Derek at Haligweorc offers some thoughts on how the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds might be “reconciled,” in a manner of speaking, with a modernist, scientific worldview. I applaud Derek’s willingness to face these issues with integrity, but must differ with him in some crucial respects.
In one regard, Derek hits it right on the money (paragraphing edited, emphasis mine):
. . . [T]he majority of the beliefs in the creed, especially those concerning the first two persons of the Trinity, deal specifically with completely non-reproducible, unpredictable events many of which contradict what we know from our quotidian experience of reproducible data.
. . . I know how babies are made and I know how dead bodies act. The creeds fly in the face of that knowledge. . . .
[W]e have no data to prove or disprove the creedal statements except by analogy to repeatable phenomena. We cannot directly access either the moment or acts of creation or the resurrection. At least with creation we can study what remains but even that can not answer questions of causes—it will only demonstrate mechanisms.
The problem, then, is a conflict of worldviews. A literal understanding of the creeds as they were originally intended to be understood is in conflict with a modern scientific worldview.
Now we must ask what to do with this conflict.
* * *
. . . [W]e can live quite comfortably using insights from a pre-scientific Christian world view to those from a contradictory Newtonian physics perspective mingled with those from a contradictory quantum physics perspective to those of a Platonic universe.
Specifically speaking as an American Pragmatist, I go with the worldview that works. When I’m in “installing computer components” mode, I’m all Newtonian physics. When I’m in “playing cards” mode, I’m all about quantum physics and probability mechanics . . . .
I’m not hegemonic about any of my worldviews. I think that they are all models that serve to describe certain aspects of reality from certain perspectives.
Echoes of Stephen J. Gould
So far, so good. But then Derek starts down a path I can’t follow (paragraphing and emphasis edited):
When I wonder about my salvation, I go pre-scientific all the way. . . . I believe the creeds literally. Scientifically, I can’t tell you how they work. I have no idea how to model the Ascension mathematically—which is the part that ties my logical brain into the worst knot. It also doesn’t bother me that much.
. . . In living between worldviews I have found a certain amount of power in a scientific worldview, the kind of power that confirms its truth. I can calculate events and have the events turn out a certain way. I have found the beauty of equations replicated in microscopic corners of the world.
But the same is also true of the religious, pre-scientific worldview; I have experienced the power of the resurrection in my life, of the communion of the saints, and God as creator in ways that verify their truth.
While the scientific worldview has power in its realm it cannot touch the spiritual side of my life the way that the creedal truths do. (And the same holds true the other way--science offers far more compelling arguments in the realm of things material.)
As a result when in the field of personal belief I experience a conflict between the creedal worldview and the scientific worldview, I go with the creeds. I cannot explain them scientifically, I cannot explain the mechanics of the Trinity but I believe it and I believe that it matters for how I live and move in the world.
Derek’s conceptual framework sounds much like the late Stephen J. Gould’s concept of a benign NOMA, nonoverlapping magisteria. Gould says in part (paragraphing and emphasis mine):
. . . I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature.
But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. [sic]
Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.
Gould is on to something in talking about the metaphorical value of the concept of souls. But as much as I admire his work, I don’t understand how he could have made his statement that the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact his domain. Directly or indirectly, religious concepts can indeed threaten or impact non-religious domains: just ask Galileo. For that matter, ask any non-Muslim resident of a Muslim state under sharia, Islamic law.
The Dangers of Belief Without Evidence
The Dangers of Belief Without Evidence
I don’t understand how anyone can “believe” something to be true* when it isn’t supported by observed evidence from the testable realms of God’s creation. Humanity has a track record of believing things that later proved not to be so — and causing grievous harm as a result.
[* Here, I use the term “belief” in the truth of a proposition synonymously with giving intellectual assent to the proposition.]
To be sure, we can appropriately believe things on a provisional basis. In this life we can, and must, make bets concerning things we’re not really sure about; we can and do live our lives as though Proposition X were true. A sensible person does this every day — and is willing to adjust his or her provisional beliefs when they are challenged by new evidence, or by new models that better explain the existing evidence and make testable predictions.
But that’s different from claiming categorically that Proposition X is in fact true, and insisting that the matter has been settled once and for all. (All categorical statements are bad, including this one.)
Evidence matters. Evidence is God’s gift to us of his reality, safeguarding us from lapsing into wishful thinking or even solipcism. Paraphrasing David Paillin, to assert categorically that Proposition X is true, or to assert its truth at all without supporting evidence, is perilously close to idolatry, because it elevates human wishes over the reality that God brought into being.
As Derek correctly notes, the creeds cannot be reconciled with observed evidence. In many respects I choose to live my life as though the creeds were true. But there’s no way I can give intellectual assent to much of their content.
In the closing section of his post, Derek rightly stresses the valule of hope. Unfortunately, while he turns back toward a pragmatic worldview, he doesn’t quite make it all the way:
One of the reasons that I allow the creeds to trump science too is because of hope. I hope that there is more to life and existence than empirical materialism.
Faith in the creeds allows a belief in the mundus plenior, a world where reality cannot be bounded only by what can be weighed and measured.
There are wonders in the world that our science does not explain. Maybe some day it will but even if it does it will not diminish my belief in something beyond the purely physical. . . .
Where Derek goes astray here is in his seeming opinion that hope is necessarily tied to belief in the Christian creeds. If this belief were true, how would we explain the existence of hope among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Christians?
To my thinking, hope goes hand in hand with trust in God, viz., with faith. As one grows, so does the other. Neither hope nor trust in God requires that we “allow the creeds to trump science” as a prerequisite.
In any case, it’s admirable of Derek to have identified and confronted these issues so squarely. Good on ’im, and let’s have more Christians do likewise.