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the road goes ever on...

Several years back (so my department's lore goes) when the philosophy and theology departments were housed in the same building, someone put up a sign. Above the official sign pointing to the philosophy department it said "Questions without Answers", and toward the theology department, "Answers without Questions." I'm fairly certain it was a philosopher who put it up, but the theologians must have had a sense of humor about it because it apparently stayed up for several years, maybe even several years.

My school is a Jesuit school, which is a rather questioning and open-minded wing of the Roman Catholic Church. Knowing the theologians that are here today, I am sure that they could laugh such a jab off because they are confident that it was a stereotype that doesn't apply to them. It doesn't; in my experience, they never met a question they didn't like, and the old joke "Two Jews, three opinions" applies to them just as well.

But I was reminded of this story when I saw a CafePress ad for a t-shirt poking fun at faith.

Apparently, they think I'd be interested in atheist gear based on the keywords I type. Which is interesting, but not all that surprising given the truly awful directed ads I've received over the years. Anyway...

Images like this make me sad because they reflect a grain of truth. There are many people and groups that claim the label "faith-based" that apply more or less this approach. Evolution contradicts Genesis 1? Nuts to Darwin, then. The Bible says God will never again destroy the earth with a flood? That means we don't need to worry about global warming. Hermione and her lot are called witches? That alone makes Harry Potter taboo in many circles. I've seen it played out more than once, and it always makes me cringe.

But to paint all the faithful with this brush is like blaming your local Southern Baptist Church because they share their name with the Westboro crowd. To be sure, the SBC has done and said some things that make my skin crawl and that I heartily disagree with; but I prefer to blame them for their own sins (to use the churchy phrase) and not those who share their name. Similarly, I am one of the faithful but I'm not faithful like that. Nor are many people I know. Most religious people are carried on by inertia, as unreflective as the great masses of any group that achieves a certain critical mass.

But I'd say among the groups that have truly thought through the principles, at least as many of the faithful see conflicting evidence as an interesting challenge as see it as a threat. If Darwin has a good case (and I believe he really does, what I understand of evolution - I'm a philosopher, not a scientist, so my science education stops at the gen-ed level), then I need to reinterpret other things I believe to be true in a way that makes sense of that. It's the challenge by which we weed out bad interpretations and get below the surface level. To disregard the challenges posed by "new evidence" is bad stewardship of a gift from God. So I say shame on my fellow Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, and...) who don't take that challenge seriously. You're missing out.

I accept the scientific method in all its glory. Most Jesuits and Methodists (the faith traditions I'm most familiar with) do, too. What I reject - emphatically - is physicalism. That's the idea that the physical facts, the kind of things described by science, describe the sum total of reality. I am not so vain to think I can explain God or offer a proof, but I find that living with that reality is humbling, and in a good way. To think that there's something bigger than myself out there, bigger than the world. Does he wear white robes and make the thunder rumble when he laughs? Probably not. Does he answer prayers and can he prevent natural disasters? I don't know, though my first response (due to indoctrination or faith or something innate within me) is yes on both accounts, though I struggle with both, philosophically and personally.

I prefer Bilbo's approach to physicalism:

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: it's springs were at every doorstep and every path was it's tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.

Or Sam's:

'The road goes on for ever,' said Pippin; 'but I can't without a rest. It is high time for lunch.' He sat down on the bank at the side of the road and looked away east into the haze, beyond which lay the River, and the end of the Shire in which he had spent all his life. Sam stood by him. His round eyes were wide open - for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.

I don't mean to get preachy here, and I certainly am not trying to convince everyone to be like me. It works for me and my character, but I know the word faith conjures different images for different people given our experiences. I get that.

But please, don't tell me all "faith" looks like that picture on the right. Where there is evidence, I try to make sense of it and reformulate my beliefs so to be consistent. There I will adopt the method on the left. And where there is no evidence one way or the other, I believe what is most useful to me or try to be content with not knowing, more or less in line with William James and Blaise Pascal (who, icky Wager notwithstanding, actually had some pretty interesting ideas about the nature of faith). That doesn't mean I ignore evidence; in the cases I'm talking about, there's simply no evidence to ignore. But I still reject the idea that the world I know is the sum total of what there is. When, in the history of science, has that ever proved true?



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 10th, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
To me faith is believing that God put into place what science studies, such as starting off the whole process of evolution. I have a friend, who is more of a devout Christian than I and also a professor of physics.
I like Bilbo's view too.
Jan. 10th, 2012 01:17 am (UTC)
What I sincerely do not understand is how, if you really understand and accept the scientific method, which does mean you need evidence/proof, you can also believe in a god (or gods) when there is no proof that any exist. This does not mean that the world we "know" is all that there is - there is always more to learn, any time we discover something new that might contradict our earlier knowledge.
Jan. 10th, 2012 02:15 am (UTC)
Cel, I'm not a lab scientist and never was, so my knowledge of the scientific method is on the level of what you'd learn in AP Chemistry. There may be many things about it I don't understand. But as far as I understand things that are true but s@ience has not yet verified. They may be the kind of things the human mind is ill-equipped to know, just like a Neamderthal couldn't properly comprehend calculus. That does not keep calculus from being true but it means the Neanderthal can't know it.

