zaterdag 15 september 2007

Dancin' in the Ruins

Sorry for the long absence. Was just reading a very worthwhile paper by James A. Keller - "The power of God and miracles in Process Theism" (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:1, 1995). Keller's piece leaves, correctly I think, fairly little room for miraculous occurrences in the philosophical framework of process theism. Whitehead's God is a God who rules by "persuasion", rather than "force": as immanent in the universe, it may entice each particular event to develop one way or the other, but each individual event remains constrained by the past that has gone before.

I've argued at some point that there is no tension at all between assenting to a belief in the lawful behaviour of nature on the one hand, and to a belief in miracles on the other. Science necessarily deals with regular occurrences and patterns which might be encapsulated by natural laws - Peircean "thirds". A miracle is by conceptual necessity a singular, unrepeatable event (a Peircean "second"), and thus can never be claimed to invalidate our scientific knowledge of how nature works. Only if miracles themselves were a regular occurrence would this be so (but then we would either want to establish some regularity concerning the miraculous events themselves, which would mean subsuming them into a scientific worldview - they would no longer be miracles). I still think this is correct, and so I do not believe that a scientist who, say, believes in the resurrection holds contradictory beliefs.

The evolution of my own religious beliefs over the past few years proceeded from some (mainly philosophical) theism-minus-Jesus to strongly considering that the Galilean rabbi was qualitatively more than just a Galilean rabbi, to my current, somewhat grudging, understanding of Jesus as in some unique fashion both human and divine. Which is where I stop: I have no set beliefs on the Trinity, or on whether Jesus was God incarnate from the outset or whether He gradually became so (and became aware of it) during His mission, or what precisely happened on the cross (except that He experienced suffering and indeed death). But it's here where I run into a brick wall.

First, I can't well harmonize my philosophical beliefs (which are very sympathetic to some kind of Peircean/Whiteheadian process theism) with my religious ones. I used to think that a handy way to conceptualize the Son was to be as some kind of incarnation of Whitehead's consequent aspect of God (the immanent, loving and suffering, and evolving aspect of God) with the transcendent Father as Whitehead's primordial aspect. But I find this meshing poorly with the New Testament: Jesus regarded himself arguably as the Son of God, but not as God. There's the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and there's many other clues that Jesus was under constant temptation to flee from His fate (Matt. 16:21-23).

Second, there's the resurrection. I'm fairly agnostic about the other miracles. There's the wonderful story about Jesus walking on water - and Peter coming to meet him, but sinking when he starts thinking about it too much and becomes very nervous (Matt. 14:25-33). There's an allegorical meaning here that is so obvious that it doesn't matter very much to me whether Jesus really walked on water. But the resurrection is a very different thing. I can make sense of the last supper - the symbolic sharing of Jesus'/God's being (His body and His blood) in the form of bread and wine among his disciples and among the future Kingdom of God, and of the crucifixion - as of God sharing the burdens and ultimately the bitter fate of mankind, but only in the light of the resurrection. Suffering and death are not just undergone, but also conquered by God.

And I can't really make sense of it except literally. Jesus was encountered at Emmaus by his disciples, who were turned by that event from a group of hiding, cowering and very disappointed disciples to the apostles who went on to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a hostile world. (I can think of some kind of probably fanciful way in which the events after the resurrection were somehow simultaneously happening there-and-then and were a foreshadowing or vision of the far future in a rupture-in-time kind of way. But this does not help me).

And this I cannot square with my philosophical beliefs. Jesus is the black hole at the edge of my philosophical universe, so to speak. And perhaps this is the way it should be. I've come to find the effort to build an event like the death of Christ and His resurrection into a particular philosophical framework somehow strangely distasteful. The cross should still be a "folly to the Greeks".

Perhaps the efforts to harmonize reason and faith are and should be ultimately Sisyphean. We scaffold our views on the world and on God with some kind of reasonable framework, with all the arguments and musings on necessary and contingent existence, primordial and consequent aspects and all that, to meet the mocking challenges of modern-day Greeks, only to find the whole building gloriously crashing down when confronted with the events of one particular weekend in Roman Palestine. And then start all over again.

Some internet links: David Heddle reminds me why I have a began to foster a dislike for some varieties of skeptic/debunking discourse by pointing to a course description about ID and science at the SMU physics department, which looks like it has been put together by a fourteen-year old. You have to see it to believe it.

In the interests of equity, I cannot but refer to the hilarious latest offering from Jack Chick (hat tip: Dangerous Idea).

And finally. I sometimes find myself strangely ambivalent towards the "Chamberlain atheists". Though militant atheists like Dawkins and PZ Meyers may profess to mock religionists, the time they spend on polemicizing against religion speaks otherwise. Sometimes with their less militantly atheist protractors, I sense an actually much more patronizing attitude towards religion - it's all harmless tomfoolery, why bother with it? Aside from this, there is a tendency to call for common unity against ID or political Christianity which seems to unprincipledly subordinate philosophical differences to political aims (of course, I disagree with the very American liberal political viewpoint that seems to be current at Scienceblogs).

This said, I find a lot to agree with in this nuanced piece by scienceblogger John Wilkins. Including this paragraph:

One point I fully concur with the "angry atheists" about: there is no case for religious exceptionalism. We should not tread lightly because it's religion in our criticisms. There's nothing about religion that makes it less criticisable than other forms of public belief such as politics or ethics. It is, after all, a human activity, whatever else its adherents may think it is. But this likewise applies, tu quoque, to atheisms and humanisms and so on. If we assume that we are all errant on occasions, all human activities are equally to be critiqued.

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