I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.
It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.
The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.
Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.
Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.
In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.
The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.
Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.
To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.
The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.
Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things. We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.
Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.
The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context. Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)
In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.
If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.
Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.
When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)
I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.
If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…
Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.
Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)