Monday fleas: Templeton!

Two annoying Templeton-related fleas to scratch.

In case you don’t follow what’s going on over at at BioLogos, the biology website funded by The Templeton Foundation, the accommodationism continues fast and furious.  Three days ago Kenton Sparks, identified as “a professor of Biblical studies at Eastern University,” a Christian college at St. David’s Pennsylvania, wrote a BioLogos essay on “Scripture and the Problem of Science (Part 2)”.   (Perhaps not coincidentally, Eastern harbors the “Templeton Honors College,” funded by John Jr. and Josephine Templeton.)

What’s the “problem”? It’s the difficulty, for the faithful, of accepting literally the supernatural stories of the Bible (Jesus as the son of God, his resurrection, and so on), while realizing that its description of origins, and other assertions that conflict with science, aren’t to be taken literally.  Sparks’s solution: realize, as did Augustine of Hippo and Calvin, that the Bible isn’t to be read as a textbook of science:

First, regarding the scientific evidence, both Augustine and Calvin regarded the cosmos as an important source of revelation from God. Following Psalm 19, they understood that the “heavens declare the glory of God. Day by day they pour forth speech. There is no language in which their word is not heard.” When the cosmos is understood in this way—as divine speech to humanity—then it is no longer possible to characterize Christian debates about science as a conflict that pits “God’s inerrant word in Scripture” against “errant human science.” Rather, any conflict between Scripture and science should be understood as a conflict between “human interpretations of God’s word in Scripture” and “human interpretations of God’s word in nature.”

Secondly, regarding Scripture itself, although Augustine and Calvin deeply trusted the Bible as a witness to Christ and the Gospel message, they did not feel any deep need for Scripture to provide dependable insights on everything in human experience. In particular, both theologians averred that the Bible is not a science book. This is why Augustine was so comfortable reading problematic biblical texts as allegories and why Calvin was able to say, rather nonchalantly, that one could not depend on Scripture as a guide to the structure of the cosmos.

. . . I think we should follow the lead of Augustine and Calvin. It is time for the Evangelical tradition (of which I am a part) to take scientists more seriously and the Bible somewhat less seriously, with respect to Science.

What I mean is this. As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves. Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers. On top of that, we have been able to tolerably appreciate and understand them by applying our natural, God-given intellectual gifts to a study of the cosmos that God made for us. And what we have discovered reveals a cosmos that is truly amazing and that, if anything, only points us towards the God who made it. And this, the Bible tells us, is precisely what the cosmos—the “book of nature”— was designed to do!

Is biological evolution among those things that we can discover for ourselves? And if it is, could it be that the evolutionary process, rather than pointing us away from God, might actually impress us as the work of a mighty God? That is the question that we will begin to take up in Part 3.

Once again we see that modern theology is the art of turning empirical necessities into spiritual virtues.  Except for a few dissenters like Augustine and Calvin, the bulk of Christian theology up to the rise of science in the sixteenth century involved seeing the Bible literally—in its entirety.  Six-day creation, Noah, Adam and Eve—the whole megillah.  That held for cosmology, biology, and evolution.  It was only when reason and empirical studies began to show phenomena in conflict with scripture that theologians began to realize that the Bible was not wholly inerrant.  Today, every liberal theologian realizes this, and that leads to Sparks’s problem.  The modern resolution is to take Sparks’s line that the Bible wasn’t really meant to be taken literally—except, of course, for the parts about God and Jesus. As for the rest, well, it’s just a metaphor, don’t you know?

By ignoring the many centuries in which theologians did indeed see the Bible as a textbook of science, these theologians are claiming, without saying so directly, that centuries of theology were simply dead wrong.  And wrong not because science hadn’t yet shed its light on origins, but because early theologians simply failed to grasp that the Bible wasn’t meant to be taken literally! And they point to a few people, like Augustine and Calvin, as those prescient individuals who realized this.  Now why should we hold Augustine and Calvin up for honors?  Because their theology just happened to coincide with the theology that arose centuries later, when science showed that the Bible was wrong.  They knew it in advance!

Sparks is simply saying, to all of the faithful who continue to take much of the Bible as “scientifically” true, “you’re wrong because Augustine said so.  Never mind that hundreds of theologians continued—and still continue—to see Scripture as nearly inerrant.”  This is, I think, what Dawkins means when he claims that Biblical literalists are the most honest among believers.  They don’t water down the Bible by picking and choosing what must be true versus what must be metaphor.  On what warrant can Sparks assert that the Biblical account of the origin of plants, animals, and humans is just a metaphor, but the birth of Jesus, well, that occurred via parthenogenesis?

And these people conveniently ignore the parts of Augustine’s and Calvin’s theology that are unpalatable today.  Were A&C also prescient in their adherence to predestination, the idea of an “elect” who would go to heaven while the rest of us, no matter what our good works in this life, would suffer eternal torment in hell?

