Gautama and the Ant War

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It has been a while, I might note, since I have worked through a book, chapter-by-chapter. Even though no one has been clamoring for it, they ought to have been, and so here I am with another one. The book I have selected was just released by HarperOne, and is N.T. Wright’s latest — Surprised By Scripture. The format of the book — an assembly of edited lectures around various topical themes (the subtitle is “Engaging Contemporary Issues”) — lends itself to my approach here. Each chapter stands alone, and so each installment of mine will similarly stand alone.

The first chapter is on the relationship of faith and science. In his treatment of this subject, Wright says some things that are really insightful, and he says some other things that are hopelessly confused. And on that note, let me declare my intentions early on. What I want to do, working through this book, is give credit where credit is due (and there look to be chapters where I will largely be a cheerleader), and to cut no slack where slack oughtn’t be cut (for there look to be chapters, like this one, where he gets the essential point upside down).

His basic argument in this chapter is that the modern world is in thrall to an updated form of Epicureanism, and that this causes us to misunderstand the nature of faith/science integration. He wants us to undergo a “radical rethink” of the whole debate, instead of focusing on what side of the debate (in the older forms of it) that we think we are on.

Another related problem he addresses, albeit not so directly, is this one: “what shall we do about the Americans?”

“I want to point out that the way the science and religion debate is conducted and perceived in North America is significantly different from the ways analogous debates are conducted and perceived elsewhere” (p. 2).

This is quite true, but there is perhaps another explanation than the one he provides. But before getting to that, here is his statement on that same matter that I think is quite insightful.

“The cultural polarization in American society, including the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the first half of the twentieth century, has roots that go back at least as far as the Civil War in the 1860s” (p. 4).

I think this is right on the money, and it is closely related to the broader culture war issues, as Wright points out elsewhere in this chapter. There are many battles, but there is only one war. Wright and I look at the same phenomenon, and we both agree that it is occurring. But he feels sorry for us, and I don’t.

“This is why I say that, though of course the issues have been important elsewhere in the world, Americans seem to have had a particularly hard time of it” (p. 5)

“The present American context, which reflects these culture wars in newer forms, makes these issues much harder for Americans to deal with than they are for the rest of us” (p. 6).

But there is another way to take all this. I certainly do agree that there is an ongoing fight over these things in America that we do not see elsewhere. But mightn’t it be because American Christians have not surrendered, and are still fighting? Of course the struggle is harder for a soldier who is still being a soldier. The fight is difficult for those who didn’t quit the difficulty. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Wright says that these things are “much harder” for us. He says we have had a “particularly hard time of it.” Okay. But Paul told Timothy to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3).

Of course, there is such a thing as unnecessary hardship. There is faithfulness hard, and there is stupid hard (Prov. 13:15). So the question then becomes whether we American Christians are having a hard time because of our hard heads, or whether we are having a hard time because the hardness in question is in our backbone. To determine that we need to move to consider the rest of Wright’s discussion.

Wright then moves to a very helpful discussion of Epicureanism, and he shows how the whole modernity project is simply Epicureanism 2.0. This whole section is very good, but after he rode this bike around the block several times, he unfortunately started to wobble.

He quotes philosopher Catherine Wilson to the effect that in the modern world we are all Epicureans now. Wright then adds, “It is the default mode, sadly, for most Christians who oppose modern science science as well as for scientists who oppose modern Christianity” (p. 11).

Wait, what? This is absolutely the kind of thing you need an argument for. But not only does Wright make the assertion without an argument, he does so with the calm serenity of Gautama looking at an ant war. But if Epicureanism is “no gods or absent gods,” then you cannot just say that those who espouse this are Epicureans, “not to mention those who hotly oppose it.” By this handy device I could prove that Robert E. Lee fought for the North.

If I had to guess at what argument he might make, I would have to reconstruct it from a few bits and pieces he left for us here and there. For example, he says: “That is why, I think, some of those who insist on God’s actions in creation and providence, who see him as a God who is essentially outside the whole process and who reaches in, despite the Epicurean prohibition, and does things for which there was otherwise no cause, sound quite shrill” (pp. 15-16).

While he does grant that those who deny Epicureanism are not Epicureans in the technical sense, he still argues that “in science/religion debates or evolution/creation debates, it is all too easy for the scientists or evolutionists to state their position in Epicurean terms, and for the Christians or creationists to follow suit” (p. 14, emphasis his).

