Sunday, November 22, 2009

Our Default Setting? (Part Two)

“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” It’s all many Young Earth Creationists, and other Fundamentalists need to know! They are completely satisfied with the simple statement of faith. I am not.

Michael Spencer keeper of the popular webblog, Internet Monk, recently entered a post on the meaning of “post-evangelical”. In describing his own post-evangelical approach to belief, Michael writes,

“I reject any notions that Christian belief falls from the sky as a magic book that exists apart from other components of human experience.”

I’ll leave it the reader to decide whether or not I qualify as “post-evangelical”, but I do resonate with with Michael on this point. For many believers, the Bible is the starting point and the ending point for their belief in God; I find it necessary to consult those “other components of human experience.”

Thus, when I ask the ultimate questions about whether there is a God, my starting point is the evidence in creation, that place where the Apostle Paul declares that the invisible things of God can be clearly seen (Romans 1:20).

But if anything is clear, it is that not all see those “invisible things of God” with equal clarity. Hence, the question of my previous post about whether we are intrinsically theists or atheists, or whether any such default setting exists. The responses were mixed, as I expected, and made for some fascinating reading for me. Thank you to all who participated.

No one denies that God-consciousness is wide-spread in humankind. But the explanations for religious belief vary.

Commenting on the previous post, Psi suggests that a tendency to see purpose and intention in our world was a survival tool, perhaps necessary in the early development of our species. Thus, religious belief is a product of evolution, though less genetic than memetic. He cites Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief in which Wolpert traces religious belief, like many such superstitions, to our tendency to assign causation to phenomena.

Isaac points us to the work of British psychologist Bruce Hood who believes that humans are hard-wired for religious belief:

“Humans are born with brains designed to make sense of the world and that sometimes leads to beliefs that go beyond any natural explanation.... We are inclined from the start to think that there are unseen patterns, forces and essences inhabiting the world ...”

This intrinsic human inclination lead to superstitions of all kinds, including (in Hood’s view) belief in God.

Of course, in order to be evolutionarily explained, the human tendency to believe in God must have adaptive value, and those evolutionary scientists who doubt God’s existence have gone to great pains to explain how fanciful notions about gods could have helped our species in its evolutionary struggle. We hear about things like hope and purpose, necessary to drive us forward, even if they were false to the core! “Belief in a supernatural Being served the species well (it must have!)” they tell us, “but of course now we have outgrown its usefulness.”

But when the dust settles around the skeptics’ evolutionary explanations for religious belief, what emerges is this salient observation: religious belief is so universal that it demands an explanation. And of course, the skeptic rejects out of hand any suggestion that this ubiquitous inborn belief in the supernatural might be borne out of supernatural reality.

But the Hebrews had a simpler way of viewing things. The Creator himself, Koheleth instructs us, has “set eternity in the hearts of men”. I cannot say that I’ve never experienced doubt about God. But neither can I deny the reality of Ecclesiates 3:11 in my own experience: eternity is solidly set in my heart, and it is unshakable.

These two competing ideas, 1) the contention of the Bible, that God-consciousness is inborn, irrepressibly written upon the human soul, and 2) the notion that religious belief is merely an adaptive step in our evolutionary history are not mutually exclusive constructs. When we understand evolution as the Creator’s chosen mechanism, it ought not surprise us that an awareness of God would arise developmentally. RBH points us to evolutionary anthropologist Justin L. Barrett, who traces belief in God through its evolutionary stages, finding “adaptive value” in our own evolutionary history along the way. And Oxford researcher Barrett is a professing Christian, one with whom I think I would get on quite well. Together with others, he has helped to establish “the Cognitive Science of Religion” which seeks to study and explain the phenomenon of near ubiquitous religious belief. He writes, “CSR is often associated with evolutionary science and anti-religious rhetoric but neither is intrinsic nor necessary to the field.” Evolution provides little shelter for the atheist in his contention that belief is passé.

Pervasive religious belief remains for me evidence of a default human setting. It appears to me that people widely believe in supernatural causation based upon the witness of nature, and the witness of their own heart and mind. To be sure, many of the forms of this belief, and the early rationales, appear quaint and strange to us today. For me, this is no justification to abandon the implications of God-consciousness. Rather, it compels us to allow our understandings to be refined. Early beliefs were often based upon mysteries in nature (weather, astronomy, etc.) now more fully understood. But the witness of nature today is no less compelling.

