—and often does—lead to a crisis of faith. But whence comes this crisis? It arises from improperly imposing an inappropriate worldview upon a religious text.

    We humans cannot see the entire universe at once. The weirdness of quantum mechanics proceeds from our inability to sense small-scale quantum phenomena. At the other extreme, the paradoxes of relativity result from our inexperience with phenomena that give rise to them.

    On another axis, we seem unable to grasp matters of faith and matters of science from a single point of view. Science is inherently limited to natural law–it cannot study phenomena that are not testable and repeatable, because its object is to predict and to control. On the other hand, religion probes the ineffable, which is approachable to our limited vision through symbols—the currency of “meaning.” Its object is to bind all people together according to our nature.[1] These worldviews are not incompatible—they both refer to the same world. But they have different purposes.[2]

    A problem arises when people attempt to apply the scientific worldview to a religious text. The purpose of the Bible is not to teach us how the Earth formed, but rather to instruct us how humanity was constituted. Applying the literal language of the former to the symbolic, indirect text of the latter is simply wrong.[3]

    It is ironic that biblical literalism did not arise as a movement until the popularization of modern science in the late 19th century. Ironic, but not coincidental. The literalist movement resulted from applying a scientific worldview to a religious scripture, whose language and purposes differ from those of a research paper.

    An ability to apply both worldviews—both paradigms—appropriately avoids a crisis of faith. Perhaps this is what I would mean by a “mature faith.” For example, being able to see evolution or cosmology as demonstrating the greater glory of God, rather than as contradicting the Bible.

    =============

    [1] The Symphony I sing with has jusrt started rehearsing Beehoven’s Ninth. The words are appropriate here: Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt; alle Menschen werden Brueder, wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.”—“[God's] power rejoins what the world has strictly divided; all men become brothers where [his] gentle wings are spread.” (Loose translation, sorry.)

    [2] It might be tempting to claim they are mutually exclusive, but they are not. Moral values can and must be applied to the fruits of scientific research. Conversely, science studies religious faith. The views overlap.

    [3] For the creation story of Genesis 1 in particular, the point was not to describe the order of appearance of stars and birds, but to convince the readers that they should throw off the pagan concept that the sun and the sea and storms were divinities, and accept a single God above all these “natural” artifacts.

  2. Hi Olorin. I think it might be possible to have a mature faith in the way you describe. Certainly, there would be less internal tension for many believers and it would require less effort. However, there are some problems with the view you lay out that I see.

    1). The problem of evil and God’s goodness is not answered in the view you espouse. If God is good, then why did he choose such a method of death, destruction, and happenstance to perform the creation of life?

    2). I believe the Genesis account was widely accepted as literal until science and materialism started making claims that were counter to the account. You portray literalism as applied to Genesis as a relatively recent development. Do you have a reference for that or can you cite examples?

    3). How do you account for your interpretation of Genesis as having the purpose of convincing readers to throw of pagan concepts?

    You might actually like, to some extent, Dembski’s latest book, The End of Christianity. He comes close to providing a satisfying way to accommodate common descent and deep time within a theological framework. But for me, there are multiple lines of scriptural evidence that point to a likely literal interpretation of Genesis. I’m not dogmatic on that, but I believe God could have done it that way. It provides a much better account of death, suffering, evil, sin, and the ultimate righting of these things.

  3. 1) The view I espouse dues not address theodicy at all. Or, rather, it would confine it to the religious paradigm. Science does not use the God construct, not does it use the concepts of good or evil.

    2) Just the reverse. Genesis was not thought of as literal until modern science arose and became the subject of popular interest in the 19thC. Science uses a literalist, factual viewpoint, as opposed to the mythical[1] and symbolic tenor that the Bible employs. In the 4thC, St Augustine, Origen, and other Church fathers cautioned against literal readings. Peter Bowler is a leading e leader in the historical relation of religion and science; his “Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons” (Harvard 2009) details this rise. Bowler and Morus, “Making modern Science: A Historical Survey” (U. Chicago 2005) devotes Chapter 15 to “Science and Religion.” Numbers, “The Creationists” (2d Ed., Harvard 2006), Chapter 1, describes the rise of literalism. Flat-earth theories, dead for a thousand years, rose again under the impetus of the literalist movement in the 19thC; see Garwood, “Flat Earth” (Thomas Dunne 2007).

    3) From reading histories of the times and places of the Bible. The source most focused on this particular question is probably Hyers, “The Meaning of Creation” (John Knox 1984).[2] The Babylonian Gilgamesh myth, to which the Hebrews of time were exposed, parallels the Genesis framework. In fact, many think that Genesis 1 was a deliberate parody of Gilgamesh.

