18 October 2018

Confessions: Doubt and the Material World

Dad would look through “Birds of North America” to identify Rufus Sided Towhees and other visitors outside our picture windows. He talked about each species' field marks and how bird book illustrators paint colors more vividly than they appear in life.

We kept binoculars not far from the kitchen table.

Grandma Paulsson also had a well-worn copy of that book...and eventually I got a new edition of my own. 

Green-Winged Teal pair, Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

public domain.
I read biology and earth science textbooks without them being assigned, and I still amuse my wife and hiking companions, stopping suddenly to point out the Cedar Waxwings and Hairy Woodpeckers in nearby trees.

When I first wrestled with Darwin's implications, I understood religion—a spiritual worldview that depended more or less on faith—and science—a material worldview that depends on physical evidence—as rival explanations for reality. It seemed that I must be a Christian or an atheist.

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell, who blogged "A Year Without God," said in an interview with Chris Stedman, “...the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.”

I could not so easily resolve the question. My lack of spiritual experiences led me to appreciate the physicality and reasonability of science. My wonder at existence made me uncomfortable with the idea that the tangible is all there is.

Henry Morris first resolved these questions—accepting the inerrancy of scripture, applying a particular reading of Genesis, and providing a plausible theory based on the Genesis accounts of creation and Noah's flood.

It was not the tension between the inerrancy of scripture and the scientific evidence that first caused me to question Morris. It was discomfort with materialism.

In the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate, for example, one clings to inerrancy; one clings to scientism; neither questions the assumption that the first 11 chapters of Genesis speak in modern materialistic terms.

As Terry Eagleton points out in his critique of Richard Dawkins, “Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places…. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Defenders of the faith make a similar mistake when they adopt a scientistic reading of scripture.

Genesis presents a chronological collection of stories; collected in 10 sections—more or less divided by the phrase “these are the generations of....”

The first creation account presents an objective, earth-centered, account of God's creation of the universe. The second creation story has what we might call an anthropological perspective. The scientific details are not...materialistically...the same. But both accounts fit the broader sweep of Genesis...as the narrative becomes progressively more intimate.

Adam and Eve, Cain, Enoch, and Noah appear in a context that includes all of mankind. God is talking to people, and we even occasionally know what God is thinking, but we feel a distance from the action.

Then the book focuses on God's relationship with Abram. We see God making promises and changing Abram's name. We see Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. We read about the messiness of Abraham's family.

The patriarchs continue to function in an intermediary way—Joseph's administration of the land of Egypt to Jacob's blessing Pharaoh.

God speaks only once and only to Jacob in the last chapters. But Joseph flees Mrs. Potiphar's advances because of who God is. He tells Pharaoh it is God who gives the interpretation of dreams. When his brothers come to Egypt, he forgives them for selling him into slavery, because “God meant it for good.”

One need not claim the first eleven chapters of Genesis are merely symbolic...in the modern sense...in order to question whether Moses meant to write a technical...in the modern sense...origin of the world.

On the other hand, to see in Genesis some kind of poetry is not to deny its historicity...any more than to describe the beauty of a tortoiseshell cat without describing it's genetics is to deny the cat's existence.

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor, raises bigger questions in my mind when he begins his narrative of religion by discussing schizotypal personalities—personalities not schizophrenic but somewhere on that spectrum.

The right amount of metamagical perception, he suggests, hearing a voice from a burning bush for example, might give an individual prominence in the community and be an evolutionary advantage.

He then applies the theory to other mental conditions. A mild version of obsessive compulsive disorder for example might allow religious people to invent and follow rituals. He uses Martin Luther as an example.

It's plausible to see obsession in the hours young Luther spent confessing every day. But it is hard to see how that led Luther to oppose the medieval Church's sale of indulgences. One could imagine an obsession might work the other way.

But even if the Apostle Paul didn't have epilepsy of the temporal lobe—causing his fascination with religion and his urge to write—Sapolsky's broader point remains...that biology explains part or all of what we call religiosity.

We know the nerves of some make them more sensitive to spicy food. I'm not very spiritual, at least compared to Pentecostals I grew up around. It has always been the physicality of red-wing blackbirds, mountains, and the sacraments that make them immediate to me. Maybe if we knew enough about neurology, we'd see why my brain does not experience the things other brains do.

But Moses didn't only bring the Israelites stories of a burning bush; he showed them to a burning mountain. In Deuteronomy 13 and 18, Moses gives his people criteria to discern the credibility of prophets...whether their predictions came true. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables...but were eyewitnesses of his majesty....”

The Bible's argument is not that there are not false visions or even that the messengers are normal but that they witnessed something real.

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