Of Fleas and Faith (RJS)

Of Fleas and Faith (RJS) February 23, 2010

There were two interesting posts last week – on two very different kinds of blogs. The first on Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution is True,” where he scratches a flea, and the second, a response, on the BioLogos blog “Science and the Sacred,” where the flea responds.

A brief excerpt from Coyne – in reference to a post by Kent Sparks on accommodation in scripture:

Once again we see that modern theology is the art of turning empiricalnecessities into spiritual virtues.  Except for a few dissenters like Augustine and Calvin, the bulk of Christian theology up to the rise of science in the sixteenth century involved seeing the Bible literally–in its entirety.  Six-day creation, Noah, Adam and Eve–the whole megillah. That held for cosmology, biology, and evolution.  It was only when reason and empirical studies began to show phenomena in conflict with scripture that theologians began to realize that the Bible was not wholly inerrant.

and later:

Theology moves ahead not under its own steam, but by pressure from behind by science and reason. And the “progress” it achieves is not some clearer understanding of a spiritual reality, but simply a new kind of doublethink that purports to reconcile the natural with the supernatural.

Enns and Falk respond to Coyne pointing out that Christian thinking has always had a level of nuance and dialog. They conclude their response:

The message of Scripture reflects the cultures in which it is written, yet we also believe it transcends those cultures. There is a delicate balance but our best thinkers have always understood this. At BioLogos we, and the many others like us, are simply responding to new knowledge in the way that the Judeo-Christian tradition has long been known to do.

I have some thoughts on Coyne’s post and the response – but first I’d like to open a discussion here. Read the two posts and offer your thoughts.

To what extent is Christian theology a final word, a “done deal,” and to what extent is it a living word – revised, reformed, restated in the wrestling and context of each succeeding generation?

If you would like to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • paul

    “Except for a few dissenters like Augustine and Calvin…”
    When I was reading this I almost laughed when I read this line. Those two are quite the powerful pair of dissenters. If some of the churches biggest theologians could not “agree” with others, then I think it goes to show that theology is never a done deal, especially when you move out of the relatively few core beliefs into the realm of non-core (room for opinion on the details) type beliefs.

  • The response’s biggest contribution is pointing out that the NT was a remarkable reinterpretation of existing theology. This happened right at the start of christianity. Why hould natural science be the only field open to adjustemnt in light of discovery/thinking and, dare I say it, “revelation”?

  • I think it is a silly game to play, like a great football match between the theologians and the scientists. I’ve heard it the other way, told with great seriousness by die-hard believers: the scientists look beneath every atom and particle wave and when they get to the end, what do they see? God.
    If all truth is God’s truth (I hate that saying, but I don’t have much room to describe what I want to say), then aren’t scientists and theologians partners, willing or unwilling, in the discovery of truth?
    And it would be foolish for the scientific community to claim superiority. The lack of philosophical (or theological) depth amongst scientific researchers is common (every bit as common as the lack of ontological and epistemological depth amongst biblical researchers and theologians).
    How about we all need each other and its cooperation, not competition?
    Derek Leman

  • dopderbeck

    My first thought is to echo what Paul (#1) said. It’s just monumentally stupid to dismiss Augustine and Calvin as “a few dissenters.” It’s kind of like saying this:
    “Except for a few lone dissenters such as Darwin, scientists throughout history always believed life in its present form, without significant change, since the creation of the world.” Actually, this sounds like a version of the history of science from the AiG website.
    Why is it that when science self-corrects, that is a virtue of the scientific method, but when theology self-corrects, that is proof of its intellectual bankruptcy?

  • What remains constant in our faith is exactly that: our faith. That is to say, our faith in God, in the lordship of the risen Jesus, and in the “royal commandment” of love. Paul recognized that many issues would be “disputable matters” and tailored his message accordingly, constantly bringing it back into a focus on God, Christ, and love, and counseling The Church to avoid unnecessary division.
    One of the most powerful features of our faith is it’s fluidity, it’s ability to flow into any culture or turn of mind that isn’t diametrically opposed to God. In my view, when our faith ceases to flow, ceases to be fluid, it ceases to be a living, saving faith, and becomes a rigid, ritualistic cult; in other words, it ceases to be Christianity.