Faith to me is all about being open to the idea that there are truths and realities I cannot know. Good theology and good philosophy of religion (and there's lots of the bad out there) is about learning and using the tools developed by great minds for living with that fact, and maybe sorting out places where people have beliefs that once science couldn't answer but now it can. I'm not a NOMA advocate like Stephen Gould because I think religion does cross over into doing bad science, and for that it needs its hands slapped. But I also think it's fairly likely that some true things can't be known, simply because of the limits of the human brain. So there are some things that science just can't address.
Jan. 10th, 2012 03:03 am (UTC)
I also think it's fairly likely that some true things can't be known, simply because of the limits of the human brain.

I will agree with this. But I do not see science as inherently limited to humanity and our capabilities; I think of science as objective knowledge. If an alien creature with greater mental ability can create a theory that takes into account facts that we cannot understand, that is still science. So perhaps *our* science cannot address something effectively, but if we then relegate that not-understandable thing to be outside the circle of knowledge, we limit *ourselves* - so we are cheating if we just say "goddidit" and give up on trying to understand.

We humans may not be able to grasp something. Goodness knows I personally do not understand e.g. nuclear physics. But that doesn't mean there's not a reality to it, and that it is not graspable and scientific. Does that make any sense?
Jan. 10th, 2012 06:02 am (UTC)
To think that there's something bigger than myself out there, bigger than the world.

But why does this have to be an omniscient, omnipresent God? The universe is bigger than any of us (and frankly, it's bigger and more complex than anything we can contemplate). Isn't that sufficiently marvelous to be enough, in and of itself? Isn't the notion that our entire known universe operates as it does because of the spin of an electron sufficiently fantastic to satisfy the urge to have something bigger than ourselves out there?

I think there's this (IMO false) notion that knowledge/proof of a phenomenon takes the "magical" element out of it, and therefore, it inspires less faith than something empirically unknowable, a concept like God. I'm not sure I agree with that, or believe the world is less magical/smaller because we know how it works (or can at least attempt to know how it works).

Wonder does not require God, after all.

Edited at 2012-01-10 06:04 am (UTC)
Jan. 10th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
Christian theologians (and I suspect other varieties as well; I'm just most familiar with the Christian variety) often question the idea that God is those things. One of my favorite approaches says we get our concepts and words from our experience of material things. An avalanche is powerful, a learned philosopher is wise, etc. And to say that God is those things, you need to say that God is "like" us but just on a different scale - which many theologians would reject. The upshot is basically that the words people typically use to describe God either don't describe Him or don't describe Him in any way we can understand.

Of course, there are competing arguments here. But my point in this post and my reply to Cel above (which I'm hoping to expand on in another post) is basically that having a religious tradition (and theology is basically just the exploration of that tradition) helps you have that conversation because it recognizes there's something that needs to be discussed, and also helps set the parameters of that discussion.

I'm very interested in your second paragraph, but don't really have the time to reply to it now. I'll try to touch on it in the post I'll be answering Cel with, this afternoon.
Jan. 10th, 2012 07:42 pm (UTC)
having a religious tradition (and theology is basically just the exploration of that tradition) helps you have that conversation because it recognizes there's something that needs to be discussed, and also helps set the parameters of that discussion.

I'm having trouble understanding this concept. How does having a religious tradition help you have the conversation or indeed set the metes and bounds of that conversation? The entire question of faith/God turns on believing in something (however you characterize the "something") that is not limited by reason, i.e. that you cannot set parameters on.

Therefore, at some point, the arguments made by "people of faith" are going to break down into the circular reasoning of the picture on the right.
Jan. 10th, 2012 06:54 am (UTC)
But please, don't tell me all "faith" looks like that picture on the right.

But, but... if I say, "the picture on the right describes the way people of faith approach the world" - is that wrong? The way "people of faith" approach the problems does - often - look exactly like the picture on the right. You tell me you are a "person of faith." - head scratch - How can you object to being grouped in with them if you tell me yourself that you belong to a group with the same name? If I can't rely on the group's name to convey accurate information, as in your example of the two Baptist churches or, even more generally, on the group called "Christians" or "Muslims," a great many of whom are very vocal about the procedure on the right being the absolutely correct and only way to think about the universe and outright condemning those who follow "science," what should I call the faith group to which you belong, or the one they belong to?

Tell me some name to differentiate *your* kind of thoughtful faith from all the other kinds of faith for whom that picture IS 100% accurate.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )



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