Theology moves ahead not under its own steam, but by pressure from behind by science and reason. And the “progress” it achieves is not some clearer understanding of a spiritual reality, but simply a new kind of doublethink that purports to reconcile the natural with the supernatural.

****

In the February 13 New York Times, Gary Rosen, the chief external affairs officer of the John Templeton Foundation, reviews Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty, a book about the supposedly crucial role of science in the rise of modern democracy.  Rosen takes issue with Ferris’s claim that science itself, with its openness to new ideas and rational method of adjudicating them, serves itself as a model of democracy:

But crucial distinctions are lost in these comparisons. The scientific community may be open to everyone, in principle, but it has steep and familiar barriers to entry, as any layperson who has tried to read the research papers at the back of journals like Nature or Science can attest. When not distorted by its own personal and political rivalries, modern science is, in the most admirable sense, an aristocracy — a selection and sorting of the best minds as they interact within institutions designed to achieve certain rarefied ends. Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded. Thankfully, participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a Ph.D., nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.

Scientists today are understandably ­eager to shape policy debates on a number of urgent issues (like climate change, to which Ferris devotes much of his closing chapter). But they have to appreciate the many ways in which scientific discourse, even in its experimental mode, makes an awkward fit with democratic politics. Only then will they find it easier to talk to — and persuade — the rest of us.

Granted, becoming a scientist takes training and work, and granted, some scientists, like Nobel laureates, are accorded scientific deference because of their stature, and may find it easier than a graduate student to get their papers published in Nature.  But does our professional jargon and training make us an “aristocracy”, an “elite”? (Shades of Sarah Palin!)  No more so, I’d think, than any other profession that requires training and expertise, like plumbing, auto mechanics, medicine, architecture, and engineering.  Do those professions also have an “awkward fit with democratic politics”?

And what, exactly, is this “awkward fit”?  Rosen isn’t clear about this, but it appears to be the Palin-esque assertion that we aristocratic scientists turn people off with our elitism, snobbery, and in-group jargon, making us less able to communicate effectively with the “real” people.  Our realization of our fundamental elitisim, claims Rosen, will open up the floodgates, turning us all into politically effective communicators.  It would be helpful if Rosen told us what we’re supposed to do to break down these barriers, but until then it’s nothing more than blame-the-scientist framing.

Or maybe it would help to reconcile our elitist science with more democratic spirituality, the avowed goal of the Templeton Foundation?

60 Comments

  1. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I used to think the “evangelical tradition” was about the bible, rather than viewpoints of individuals such as Augustine and Calvin. I obviously missed the memo.
    So if we discover for ourselves that there is no such thing as a human soul, will it be OK to reject Revelations and the concept of sin?
    Not what will be left of the faith.

    • Jonn Mero
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Reading up a bit on Calvin, he seems to have been quite a charmer. Not!

  2. Jonn Mero
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    And what, exactly, is this “awkward fit”? Rosen isn’t clear about this, but it appears to be the Palin-esque assertion that we turn people off with our elitism, snobbery, and in-group jargon, making us less able to communicate effectively with the “real” people.

    Oh, it shouldn’t be that we have the audacity to expect them to think? And read something a bit more demanding than comic strips?

  3. Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “And read something a bit more demanding than comic strips?”

    At least “Jesus and Mo” would be a start.

    • Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      And the Simpleton Award goes to:

      Kenton Sparks — for his introduction to hermeneutic relativism for the common man.

  4. Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I think the word Rosen is looking for is “meritocracy.”

  5. newenglandbob
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I now understand the Templetonian gnats better:

    Blah blah God blah blah blah God, blah God, blah blah God God blah blah blah God blah blah God blah God.

    Now when do they mail me my Templeton prize check?

  6. erp
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Simply stating “the bulk of Christian theology up to the rise of science in the sixteenth century involved seeing the Bible literally—in its entirety” is insufficient without evidence. The other side has given Augustine and Calvin who cannot be dismissed as a “few dissenters” given these are two of the most important theologians in Western Christian thought.

    Now you might be right or you might be wrong but be wary of accepting received wisdom about historical ‘facts’ especialy if it supports our biases (e.g., Columbus was criticized for thinking the world was spherical).

  7. Dan L.
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    What barriers to entry is he talking about? Studying and working hard to understand the subject matter within a particular field? Only a theologian would consider such a reasonable constraint to be a “barrier.” After all, theology is one of the few fields where one need not understand the subject matter in the first place, let alone work hard and study to do so.

    @erp:

    Columbus was not criticized for thinking the world was spherical. That is a myth originating from Washington Irving’s fictionalized biography of Columbus:

    The globe was invented in 1492, which suggests that the earth’s near-spherical shape wasn’t a very well kept secret at the time:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globe#History

    Also,

    “given these are two of the most important theologians in Western Christian thought. ”

    Is the revealed vs. discovered truth question important because of the importance of Augustine and Hobbes? Or are Augustine and Hobbes important because they said the same things that modern theologians — out of necessity, mind you — happen to be advocating now. Remember: history is written with the benefit of hindsight (well, sometimes it’s manufactured whole-cloth by Washington Irving).