  • dopderbeck

    Now, as to the main question: rather an interesting question in light of the discussion of the Creeds, yes?
    IMHO, we first have to define “theology.” “Theology” is a second-order construction of statements about a first-order reality. God is the first-order reality, and theology is human efforts to speak of God. Since God is fundamentally other, and human beings are fundamentally finite, any human speaking of God necessarily and by definition is never a “done deal.” In principle, all theology is reformable and revisable — and this includes, IMHO, the Creeds.
    Having said that, Christian theology is done in the community of the Church as the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the Church. Moreover, the ground of theology is the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in scripture — which is divine as well as human the therefore in some sense not revisable. Therefore, we are right to expect that at some key moments and in some key areas the Spirit has guided the Church towards consensus, based on the normative witness of revelation, in ways that should be considered essentially correct and historically normative. The Creeds represent such moments. Thus, although the Creeds are in principle reformable, they are not in practice reformable.
    Notice that this “critically realist” description of Christian theology is similar to a proper description of the scientific method. Science investigates that which is “other” — a reality that is assumed to exist apart from the investigator’s own consciousness. All scientific theories are therefore second-order statements about reality that are in principle revisable. Some scientific statements, however, have obtained such widespread explanatory power and consensus that they are considered to be fundamentally correct and therefore, in practice, not fundamentally revisable.

  • RJS

    Good thoughts. The question here relates to Sunday’s post on the Creeds and even to the post on the finality of death today. Many in the church today though, will echo the sentiment expressed by Coyne. There is something dishonest in a faith where we allow our changing understanding of the world to play a role in our understanding of scripture and our faith.
    I would say personally that one of the biggest eye-openers was the fluidity of thinking about some aspects of faith and scripture in the early church, the middle ages, the reformation, and today. The Genesis commentary of John Calvin – while he does use accommodation in his interpretation in places, is more-or-less literal in his interpretation of Genesis 2-3. Even here though he comes to some surprising conclusions, and the alternatives he argues against demonstrate that thinking among his contemporaries was far from uniform.
    Far from being dishonest – allowing our changing understanding of the world to play a role in our understanding of scripture and our faith is both natural and necessary. There is a foundation to our faith – but it is not the various expressions of faith and it is not scripture – these are data that inform our wrestling. But the foundation is the reality of God himself and his action in the world. Part of the importance of the creeds is that they attempt to outline the reality of God and of his nature.

  • RJS

    I like the way you bring in the discussion of a “critical realist” view of both theology and science – there are important similarities, and this is the real point that Coyne misses.
    We have data – and a reality under the data that we wish to understand, a reality which exists apart from ourselves. We operate on the assumption that this reality is rational, although we may not have the tools or the language to understand and express it.

  • Well, reading the comments above I’m going to feel something like a simpleton saying this, but I’ll go ahead and do so anyway (because I might be something of a stubborn simpleton).
    Using the definition of theology presented above, I’m of the belief that most “second-order” theological statements / beliefs are “living,” whereas core beliefs (“first-order”) are not–these would be beliefs about Jesus (such as the importance of the resurrection, His divinity, the exclusive nature of salvation to those and only those who follow Jesus, etc.). But on the whole, I think a lot of theology (by a lot, I mean 90% of it) is “living” rather than stagnant, and that makes a lot of us uncomfortable (thus a lot of us won’t admit this). Then again, I might be some what confusing theology with the philosophical outworkings of theology. All of this said with the understanding that whatever we do know has been revealed by God to us. On our own, we’d be pretty stuck…

  • Dave

    Isn’t saying that the Bible is correct in science like saying that it is correct in the proper construction of sentances or linguistics in general? Aren’t the scientific views expressed in the Bible simply tools use to convey the truth, much as the words and sentances are tools?
    Or that the names used are the only names that should be used? Or that the metaphors used are the only metaphors to be used?
    The Bible could have used pictures instead of words….

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    It’s important to note tha this in not an argument between science and religioun. It is an argument between theists and non theists who both happen to be scietists. In short, it is a philophical discussion.
    Also I think we have to concede that some theology is “unchangeable.” That’s why we have dogma and the Creeds. We also have to concede that very large number of Christians, maybe as many as half of all Christians, consider the essential beliefs of Chrstianity to be in conflict with current scientific knowledge.
    That seems to be Coyne’s main point and he further concludes that any religion that has that many adherents who seem to treat the unscientific theology as unchanging truth is simply deficient as a whole.