By this he appears to mean that if Christians believe in a “supernatural” realm, across which God reaches, even if He reaches across it every minute of every day, they have ceded way too much to their adversaries. Wright dismisses “supernaturalists who want to make him [Jesus] the divine ‘invader’ from ‘beyond,’ performing miracles to prove his supernatural power and summoning us to leave this world and return with him to his. These pictures simply reflect the false either/or of Epicureanism” (p. 23).

He complicates things further because, near the bottom of page 14, he makes a frightful muddle of the definition of miracles and providence. In Scripture, God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Christ is the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:18). Not only did He create the world ex nihilo, but He also sustains it in existence every moment “by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). God is not absent or distant. But despite my high Calvinism with regard to numbered hairs and fallen sparrows, and the stray leaf skittering down the street in the autumn breeze, its every turn foreordained before all worlds, I would say this robust view of God’s ongoing providence must leave room for God acting in ways that have no antecedent secondary causes in the created order. Take the Incarnation, for example. That was God reaching in from outside. Creatio ex nihilo reaches from outside, by definition.

Now suppose Wright is simply wanting to deny the notion that most things run by impersonal natural law, but that when God reaches in and does something direct, “it’s a miracle.” If that is all he is saying, then he is correct. The only problem then would be that it would be an annoying instance of Wright’s habit of acting like he has discovered distinctions that have been theological commonplaces for centuries. He is like an astronomer who has been working on his telescope (quite ably) for decades, but who keeps claiming to have discovered the moon. We could let that go, but he keeps trying to name it. But other people, turns out, have telescopes too, and some people have noticed the moon without any formal training at all. He is like the man in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, concerning whom Johnson said that he sat down to write a book, in which he told the world a number of things which the world had been, all his life, trying to tell him.

The biblical stance is that God sustains everything we see in nature, and sometimes He performs “signs” that cannot be accounted for by means of antecedent causes in providence.

Having identified the enemy as Epicureanism, he wants to show some fight, but apparently without any actual fighting. If you start actually fighting, someone might mistake you for an American.

“Once we recognize the deep-rooted Epicureanism of much of modern Western culture, our vocation as Christian thinkers is not to make an easy, compromising peace with it but to discern how to restate and reinhabit a genuinely Christian worldview in its place” (p. 18).

I would suggest that there is absolutely no way to do this while retaining the respect of the Epicurean establishment. And that means you have to be willing to be called a fundamentalist.

“And this means that everything we might say about the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and the world, between faith and science, between piety and public life — all those analogous questions that have so baffled Western modernism — find their answer in Jesus” (p. 22).

I am not about to argue with that, at least not with the Jesus part, but I do want to conclude by pointing out a problem with one of the phrases — “faith and science.”

All those pairs but one are what they are. Heaven and earth, God and the world, piety and public life. And I agree with Wright that they can only be brought together in a coherent whole through Jesus. A thousand amens.

But “faith and science” is a pair not like the other pairs. Faith in what? Which science? Those are two bottles that can be filled with any number of fluids, and I want to know what those fluids are before I start trying to integrate anything. “Science” contains conclusions, doctrines. Scientists teach certain things, and they do in the name of science. So before I try to harmonize anything, I want to ascertain that what I am harmonizing my scriptural understanding with is actually true. I am prepared to harmonize my views of Scripture with the germ theory of disease. I am not prepared to harmonize my views of Jesus walking on water with a doctrine that says such things never happen. But both are advanced with the embossed seal of “The Science Is Settled” on them. Shoot, things are so crazy these days that this thing called “climate change” has even gotten that seal.

This is why reconciling “faith and science” is like taking on the task of reconciling “faith and stuff taught in books.”

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jigawatt
jigawatt
8 years ago

I think it’s called Climate Disruption now. You know, because we need to sneak “anthropogenic” in there without actually saying it.

josh
8 years ago

Thanks for this Doug. Looking forward to more!!

Willis Vida
8 years ago

“Now suppose Wright is simply wanting to deny the notion that most things run by impersonal natural law, but that when God reaches in and does something direct, “it’s a miracle.” If that is all he is saying, then he is correct. ” I think that is in fact all he is trying to say and it may be “renaming the moon” to some people but I think that I found his comments on this subject a helpful reminder to me and the way he stated it helpful in discussing the subject with others. I think he is right that… Read more »

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

Why don’t you just stick to things you know, and not go poking your nose into areas you have no competence, like, say, climate science? This inability to say “yeah, here I’m not competent” is what makes Wright’s claim that US Christians are just Epicurians plausible: We cannot say “Yes, as science, that’s good, but you mistake its position in the world…” but, threatened, we have to say “That’s bad science…”

bethyada
8 years ago

Faith is somewhat variable in meaning and can be applied to science: one believes (has faith) a science fact or theory to be true; quite possibly legitimately.