    • erp
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The story that Columbus’s critics believed the earth is flat is false.

      The modern theologians are claiming that the story that all or most pre-modern theologians took the Bible literally in all ways is also false and as evidence offer up Augustine and Calvin.

      Are you claiming Augustine, named a
      Doctor of the Church (a title given only to the theologians that the Catholic Church considers the most important) in 1298 (one of the original 4), only became an important theologian in the modern era. Or that Calvin who initiated a major religious movement in the 1500′s is not important until the modern era?

      History is written with hindsight but good history supports its claims with evidence (otherwise the US being created as a Christian nation is good history). Now I’m not saying the modern liberal theologians are right but they have put up evidence and the attack on the evidence in this blog post is wrongly aimed.

      • Dan L.
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Are you claiming Augustine, named a
        Doctor of the Church (a title given only to the theologians that the Catholic Church considers the most important) in 1298 (one of the original 4), only became an important theologian in the modern era. Or that Calvin who initiated a major religious movement in the 1500’s is not important until the modern era?

        No. I am saying that there could be dozens of Doctors of the Church who are not remembered as favorably as Augustine because they happened to say that the Bible trumps nature, and that turned out not to be such a wise long-term position. That is, theists are quick to point out that one Very Important Theologian who said that the Bible and science are not in conflict, but they may be ignoring dozens of Very Important Theologians who said otherwise. It’s very easy to leave people out of history books when their positions turn out to have been embarrassing in hindsight.

        History is written with hindsight but good history supports its claims with evidence (otherwise the US being created as a Christian nation is good history). Now I’m not saying the modern liberal theologians are right but they have put up evidence and the attack on the evidence in this blog post is wrongly aimed.

        Yes, of course history requires evidence. But it’s not “if and only if.” I don’t need to provide a great deal of evidence for a claim like “Franklin wore garters,” because as it turns out, that it not a very historically significant fact.

        Often in the course of world affairs, no one is sure what will prove to be significant or insignificant from a historical point of view. If I was writing a history of medieval theology at this point in history, I would assume Augustine and Hobbes were important because scholars still spend a lot of time on them. But were there theologians — perhaps ones with different positions from Augustine and Hobbes — who were long considered important, but are now simply historical footnotes?

        Suppose science turned out wrong and the Bible really was literally true. Do you think Augustine and Hobbes would still have been the go-to guys for modern theology?

      • Dan L.
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        By “Hobbes” I mean “Calvin,” of course. I guess I’m wearing my influences on my sleeve.

      • erp
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that no one on these threads have come up with counterexample theologians (major or minor). Now I did list Luther in regards to 6 days of creation but he specifically mentions that his views contradict that of some other theologians.

        So we could look at the Doctors of the Church (this btw only applies to the Catholic church) and see where they stood.

        In 1298, Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome were so titled. We already know Augustine’s viewpoint (at least from one section). Attitude of the others unknown on this thread

        In 1568, John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure were named.

        No more were named until after the period in question but those named later from that period (prior to 1600) are Anselm, Isidore, Peter Chrysologus, Leo the Great, Peter Damien, Bernard Hilary of Poitiers, Frances de Sale (he straddles the dividing line), Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Damascene, Bede the Venerable, Ephrem, Peter Canisius, John of the Cross, Robert Bellarmine, Albertus Magnus, Anthony of Padua and Lisbon, Lawrence of Brindisi (straddles), Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena.

        This is the total.

        I would say we should concentrate on the first two sets since they were considered pre-eminent even then.

        For the first set

        So Gregory the Great in Moralia on Job has “Sometimes passages cannot be expounded literally because when they are taken in that superficial way they offer no instruction to the reader but only generate error”. Now he does say you need to take it literally some times but he also says you can’t take it literally at others.

        Augustine says he didn’t become a Chrisitan until he heard Ambrose expound upon Genesis figuratively.

        Jerome, well he translated the Bible into Latin and from what a brief search shows, he seemed also to find some stuff in the Bible could not be taken literally (e.g., Hosea taking a prostitute as a wife by God’s order).

        Now this is just a brief overview and it would take a scholar of them to give a full feel.

  8. Stephen P
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    “Theology moves ahead not under its own steam, but by pressure from behind by science and reason.”

    It’s more a matter of science and reason going on ahead, with theology being reluctantly dragged along behind, all the while digging its heels in whenever it can.

  9. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Regarding John Calvin. He did have some nasty habits like burning people at the stake. And he was a determinist denying the existence of free will. (So do I but for different reasons).
    Which makes me wonder why accomodationists are keen to use him when it is convenient but do not generally embrace his views.
    As for Augustine. Well you’d wonder if Calvin’s views didn’t carry much weight with the see of Rome Augustine’s should have.
    Why then couldn’t Galileo save himself by citing him and others? Galileo tried to convince the inquisition that his views on the cosmos, while in contradiction with a literal view of the bible, were not heretic because the bible wasn’t a textbook on science.
    Well we all know what came out of that don’t we.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      In response to erp above.

