Jul 26 2008

The next great awakening? Part 1

Category: Intelligent Design,science,theologyharmonicminer @ 9:49 am

I’m planning to do a few posts on the convergence of science and theism. This is the first. I’m thinking out loud a bit here, and hoping to get some input from other folks as we go. This one is just about the general background. I’ll give more specifics about things I think are important in upcoming posts.

I have the sense that what is happening now in the sciences will have as much impact on future theological developments as the invention of writing had on accuracy of cultural transmission of revelation (the preservation of scripture, what made the redactors able to do their work), or the printing press (the dissemination of scripture, which basically fired the Reformation).

We tend to think of science as having arrived at some advanced point, with just a few details remaining to be filled in. (This same conceit was common in the late 19th century.) What if we are barely at the beginning, with just a glimmer of where it can lead us?

And especially, what if we learn more and more that points to a Creator, and Design, in very powerful ways, something more than just an anthropic principle (not knocking it), something that is so clear that no rational person can really deny it, and would be embarrassed to be seen trying to? If you cannot imagine any possible fact or set of facts that would lead in that direction, you need to get out more…

Even that will not directly confirm all of salvation history, of course, short of the invention of a time machine or something that allows direct view of past events (a great unlikelihood). There will still be a role for faith, unconfirmed specifics that make up the core of the gospel. How to “prove” that Jesus rose from the dead 2000 years ago? (And even if we could “prove it” there would be people who made up some other explanation: Jesus was an alien visitor, Jesus had psychic abilities, Jesus just fooled everybody. Anyone can defend themselves from any amount of evidence if they just can’t stand a particular idea.) Yet as time goes on, there will be a great deal more evidence of a certain sort that we now lack, at least in fullness, about the nature of the universe and our place in it.

This is not without precedent for Christians: we have a New Testament with epistles and gospels, but the first “non-witness believers” had only the word of an apostle (and not always one who had directly seen Jesus himself) and the Holy Spirit. It took some time for the canon to develop and be in circulation throughout the churches. Yet, arguably, when more documentary confirmation began to circulate, it had a great impact on the church, its ability to evangelize and minister, etc. And again, the simple technology of the printing press led to an era of theological flowering and universal academic study of the scripture: that’s what we live in now. The archaeologists have done a lot to confirm many aspects of scriptural reporting. Cosmologists have recently figured out what theists knew all along, that the universe began rather suddenly one day.

In the novel Contact, Carl Sagan (famous atheist he) postulates an intelligence at the bottom of the universe (not clear in the movie, but very clear in the book). In the story, the mathematicians continue to calculate the value of pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) to greater and greater precision, and when they get out to trillions of digits or so, they discover a pattern of ones and zeros that would graphically represent a circle… sort of a message, to beings who have reached a certain level of knowledge, that says, “Yes, I’m Here, and isn’t this too weird to be a coincidence that you can ignore, silly humans?”  I have wondered more than once about what messages are hidden in DNA…. It boils down to a digital computer code, after all. How sure are we that there is “junk” there?

The Roman influenced Western theological tradition has assumed too often that belief, in the absence of evidence (or with less evidence), is somehow superior to belief as a reasonable response to evidence. Scriptural evidence for this perspective is thin, mostly relating to the story of “doubting Thomas”. (Evidence is in the form of scripture, tradition, archaeology, other historical sources, scientific general revelation, etc.) For that reason, the notion is suspect (to some) that God might gradually provide us with the opportunity to gather more evidence, more “reasons to believe”.  Yet that is exactly what has happened in history, or so it seems to me. I suppose reasonable people can disagree. But it seems to me that the overwhelming effect of physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy is to make the notion of it all being a grand accident much harder to accept, or that the universe is an eternal thing on its own, with no beginning and no end; and that has to leave people considering things they might once have dismissed. Archaeology has confirmed many aspects of the biblical record, though of course miracles and specific actions and statements by persons will be difficult to confirm this way. Yet, isn’t it better, for the development of faith, that believing in the veracity of the biblical record is made easier by modern confirmation of the existence of specific ancient cities and persons whose existence was once doubted, and which were thought to be reported only in the Bible?

In my view, faith is what enables us to see PAST the evidence to what’s behind it. Faith isn’t necessary to believe what’s fairly clear. Faith is necessary to live out the truth that connects what you believe. For a scientist, it takes faith to keep working at new discovery, because there is no scientific principle that says that the universe should be discoverable, or explainable, let alone that human beings are the ones to do the explaining. Faith isn’t about ignoring evidence, but seeking the background to it. Faith is what makes you take risks for what you can’t quite see clearly, but somehow know, suspect, or hope is there.

Similarly, for the theist, faith is what makes it possible to look beyond the obvious, that we all believe in the idea of right and wrong, morality, etc., even if we disagree on details, though there is a good deal less such disagreement than is supposed by many. Faith lets us seek connections between that inner sense of things and the revelations that God has made and makes to us.

The really crucial, really big questions are possibly unanswerable as commonly posed. Why does science “work”, and what are its limits? Why do we believe in right and wrong, and connect that to something (or Someone) transcendent? Why are we the beings who even care about such things?

I’m just sort of thinking out loud here, coming from the perspective of one who once thought he knew everything that mattered and was actually knowable, and discovered he didn’t know anything much, and needed to start over, and pay attention this time. As this goes along, I’ll share my thoughts here and there, and divulge the sources of input into them. I’ll also try to remember to keep reminding you (and myself) that we need to have a good deal of humility about what we claim to know, and how we claim to know it. At the same time, we all have to live as if we know, that is, we make decisions about things whether we have all the information we think we need or not. We have no choice.

The simple story, for me: I am a Christian, who thinks we live in a remarkable time for the confluence of science and scriptural revelation. More to follow.

Update:  The next post in this series is here.

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8 Responses to “The next great awakening? Part 1”

  1. Michael Lee says:

    I think it’s interesting that some believers want God to have left “space for faith” in the world, as if he has an obligation to not prove his existence too mcuh, or we’ll lose out on our ability to believe him.

    It doesn’t matter if we figure out every subatomic particle, the nature of time, gravity, every physical mystery in the world. As long as suffering and consciousness exist together in the same universe, there will be vast chasms of room left for faith.

  2. Enharmonic says:

    Your thought process continue to amaze me. So very interesting.

    How was the wedding?

  3. Enharmonic says:

    The word should either be ‘processes’ or ‘continues’. I aint totally ignorent.

  4. harmonicminer » After the election says:

    […] One is the series on The Next Great Awakening.  It starts here. […]

  5. enharmonic says:

    Well I for one am ready for both.

  6. Joseph Merrill says:

    Interesting. It sounds like the relationship then between reason (knowledge, that which can be proved) and faith (that which must be believed) is the relationship between step one and step two. First demonstrate what you can, second believe the rest? 🙂

  7. Anthony says:

    I dont think that God made it so that you always need faith and that nothing about him can be proven. I would imagine that an ant could theoretically have a similar debate on our existence.

    His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, his ways higher than our ways. Somerimes he lets us in on things, sometimes we may make a discovery in science that reveals him more. Faith is necessary for US because he is quite beyond us. Its not a game to test us but rather a simple reality. We praise him for what he showz to us and trust him (have faith) for the rest.

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