Instead of faith and science perhaps special revelation and general revelation?

bethyada
8 years ago

and to cut no slack where slack oughtn’t be cut

Occasioning the refrain: Wright is wrong.

Bryan McWhite
8 years ago

Regarding your pointing out Wright’s tendency to point to things that are obvious (the astronomy metaphor): That’s fair enough, Doug. Wright talks that way sometimes. The fact remains, though, that American audiences (in particular) eat him up and seem absolutely staggered and often overjoyed that what he says is in the Bible IS actually in the Bible. So, that’s fine if you want to point out that Wright didn’t discover the moon. My question, then, is: How is it that evangelical leaders (yourself included) have done such a bad job teaching astronomy that we all never knew that the moon… Read more »

Michael Duenes
8 years ago

Bryan, your statement: “[W]hat he says is in the Bible IS actually in the Bible,” seems to beg the question. The fact that you asserted it does not make it so, and many have found it not to be so on a universal scale, with apparently good grounds for believing it not to be so. Your argument comes across as merely an appeal to authority, the authority being “American audiences.” Matthew, I’m not seeing any evidence that you, in contrast to Doug, are any kind of authority on climate science, or the nature of science in general. Nor have you… Read more »

Steven
Steven
8 years ago

Faith comes by hearing.
Science comes by seeing.

Job moved from faith to science (Job 42:5). But he could only do this after honest reflection on a question which many modern scientists ignore and are therefore not true scientists. That question: “Were you there?”

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

OT: (off-topic, not Old Testament)
Pastor, if others concur, could you please lengthen the “OH, YEAH, SEZ YOU…” box? The reason is that it makes it easier to track a conversation as the days progress.

Thank you for your consideration.

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

For those who think that men of faith have nothing to say while scientists are at work, I point you to the scientific debate over the late 19’th to mid-20’th century over whether we lived in a static or expanding universe. From his book ‘God and Astronomers’, Robert Jastrow (b. 1925) PhD Theoretical Physics recipient of NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement noted that: The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in… Read more »

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Timothy, done.

Perfect. Thank you very much.

RFB
RFB
8 years ago

Mr. Petersen,

When you start a post with “Why don’t you just stick to things you know, and not go poking your nose into areas you have no competence…” it becomes very tempting for me to think that you have no self-awareness, or that there is something personal to your discomfiture.

Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
8 years ago

RFB: Bingo re: Matt P

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Let’s not forget to welcome M.N. Peterson back to the comment section.

You will notice that his comment was succinct. This is quite a change from his previous style of hitting every point of disagreement in one long run-on sentence.

I was very tough on him, previously. (whether that was justified or not, people can disagree…(: )

I am glad he decided to rejoin the fray.

Welcome back, Mathew.

Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
8 years ago

Welcome back, Matt. Sorry, but that’s my take on about 90% of your comments.

David Douglas
David Douglas
8 years ago

Matt, The thing about science is that it is a wonderful servant like everything else, and like everything else in creation it is a cruel master. All science is done by men born in orginal sin. Which means perhaps we should bring scripture to bear on everything they say. What they say they measure. What they say those measurements mean. And what men think they should do about what is said and what they think it means. I have no problem with measurements of weather, models of climate and even the conjecture that increased CO2 in the air will lead… Read more »

John R.
John R.
8 years ago

Matthew N. Petersen: I don’t recall seeing it before, so refresh my memory. What, precisely, are your climate science credentials? Or are you doing the same thing you accused Doug of, namely, poking your nose into an area in which you have no competence? In order to make such a grand pronouncement while abiding by your own criterion, your competence must be well-established indeed!

John Rabe
John Rabe
8 years ago

I meant to fill my name in on the last comment. Sorry for the extra post, all.

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

Pr. Wilson: You? Probably nothing, since you aren’t really qualified to judge whether it is bad science. I agree that there are vices in science, particularly regarding how it is communicated. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t corresponding vices in the laity, particularly, claiming to know something is bad science when they aren’t even qualified to begin to understand the science, let alone to judge it.

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

John: I have a masters in Mathematics, and it’s qualified me to know that I don’t really understand the science, only partially. However, I also know that Pr. Wilson hasn’t had math since he was in highschool back in the ’60’s, and so is definitely not qualified to judge the science. If I’m not, how much more…

(You can read through his goodreads account to see if he’s been reading any of the real science. Answer: He hasn’t.)