    • erp
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      We aren’t arguing about Calvin’s habits but he (and Augustine) are examples of pre-modern theologians (prominent ones) that did not accept the Bible literally in all ways and as such they are counterexamples to the statement that pre-modern Christian theology took the Bible literally in all ways. The answer to that is to give examples of pre-modern theologians, ideally prominent ones in such numbers as to overwhelm Augustine/Calvin, who did take the Bible literally in all ways not to point out places where modern theologians (or humane people in general) disagreed with the counterexamples.

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I am still waiting to learn why the “bible is not a scientific text” defense did not save Galileo from Cardinal
        Bellarmine and other prominent figures of the Inquisition.

      • erp
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Strictly speaking Galileo’s trial is in the early-modern not pre-modern period. We have much more evidence then that many theologians were taking a more literalist view though often noting (such as in the case of Luther) that this was in opposition to their predecessors.

        As for Galileo the Catholic Church had put its teaching authority behind a geocentric model and was not going to allow public dissent from a layman. Even if Galileo could have quoted Bible verses in support of the heliocentric model he would still have likely been condemned for going against what the Church (not Bible) had stated.

  10. Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Sparks: “What I mean is this. As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves. Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers.2

    A bit on the benefits of basic hygiene and sanitation would have been easy to understand and would have prevented millions of painful, needless, premature deaths.

    If the “God” of the Bible actually existed and loved humankind, a few words about important things like preventing disease would be in the Bible.

    • Stephen
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      “A bit on the benefits of basic hygiene and sanitation would have been easy to understand and would have prevented millions of painful, needless, premature deaths.”

      Some people think the Biblical (Jewish) prohibitions against eating pork and shellfish, etc, were just that …

      • Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I know, but that doesn’t work very well. These prohibitions are better explained as superstitious and religious taboos.

        How about something simple like: “The LORD saith: Verily, shit carrieth disease. Thou shalt built latrines outside where thou livest, and thou shalt ensure that they cannot drain into thy drinking water.”
        “And boil thy water if in doubt, as this killeth the tiny, invisible things that cause disease.”
        “And wash your hands after using the toilet or touching sick people.”
        “And here’s how to make soap, and how and why you should use it.” Etc.

        Instead we get endless pages of boring, useless pseudo information that does no one any good whatsoever.

  11. Mintman
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    While I am loath to defend a Templetonian, I think that your interpretation of Rosen is rather uncharitable. As a current scientist and former political activist myself, I am painfully aware of the “bad fit” between the two areas of human activity. The most obvious problems are that democratic politics work under the idea that the majority opinion is the way to go, and that everybody has one vote; science, on the other hand, should in theory only look at the evidence to decide, and in practice does weigh the opinion of the most accomplished expert in a field higher than that of a PhD student in their first year.

    This is precisely why PZ Myers likes to crash polls like “do you believe in evolution, y/n?” – this is no way to answer a scientific question. Conversely, “do you think a flat or a progressive tax is more just?” is no question that could reasonably be answered by science, as this is entirely in the realm of partisan interests battling it out in the public sphere (how do you even define just objectively?).

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      …democratic politics work under the idea that the majority opinion is the way to go, and that everybody has one vote

      What planet are you living on?
      ‘Democratic Politics’ is solely based on bribing those who can offer political parasites the most wampum.
      Votes are simplistic distractions that have no real bearing on the political machinery.

      • Mintman
        Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

        Well, this is how a democracy works in practice if you have very rich and very poor people in the same state – how democracy works if you try to hybridize it with capitalism. But the theory is what I described. Science, alas, also does not always live up to how it theoretically should operate.

        Also in principle, in a democracy we all DO have the power to kick the president’s / chancellor’s / prime minister’s behind and form and elect less corrupt parties; that we collectively are too stupid to do it does not change that.

  12. Eric MacDonald
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I think the situation is a bit more complex that either Jerry or Sparks think. For example, if you look at some of the early church fathers, say, Origen, for example, you will find that there is an enormous willingness to interpret scripture in a figurative way. The same applies, of course, to Augustine and Calvin, Aquinas, and many other figures from Christian history. What is characteristic, however, is a principle of interpretive convenience. When scripture, read fairly literally, supports the view of the theologian, then it will be taken as read. When, however, it does not support the view of the theologian, it will be interpreted in a figurative way. And this is a general rule of biblical interpretation: interpret the Bible in such a way that it accords with the truth as you (the interpreter) understand it. This applies generally to a conservative as well as to a liberal hermeneutic.