    I haven’t read Dembski’s book itself—probably mostly because of disrespect for the author, who lies,[3] cheats,[4] and steals[5] to advance intelligent design. Reading a number of reviews, I don’t see that he has raised any significant new understandings. Theodicy has been around for thousands of years, and has birthed hundreds of solutions. As an extreme example, the Gnostics solved it by postulating an evil Demiurge as creator of the physical world, the REAL (perfectly good) God being behind the scenes. [6] All solutions come up short; otherwise, people would stop looking.

    Again, I think you are shoehorning a single worldview onto a world that still needs different paradigms for different purposes. As to suffering, for example, science provides the neurological basis, and offers physical ways to alleviate it; the religious paradigm provides spiritual meaning and comfort. Two different ways of looking at the same thing—perhaps overlapping to some extent[7] but not the same. Neither one is the total answer.

    =========

    [1] “Myth” in the technical sense of an explanatory narrative.

    {2] Hyers was head of the Religion Department of a Lutheran college where I served on the governing board for some years.

    [3] To the administrators of Baylor University, in establishing and operating the Michael Polyani Center.

    [4] At the last minute, he bugged out of witnessing at the Kitzmiller trial without cause, but kept the full $20K he had been advanced as a witness fee.

    [5] Harvard University’s “life of a Cell” video, pirated for his lecture series and for “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

    [6] Zoroastrianism has co-equal good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu) gods.

    [7] E.g., psychopharmacology.

    • Your point 1 is Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria, which is frankly illogical if the two are in contradiction. The contradiction forces an overlap and necessitates a resolution.

      I don’t see any evidence that a non-literal interpretation of Genesis was a widespread phenomena. Indeed, talkorgins.org (decidedly anti-ID/creationism site), describes the history as follows:

      In Europe the issue of the age of the Earth was not a serious one prior to the rise of science; the history of the Earth was assumed to be accounted for in Genesis. The rise of science produced a major change in attitude.

      3) This is a poorly supported and highly speculative response.

      Your approach to Dembski is nothing more than a personal attack based on untruths (does the pot call the kettle black?). Your claims about him are easily refuted. He is a very intelligent and decent fellow who has done more to affirm faith and expose scientism than most.

      No back to the original subject. Olorin, how do you respond when you are talking to someone who is struggling with their faith related to the problem of evil in the world and personal tragedies? How do you help affirm their faith?

  4. My view is not Gould’s. Analogize mine to relativity and quantum theory. Both describe the same universe. They are conceptually incompatible with each other: relativity does not employ the concept of discreteness, and quanta have no spacetime manifold constructs. Yet they do overlap to some extent—recently a physicist built a Bose-Einstein condensates that is large enough to be subject to relativistic gravitation. Someday perhaps we shall be able to fabricate a single “theory of everything” (ToE) that encompasses all of the effects that the separate theories give us individually. Meanwhile, we have two theories that have different—although overlapping—areas of applicability, and explain phenomena with different constructs.

    Just so, science and religion employ different explanatory devices and apply to (more or less0 different goals. Yet they are drawing closer. Scientific research addresses increasing numbers of questions relating to “human nature,” and explains behaviors that have in the past been the exclusive subject of religious or moral standards. But, ever since the germ theory of disease, we see fewer and fewer exorcisms.

    Science’s advances toward religious subjects seem to have produced a number of results in sociology, psychology, and economics—the study of altruism, for example, and people’s behavior toward cheaters. I wish I could say the same about the other direction. Incursions into science by religion, such as creationism, seem uniformly regressive. The original intent of Intelligent Design, expressed in the Wedge Document, was to replace naturalistic science with a theistic basis for investigating the natural world. This has not produced a single benefit for mankind; its explanatory power is entirely vacuous.

    .

    As to literal interpretations, yes, Genesis was interpreted symbolically until a couple hundred years ago. (See Hyers, in particular) The reason the age of the earth was taken from Genesis was not for religious reasons, but rather because, apart from the Bible no one had the slightest idea how old the earth was, or even how to find out. So they took the only number available. As soon as anyone proposed anything else, people jumped at it. In the 1770s, Buffon looked at cooling rates, and guessed 75K years. Everyone immediately swarmed to that number. without giving Genesis so much as a backward glance. In the 17860s, Thompson revised the cooling formula, and guessed 20-40M years Additional dating methods kept pushing the date back. Pretty much everyone accepted the increasingly ancient dates, until biblical literalists began to challenge them in the mid-19thC.

