Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Answering AVI on Evolution and Belief

I took the time to go back and re-read the posts and comments that AVI asked me about last week. I was actually surprised because I thought I was going to cringe while I re-read my comments. I assumed that my thoughts were going to be radically different than they currently are.

They weren't...not really. In fact, you can see what I was struggling with even then, almost 3 and 1/2 years ago. I realized the implications of certain propositional beliefs and where they might eventually lead in terms of my evangelical version of Christianity.

So...what has changed?

I think the most fundamental change in me has been an epistemological shift. What I was wrestling with in my comments on those posts was, by and large, directly related to how I viewed Scripture. Even though I was never a complete, credulous literalist, and I understood that many things in Scripture were figurative, I still fundamentally believed that Scripture was divinely inspired and a reflection of God's revelatory interaction with humans. I acknowledged intellectually that the Bible had "errors" but saw those as insignificant in the grand themes of Scripture. I still took Scripture very seriously and was looking for a way to hold on to it and also be honest about what science had to say.

I wish that I could say that after 3 years I have figured out how all of this fits together, but I can't. I still have the same thoughts, although I have moved considerably to the theological left in my attempt to reconcile a semblance faith and belief with an acknowledgement with the facts on the ground...otherwise known as "reality".

Any belief system that requires people to look hard evidence in the eye and deny it for the sake of epistemological certainty is fundamentally lacking integrity. If something is true, then it must be true in more than the realm of personal belief. It must, at least in part, show up in reality occasionally....maybe not every day, maybe not dramatically...but it must be present enough that it doesn't require only faith to exist.

Many conservative Christians would decry that assertion, such as Al Mohler did in his recent essay that wound its way through the religious and evolutionary blogosphere with this quote coming to the forefront:
As I have stated repeatedly, I accept without hesitation the fact that the world indeed looks old. Armed with naturalistic assumptions, I would almost assuredly come to the same conclusions as BioLogos and the evolutionary establishment, or I would at least find evolutionary arguments credible. But the most basic issue is, and has always been, that of worldview and basic presuppositions. The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions. Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions. There is absolutely no reason that a Christian theologian should accept the uniformitarian assumptions of evolution. In fact, given a plain reading of Scripture, there is every reason that Christians should reject a uniformitarian presupposition. The Bible itself offers a very different understanding of natural phenomena, with explanations that should be compelling to believers. In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin. [emphasis mine]

Ultimately, Mohler--a significant voice in conservative, evangelical Christianity--rejects evolution purely on an epistemological commitment to the Bible as the last word on all matters. If observable reality contradicts his interpretation of the Bible, or impinges on a dearly held theological view, then he makes the choice to reject that reality, or come up with scenarios in which "observable" reality isn't "actual" reality.

He safely insulates himself with those prior commitments. Reject observable data because it undermines the Bible and its theology on the basis that the Bible, in Mohler's view, goes against observable data. And we know we can prioritize what the Bible says because the Bible tells us we should.

It's like the telling question asked by the man caught in the act of infidelity, trying to defend himself:

"Who are you going to believe...me, or your own lying eyes?!"

The truth is that the worldview that Mohler espouses, by its very definition, must be predicated on the supernatural. Yet, it isn't just run-of-the-mill supernaturalism--the idea that there is something more than the material world that we see and understand--it is a supernaturalism which includes the concepts of supernatural evil and the impossibility of trusting one's own, or any human's, opinion on the matter. In a cosmos populated by Satan and demons, and man's own inability to know the truth, hard-core scientists and naturalists are the devil's pawns, leading the masses away from the true knowledge of God and reality.

There is no amount of arguing that can convince a person who is committed to this particular combination of propositions that they might be wrong. It's a trifecta; supernaturalism, active, unseen forces purposely trying to deceive us, and our own moral and intellectual deficiencies preventing us from being objective. At any point in which you might make some headway, one of these propositions will pop up and undermine any progress towards accepting anything other than what that person believes is Divine revelation.

If any one of those propositions are removed, then there is the possibility of beginning to accept scientific theories on evolution, or any number of things. A world in which supernatural beings aren't trying to mislead us at least gives us the chance to think things through without manipulative interference. A world in which humans can objectively, to the best of their ability, evaluate evidence and think theories through, is a world in which we can trust much of what we learn. We wouldn't second-guess every motivation in this search for truth, wondering if we're simply looking for the easy way out, or the theory that makes us feel more in control of our world. A world in which supernaturalism is absent is a world in which all we have is the attempt to understand the world around us, even if we are bound to viewing things through strictly human eyes which may misunderstand the world. Even if we have humans with prior epistemological commitments who purposely try to manipulate, or deceive others, we have the possibility of overcoming that as an obstacle.

