Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Empirical religion

A friend of mine alerted me to a new book being released by philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who takes on the ideas of the "new atheists" and offers a new defense of the Christian faith as compatible with modern science. He says he wants to move from being on the "defensive" going on the "offensive," bringing positive arguments for why atheism is wrong and must be rejected.

I don't know very much about Plantinga, and the NYT article doesn't explain very much about his real argument. Nevertheless, the article got me once again thinking about that great question in our time: can a person believe in God and embrace science? It's a loaded question, to be sure, but it's one I am doomed to face for the rest of my life if I am to continue taking both my faith and my profession seriously.

I get very uncomfortable with Christians being either on offense or defense in this game. What most people seem to miss is a point atheists often make but don't consistently bear out in their arguments: none of us really know that much. To say that there are still questions science can't answer doesn't logically necessitate that Christianity has a claim on our lives. If science can't explain everything, it may be equally the case that Christianity can't, either. More importantly, it could very well be true that Christianity (or theism in general) doesn't even explain what it claims it does.

The reason I say all of that is because I think there is too much intellectual conservatism dominating Christian apologetics. Classical arguments for the existence of God are interesting, but there are good reasons why they don't work anymore. I find it hard to take the claim Christians so often make that even if evolution is true, it doesn't change what Christian orthodoxy ought to be. For God's sake, why not? Are there not a million ways in which this could profoundly affect our understanding of who and what we are? Or what about the age of the universe? Or the nature of atoms and subatomic particles? How can we help but think about the implications these have, not only for determining our place in the universe but for understanding our very nature?

Atheists say that the logical consequence of all these discoveries is that it's silly to believe in God, and so their bigger point gets lost because they tie it to a particular conclusion that Christians can't accept. The bigger point is, I think, a good one: it is that orthodoxy cannot simply be a matter of closing your eyes and missing new discoveries. A community genuinely interested in truth will not persecute or cut off those who challenge traditional thinking. It will not constantly be on the defensive against new explanations that refute old ones.

Is this not, in fact, more consistent with the story of Christianity? I am constantly impressed by how often the word see appears in the gospels. "The eye is the lamp of the body," Jesus says. He accuses the Pharisees of being "blind guides of the blind." And this accusation comes after they take offense at his overturning of traditional food laws, to which he replies, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" The central story of Mark's gospel is the healing of a blind man, which requires two healings, because the first healing only partially restores the man's sight; this seems to symbolize the disciples only partially "seeing" what Jesus really came to accomplish. In John's gospel, light and darkness are central themes throughout. Jesus is "the light of the world," and "Whoever sees me has seen the Father." And John says that "we have seen his glory."

I could go on and on. The point is that Jesus does not make classical arguments for the existence of God. He instead wants us to see what God is doing: "See, something greater than Solomon is here!" Christianity is not a logical deduction from axiomatic truths about God. It is the direct result of people bearing witness to the world that they saw something new.

If we miss this central characteristic at the heart of the Christian faith, we lose out on the most valuable resource truth-seekers have: the willingness to be surprised, and the courage to break with tradition when the time calls for it. Not that breaking with tradition means turning away from it in resentment. Early Christians could not help but see themselves as the fulfillment of ancient Israelite tradition. In the same way, all new discoveries have the potential to give us a greater understanding of what we had previously believed.

The idea that previously held beliefs still have a place in spite of new discoveries is just tragic to me. Rather, we ought to have our eyes open to ways in which new discoveries can change our vision of who God is. I think the theory of evolution, for instance, really should cause us to rethink and reinterpret the story of creation, particularly the idea of the image of God in human beings. We should not leave this rethinking up to those who have no patience for faith and no desire to build it up. We should be the ones courageous enough to accept that God is not the same as our ancestors believed he was. The story of God and his people is full of surprises.

I am sensitive to the fact that many have taken these ideas and used them to collapse Christianity into a metaphor for the human experience, replacing divine interaction with the created world with human progress. I understand that orthodoxy cannot simply embrace the latest trends in human thinking uncritically. But after a while I lose patience with conservatives, who seem painfully close to what Jesus would call "blind guides of the blind." Do scientists really make discoveries, or not? Is theology so privileged as to be beyond all empirical correction? There would be no such thing as Christianity if that were true!

I am sorry that I am not able in these blog posts to give satisfying answers to the serious problems that Christians face in reconciling faith and modern science. Many people attempt to do this in a way that is trite or illogical, while others claim they are irreconcilable. Neither strikes me as attractive, which is why I will continue to try patiently to think about these things on as deep a level as I can manage. And whatever I think, I'll blog.

But the truth is, answers can never be satisfying forever. Life is always changing. When things stop changing, that's called death. God is the God of life, and I believe that if we are faithful to him we can never stop embracing the change that is necessary. For that we need our eyes to be open.

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