  • dopderbeck – You write, God is the first-order reality, and theology is human efforts to speak of God. Since God is fundamentally other, and human beings are fundamentally finite, any human speaking of God necessarily and by definition is never a “done deal.” …Science investigates that which is “other” — a reality that is assumed to exist apart from the investigator’s own consciousness. All scientific theories are therefore second-order statements about reality that are in principle revisable. Some scientific statements, however, have obtained such widespread explanatory power and consensus that they are considered to be fundamentally correct and therefore, in practice, not fundamentally revisable.”
    That’s an interesting parallel… but there’s an important difference. God’s claimed to be fundamentally beyond human conception, right? Humans aren’t ever supposed to be able to fully understand God, from first principles.
    Science doesn’t assume that about reality, though. Even if we can’t be sure we understand reality correctly, we do assume it’s possible to grasp it, no? When scientists give up and assume something’s beyond their grasp, it’s a problem. For theists, though, it’s a Mystery.
    (That sounds a little more accusatory than I intended, but I’m having a hard time figuring out another way to phrase it.)

  • R Hampton

    I think this answers your questions rather well (from a Catholic view):
    Address of his Holiness Benedict XVI to the Members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
    Friday, 31 October 2008
    …In choosing the topic ‘Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life‘, you seek to focus on an area of enquiry which elicits much interest. In fact, many of our contemporaries today wish to reflect upon the ultimate origin of beings, their cause and their end, and the meaning of human history and the universe.
    In this context, questions concerning the relationship between science’s reading of the world and the reading offered by Christian Revelation naturally arise. My predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II noted that there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences. Philosophy in its early stages had proposed images to explain the origin of the cosmos on the basis of one or more elements of the material world. This genesis was not seen as a creation, but rather a mutation or transformation; it involved a somewhat horizontal interpretation of the origin of the world. A decisive advance in understanding the origin of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participated being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence.
    …To ‘evolve’ literally means ‘to unroll a scroll’, that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity and has been held dear by many scientists. Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author. It is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose ‘writing’ and meaning, we ‘read’ according to the different approaches of the sciences, while all the time presupposing the foundational presence of the author who has wished to reveal himself therein. This image also helps us to understand that the world, far from originating out of chaos, resembles an ordered book; it is a cosmos. Not withstanding elements of the irrational, chaotic and the destructive in the long processes of change in the cosmos, matter as such is ‘legible’. It has an inbuilt ‘mathematics’. The human mind therefore can engage not only in a ‘cosmography’ studying measurable phenomena but also in a ‘cosmology’ discerning the visible inner logic of the cosmos. We may not at first be able to see the harmony both of the whole and of the relations of the individual parts, or their relationship to the whole. Yet, there always remains a broad range of intelligible events, and the process is rational in that it reveals an order of evident correspondences and undeniable finalities: in the inorganic world, between microstructure and macrostructure; in the organic and animal world, between structure and function; and in the spiritual world, between knowledge of the truth and the aspiration to freedom. Experimental and philosophical inquiry gradually discovers these orders; it perceives them working to maintain themselves in being, defending themselves against imbalances, and overcoming obstacles. And thanks to the natural sciences we have greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
    …Distinguished Academicians, I wish to conclude by recalling the words addressed to you by my predecessor Pope John Paul II in November 2003: ‘scientific truth, which is itself a participation in divine Truth, can help philosophy and theology to understand ever more fully the human person and God’s Revelation about man, a Revelation that is completed and perfected in Jesus Christ. For this important mutual enrichment in the search for the truth and the benefit of mankind, I am, with the whole Church, profoundly grateful’.

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#12) — yes, there are some key differences because God by definition is “other” than the material creation. Those differences play out mostly in the tools that are available for investigating these different subjects. You can’t do the same sort of empirical investigation of God as you can with a cell or something like that.
    But at the same time, I’m not sure that we can assume it’s possible to understand all of material reality, either. I think we can assume that we are able to develop increasingly accurate models of the universe — that’s obviously true. But some aspects of the universe may simply be beyond our human capacity (even extended by technology) to know or observe. Human beings didn’t evolve to know everything, so our perceptual capabilities are naturally limited. The technologies that extend our perceptual capacities have theoretical limits as well. So, it may well be — in fact, it seems likely — that even if human beings knew everything that it is possible for human beings to know, there would remain some things about the universe that we wouldn’t understand.

