Saturday, December 25, 2004

Maybe I'm a Reasserter

But then again, maybe I'm not. Well, anyway, Salty Vicar has a list of Questions for Reasserters, and I feel some sort of response is called for. I think, however, that a different sort of response is called for than an a mere list of specific replies.

Perhaps the most common failing of theologians is to look upon scriptural material as being their especial province. That is, they like to believe that everyone needs theologians in order to have a hope of getting anything out of scripture. Now, considering the condition of the writing of the NT texts, this is an utterly preposterous conceit.

And as Ponty is wont to point out, the attitude of Salty's questions tends towards the condescending. Take this one:

Augustine one said that "all truth is one." Harmonize, if you can, insights from Adam Smith, Einstein, Freud, Chomsky, and Galileo with Biblical cosmology. Explain why it makes no difference in your interpretation of scripture.

I'm with Ponty in wondering what Chomsky is doing in there; surely he political fatuosity puts paid on his cosmological imprint. One wonders whether a Rev. Salty of twenty years ago would have included Karl Marx. The hidden assumption in this is that these people have something to say about cosmology in a way that has anything to do with NT religion. It's a highly questionable assumption, especially considering the range of people cited. Let's start with Galileo (a "poster boy" choice at that): must we assume that the Evangelists or Apostles would have been shocked to learn that the earth travels in an elliptical path around the sun? I think not. It is not a given that people are so heavily invested in the commonplaces of their day, and indeed, it seems that most people accept such changes to common knowledge with aplomb.

But there's a deeper assumption: that the skepticisms of the modernists have to be taken as given. By right, claims of science do not merit this. Newton and Einstein have earned their places of honor in formulating models that withstand the assaults of years of use. Adam Smith? Well, economics is still controversial, is it not? And so is psychology-- indeed, Kinsey's "foundational" studies have attracted increasing criticism as it becomes more apparent that they are heavilty contaminated by the sin of self-justification.

Thus, it isn't proper that the modernists expect to get a pass on their presumptions. What's unreasonable about reading scripture in a, well, normal manner? Like, um, some of it is literal and some isn't and some is both?


Anonymous said...

You say: "But there's a deeper assumption: that the skepticisms of the modernists have to be taken as given. By right, claims of science do not merit this."

Strawman alert! The "claims" of science are never taken as given, at least not by (competent) scientists. Scientific claims are always regarded as provisional, always subject to reexamination when new evidence doesn't fit our preconceptions. (I tend to think of evidence as a gift from God, a revelation of of what he has actually wrought as opposed to what we conceive him to have done.)

--D. C.

John said...

Mr Wingate - two things: it seems that you come pretty close to a sort of relativism when you so quickly dismiss the claims of science. Perhaps the terms of science can be reduced to some kinds of tautologies [how does one disprove the existence of the elements, for example, or of 2+2=4, or of gluons?], but you ignore the empirical methodology. Surely most scientists know that there are few final answers, but all around us is evidence of some pretty important truths that science claims.

The questions were meant to illuminate some of the hermeutical problems moderns wrestle with. We think that a "plain text" reading of scripture would say that the world was in fact created in six days and that Adam and Eve were, in fact, the first human beings. That's a plain text reading.

Similarly, since conservatives think that blood and property are either unimportant, or that premoderns had miraculously real and true explanations for cleanliness, blood and purity, their [in my view] flaccid interpretations of scripture defend themselves with a circular logic.

It gets down to: The Word of God is True. Why is the Word of God true? It is in the bible. Why is the Bible true? It is the Word of God. How do you know? Because I have faith. Why do you have faith? Because I read the bible. Religiosity reinforces itself, once you enter into the word game. I'm interested in how people make that step into religious thinking. At some point, there is a movement from public sorts of thinking to this relatively closed form of thinking.

As far as Chomsky goes, I meant his scientific work on universal grammar and the problems of mind.

C. Wingate said...

About the "claims of science": well, Spong for one certainly steps out of bounds on this one (for instance, see Possibly the Most Laughable Thing Spong Ever Wrote) and as an engineer he should know better.

The thing about a "plain text reading" is that "plain" and "woodenly literal" are not synonymous. A "plain text reading" today of Genesis 1 is, for most people an affirmation of Creation as ongoing, yet also purposeful. It's a reading which says that there's more to evolution than the mere teleology of survival.

As far as science is concerned, the other big problem with invoking it is that not all science is created equal. "2+2=4" isn't science at all, for example. Is economics "science"? Not under the standards of, say, Newtonian mechanics; for one thing, moving objects do not read physics texts to determine how to react to forces. Is textual criticism "science"? Only in the extremely loose sense that any study is a "science".

Chomsky will do as well as any because his linguistics theories remain controversial. Scientific belief in universal grammar remains an open issue.

C. Wingate said...

So try on a different starting point: assume that the message of Christianity is totally indifferent to these "insights". It's not an outrageous assumption: in the NT only Paul and the author of Hebrews come across as remotely scholarly, and surely it is reasonable to think that their audiences lived outside any scholarly community.

In this mode I find the skepticism of moderns interesting only as a distraction. If Modern Man can't believe in a virgin birth, it places no obligation upon me. What compulsion is there in the text to honor someone else's doubt?

Certainly people express their faith as circularly as you parody. But then I have to doubt whether they are expressing it accurately. People, when pressed for reasons for their thinking, are accustomed to give quite incoherent and inaccurate answers (one of those Freudian insights, though in fact the Church got there long before). There's every reason to think that the actual thought behind more coherently systematic expressions is actually as mysterious and incompletely expressed.