    As to how the ancients interpreted not only the Bible, but everything else, I doubt that anyone can find any small number of references on this point. (But see Hyers, above) One must read a lot of diverse works. For example, we think of Homer’s Odyssey as merely an entertaining story. But, to the people who heard it, it was an encyclopedia—a compendium of how to live a proper life, how to display courage and fidelity. Even the social graces were covered. Whereas today one might purchase a literal Miss Manners guide to find out which fork to use for which course at dinner, the Greeks consulted Homer’s narrative.

    .

    Dembski. Sorry, one who purports to convince about moral precepts loses credibility when he himself is a crook. Scientists have a similar, although not the same, standard. A scientist who fakes data commits professional hara kiri. Even Nobelist David Baltimore was tarred when it was discovered that a co-author had omitted some relevant data from the paper. (Turned out to be inadvertent, but Baltimore was seriously scathed nonetheless.)

    . Back to the original subject. I have no idea how to solve the problem of evil. But neither does anyone else. All i can say for the moment is that the problem seems to fit the religious paradigm better than the scientific one. Just as supersolids can be explained by quantum theory but relativity has no handle to grasp them with. The tools of relativity are much less apt than are the quantum tools. So it is with science and religion—for the present. Some problems are more amenable to one than to the other.

    And, as you well know, i resent people applying inappropriate methods of religion to scientific questions. Someday, perhaps, we shall have a ToE that embraces both with a single set of tools. But we are nowhere near that point now.

  5. Mmmmm. I should explain what I mean by “inappropriate methods.” A method is inappropriate to a discipline (or a paradigm) when it adds nothing of value toward the goals of that discipline. To continue the previous example, tensors, the basic tool of Einsteinian relativity, produces no useful results in quantum theory.

    • Actually, I read the history a little differently. From the sources I read, the 6000 year age for the Earth was widely accepted until the mid 18th century. One can easily infer a widespread literal interpretation of Genesis on the basis of this fact alone. Sure there were some who disagreed or left the door open to other possibilities (which I myself do).

      Again, your unfounded personal attacks on Dembski call your credibility into question based on your own method for evaluating others.

      You never answered my questions, so I’ll repeat them again since you claim to be a Christian.

      Olorin, how do you respond when you are talking to someone who is struggling with their faith related to the problem of evil in the world and personal tragedies? How do you help affirm their faith?

  6. Since you have framed the question differently this time, I’ll answer that first. When people ask about evil in their own lives, i employ the religious paradigm, and emphasize the lovingkindness of God—this is what Jesus did. To the extent that logic creeps in from the scientific worldview to say I can’t have both that and omnipotence—personally, I’ll sacrifice the omnipotence.

    As to age of the earth, your reference omits a lot, and assumes a lot. In the ancient world, there were really only two alternatives that were widely held. (a) The earth was infinitely old. Aristotle is the first I know of to espouse this view, and he had many followers in the ancient world and through the medieval period. (b) The earth was a few thousand years old. Where AiG goes off the rails is in attributing this to biblical literalism. Many non-Christians also held this position. The reasoning was that recorded and oral histories only went back a few thousand years. And not because biblical literalism was a tenet of faith. That is, not many people believed the earth was young because the Bible said so.]1] As i said earlier, the Church Fathers seemed united that one should not encourage people to take Genesis literally—most famously St Augustine; he held that those who “knew” differently would be put off their faith. How did they “know differently” if everyone else believed in the Bible chronology?

    The critical point, I think, occurs at the time of the first scientific inquiries into the age of the earth. As soon as the first geologists estimated higher ages, most educated people (i.e., the ones who knew about the new findings) dropped their views of both eternal and young earths. If these were beliefs, they were certainly not strong ones. As I said earlier, this trend continued until the rise of modern creationism in the 19thC persuaded people that the Bible demanded a low age.[2]

    (As to Dembski, we’ll have to disagree. He flunks the smell test for unrepentant intellectual dishonesty. There are so many examples. He has written reviews of his own books under assumed names at Amazon. And he commissioned friends to do so as well. )

    =============

    [1] As one source puts it,

    “The dominant culture already told chronologists that the earth was young. They simply found a method [the Bible] to defend their culture’s viewpoint.”

    [2] Again ironically, by this time the literacy rate rose dramatically, and vernacular Bibles were widely available, so people relied less upon how their religious leaders interpreted the Bible, and more upon the literal text they could now read for themselves. Thus opening the door to the Whiggism fallacy.

