Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Evidence and belief

Michael Dowd, in an essay first posted on the Huffington Post and later re-posted on the Metanexus site, suggests that scientific evidence may be a new scripture (“Is Scientific Evidence Modern-Day Scripture?” March 5, 2012).

Three decades ago, when I was in seminary, our professors emphasized biblical revelation interpreted in light of reason and tradition.

Today, I find that approach seriously deficient.

First, reason – that is, pure reason – does not exist. The human mind functions through an exquisitely intertwined maze of logic and emotion. Pure reason does not exist. People find particular arguments persuasive because the argument fits the person’s intuition, i.e., existing patterns of neural connections produced by previous thoughts and feelings. The inability to convince an opponent in an argument of what seems painfully obvious reflects the inescapable human dependence on intuition – what seems right because of one’s pre-existent neural connections.

Objective rational analysis of the Bible (or anything else, for that matter) that leads to clear and certain truths is probably impossible. If it were possible, humans would reach more consensus opinions about everything.

Second, one’s tradition depends upon one’s place and time of birth more than it does anything else. Historically, people chose a religion by virtue of being born into that particular religion. Furthermore, the tradition that one finds appealing is, like everything else, going to appeal primarily because of one’s pre-existing neural connections.

Third, the Bible can never speak for itself. Anyone who hears or reads the Bible understands the words using his/her mind, i.e., using the neural connections that result from the totality of the person’s genes, life experiences, and prior thoughts and feelings.

In sum, each of the three accepted sources of authority within Anglicanism – reason, tradition, and Scripture – has significant limitations. Reason – if rightly understood as referring to a person’s mental activity (and mental activity is a function of physiology and emergent, non-physical properties in ways that scientists cannot yet specify) – necessarily takes priority over tradition and Scripture. The individual perceives the latter two only by using her/his mental faculty.

The foregoing analysis implicitly recognizes the validity of Dowd’s argument about scientific evidence as modern-day scripture. Various scientific disciplines inform the understanding of reason, of how the human mind works, the givens of historical context, and the inescapability of interpreting words, which are really symbols of meaning inherently rooted in the speaker’s (or author’s) mind.

Individualism that relies exclusively upon one’s own reason is insufficient. Scripture is essential. It ties us to a set of stories that people have found give life. Tradition is also essential. It ties us to a community of people who have received life through the stories of Scripture (the stories of Scripture can also give death when abused or misused, as, for example, by the Nazis). Being tied to community and a fixed set of stories helps one to avoid being pulled or moving in a direction that will bring death rather than life.

Christians best read and hear their Scriptures when they emulate the rabbis: by joining in a conversation, informed by the best of scholarship, to discern what the text means for God's people in the present. In that struggle, the text can become a window through which God's light shines, inviting us to move in a particular direction. Faith, far more than a set of propositions to which one gives intellectual assent, is living one’s life in the direction from which the light shines, the direction in which God lures us to move. (Also, cf. Ethical Musings: When we encourage Bible reading)

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