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic,
    I think both science and theology have elements that are unchangeable. Not “in principle” but “in fact” or “in practice.” In science this means that the evidence is so strong that our view will not change, it may get refined in minor ways, but it will not change. When I look at aspects of the creeds – the early baptismal formulas rather than the later more precise and wordy statements – I think that this contains some of that essence that simply will not change. In both areas other things are more fluid and susceptible to change.
    There is an interesting insight here I think – how do we find truth and understanding?
    Coyne sets up a view of Christian faith – knocks it down, and becomes annoyed when the reality of Christian thought is more complex. The data he takes to disprove the faith becomes data that refines our understanding of faith and revelation.
    I have noticed that some who wish to undermine evolution do the same – they set up a definition of evolution (usually gradual change by random mutation and natural selection) – knock it down, and become annoyed when it is pointed out that the reality of evolutionary biology is much more complex, and the mechanisms of change are more complex. The data taken to disprove evolution is actually data that refines our understanding of evolution.

  • Ray Ingles

    But some aspects of the universe may simply be beyond our human capacity (even extended by technology) to know or observe…

    Ah, but even if true, that has no practical significance.
    Consider – how can we, in practice, distinguish between something ‘currently unknown but comprehensible’ and something ‘forever unknowable’? From a practical perspective, the only way to tell which category something falls into is to try to understand it; if you succeed, then it was knowable.
    The problem is, if you fail, you can’t conclude that it’s unknowable. It might be… but it also might be the case that you just didn’t happen to figure out something knowable, and you or someone else might have better luck on a subsequent attempt. The link I gave in my previous comment notes quite a few people who ‘gave up’ too soon. (I call it Haldane’s Error.)
    Since the notion makes no practical difference – either way, we still need to keep trying to understand things – what’s the point of assuming anything’s fundamentally incomprehensible?

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#16) — sure. I don’t disagree. The same is true in theology. Though I’d nuance this with respect to the natural sciences: realizing that some things may be fundamentally unknowable is helpful and useful when we offer and evaluate models of how things are. It keeps us epistemically humble and reminds us that all models are incomplete and correctable.
    With respect to theology, when we say God is ultimately beyond human conception, we don’t mean that nothing can be known about God. If that were the case, then you’d be right, theology would be pointless. But theology asserts that we can indeed have knowledge of God — though imperfect, incomplete knowledge. We can never “capture” God, never describe Him fully, but we can talk meaningfully about who God is and what He is like, by reflecting on God’s self-revelation — in nature, in scripture, in Christ, and in the life and preaching of the Church. Or, in the way of apophatic theology, we can talk meaningfully about God by describing what He is not like.
    You can of course discount all those as real sources of information, but that’s a different conversation. The point is that theology, like the natural sciences, is intentionally self-reflective and self-correcting; and theology, like the natural sciences, must admit a certain degree of epistemic humility. This doesn’t mean theology and the natural sciences are describing the same orders of reality, with the same degree of precision, or using the same methodological tools. But it does mean that the historical self-correction of theology is not an argument against the validity of theology as a discipline.

  • RJS

    There is another point of similarity between natural science and theology that is under-appreciated. It is always a struggle to fathom and grapple with concepts or features of reality that fall outside of common intuition based on normal experience – we have no effective way to verbalize and describe the reality, analogical expression fails in important ways.
    Wave-particle duality, the EPR paradox, quantum interference are difficult to explain – even with the necessary math. So is the idea of an infinite, expanding universe without a center – the universe isn’t expanding into anything, there is simply more space at later times than at earlier times.
    I see many topics in theology in the same way – nature of God and Trinity are examples. The difficulty with the concepts comes not from absence of underlying reality, but from inadequate human experience and language. Imprecise understanding doesn’t, in and of itself, is not a reason to dismiss the concepts as meditation exercises and mind games.

  • David – I guess we just disagree on that. I don’t see any necessity, or even utility, in assuming or worrying about the fundamentally unknowable. I don’t see the problem in keeping in mind one’s models may be incomplete while assuming that reality’s ultimately comprehensible. And I’ve pointed out a demonstrated risk in assuming the opposite, that some things are unknowable – that people can, and do, give up too soon because of that very assumption.
    With respect to theology, I still see assuming the unknowable to be a problem. It strikes me like division by zero in mathematics – from that, you can conclude anything. I mean, based on evidence of good care, sheep are quite convinced that the shepherd loves them and protects them… until feast time comes around. If God’s further beyond us than we are compared to sheep, how could we ever be sure of anything about such a being?

  • RJS

    Interesting comment – one I may bring up for conversation on another post as it isn’t likely to attract much notice here.

  • nathan

    It would be helpful for people to read the first book in Tillich’s Systematic Theology.
    He defines the theological circle and it’s relation to philosophy and the sciences in a compelling way.
    I think it would be of enormous value for people to re-appropriate his approach in helping overcome the ‘conflict’ between theology and science.