    James Barr, in his book Fundamentalism, describes in great detail the length to which fundamentalists will go in order to make the Bible fit what might be called the scientific facts (as the fundamentalist – for any fundamentalist – understands them). How many different interpretations have there been of the flood or the parting of the Red Sea (or sea of reeds – a palpable attempt to make the words fit (scientific) reality), or the plague of blood, or the miracles of Jesus? Some think in figurative terms. Some try to find facts which will fit the words. At the same time, they will take with strict literalness other passages that are essential to their understanding of faith.

    It is this that should be pilloried, not simply the idea that most theologians read the Bible literally, which is probably not altogether correct. It is the selective literalism that is much the more serious concern.

    What is different now, of course, is that science has thrown up something that theologians simply cannot accommodate: the unplanned, mindless, and therefore basically meaningless, occurrence of human life. The only thing that religious believers can do here is to make shift with the idea that god used this as the means of creation, and controlled it towards the outcome of – guess who? – us! And there is nothing they can do to alter the facts, if they accept what is known about the evolution of life forms, or the text, whether or not they do.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      the unplanned, mindless, and therefore basically meaningless, occurrence of human life.

      I believe I understand what you mean, but it is not very, well, meaningful to label our species as meaningless.

      The problem for the religious is that our species is exactly as meaningful as any other in the process of life that is evolution.

      And when we impart local meaning for us, as being humans, in the same way that we impart local meaning into our individual lives, it is (again! with apologies) meaningless at best for the religious. Because it is done so explicitly on humanistic secular grounds.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted February 16, 2010 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        Torbjörn: I thought I had responded to yours yesterday, but obviously it didn’t take.

        Of course you are right. But the point is that human life does not have any transcendent meaning, meaning that was given it by ‘someone’ else, as the religious believe. We are meaning creating, not created by meaning. And that’s an important distinction.

  13. Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    A good majority of the Bible literalists I know (which is most of my social circle) have great disdain for the more liberal Christians who pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which are metaphorical. They throw those people in with the “lukewarms”–as in Rev. 3:15-16, which is pretty much as low as you can go as a True Christian.

  14. Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves. Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers.

    Boy, that’s rich. God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves after thousands of years of ignorance. God could have dropped a few words about electricity, say, and thus made human lives a little easier a little sooner – but nooooooooooo.

    Why? Well because determined theists in 2010 have to explain why the science in the bible is a tad off when it exists at all, that’s why. Naturally the explanation is ‘God meant to do that.’ Uh huh.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      No, this is really a parody of biblical interpretation. Biblical interpretation is almost always based on intepretive convenience. These two principles are almost always observed (they are from an American Baptist theologian named Kenneth Cauthen):

      “PRINCIPLE 1: No Christian allows the Bible to teach as the authoritative Word of God what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be either untrue or immoral.

      PRINCIPLE 2: Every Christian finds what the Bible teaches as the authoritative Word of God to be identical or congruent with what is known or believed (for whatever reasons) to be true and right.”

      But it is a parody to claim that “As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves.” Ethics, for example, we can figure out for ourselves, but there is an excess of ethical prescription in the Bible. What the Bible tells us about the nature of state power is inadequate, and we have figured out that we should not respect the authority of the Emperor as though it comes from god. The Bible’s understanding of the natural world is always inexact, almost always mythical, sometimes thought to reflect the real truth about the world, sometimes understood as poetic myth. The intepretive richness exemplified in Jewish midrash is perhaps the best example of the almost playful way in which biblical text and interpretation meet. Very seldom is it simply taken as a literal reflection of reality.

      Modern fundamentalists are a rather new phenomenon in this respect. They began trying to square the Bible with science, and then, when the science became impossible to read into the Bible any longer, they began to treat it as a scientific text. It was seldom used that way in the tradition, though the Bible was always thought to reflect and reinforce the idea of the centrality of human beings in the purposes of the creator of the universe. That’s why Galileo came to grief. But much of science has been simply ignored by those with an interest in the Bible. It just didn’t conflict, because irrelevant to what is to be found in the Bible. That’s why atoms get off scot free, and evolution doesn’t.

      The really telling criticism is that those who ascribe authority to the Bible do so on the basis of a selection of texts, whatever their beliefs may be. Liberals ignore many texts that do not square with a liberal understanding of faith. Fundamentalist make a different selections, and there is no basis in the text for making these selections, or for selectively interpreting them in a literal or figurative sense. Therefore, there is not reason, in the text, for ascribing authority to it.

      I think, sometimes, that atheist responses to Christians based upon the understanding of the Bible and supposed ways in which the Bible is put to use by Christians, is based on a mistake, and we open ourselves to ridicule by doing this. Biblical hermeneutic is constantly changing registers, now literal, now figurative, now appealing to science, now appealing to poetry. Like any literary text it is always subject to the play of interpretation. There is no empirical basis for ascribing truth to it, and often no aestheic reason for ascribing beauty. It’s a mixed bag of ancient texts, sometimes having a remote connexion with history, often simply myth, almost always of uncertain significance.