And thus the starting point for my personal theology, the launching pad for my exploration of God, is this inner witness, this deep inclination formed by observation of nature and listening to my own heart. I find belief in God to be natural and irrepressible. I experience its renewal every time I step out on my front porch and breath in the fir scented air, and gaze upon the Oregon sky, and the dazzling array of living things that greet me. Yes, eternity is indeed set upon my heart.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Default Setting? (Part One)

This is a reader participation post, please weigh in. I've been thinking about the following question for the last few weeks. And now I want to hear what my readers think. So ...

The default human setting:
is it theist or atheist?

... or does any such default setting exist?

Regular contributors here are about half atheist, and half theist. But that may or may not dictate your answer. Offer an opinion only, or support your answer from psychology, history, evolutionary science, sociology, logic or experience.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Genesis 2-3 ... Literally?

Was Adam an historical person? Is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden intended to be understood literally, or allegorically? (see this earlier post on Adam in which I explore various possibilities.)

When a 21st Century Christian reads early Genesis, it is difficult to do so without bringing along baggage, preconceptions. Christians who accept the evolutionary framework will generally conclude that the story as written is allegory. Anti-evolutionists, perhaps in fear of giving space to evolution, will generally conclude that the story is literal.

Many fundamentalists cite their tried and tested principle of hermeneutics which says we ought always assume a literal meaning unless there is overriding evidence within the text itself compelling us to do otherwise. Despite the obvious logical flaw in that principle, someone please explain why we are not so compelled by the text to understand Genesis 2-3 allegorically. When I read a story that includes talking snakes, magic trees, a human being formed from the rib of another human being, I see many not-so-subtle hints that we are reading an allegory. Yet, what seems patently obvious to me is vehemently denied by anti-evolutionists and fundamentalists, who are utterly convinced this is a literal bit of history and that there is no reason to read it otherwise. Perhaps we are all guilty of superimposing our preconceptions upon the text.

It may be impossible for any of us to approach this story with an open mind, uncluttered by personal bias. I am coming to believe that genuine, unbiased exegesis is actually impossible for human beings to do. In the case of the story in Genesis 2-3, wouldn’t it be great if we could erase from our minds all the contemporary squabbles over the science of origins, and simply let the story speak for itself?

Ah! but we needn’t do that. It has already been done. We can journey back to an earlier time when evolution did not color a reader’s response. In a recent comment here, frequent contributor Isaac offered the following quote from Origen. When Origen, the respected 3rd Century church father, read Genesis, he did so without the baggage we moderns carry; and he asks ...

"Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it." (Origen de Principiis, Volume 4)

It is true, not all early theologians shared Origen’s view (although Augustine, at the very least, maintained a quite flexible view regarding the literalness of the Garden of Eden story [see this comment by Rich]). There have always been some perceived theological reasons to favor a literal reading of this story — a discussion for another time. But my point here is simply this: the great early theologian and Bible student, Origen, unencumbered by issues of science that haunt our minds, when he read Genesis 2-3 in his Hebrew Bible came away unequivocally asserting that the text is patently allegorical.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Friendly Discussion about Evolution ...

... which is, of course, most often an oxymoron.

C. Michael Patton recently opened a discussion on evolution at his website with a quote from John MacArthur (see my earlier post John MacArthur: "The evolutionary lie ..."). The last three posts here at OutsideTheBox grew out of that discussion. I quit reading and interacting in the thread of comments when they numbered 530. By that time, the discussion had become heated, at times, with the traditionalist/anti-evolutionists demanding answers to many questions which, quite frankly, underscored how poorly they understand evolution. They kept demanding that evolutionists make every aspect of evolution fit into traditional evangelical theology, reveling in their “aha” moments each time they found our answers less than satisfying.

Fellow Evolutionary-Creationist Greg (who is still going strong as the comment thread nears 600), at one point (comment 509 and 511) became, shall we say, slightly agitated, and waxed eloquent! Because his comment so profoundly reflected my own thoughts and feelings, I asked Greg if I could repost his comment here; he consented, and it follows:

My Father in Heaven has blessed me with an unquenchable desire to know. To seek out and understand, to teach the glories of his Word and world to those less fortunate than I. Ignorance is bliss, maybe, but in the wonderful wisdom of His will, I have been denied this common curse.

