Foundations and Faith (RJS)

Foundations and Faith (RJS) May 23, 2019

I am reading through Walter Moberly’s recent book,  The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith. Chapter 3 presents the bulk of his argument for the Bible as a privileged set of writings, through the Spirit and about God and his engagement with his creation and creatures. The chapter deserves more than one post and I will only dabble into the beginning here. Moberly uses Charles Darwin and his well known (although less well understood) loss of faith. Although much has been made in recent biographies of the effect that the death of Darwin’s daughter at age 10 had on his faith, Moberly suggests that this was not a root cause. Rather, two related ideas played a major role.

First, Darwin’s view of the Bible did not encourage much nuanced thinking about the texts. In his autobiography he wrote that when contemplating a clerical career he “did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible.”

Darwin’s grasp of theology was markedly different from his grasp of biology. …With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to see Darwin’s “orthodoxy” as representing an attitude towards the Bible that unsurprisingly led to his rejection of it in due course. Even if an absence of doubt in “the strict and literal truth of every word” in principle represents a positive attitude, it also surely suggests a wooden and unreflective approach to a compilation of ancient sacred texts. Such an unreflective attitude would by no means encourage the exercise of his intellect in any of the subtle, patient, and probing ways in which he exercised it in his biological work. Rather, it would easily encourage an “all or nothing” or “either it’s true or it’s false” attitude, such that the encountering of problems could more readily lead to a wholesale rejection rather than to digging deeper. (p. 89)

Second, Darwin was “deeply indebted to the work of William Paley.” The argument from design formed a foundation for at least part of his faith. In this context, his careful study of biology raised serious questions. If the diversity of life was meticulously designed, what are we to make of examples like the ichneumon wasp. (The following is from the Wikipedia article on the wasp, although I’ve seen in in a number of sources). In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is significant as well.

Darwin’s subsequent rejection of Paley and rejection of faith were related. In the context of telling how he “was very unwilling to give up [his] belief,” and yet “disbelief crept over [him] at a very slow rate,” he says, “The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. (p. 89)

An unreflective commitment to a particular “strict and literal” reading of scripture combined with a reliance on Paley’s argument from design set up a true crisis of faith. The question for us becomes one of foundations. Is our faith founded on such claims as those Darwin came to discard, or is it founded on something stronger than these? Is it possible to read the Bible faithfully, but also open to a subtle and patient probing of the text and our understanding of it? The answer is yes – but it will not conform to the ideal of “the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible” still clung to by many Christians. Intelligent Design also provides a shaky foundation for faith. Both of these prove to be foundations of sand rather than rock. But back to Moberly.

The Bible is privileged – but it need not be approached in a wooden and unreflective fashion. Moberly writes:

For one of the things that characterizes a Christian believer is a privileging of the Bible (albeit often selectively) for understanding God and the nature of the world. … This is because the Bible offers an overall vision of the world, and of the role of humanity in the world, in the light of God. The world is God’s world, to which He gives the gift of life. God unceasingly engages with His world, especially in His initiative in the call of Israel, an initiative that climaxes with the coming of Jesus. (p. 91)

The biblical canon provides us with the tools – including the Gospels with their accounts of Jesus – to make sense of the world. But we need the whole canon for this – not merely the New Testament, the Gospels, or Paul. We need the law and the prophets and the writings. “Jesus represents the privileged focus in a believer’s vision because of the confidence that in and through Jesus, especially as framed and interpreted by the whole biblical canon, what matters most in life can be rightly understood.” (p. 92)

Why do we read and privilege the Bible?

What is the foundation of faith?

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