Having enumerated a few of the obstacles to a conservative, evangelical acceptance of evolution, I will admit that the beginning of changing my mind about these things was in the dropping of two of the three propositions of the trifecta. I rejected the idea that Satan, or demons, had any sway at all in the visible world around me. Having been exposed to many instances of people trying to identify the "demonic" it became clear to me that every instance I encountered was simply psychological manipulation and suggestion. And most of the things that my fellow believers listed as the devil's schemes, or demonic activity, were simply instances of bad luck, or misunderstood mental states. I never once saw or heard of anything that was remotely "demonic".

The fodder for "spiritual warfare" ideas were almost always attributed to what can only be called Christian urban legends.....or unbalanced people trying to sell books or get paid to speak at church events. So...I stopped even considering evil, spiritual forces as something I needed to take seriously. At the time, I probably wouldn't have worded that quite so strongly. I would simply not dwell upon it or worry about it. After all, if there really were evil forces trying to manipulate my thinking, then what hope would I have that I could ever accurately identify them anyway. By very definition they were unobservable and more powerful than me.

Next to be eliminated from the trifecta was the idea that it was impossible to objectively know things. I rejected this because if we can't objectively know things, then life is utterly absurd and meaningless. At any point something which we think might be "good", could be displeasing to God, or very "bad". And how would we know the difference? The conservative answer is that God would reveal it to us. Yet, how can we trust what it is that we think God is revealing to us if we are hopelessly unable to know things objectively?

We can't. When Christians put forth this argument they are sowing the seeds of their own epistemological undoing. If you can't trust yourself, or humanity, you can't trust anything. Our own striving to understand is all that we have. Take that away and you have no way forward in faith, or science.

More later....


Anonymous said...

As you continue to tack left, Terri, please remember that you will find plenty of fellow travelers once you finally fall over the edge all together.

The water's a bit chilly at first but you get used to it. We'll save you a floatie! ;)

james said...

I think one can believe in evil spirits without believing 99.99% of the things attributed to the devil. The old "trifecta" of evil was the world, the flesh, and the devil--and the first two are so much trouble that I don't know how much work is left for the devil. I'm with Lewis on this one--too much attention to the devil is bad. Chatter about "demons of gluttony" is scandalous--as is chatter about pet miracles ("I prayed to Saint Whatsit and found my missing earring!").

I'm reluctant to rule out demonic activity completely, even if "The great god Pan is dead!" because of references in the New Testament and the occasional stories from the mission field. What I've heard and read over the years is largely consistent with a model in which the dramatically miraculous stuff happens at times of transition and at the borderlands. Where you have "Moses and the prophets" accepted already you don't need fresh miracles to validate them. For the honor of truth I have to admit that I don't quite see where some of the miracles of Elisha fit in this model, though I've no trouble with the thought of summoning bears to get rid of a street gang. There've been a few times I wished _I_ could do that.

I took as the motto of my blog "I do not know everything, nevertheless many things I do know." (Turns out that's Mephistopheles speaking from _Faust_, but never mind that little detail :-) ) I can be tricked, and there are a lot of things I don't know, but I've never thought that the world was fundamentally incomprehensible; and I'm astonished to find that this is a live issue. (My parents were Southern Baptist missionaries. Nobody in the family ever worried about evolution; in fact one of our (us kids) favorite books was _Gabriel and the Creatures_; another of mine was _The Epic of Man_.)

As you say, you cannot reject human experience as a legitimate source of knowledge and expect to retain any religious knowledge. Paul didn't say "just have faith" but instead that there were over 500 witnesses to the resurrection.

Funny; the word verification was "moses".

terri said...

Scott F,

I'm not sure that I want to fall off the edge! ;-)

If I do I'm sure I could use a floatie.


It is weird that the the concept of the world being fundamentally incomprehensible is a "live issue" as you put it.

Yet....it's out there, alive and well.

I earned my degree from a Southern Baptist liberal arts university. It wasn't as stifling as a Bob Jones University, or even a Liberty University, but it was a respectable feeder school for Southern Baptist seminaries. At that time, creationism was alive and well , though I don't think it had hit its peak. Ken Ham hadn't come on the scene in a big way yet.

Besides creationism, the idea that man is so fundamentally captive to sin and spiritually blinded to reality was an idea that frequently showed up in chapel services, in student conversations, in discussions in religion classes.

You can read through any YRR (young, restless, and reformed) blog or ministry site and that is what you are going to get....largely due to their Calvinistic beliefs.

The Old Testament is largely silent on demonic activity. There are destroying angels sent by God every once in a while, but no real interaction between humans and evil spirits.

When did that shift? Perhaps sometime in the inter-testamental period. Once we get to the New Testament it seems to be that there are demons everywhere...and they are at the root of physical illness and mental illness.

Is that an interpretation of the gospel writers? Are they attributing things they don't understand to demonic activity?

It's hard to say. It's even harder because Jesus seems to attribute some physical illnesses to demonic activity and not others.

hmmm....I should check each individual gospel and see how often each author emphasizes this sort if activity.