      • Bryan
        Posted February 16, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Two excellent posts Eric.

  15. Mutating Replicator
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    If Origen hadn’t been inclined to take the Bible literally, he might have decided to keep his testicles…

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      That’s true, but that is because it was something that could be applied personally. In other respects, Origen could be daringly inventive with biblical interpretation. Part of the reason he was posthumously condemned as a heretic. He was a universalist, and believed that all people would be saved. That is a Christian heresy.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      I should add that later Origen came to regret his impulsiveness!

  16. Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Funny…I talked about the ‘meritocracy’ issue when I did an interview for Point of Inquiry in 2007, but it was to make a point rather different from Gary Rosen’s…

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers. [...] And what we have discovered reveals a cosmos that is truly amazing and that, if anything, only points us towards the God who made it.

    If Sparks wouldn’t be blinded by his stupendously useful inability to think about religious issues, he would recognize that if facts would be used to fantasize about sundry gods they would reversely also apply to his other fantasies.

    In this case, the absence of science in religious texts test the predictions that:

    1) These texts are made up.
    2) These texts aren’t allegories, they are simply wrong. It would be simple to insert allegories about nature, say genetics, but their absence is notable.

    • Tulse
      Posted February 15, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      It would be simple to insert allegories about nature, say genetics, but their absence is notable.

      Not completely absent:
      37Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted.

      …just completely wrong.

  18. ohioobserver
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Rosen, in his condescendingly scholarly way, and Sarah Palin, in her more ignorant tone, are saying the same thing: “don’t listen to scientists, or admit them into the process of policy-making, because they’re an exclusionary elite!” Perhaps it’s because the evidence tells them what they don’t want to hear (your religion is wrong, humans are screwing up the planet) and scientists are the gatherers and interpreters of evidence.

  19. MadScientist
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Why are the two most strident anti-intellectuals, Augustine and Calvin, so revered by these idiots?

  20. Michael Fugate
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I think Eric makes the key point – all Christians selectively interpret the Bible. Most are just not willing to admit it.

    • Posted February 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      One pretty well has to, unless one is willing to kill one’s rebellious children or gay neighbours and go to prison. Most religious teachers and believers use at least enough selective interpretation to keeep themselves out of jail.

      Unfortunately a few “believers” are unable or unwilling to use some judgement in such things.

  21. Grumpy
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    “…modern theology is the art of turning empirical necessities into spiritual virtues.”

    Having taken up the theists’ challenge of engaging with “sophisticated theologians”, that is exactly what it is. Wish I’d said that.

  22. Posted February 16, 2010 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Gary ‘the censor’ Rosen asking for

    equality and freedom of expression

    :-D
    Nice try, but he isn’t credible on that one, either.

  23. George Taylor
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Inventing pseudo-philosophical explanations for why the Bible does not mean what it says to the theologically unenlightened is a standard prevarication amongst believers pushed on to the back foot by rational thinking, or who are trying to keep in with the “turning money into God through science” crew at Templeton. Other recent cases are Karen Armstrong in “The Case for God”, where she has to fall back on “the religious experience” as a justification for faith, or Terry Eagleton, in “Reason, Faith and Revolution”, whose God loved the world into existence. (I think he is still worth reading however for his grounding in compassion and justice.) The problem with these constructions is that they are all subtly different and absorb time and effort in argument, arguments that can never be resolved and behind which there always lurks another one.
    It is possible to short-circuit this process and directly challenge any concept of a single creator god on the grounds that:
    a) all concepts of the single creator God are received and can be traced back to the God of Abraham (TGOA), i.e. no one has come up with the concept of a single creator God spontaneously and without prior knowledge of TGOA
    b) we can now show from a massive accumulation of archaeological and historical data that TGOA was a political fiction, invented as self-justification by the remnants of two tiny Canaanite states, Israel and Judah, that had been pulverised for trying to meddle in the imperial conflicts in the Levant.
    In other words, Judaism, and Christianity, and Islam are all based on a single, monumental lie, and once that is accepted that removes all spiritual and moral authority from these religions.
    The material behind these assertions is all in the public domain, (“The Bible Unearthed” Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002, “The Origins of Biblical Monotheism” Mark S Smith 2003, etc.) There has even been a BBC TV documentary on the subject, but the link that is not being made, or that people are afraid to make because of its consequences, is the direct inheritance of TGOA by Christianity and Islam from Judaism.
    The Emperor has no clothes.

    • Posted February 16, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      “Terry Eagleton, in “Reason, Faith and Revolution”, whose God loved the world into existence. (I think he is still worth reading however for his grounding in compassion and justice.)”

      Really? What did he say of interest about compassion and justice and what it has to do with theism in that book? I couldn’t find anything of interest. Really – all I could find was self-admiring wordplay that said nothing, and energetic name-calling.

