I occasionally receive e-mail after posts when readers agree, disagree, or just have questions. The e-mail address I include at the bottom of each post is there to allow this kind of communication. An e-mail message after the post last Tuesday, The Wellsprings of Conflict, raised an issue that I think deserves some serious consideration here. The title of the post referred to the wellsprings of Koch’s inner conflict between religion and reason. But “wellspring” is a little too passive a term perhaps, periodic eruptions … something like Old Faithful (or perhaps a less predictable geyser) provide a better description. This inner conflict is present for many of us, and the core question is whether this conflict is intrinsic, we must choose either religion or reason, or the conflict is an artifact of the approach we take to the relationship between religion and reason. If it is an artifact of approach, what provides a better way?
After some preliminary greetings not copied here, the e-mail continued with the essence of the issue for this reader:
At any rate the one theme that I resonate with most in your discussions is the cognitive dissonance I experience between my faith and my intellect …. What bothers me the most is not so much that I feel rather foolish among others for maintaining faith in a personal God and a resurrected Christ, but that I often look at myself as living in denial of the facts before me, of turning off my brain because I want to believe in the hope I find in the God revealed in Christ. … When I go to a church and hear a sermon on Noah in which the pastor claims that there is more than enough evidence to accept the Genesis account as speaking to a universal flood and further claiming that prior to Noah it had never rained on earth and then ending the sermon by comparing the one door on Noah’s ship to the one way of salvation in Christ I cringe. I feel ridiculous for even being around such people. I feel as if I am in a cult that denies what is right in front of us. Then I begin to wonder if, though I accept evolution and don’t hold to inerrancy, by holding on to the overarching narrative of Scripture I am living in the same sort of self-delusion in my own way and refusing to accept what is quite clear. That is, I often feel as if Scripture and it’s testimony to resurrection and God’s work in the world has already been shown to be ridiculous and I just continue to believe based on spurious evidence at best because I crave the God revealed in Christ.
I realize I’ve not yet really asked a direct question. I guess I am wondering if you ever feel that way especially teaching in a secular and intellectual environment? I myself do not teach at all and am not in such an environment and I still feel this disconnect. … I guess I am asking if you think it is intellectually viable to continue to trust Scripture’s revelation of God?
The answer to the first question is yes. Frankly, I can relate with this writer. There are times, sometimes more, sometimes less, when I wonder if I am just fooling myself when I try to explore and test the issues relating to the intersection of reason and Christian faith. This is a real conflict that erupts at times flamed by internal thoughts and external situations. The pervasive influence of scientific naturalism, ontological naturalism, is quite powerful in our western world.
Certainly that I am fooling myself is the opinion of commenters (one recently, but many over the years) who equate “the abundance of serious, devout practicing Christians who hold a high view of scripture AND reject reading Genesis as a literal explanation of creation without having their faith fall apart” with the woe of Luke 6:26: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” I am, apparently, a false prophet leading others astray through my desire to curry favor with “the world.”
That I, and all those who try to reconcile religion and reason, are fooling ourselves is also the opinion of outspoken critics like Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Harris’s relatively mild NY Times opinion piece following the nomination of Francis Collins to head the NIH is a case in point. But it isn’t just these outspoken few. The vast majority of my colleagues will agree to varying degree. Religions are, after all, ancient superstitions disproved many times over. As the e-mail writer put it, the conviction is that “scripture and it’s testimony to resurrection and God’s work in the world has already been shown to be ridiculous.”
Perhaps the commenter who linked to Luke 6 simply needed to move up a few verses:
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
The battering of these influences is enough to drive anyone to questions and doubts.
The answer to the second question is also yes. I do think it is intellectually viable to continue to trust Scripture’s revelation of God, corroborated by the witness of the church over the last two millenia.
I don’t think this requires the abandonment of reason although it does require the abandonment of some ideas put forth at times in churches – like a unique human pair, progenitors of the entire human race, a world-wide flood, and the origin of most languages some 4000 years ago. But there are abundant reasons, many arising within the pages of scripture itself, to back off from the literal interpretation of these passages.
It does require critical thinking, and a very careful look at the places where the conflicts actually lie. This is something I try to do when writing on this blog. So far I have not come across anything written in blood, essential to the Christian faith, that is intellectually nonviable unless one drinks deeply from the river of ontological naturalism (a pervasive influence in our world today). On the other hand, many things written in pencil must be erased, and some things written in ink must be reconsidered and revised (like the meaning of original sin for example). See here for the reference to blood, ink, and pencil; one of the most helpful essays I’ve found.
We can not argue absurdity on ridiculous grounds in order to preserve a favored theological element or interpretation. But all apparently absurd claims are not based on ridiculous arguments. The resurrection, for example, can be defended on grounds not so easily discounted. This is why books – like NT Wright’s series on Christian origins culminating in The Resurrection of the Son of God, a series I found life changing, or Mike Licona’s tomb on the resurrection (a book I have not read yet) are so important. The Bible may be inerrant, or may not be … at least not in the typical evangelical interpretation of the term. But our faith does not rest on arguments founded in inerrancy.
I also don’t think most pastors and church leaders realize the depth of the internal conflict that springs from many of these claims of what scripture “must” teach, and how it “must” be interpreted. Nor do those who simply take the path of least resistance, avoiding the issues as a matter of expediency, realize the depth of the internal conflict or the force behind the conflict.
Ken Ham (to pick a well known example) suggests that we need to hunker down on many of these issues and teach our youth (and adults) to stand firm on the Bible, in this way we will preserve the next generation in the church. I suggest that we need to teach our youth (and adults) how to approach these issues clearly and without fear – in this way we will help prepare them for the work of God and his Holy Spirit. The first, and most important thing we need to do is teach the whole bible and the whole gospel story. The second most important things we can teach is the ability to separate and consider the things written in blood, ink, and pencil.
I have not completely answered the writer’s questions and would like to pose a few questions to see what suggestions or insights arise.
Are reason and religion compatible? How?
How would you address the issues raised in this e-mail? Are they issues for people you know? For people in your church?
Is there anything that the church can, and should, be doing?
If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.