I cannot unsee what I have seen. I do not have the luxury of ignorance to guide me in my life anymore. The church is the greatest sustainer of ignorance I have yet to encounter. As I walk through it I am struck by the childishness of the people, the simplicity they exhibit. At times I long to have again what they have now! Only to fit in, to be of a simple mind again, and not walk this road alone. But in the end, that would be like a man who can now see preferring instead his blindness. I prefer the color of the empty road.

The world is an amazing and complicated place. The Word of God is an amazing and complicated book. Both will confuse you to death. Those who do not see burn one in favor of another. That is not an option for me. Who am I to condemn a work of God to the fire? As God is the author of both, I have to hold one in my right hand and one in the other. I have to accept both no matter how confusing it may seem or how much guessing I may have to do. I am sure in my heart that my God is faithful and true, not one prone to duplicity, as those who do not see will have me believe.

The Word and the world are complicated. I embrace the challenge. I will glory in the magnificent creation my Father has put me in and pity those who do not see what wonders my God has created. Any who wish to see I will gladly help them. Those who refuse, I, ever praying, will leave them to their unrealized misery.

If you are an anti-evolutionary Christian, please, please do not take offense. Wear the shoe only if it fits. And ensure that you understand evolution before you criticize those of us who have become convinced that it must fit into revealed truth, because it is revealed truth.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Inerrancy: some further thoughts ...

I have two simple questions for my Inerrantist friends. I have posed them on numerous occasions. So far, no one has even attempted a response. If inerrancy is important, there simply must be a meaningful answer to these questions. They are based upon the following premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

... that is, unless you subscribe to the King-James-Only concept. King-James-Onlyism declares that God directed not only the original authors, but also the transcribers of the New Testament Greek Textus Receptus and the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament, and the translators of the King James Version. This view is ridiculous, easily refuted, and the only way Inerrancy can make any practical sense today! Putting it aside, we are back to the premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

Rather, we have thousands of original language manuscripts with thousands of variant readings. In fact, no two manuscripts agree! And we do not possess a single original manuscript. When I open my Greek New Testament to any page, the footnote section is filled with variant readings, which are graded according to manuscript evidence. But the simple fact is, we do not know what Paul, or Luke, or John actually wrote. Some of our Bibles contain verses, even entire sections, which are of questionable origin.

As a Bible teacher who understands textual criticism, I have always downplayed these textual variants. They actually have minimal impact upon the teachings of the Bible. Nevertheless, it is the contention of most Inerrantists that the Bible was carefully inspired by God word for word. This is known as “verbal (word for word) plenary (absolute and extending to all) inspiration.” In the view of those who espouse inerrancy, it was important that the Biblical authors get it right down to each and every word. I have two questions to ask of this view, based upon our premise:

No one holds an inerrant Bible today.

1) Why, if God deemed it important to supernaturally inspire this written revelation, if it was vital that the authors get every word right ... why is it that within 100 years of the original penning of the New Testament the texts were corrupted with innumerable copyists’ errors, omissions, and additions? If God could ensure a word-perfect revelation, and such a revelation mattered, why would he not superintend the transmission of that revelation? Wouldn’t safeguarding the revelation be equally important as giving it in the first place? And wouldn’t such safeguarding be just as easy to accomplish as the inspiration of the original authors?

2) Perhaps more to the point, since no one holds an inerrant Bible today, how important is the doctrine of Inerrancy really? If the Inerrantist must rely upon tools of textual criticism, and if he must allow for doubt about what was contained in the original manuscripts, and if he must therefore exercise intellectual judgments upon the text, how is his reading of the Bible different from the non-inerrantist? None of us holds an inerrant Bible. So what practical difference does a doctrine about some original manuscripts now thousands of years old and which no one today possesses—what practical difference does it make in how we approach the Bible?

When an Inerrantist reads the Bible, 1) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text actually says, 2) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text means, and 3) he/she might ask for Holy Spirit illumination as he reads.

When a non-inerrantist reads the Bible, 1) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text actually says, 2) he/she makes thoughtful judgments about what the text means, and 3) he/she might ask for Holy Spirit illumination as he reads.

What is the difference? In short, what practical difference does a doctrine of an inerrant Bible make if nobody, in fact, possesses an inerrant Bible?