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

David: The popular press is notoriously bad at reporting science, and most scientists descry the “revolutionary new discovery” claims made in it. http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?n=1174

Yes, I fully admit that there are real problems with a number of issues surrounding science. That, I take it, is Wright’s point. But Pr. Wilson’s objection is to the science as science, which, I take it, is also Wright’s point.

David Douglas
David Douglas
8 years ago

But Pr. Wilson’s objection is to the science as science, which, I take it, is also Wright’s point. Matt, How about fleshing this out. As in demonstrating it, rather than asserting it. I suspect Doug’s point is that he has objections to some scientists as scientists, and objections to scientists as dime-store eschatologists of doom. At least those are my objections. Many of these men are seeking to explain physical phenomenon apart from a creating and sustaining God. Many of these men are looking to implement Babel 2.0: Get the whole world to embark on a hopeless enterprise to solve… Read more »

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

What? You seem to agree that Pr. Wilson is objecting to the science as science “I suspect Doug’s point is that he has objections to some scientists as scientists…” unless you mean that he thinks they’re bad men doing fine science. But that doesn’t seem significantly different from my claim that his objection is to their work. Many of these men are seeking to explain physical phenomenon apart from a creating and sustaining God. Is that really your objection? You think that simply because they are non-Christians, they cannot do good science? Then why do you not likewise, object to… Read more »

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

Perhaps you took me to mean that I thought he was objecting to them doing science at all? If so, sorry I was unclear. I mean that his objection is a scientific objection to their science, not, like in my Newtonian analogy above, a metaphysical objection to the consequences of the science. This, I take it, is Wright’s point: When they use science to support a naturalistic metaphysics, we agree that did the science say what they take it to, the naturalism would follow, and dispute at the level of the science. This level of engagement is evidence that we… Read more »

Seth B.
Seth B.
8 years ago

Matt P: Since you don’t have a degree in theology I’d appreciate it if you never commented on this blog about any of these issues again. Thanks!

David Douglas
David Douglas
8 years ago

Matt, Your 2nd most recent post above is more accurate, in that, by suggesting Doug objected to the scientists as scientists, I was hoping that it was clear I did not agree with the rather unhelpful alternative you suggested. In terms of my argument, I was not trying to make any kind of iron-clad case like proving a theorem. I jumped outside science. Let me explain. Scientists can make observations about present phenomena, but the extrapolation to future disaster is not universally accepted (despite claims to the contrary) and not the same kind of science, or not science with the… Read more »

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

David. Fine make a scriptural argument that climate change can’t happen, and industrial society is invincible. And why don’t you have to do it with relativity? Einstein was a womanizer. Based on his behavior, I’m stepping outside the “scientific” claims that all is relative, and resting in Scripture instead.

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

David. Perhaps we should restart. It’s clear you don’t agree with me. What isn’t clear is what you think I said. You disagreed by offering something that sounds synonymous with what I said, at least as far as I can tell. I said that Pr. Wilson doesn’t raise his objections to the naturalism that is derived (falsely) from the science. You said that that’s an unhelpful claim, that I need to prove. He objects to the science because of the scientists. As far as I can tell, he objects to global warming because it snows in Moscow, and because some… Read more »

John Rabe
John Rabe
8 years ago

Matthew: mathematics doesn’t get it done here, I’m afraid. You have no expertise in climate science yourself, so by your own standard, you have no basis upon which to declare someone else’s understanding of the science faulty or otherwise. You’ve simply hitched your horse to one wagon (for reasons other than expertise, since your mathematics masters doesn’t give you that) and have taken to shooting spitballs at the folks in the other wagon. But you seem to think you can pronounce yourself above the fray and give us the bird’s eye view of the situation when in reality you’re just… Read more »

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

John. Nope. I’m not judging the climate science. I’m making an a fortiori argument. I’ve looked at the science itself, and I know I don’t have the mathematical acumen to judge it. How much more someone who hasn’t had math since high school, and who hasn’t approached the science itself.

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Hi Mathew.

Are you familiar with Richard Feynman’s lecture on cargo cult science?

I contend that it provides a method for testing the veracity of a scientist’s claim.

It is a test Dr. Mann and the IPCC crowd are failing miserably.

cheers.

t

timothy
timothy
8 years ago

Hi Mathew.

As a counter-point to my previous comment, it is a test that Mr. Pickett is passing admirably.

So, in two disparate, technical, math heavy fields, we are able to infer the quality of a claim without knowing the details of the case.

The test, is ultimately a spiritual one–are we dealing with honest men or liars?