  7. Oops, sorry. The italics should end after “Bible.”

    Tom Gilson, over at Thinking Christian, has a preview pane that interprets commenters’ html tags and allows editing before submission—actually, even after submission for a while. hmmm.

  8. Since you have framed the question differently this time, I’ll answer that first. When people ask about evil in their own lives, i employ the religious paradigm, and emphasize the lovingkindness of God—this is what Jesus did. To the extent that logic creeps in from the scientific worldview to say I can’t have both that and omnipotence—personally, I’ll sacrifice the omnipotence.

    I’m interested in how you address that loving-kindness more specifically. To what do you point? Just saying that God is loving is not enough. A lot of people need a framework for understanding the bad things. And if God is loving and kind, why does he let the bad things happen? How can you say a good God exists with all of the evil that he allows to take place in the world?

    Have you ever had that type of interaction with another believer?

  9. Shrink,

    Maybe here’s one way to look at it (and without stripping God of his omnipotence!):

    Perhaps God says: “Look, people, all this sinning you’ve been doing – it’s not your fault! After all, I made you predisposed to sin and placed you in the midst of evil – which you can do absolutely nothing about. But make no mistake – it’s definitely my doing. So, if it makes you feel better (and I know it does, because I made you after all), I’ll take complete blame for your situation once and for all! I’ll even sacrifice my beloved son on your alter of sin to show that I really mean it too. So, can you please stop getting hung up on this sin thing, and just get on with having a relationship with Me already?”

    (Nutty, I know ;-)

    I can’t answer your “why” question; but I do think that one of the observable results of having the “forbidden knowledge” of good and evil is that it makes faith, and even revelation possible. Without evil, I don’t see how faith can exist (for humans, at least – maybe for His other created beings it works differently). But of course, whatever the reason, God must have wanted it that way. or otherwise he’s simply not the almighty God we believe he is.

  10. Science is inherently limited to natural law–it cannot study phenomena that are not testable and repeatable, because its object is to predict and to control. On the other hand, religion probes the ineffable, which is approachable to our limited vision through symbols—the currency of “meaning.”

    Science doesn’t study or actually do anything anymore than religion does, people who are whole and therefore inherently religious do. Insisting that science exists as a pure abstraction has a poor history when it comes to basic aspects of what we know about good and evil.

  11. The Babylonian Gilgamesh myth, to which the Hebrews of time were exposed, parallels the Genesis framework. In fact, many think that Genesis 1 was a deliberate parody of Gilgamesh.

    It’s interesting that those who like to imagine common descent and creation myths based on the common language of biology often cannot bring themselves to imagine a common origin in truth for ancient creation narratives. If the Bible is an outline of the truth then all ancient people would have known about a symbolic snake of knowledge, beings of light, a Great Flood and so on.

    Ironically critics of all “religion” are the first to point out that people have different religions and so on. If they’re similar then they are merely copies. If they are different, then that proves none are true and we should begin to imagine new creation myths based on mythological narratives of naturalism. Etc.

  12. “I’m interested in how you address that loving-kindness more specifically. To what do you point?”

    I have long (although not deeply) studied this—books, courses, lectures—without any satisfactory answers. The answers do not lie in analysis and logic. Did Jesus teach by expounding theological principles as the rabbis did? I think rather that he told stories.

    If you want to understand theodicy, read James Mitchener’s novel “The Source.” If you want to a response to surd evil, sing “It Is Well with My Soul.”[1] If you want to know God’s reaction to the evil that men do, Beethoven’s Ninth will tell you: (You know the tune.) [2]

    “[Gottes] Zauber binden wieder
    Was die Mode streng geteilt;
    Alle Menschen werden Brueder,
    Wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.”

    Bach’s B Minor Mass will likewise tell you, in a way that no theologian can, that—

    “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
    Salva me, salve me
    De ore leonis.”[3]

    That’s the best I can do for a “framework” for understanding bad things. For me, music does it. Others may employ different modalities. But logical organizations of theological principles doesn’t yield true understanding to anyone, I think.[4]

    =============

    [1] Horatio Spafford’s infant son had died, then he lost everything in the Chicago Fire, finally his family was lost at sea, prompting him to write:

    “When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows the sea billows roll,
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

    [2] Beethoven purposely set one of these verses to a Turkish march. If there was any one in the world hateful to all the listeners of his time, it was the Turks, because of the Battle of Vienna. (This piece is now the anthem of the European Union.)

    [3] Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” has a similar effect.

    [4] I can even tell you why I think that: Because conscious analysis cannot access the necessary brain nuclei—what Antonio Damasio calls the “protoself.”

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