      • George Taylor
        Posted February 17, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

        By Eagleton’s “grounding in justice and compassion”, I mean that these precede his faith which, like his Marxism, is a means to these ends, and that irrespective of either his religious or political views this affords him a humanity which I find lacking in the general run of God botherers.

        “Salvation… is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich. Astonishingly, we are saved not by a special apparatus known as religion, but by the quality of our everyday relations with one another.”

        “The concept of political love… is the ethical basis for socialism. It is just that it is hard to see what this might mean in a civilisation where love has been almost wholly reduced to the erotic, romantic or domestic.”

        “Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless.”

        I find this refreshing when compared to such images as the Gucci-shod Pope, which must be one of the icons of the age, but I admit this is a subjective and unphilosophical assessment, which may have something to do with our shared Celtic origins.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      “all concepts of the single creator God are received and can be traced back to the God of Abraham (TGOA), i.e. no one has come up with the concept of a single creator God spontaneously and without prior knowledge of TGOA.”

      Ahura Mazda, Ukko, Ptah, and Brahma –not to mention Plato’s “Demiurge” — don’t count, then?

      • George Taylor
        Posted February 17, 2010 at 3:22 am | Permalink

        Hello Kirth and thanks for your interest.

        The operative word here is “single”. While Ahura Mazda is the creator God of Zoroastrianism, he is not alone, nor is his creation part of an ineffable purpose. My understanding is that there are two uncreated powers, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the evil spirit. Ahura Mazda created the world as a battleground, in which human kind are crucial as a catalyst, hopefully bringing about the eschaton and the final victory of the powers of good through their efforts on behalf of Ahura Mazda. In contrast to the Abrahamic model in which the creation imposes vast burdens of duty and sin on humanity, Zoroaster created a myth which resolves the paradox of evil in the world and leaves humanity firmly in control of its own destiny, and I see this as a sufficient distinction not to consider Zoroastrianism as fully monotheistic. (There is also some discussion as to whether there was cross-fertilisation between Judaism and Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian captivity.)

        Similarly Ukko and Ptah, while both are involved in their respective creation myths, are each part of a pantheon of gods. These generally represent forces of nature upon which life depended and was at the mercy of, and religious observance was at root a matter of propitiation of these forces.

        Brahman is different. Hinduism is all things to all Indians. While it has a pantheon of gods, it does not have a concept of faith, nor is there any mandatory degree of belief or otherwise. Being a theist Hindu or a non-theist Hindu is a matter of choice. And the creation myth, which you are at liberty to accept or otherwise, tells of Brahman or Atman who wakes and sleeps for cycles of 423 million years, and while he sleeps he dreams and we are those dreams. Moreover we are in that part of his dreaming called the Kali-Yuga which is when everything falls apart and turns to nightmare. This started about 5000 years ago and will continue for another 3000 years, when Brahman will awaken and forget his dreams. Not monotheism.

        Plato’s Demiurge I know nothing about unfortunately, and will have to go and learn. Thank you for bringing it up.

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted February 17, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        George,

        Thank you for both the courtesy and comprehensiveness of your reply. The status of the creator gods in question as members of a larger (post-creation) pantheon indeed differs from the Abrahamic model inasfar as the creator generally was given some time off after his task, and left the actual running of things to the cohorts he’d made — much as if Yahweh had left the angels in charge.

        All this is slightly to the side of the main point, though. The fact or coincidence of multiple cultures around the world having myths of an uncreated Creator does not in any way establish that any (or all) of those myths are actually true, but it does speak to a comprehension that there’s a point beyond which people have to throw up ther hands and say “I have no idea.” In that respect, it leads me to conclude that various notions of the supernatural are, more often than not, precisely expressions of the “God of the Gaps” that theists try so hard to disavow.

  24. Steve
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’m a little late to the discussion and am no historian or theologian but what the hell is”nearly inerrant”? Talk about the all time great escape clause!

  25. paul fauvet
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers. ”’ And what we have discovered reveals a cosmos that is truly amazing and that, if anything, only points us towards the God who made it”.

    This is a wonderful argument – it means that every time we discover something that contradicts the bible, it proves that the Bible must be true in some deep, mysterious, metaphysical sense.

    In other words, the more the Bible is proved to be false, the more it must really be true.

    In no other sphere of human endeavour would anyone dare to put up such outrageous arguments.

  26. Rob
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    “This is, I think, what Dawkins means when he claims that Biblical literalists are the most honest among believers. They don’t water down the Bible by picking and choosing what must be true versus what must be metaphor.”

    Indeed. The idea that interpretation might be necessary or appropriate is ridiculous. “I am the Door” means Jesus was made of wood, doorknob and hinges, and it’s obviously dishonest to suggest otherwise.

  27. Evolution SWAT
    Posted February 17, 2010 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    It seems the Apostle Paul took Adam to be a real person:

    “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.” (1 Corinthians 15:21)

    “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18 – 19)

  28. Kent Sparks
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for comments on my Biologos pieces. I do agree that Christians have believed and averred all sorts of things that are wrong, and I understand, too, the impulse to doubt God’s existence, much less any specific claims, such as Christians make, about “revelation.”

    It is very clear that the Bible is a human book that gets lots of things wrong, including some terrible comments about how God’s people should treat their enemies. If Christians wish to advance the view that Scripture is in any sense God’s word, they will have to admit up front that its a very, very messy word … something very different from what they, or others, would expect.

  29. Posted February 21, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    If Christians are all basically literal interpreters of the Bible, how is it that Darwin could publish Origin of Species and not be stoned to death as a heretic and blasphemer? Why weren’t his works gathered up and destroyed? Why weren’t his adherents also stoned to death?

    England in 1860 was a very Christian nation–and therefore adhered with every fiber of their being to a literalist interpretation of the bible, front to back . . . how could they possible maintain their Christianity and not stamp out this viper in their midst?

    I think the only possible conclusion Jerry Coyne could reach would be that they DID in fact stamp out Darwinism, that the Christian England lives on, and that we are living in some sort of special hell for doubters, where Jerry Coyne constantly repeats the same dumb arguments, over and over, for all eternity.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted February 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      “…how is it that Darwin could publish Origin of Species and not be stoned to death as a heretic and blasphemer?”

      Ideas are hard to kill. Galileo’s discoveries, for example, didn’t die with him. Having seen how well that case worked out, the church wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try the same approach again: no one is claiming that “religious” is a synonym for “moronic.” Maybe they took the approach that Dawkins takes today in refusing to debate Creationists: trying to take away their publicity, rather than their lives.

      • Posted February 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        Agreed on most all of that, but saying so means that not all Christians are literalists, that the dominant stream isn’t and hasn’t been literalist, and that this has been the case for a good long time . . . contra Coyne.

        BTW: We should add Aquinas to the role of theologians who didn’t see the need to take Genesis literally. Man, Augustine & Aquinas: there you’ve got some real outliers–insofar as they might be the two most important & influential Christian theologians between Paul and the reformation.

  30. Kirth Gersen
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    If you mean “not literalist” in the sense of not stoning heritics to death if that proves a useless endeavor, we’re in perfect agreement. But NO ONE is a literalist across the line, or else they’d be murdering people left and right (“witches,” disobedient children, etc.) per the Old Testament directives, and they’d all be locked up by now.

  31. Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    “Theology moves ahead not under its own steam, but by pressure from behind by science and reason. And the “progress” it achieves is not some clearer understanding of a spiritual reality, but simply a new kind of doublethink that purports to reconcile the natural with the supernatural.”

    The above statement betrays a profound misunderstanding as to the relationship between “Religion and Science” in general or Metaphysics and Physics in particular. Namely, that there is some sort of inherent and irreconcilable conflict between the two.

    This apparent conflict might be an actual conflict were there not a rich hermeneutical tradition interwoven into the Judeo-Christian tapestry. Anyone with the interest or inclination can research for themselves the asymmetrical nature of that tradition, containing, as it has, and continues to have, conservative-literal, moderate, and liberal-symbolic schools of thought.

    Any attack made by those encamped among the partisans of fundamentalist empirical science on the Christian faith must be made, by necessity, upon their fundamentalist counterparts. Otherwise, any weapon they might attempt to wield against the faithful will only be met with a kind of bemused expression that betrays the thought, “Right. What’s your point?” After all, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”, and “what can be known about God…in the things that have been made.”

    Science, far from being the enemy of faith, is – as it’s grandmother, doubt, and it’s mother, philosophy, have both been said to be – the handmaiden of faith. If you prefer a more egalitarian phrasing of the relationship, one might say that religion (metaphysics) and science are co-workers laboring at the truth, each working from opposite ends. Trouble arises only when either worker tries to repudiate the other for it’s own gain. Any gain to one to the detriment is a loss for all.

    The dirty little (not so) secret is that the fundamentalists of science need the faithful to adhere to a rigid, literal interpretation of scripture in order for their attacks to be successful. They need it as much as Christian fundamentalists need to adhere to such an interpretation in order to preserve their faith. Both parties stand in positions of almost saddening weakness, weakness that causes insecurity, which, in turn, leads to a kind of false bravado and belligerence, a boyish whistling past the graveyard, as it were, outwardly brave, but inwardly filled with fear.

    JVS


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] The attack on accomodationism is doomed to fail, if the debate remains essentially Christian theology versus Darwinism, two notably delusional mythologies/propagandas. [...]

  2. [...] about creationism.  His latest post on EvolutionBlog deals with the topic of a recent post:  Kenton Sparks’s contention, on BioLogos, that the Bible isn’t a science textbook but rather a compendium of metaphorical [...]

  3. [...] week – on two very different kinds of blogs. The first on Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution is True,” where he scratches a flea, and the second, a response, on the BioLogos blog “Science [...]

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